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The Table Video

Nicholas Wolterstorff, George Hunsinger& Thomas M. Crisp

Wolterstorff 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 Nicholas Wolterstorff responds to Hunsinger’s Golden Rule Theory with a series of objections. He confronts Hunsinger’s definition of “human rights” and challenges the variability of Hunsinger’s concept, illustrated by the Alzheimer’s patient and the masochist.


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, there does seem to be quite a bit of variability as 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 one.

I suppose if I could pull this off, [laughs] I would begin with Brandon and end with Kant. of course you’re going to have disagreements and you know, you can’t simply take at face value what a person says about how they would like to be treated. 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 but why doesn’t that make sense? And 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 rein no matter what. The same sort of reasoning that makes us see right away that the these are problematic cases could be applied on the basis of a Golden Rule standard and not as something 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 universal visible and that would command sufficient consensus. You’re never going to get complete consensus on something like this, but I don’t see why you couldn’t use the Golden Rule test. If I were a masochist and I can see, not being a masochist that this is some sort of disorder, 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. 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’t see that this is necessarily an 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 about human rights, it wasn’t in the same sense as Nick was thinking.

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 reason ability constraint on application of the principles so that the principal is something like we’re obligated to do unto others as we would reasonably desire be done to ourselves or.

Yes. I think that’s part of what would have to be implicit in this idea of the discursive.

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