26 October 2015

Emotivism and Human Rights

In my article, Looking for Bedrock: Accounting for Human Rights in Classical Liberalism, Modern Secularism, and the Christian Tradition (download here), I made the following observation about the problematic lack of foundation for the contemporary human rights movement. Or, more precisely, the weakness of grounding human rights in an emotive conception of human dignity:

Without a foundation, the limits of [human] “dignity” are cabined by little more than the imagination of the proponent of some cause or other−including the human rights movement.  Even Martha Nussbaum ... grounds human dignity in the moral sentiment of awe: “We see the person as having activity, goals, and projects – as somehow awe-inspiringly above the mechanical workings of nature . . . .” Grounding assertions of the universal and the absolute in in fleeting and inconsistent human sentiments provides scant support for human dignity. Assertions of human dignity nonetheless continue to carry rhetorical weight but as time progresses one can imagine a world in which dignity’s ubiquity will undercut its utility. Only the rhetorical force of attaching the term “human right” to a particular good is the primary reason “rights-talk” remains so powerful.
For an excellent albeit more literary explanation of the same issue, go here to read a post by Edmund Waldstein, "The Great Silliness of Highly Intelligent and Perceptive People." A teaser:
[The ethics of Virginia Woolf's novella]  Orlando express clearly what I think is the most fundamental error of so much modern ethical thought— an error which underlies the errors of emotivism. It is the error of thinking that since the good is what all desire it is desire that makes things good, rather than it being the goodness of things that cause them to be desired.
So long as our desires more or less aim toward the Good, little harm is done. But when, as is pervasively the case at present, vast numbers of our desires are disordered, grounding a system of human rights on them is at best futile and at worst pernicious. As I remarked a short time ago here, the future of human rights as the primary organizing impetus for international humanitarian law may soon come to an end.

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