At the risk of sticking my neck out with a highly unpopular opinion within American politics, I would like to discuss the topic of rights, and how they seem incompatible with an atheistic worldview. This is because rights often seem to be seen as a sort of objective moral standard, while from an atheistic perspective, the world is rather nihilistic, and any morals that exist come from humans, not outside of it.
As we have discussed in my previous post on the argument from morality, objective morality is pretty problematic from an atheistic perspective. Most atheists I have talked to do not believe it exists at all, and while I attempt to argue that it does in the most basic of forms, at the very most all we can establish is an inclination towards certain behaviors and an avoidance of others. The actual morals themselves in practice are largely subjective, and there is a massive amount of latitude that exists in implementation. However, the idea of natural rights is normally seen as a form of objective or deontological morality, and can be justified in one of two ways, or even a combination of the two ways. Some people argue for natural rights by appealing to God, while others just claim they are self evident and can be derived from nature. Both of these justifications are flawed, as I will explain below.
The first justification, that natural rights come from a deity, is particularly troublesome from an atheist’s viewpoint, because, by definition, we do not believe in God to begin with. If the basis for natural rights disappears, then natural rights themselves disappear as a consequence. Even if God does exist, he cannot justify any sort of objective morality, as we have already discussed in my previous article discussing Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Essentially, all appealing to God is, is a form of appeal to authority, which is a logical fallacy.
The other basis, that rights are derived from nature, or are simply obvious. The problem is, within a nihilistic perspective, nature is silent on the matter of right and wrong, and considering different cultures have different moralities, I do not think it is possible to derive any sort of objective morality from nature, except perhaps the most basic forms of utilitarianism, which is still subject to a wide degree of interpretation (see my article on the argument from morality for details). Different cultures may not agree on rights. Islamic or communistic countries would likely disagree with Americans on what rights are. Americans can’t even agree with each other on what rights are, citing a difference between positive and negative rights.
Ideologies that favor minimal government intervention in one’s life generally emphasize negative rights while ignoring positive rights; proponents of more activist forms of government may invoke positive rights, which would require positive actions from others. In the past we, as a society, disagreed whether people who were not white males should have rights, as we can see by the introduction of amendments into the constitution that specifically grant the same rights that white males had from the beginning to others. That being said, no, rights are not self evident and they cannot be derived from nature. They did not become rights until we human beings accepted them as thus. We gained our basic human freedoms when we passed the bill of rights and simlarly to african americans in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments. We are constantly expanding what is a right, and what was not considered a right a hundred years ago can be considered a right today. Rights are relative.
This fact distresses people of certain viewpoints in my experience, and a common response I see to this fact is that it means we decide as a society what rights are. In my experience, many people do not like that. They want rights to be objective, and argue they are not supposed to be decided by people, because the people can violate them. But the problem is, like it or not, the evidence and logic supports this conclusion. There is no basis for objective rights, and whatever rights we come up with as a society are ultimately social structures we create to do some sort of good for humanity. They are not self evident, nor are they created by an outside force.
What are the implications of this? Well, on the down side, yes, we can see societies not recognize rights, leading to negative consequences. However, the fact that there are negative consequences for not having rights is why rights are so important. We can demonstrate that as a society, an absence of rights would lead to undesirable consequences. Therefore, rights can be accepted on utilitarian grounds. As a matter of fact, they fit very nicely in the context of rule utilitarianism, which is the idea that rules should be decided upon for utilitarian reasons, or because they lead to the greatest good.
This is what I consider rights to be: rules that are accepted and valued because they lead to some good for society. We do not need a fallacious basis in God or nature to justify them; we can justify them in the fact that they produce more well being and happiness than if they did not exist. In the end this means we do vote on them but it should be pretty easy to find them to be agreeable for the most part. However, I will advise a word of caution; in the words of Voltaire: “with great power comes great responsibility.” We have the power to change the world, for better or for worse. I strongly advise that we try to change it for the better.