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The Table Video

Nicholas Wolterstorff, George Hunsinger& Thomas M. Crisp

Hunsinger on Grounding Rights in the Golden Rule

Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University
Hazel Thompson McCord Professor of Systematic Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
May 17, 2012

Philosopher George Hunsinger presents his Golden Rule Theory, arguing that the golden rule could serve as an adequate moral framework for both secular and religious audiences, providing a logical grounding for human rights.


Nick, if I may, you have written at length recently about the topic of justice and human rights. And suggested that human rights talk conceptualizing about human rights is most at home in a theistic context, in a theistic metaphysic and have argued that the prospects for giving a secular grounding for human rights are dim. Or that there are deep difficulties here at any rate. George, I know that you’ve done some thinking about this and you have thought that perhaps the golden rule could function as a kind of grounding for human rights that would be available to both to secular and religious thinkers. And so, I wanted to have a brief conversation between the two of you about this topic. Maybe you could tell us, George about your view and Nick we’d be curious to hear what you have to say in response.

Well, yeah, thank you very much maybe I should begin by saying that I don’t have a well developed position. It’s more like a thought experiment and I’ve never really written anything more than a brief article this, a sketch. And certainly there are many questions that I would have to think through and answer if I were to try to take it further.

But if I can interrupt. That may be true but George is a terrific actual defender of human rights in all kinds of areas. He’s done terrific work there on the right not to be tortured and so forth. So I want to pay you, George, that tribute.

Well thank you very much. Yeah, I am the founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. We got started in 2006. I’m still very involved in that work right up to the present. So, I do have a history of activism in this area. And I read a book by Michael Perry. I think it’s called the Idea of Human Rights. And Perry takes a line that only a religiously grounded understanding of human rights could have universal significance. So there are a number of views out there that claim that you have to have a specifically religious or Christian standpoint in order to give a proper grounding for human rights. Jeremy Waldron distinguished legal scholar and philosopher has taken a view.

And of course our own Nick Wolterstorff, whose views I admire enormously, has also taken a version of this. Not that these three have the same view exactly but there’s a family resemblance there. And I didn’t know about Waldron and Nick’s views on this question when I first started formulating my own. But Michael Perry said two things. First that only a religious or Christian understanding could give a grounding for human rights and second, he had a problem in the way he developed his argument about how you could get from figuring out what the proper ethical standards would be on the one hand and how to get people committed to them on the other. So, since most of the people that I find myself rubbing shoulders with and working with in the human rights field, don’t seem to be Christians. This was troubling to me because you don’t wanna discourage people who are so devoted and often operating at a pay scale lower than they could get if they were doing something else with their training. And there’s very admirable people that one finds who either implicitly or explicitly take no religious view whatsoever. So it just seemed to me it would be troubling to discourage such people. To say you don’t have a proper grounding for the way your spending your life. And on the other hand, there’s so many Christians who don’t seem to care much about human rights and certainly about torture. That’s why I started doing the work I’m doing. It was just very troubling to me that there was no real outcry after the exposure of the Abu Ghraib photographs and the revelations of the extent of U.S. involvement in torture and the torture program that was instituted after September 11th.

So, there aren’t enough Christians even though they’re supposedly in a better position than others to be involved in human rights and opposing abuses like torture. And then you have people who aren’t supposed to have proper grounding who are involved. So, these were some of the things that were going through my mind. And I had been reading a little bit in the philosophy of Robert Brandom. He’s a very difficult philosopher and I can’t claim to have a really solid grasp of what he’s trying to say. Especially when he goes off into Frege and things like that. But he has this very interesting approach. It’s a kind of pragmatism in parts of the argument and he’s thinking more about epistemological questions than he is ethical questions. But it’s the same sort of thing you know philosophers have a question well how do you connect the perceptions of the mind with reality? You can get a sense of, people have knowledge about certain things but how does it apply to reality? And Brandom’s approach essentially is that they’re already connected in practices. So, you don’t have to build that connection. It’s already present in the way we go about living in the world. And what you have to do is make explicit the epistemological commitments that are implicit in our practices. So he calls these practices discursive practices, a term we’ll have to come back to. He tries to you know in a very sophisticated and elaborate way think about how you can go from what’s implicit to what’s explicit. So there’s an inferentialist is the word that’s something, and inferentialist process theory. You infer ideas that are explicit from these implicit practices. So I thought well, could we do something like that with ethical standards? And could we offer a kind of pragmatist interpretation of the golden rule: Do to other as you would have them do to you.

Well it seems to me that we’re already committed to certain moral standards in the practices of everyday life. That is, I don’t like to be treated unfairly. And if somebody treats me unfairly, I have feelings about that. You don’t have to first convince me that there’s such an idea as fairness and that I ought to adopt it for thinking about particular cases. I’m already thinking about it in my own case. Now it may well be that I don’t have and adequate understanding of what fairness amounts to. I mean that’s a second question. But in principle, I have some notion of fairness. And I don’t like to be humiliated or put down somehow. So I have some basic standard in my own case of respect for persons. And if I am in dire need and somebody is in a position to help me, and they just ignore me and walk on by I also think that something is amiss. So I also have then on this account at least a rudimentary understanding of benevolence of beneficence. So I mean I think that’s quite a lot. I mean you can get a notion of fairness. You can get a notion of respect for persons and you can get a notion of beneficence about how you would like to be treated in your own case. And I think this is just a general feature of human life. That people would like to be treated in a certain way. And when they’re not treated in that way, they have ideas about what’s happened to them and feelings about it.

So you don’t have to get people committed. So that solves part of Michael Perry’s problem. You know in practice I’m using these standards in my own case. And the golden rule tells me I am not entitled to use these standards in my own case unless I’m willing to extend the very same standards to the case of others. So, I shouldn’t be indifferent to others when they’re treated unfairly, or when they’re humiliated, or when their basic needs are met. And there’s a reasonable way in which those needs could be met if somebody cared enough to meet them. So, to that extent, you can interpret the golden rule from this Brandom-like perspective and look for the values in this case that are implicit, the moral values in the judgements I’m making about how I’m treated by others in everyday life. And then you can go from there and reflect on how these standards would apply to other cases.

I don’t know exactly the full definition of discursive practices for Brandom. He has this idea of score keeping and so on. I don’t know that I have a strong grasp on it. But I think the idea of discursive reasoning goes back to Aristotle. And he contrasted it with intuitive reasoning. So intuitions and intuitive reasoning had to do with opinions. So I might have opinions about what fair treatment would be in my own case. You know what respect for persons would be, my person and beneficence and so on. But discursive reasoning would then be a communal process of dialogue in which we would discuss what would really count for an adequate definition of fairness and so on. So just because I have an opinion about fairness doesn’t mean it’s a finely defensible or valid definition of fairness.

And it would kind of an ongoing conversation back and forth where you could try to develop an ever more adequate and sophisticated and refined understanding of what fairness would be. You know what its possibilities and limitations are and so on. But I mean that’s the basic idea. Then there are all sorts of objections you know standard objections to golden rule thinking.

Anyway but those were my basic intuitions. And I thought you know if this works, then there would be a good enough grounding for universal human rights on non-religious basis. And you wouldn’t have to convince people to adopt these standards. They’re already adopting them and I suspect some of my secular friends at some level, this wouldn’t be the only thing influencing them. But they may already have a fairly good enough concept of why they’re doing what they’re doing. And it could be interpreted, whether they would or not, in terms of the golden rule.