On Grounding Rights in the Golden Rule
In this full-length discussion between theologian George Hunsinger and philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, the two talk through Hunsinger’s own Golden Rule Theory and speculate as to whether or not it could be applied to ethics and human rights.
I’m Tom Crisp, Associate Director of Biola’s Center for Christian Thought and Professor in the philosophy department here at Biola. And today we have with us two emanate Christian thinkers to talk about the nature of human rights. And so, it’s my pleasure to introduce Professor George Hunsinger, the McCord Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and Professor Nicholas Wolterstorff the Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University and a senior research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies and Culture at the University of Virginia. Welcome.
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. So, that’s roughly the state of the question as far as I have taken it. And then there’s a question, how do you deal with objections. But Nick could tell us what some objections to an approach like this might be.
Okay, so Nick, thoughts about the golden rule as a basis for human rights.
Let me first make some preliminary comments. First point that pertains to George’s opening comment. One can believe deeply in the importance of human rights. That there are human rights and believe deeply in the importance of it without having a theory or an account. It’s a standard feature of philosophy that philosophers agree that there is such a thing as obligation. They struggle to find an adequate account for obligation. Agree that there is such a thing as knowledge and struggle to find an adequate account for knowledge. But if you haven’t wound up with an account after thinking about it for knowledge or obligation after thinking about it for five years. You don’t scrap the intuition you say, I’ve got to work out another five years over the really long haul. If philosophers prove you name the time, I mean, what was the appropriate time for 200 years not to come up any of them with anything like an adequate theory of obligation that then you maybe say our intuitions are mistaken, but it would be absurd for a philosopher or for anybody else to say, I don’t have a adequate account of Human Rights and so I’m gonna give up that just make no sense, just make no sense.
Second, we’ve got to talk a bit about just what we mean by human rights here. I mean by a human right, rights that human beings have just caught just as human beings. Not as human beings who can function as persons, but just as human beings. so the test cases will be, the Alzheimer’s patients, the people in a permanent coma, the people who are severely impaired from birth, newborn infants and so forth. Now, it’s my view that a secularist can find adequate accounts for those rights that we have as human persons. As human beings capable of moral and rational agency. As human beings who are capable of describing states to ourselves. As human beings who can identify with a certain body and so forth. I think there are adequate accounts of that. Michael Perry in his discussion doesn’t distinguish what I’m distinguishing here between the rights we have just qua human beings versus the rights that we have qua human persons. And I think when you look at the UN documents it’s pretty clear that what they’ve actually got their eye on is what I’m calling our rights qua human persons. Right to education, to, if you look at it they’re clearly looking at those whom not these severely impaired human beings. They are not saying that they’ve got a right. They’re not saying that the Alzheimer’s patient is being wronged because she’s not being given an education. It’s the persons. So that for me is important to distinguish those two.
Then how do we ground these? How do we account for ’em? We don’t have to have, once again we don’t have to have an account to believe that there are such things as a general philosophical principle, you don’t say something doesn’t exist, just because you don’t happen to have an adequate account of it. I think that’s really important in this area. So, how do we explain them? If we think that human persons do have rights. That the Alzheimer’s patient has a right not to be shot and tossed into the dumpster when it gets to be rather expensive to take care of her and I think that she does have such a right. How do we explain that in that that sense, that intuition whatever you want to call it, that conviction? Let me call it that. Conviction, I have that conviction. So George, so I think it’s grounded in the dignity of human persons and then I try to give an account for the dignity. And incidentally all the UN documents are dignity based documents. They don’t try to account for the dignity, but they all do ascribe, all do suggest that rights are grounded in the dignity. How do we account for I think dignity? George’s proposal is not to look at the anthropological status of human beings but rather to a certain hypothetical conviction on their part. What I would want for and so forth. How I would want to be treated if I were in your situation. I was gonna say something that slipped my mind. Oh, in order to get rights out of this we’re going to have to say that this moral principle, the Golden Rule, it’s not just an admirable thing. We’re going to have to say that it’s obligatory. If I have an obligation to treat you as I would want to be treated were you in my situation then you have the corresponding, the correlative right to be treated as you know till you can flush it out. So it has to be an obligation.
So I’ve got two basic questions for George. One. I accept the testimony of lots of people that the Golden Rule, that one finds the golden rule in lots of cultures. I don’t know of any evidence that we find it in all cultures. And it seems to be absolutely clear that in my own culture though there are a lot of people who accept it, there are a lot of people who don’t. Now George could say they don’t explicitly accept it but they accept in practice. Brandon’s pragmatics so we can make explicit what but it seems to me in practice, there are just lots of people who don’t accept it. Let me just give two examples. Masochists. The masochist often wants to be treated harshly. So if the masochist treated me the way he would want to be treated, he would impose on me a certain kind of hard treatment that I think would be a violation of my rights. Or just take the recent banking Scandal. I think scandal is the word for it, of JPMorgan Chase. It appears to me that the head of it Jamie Dimon, well doesn’t just appear to me, it’s perfectly clear from the news reports, he wants a minimal government government regulation. If he were in a position to set government regulations, what he would want is minimal regulations. That’s how he would want to be treated. Whereas I trust that there are other bankers who have more sense, who see the greed in the human heart and see the frailness of the human intelligence. who would want tight regulations to prevent their own folly and prevent the folly of others. So what the one person would want to be treated, were he in that situation is very one banker here in this case is very different from all the other banker would want to be treated were he in that situation. Now for all I know they might both profess the Golden Rule but if we do what George is suggesting look at the actual practice, we find them just disputing how they would want to be treated. They might each say you see what I’m saying? They might each say let’s follow the Golden Rule but in the application of it, they come out to totally divergent positions. So I don’t see how we can get up anything like a common morality let alone an explanation or whatever you wanna call it. Grounding of Human Rights out of the Golden Rule.
Yeah so George, that does seem to be quite a bit of variabilities to how people want to be treated. And yet you wouldn’t want there to be that same kind of variability with respect to what our rights are.
Yeah, that’s the basic point.
I suppose I, if I could pull this off. I would begin with Brandom and end with Kant. Of course, you’re going to have disagreements. And you can’t simply take at face value what a person says about how they would like to be treated. I mean, the Alzheimer case is an interesting one. The masochistic case, these are sort of standard questions. Or I could say, if I’m caught doing something wrong, I might like to be let off without any penalty. You know but why doesn’t that make sense? We can see right away that you can’t do that. We can see that there are bankers who would like to be given a free reign no matter what. The same sort of reasoning that makes us see right away that these are problematic cases, could be applied on the basis of a golden rule standard and not as something that shows the invalidity of the golden rule standard. Because it’s a matter of discursive practices. It’s a matter of trying to think about what’s implicit and then working out an account that would be reasonable and universalizable and that would command sufficient consensus. I mean you never gonna get complete consensus on something like this. But I don’t see why you couldn’t use the golden rule test. I mean if I were a masochist, and I can see not being a masochist, that this is some sort of disorder. I mean what would be the most humane way of dealing with a masochist. You don’t just take the opinions of a masochist at face value and grant them the same sort of normative status that you would grant to anything else. I mean, we can see right away why it doesn’t make sense to treat a person as they would want to be treated in that case. And I can see that this is necessarily and objection to the golden rule standard. I think the golden rule standard could be worked with in such a way that it would take a case like that adequately into account. I think it is true that when I was thinking human rights it wasn’t in the same sense as Nick was thinking it.
You were thinking about person right?
Yeah. Well, not only person rights but even something more limited than that. Does each person have a right to education? Does each person have a right to healthcare? Well, that may or may not be. And I don’t know whether the Golden Rule standard would apply to that or whether we could figure out an account that would take this larger set of concerns into account. The dignity accounts. I’m not so much concerned about how to grant each person their full share on the basis of the dignity of persons but how to prevent gross violations of human dignity. That’s my concern. So when I think of human, and of course human rights can mean a range of different things as Nick was suggesting but I’m thinking about the egregious violations of human rights, atrocities. Maiming for example, or the sort of tribal warfare where the other tribe is thought of as not being human and not having dignity. I think there would be Golden Rule arguments whether they would convince people or not or whether people who think they adhere to the Golden Rule actually live up to them. These are somewhat separate questions, it seems to me.
And I guess it does to some extent depend on thinking about the spirit of the Golden Rule over against the letter of the Golden Rule. Certainly, the masochist case. That would be kind of too literalistic, it seems to me or let’s take the Alzheimer’s case. If I had Alzheimer’s, how would I like to be treated? And what would be reasonable for me to expect for treatment? You can’t necessarily expect if there are limited resources that everything that would be good for me to receive optimally the kind of care I would like to have I would really be entitled to because in Society, there are range of competing needs and claims that have to be met and adjudicated and so on. So again I don’t see why a Golden Rule standard couldn’t be worked with in a sophisticated way to take such cases into account. But it certainly doesn’t mean that you just have to take each person’s view of how they would like to be treated into account at face value. That was part of what I was getting at when I said I may have a deficient opinion about what it would be like to be treated fairly even in my own case, but you can get a standard of fairness that could be defensible and widely applicable. The universalization principle seems to me is something that would come out that is, the principle of universality would mean that if it applies in my case, it would apply in all cases like my case so that I can’t make an exception of myself and I think that’s part of the spirit and the letter of the Golden Rule that I’m not to expect treatment for myself that I’m not prepared to see extended to others but that that has to be done within reason, of course.
And there’s a certain principle of equity and there’s a, I like what Nick does in finding a basis for human dignity in our covenant or relations with God on the basis of Christian theology. I think that’s exactly right. I think it’s the best account we’ve seen so far on how to think about human dignity from a Christian standpoint. It’s just that I assume that I have a certain dignity, and I think everybody in some sense has that view. And then what really counts for a proper understanding of human dignity and how that would be worked out so that fair treatment and respect for persons could be developed into defensible standards that would work in human rights contexts is a somewhat different question. It’s not just just taking what anyone says about how they would like to be treated. There are masochists, there are cultures actually where incest has been thought of as normal. Maybe fortunately I think those cultures haven’t survived but there would be other cultural difficulties in thinking about how you can get some sort of universal applicability. But would these cases be more difficult for the kind of Golden Rule hypothesis that I’m floating? Then for any other attempt to give a grounding for human rights, there would be difficulties for any point of view, if not these particular difficulties perhaps difficulties not too much unlike them. So the fact that the difficulties can be raised for a Golden Rule perspective not automatically a way of discrediting them.
One way of understanding your appeal to Kant initially is you might think there’s a reasonability constraint on application of the principle. So that the principle is something like, we’re obligated to do unto others as we would reasonably desire be done to ourselves, or that we actually desire.
Yes, I think that’s part of what I…
Is that the thought?
Would have to be implicit in this idea of the discursive, yeah.
See I want to get to the issue of, say something about motivation. But I think on the Alzheimer’s and reasonable and discursive rationality and so forth. I have a certain view as to how I would want to be treated if I were an Alzheimer’s patient and I would want to be treated with dignity and roughly in the way that the better nursing homes do in fact take care of Alzheimer’s patients. But we both know that there are other people in our society who would not want to be treated like that, who would in fact want to be allowed to commit suicide. And many of these people have reflected seriously about this. It’s the result of discursive rationality on their part. It’s not some gut intuition but they’ve given long thought to it and so forth. So my difficulty is that some people just don’t accept the golden rule. But maybe more relevant and maybe some whole societies don’t. More relevant is when we get down to the nitty gritty of how I would want to be treated, there is in lots of very important cases no consensus as to how we would want to be treated. On the issue of motivation…
Can I just intervene quickly?
Yeah, but to me there would be certain questions of how I would want not to be treated.
Yeah, yeah, I mean…
To me those are the salient ones. You know whether a person with Alzheimer’s should be morally permitted whether legally or whatever’s another matter, but morally permitted to commit suicide. That’s somewhat different than saying it should be permissible for society to decide that they can be put to death and dismissed.
Yes, no these are two different cases.
There’s the Alzheimer’s case
Yeah, these are.. See I think the golden rule…
The suicide case is even more dramatic.
The golden rule would I think would be applicable to not just treating this person as someone who is useless and dispensable and so on. Then you know, beyond that, what range of reasonable moral options would exist. I mean, I’m not sure that it would be necessary for my golden rule account to say that suicide would be impermissible even if I myself like you would feel that it’s not permissible. But there I think I’m not operating on the basis of merely golden rule considerations.
So, it’s more a matter of preventing abuses than it is a matter of finding optimal solutions for proper treatment in difficult cases.
The point I’m emphasizing there is the variability and how people would want to be treated were they in the same sort of situation as the person in front of them. Doesn’t track to the universality of human rights and person rights. But let me say a word about motivation. You mentioned Michael Perry. Yeah, Perry’s got the view that even when I’ve established and persuaded you that this person has dignity, I have to do something more yet to motivate you to do anything about it. And here he becomes a eudaimonist. I’ve got to show that my honoring your dignity somehow conduces to my own well-being. And I know Michael very well. He just, he’s Catholic though he’s not deeply embedded in the Catholic tradition. But he’s just bought into the eudaimonist part of the Catholic moral tradition. And I just don’t see it it seems to me. If I’ve shown that you have dignity, I don’t then have to do some additional thing to energize you to do something about it. I mean if you acknowledge that I have dignity, I don’t have to do some additional thing to show that honoring it conduces to your flourishing. I think establishing the goodness of something is often sufficient motivation for, sufficient argument for people to honor the goodness.
If I say this is a really good symphony, I don’t have to say in addition, you’re gonna be really happy listening to it. [laughing]
You know most people will say, well then I wanna listen to it.
Right, right. I mean I think along with the idea of rationality or what you could reasonably expect, there’s some sort of principle of non-contradiction. See it would be contradictory to expect a certain kind of treatment in my own case that I’m not prepared to extend to someone else. So, yeah it would be a kind of treatment that would be extended to others. And whether I would really be motivated to act on these principles is a somewhat separate question. But whether I could reasonably deny that others are entitled to the same kind of treatment that I expect for myself, I couldn’t. I mean I think that’s what the golden rule is about. I think that’s its intuitive appeal. I mean in the parable of Jesus about I think it’s called the Unjust Steward where he’s been forgiven a great debt but then he won’t forgive the debt of someone that someone owes to him, that’s much smaller. And people see right away that he’s acting in a way that’s inconsistent with how he has been treated and that this is kind of hypocritical and self-contradictory. So within those limits, I think you can get a rough and ready good enough grounding for some sorts of human rights. And that’s all I’m saying. You know, it’s really a rather modest claim I think. And yeah, rights of humans and rights of persons, you know how to deal with Alzheimer’s patients and what. Could you allow for a person to commit suicide in difficult situations where they’re terminal anyway and you wouldn’t do that yourself. I’m not sure the golden rule would have much to say there nor would it need to have much to say in order for my account to hold up reasonably well.
Nick let me press one point that George raised and see what your thoughts about it. So, if you add a rationality bit to the golden rule like this, you say the golden rule tells us that I’m obligated to treat you in a way that I would rationally want to be treated were I in your situation. And if you have a thick enough conception of rationality so that what’s rational to desire isn’t just any old thing it’s what’s proper to our design plan given the way God has built us or something like that. Could you get around some of the variability worries that you’re raising where people have all kinds of…
Well you can get around some of it. And I suppose you could thicken rationality so much that the results become sort of necessary analytic. But take the two people involved in the banking profession. The one thinks that there ought to be minimal regulation, the other thinks no, no, no, human beings are too fraught to greed, too inclined to greed and too inclined to let the allure of profit obscure their rationality. We need a lot of regulation. So each one has a view as to how they would want to be treated. They and others, I mean they’re willing to universalize it. Absolutely, so it’s not a violation of the universality principle. But very different views as to how they would want to be treated. And I would think that both of them are, I mean it’s likely that both of them are fully rational. They’ve thought about. They’ve argued it out with each other. It’s gonna be very difficult to point to one and say you’re being non-rational, irrational, arational whereas you’re a fully rational without just being arbitrary in ones assignment of the epithet rational.
Well first of all the banking case is not a human rights case it seems to me. And secondly…
Well it might be.
I don’t think that…
But let that pass.
Yeah I don’t think that this is an unresolvable questions. I mean there’s a lot of evidence that things go wrong when what is it, the Glass-Steagall bill or yeah, when that’s waived. You know, we’re in this financial crisis because regulations were lifted.
I know but Jamie Dimon knows this evidence even better than you and I do.
Yeah and of course, he’s up for criminal charges. You know, he’s not sort of a credible witness. I mean he’s like the person with some disorder who tells us about how he would like to be treated. You know, we may not be able to convince him or a large number of other people but people have interests here in terms of how they would like to be treated. Which will give them an advantage in society over against a large majority maybe the vast majority of others. I mean, I think on the basis of kind of Kantian rational grounds these people could be censured.
Well, Nick did you have a concluding thought before we…
Not really. [laughing] of course, the Jamie Dimon’s of the world are going to go off into a riff, riff to the effect. Yeah, but all this regulation stifles creativity. It’s not greed we’re after, it’s creativity, imagination. It stifles imagination, creativity. That’s the riff that they tell. So it eventually becomes, comes down to a matter of Aristotelian phronesis, what is judgment? Judging these countervailing values. What does judgment say? And I happen to think that Glass-Steagall regulation, but I don’t think the other view is stupid.
No, but it you know these people who are…
I think it’s mistaken, but [laughing]
You know or telling us that they need to unleash creativity aren’t ending up in the poor house.
No, no we might but they won’t. [laughing]
Yeah, I think we have grounds for suspicion here. An appeal to creativity. I mean they’re getting awfully rich at the expense of the most of the rest of us.
Well, I think on that note we’ll conclude. So thank you both…
You’re welcome [laughing]
For taking the time to discuss this with us.
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