A Problem of Doctrines and Values

After picking up a copy of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists, I stumbled onto Terry Eagleton’s review, which includes this sentence:

One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn’t be knocked.

Eagleton wants to be the knowing superior (sipping tea in the parlor—“I arrived an hour ago; where’ve you been?”), but he stumbles badly there. Free speech and civil rights are all bunkum, if you pretend they have some independent reality beyond their usefulness. We know and admit that we created those things. On the battlefield between privileged monarchs and their resistant subjects, we carved out a place of truce and called it “rights.”

Whether the monarchs did more of the granting or the subjects did more of the taking will always be debatable. But no one seriously disputes that those modern values arose from history; they did not descend on the wings of revelation. People certainly argued that rights were bestowed by a divine Creator, but other people claimed heavenly origins for the sovereignty poised against those rights. And even if you believe that God laid all the pieces on the board in the beginning, you cannot deny that we have been moving them around ever since. Civil rights and free speech were a long time coming because they had no meaning until people configured themselves in just the right way.

Eagleton wants to believe that free speech and civil rights are no different than any religious doctrines, but he fails to see that what makes doctrines religious, to our sense of the word, is precisely that we cannot admit their historical contingency and human creation. Doctrines become religious not just when they are entrenched, but when they are divorced from historical processes, endowed with eternal permanence, and immunized against critique. If you are allowed to critique a doctrine, and notice its historical provenance, it loses eternal permanence. And, as plenty of theologians throughout history have intuitively understood, the only way to keep your religion in the face of those challenges is to grasp something that cannot be disentrenched, historicized, temporized, or critiqued, so you retreat to the only thing that can possibly satisfy those criteria: incomprehensible concepts like the Ground of Being or Existence Itself. (But good luck trying to build a satisfactory religion on such a distant foundation.)

Being surprised to find that religions might have some useful qualities, aside from their carefully enshrined but intellectually offensive doctrines, is a good piece different from learning, as anyone does who bothers to study the variety of human societies, that free speech and civil rights, despite their positions of high importance for our purposes in the modern West, are not exactly universal or eternal. And if we continue to believe that civil rights and free speech are essential to our way of life, despite knowing that others have gotten by with a different configuration of social values, it is not because we have catapulted them into transcendence. We hold them at the center of our society as a point of perpetual dispute, not as the undoubtable fulcrum of our universe.

9 thoughts on “A Problem of Doctrines and Values”

  1. “But no one seriously disputes that those modern values arose from history; they did not descend on the wings of revelation.”

    By “seriously”, do you mean “in a manner I feel obligated to sincerely consider” or do you mean “earnestly”?

      1. Seems to me that you’re eliding the difference between what the SEP calls “descriptive moral relativism” and “metaethical moral relativism”. Or maybe I misunderstand you?

        Are saying that because all the big guns of natural rights theories would admit that there were and are societies and regimes that either don’t recognize or trample upon what they’ve identified as “natural rights”, they’re implicitly admitting that the rights aren’t “natural”, but are instead contingent?

        1. I am saying that I have never seen an argument that “free speech” or “civil rights” (defined specifically and not just lumped in generally with philosophical ideas about “moral realism” and the like) exist independently of people and their history, by divine fiat, and unquestionably so.

          1. I’m still confused. Are you drawing a distinction between “civil rights” and “human rights”? Are you saying you’ve never heard someone make the case that “no one shall be held in slavery” is a principle that derives not from contingent historical power struggles or from instrumental concerns to particular societies, but instead from inherent human dignity and worth? Or are you saying that freedom from slavery isn’t a “civil” right?

          2. I am saying that “free speech” and “civil rights” are not religious doctrines, or akin to religious doctrines, and that I have never heard anyone talk about them like religious doctrines. I have heard plenty of people talk about them as philosophical doctrines, as you are doing, but that is not the same thing, because philosophizing is not sacralizing.

            (For example, even when philosophers use the word “inherent” to talk about “human dignity and worth,” they do so not to immunize their opinions from critique, but to make a statement about the nature of human dignity and worth. And they know that statement is open to further examination and challenge.)

  2. R. A. Heinlein wrote this in “Starship Troopers” as part of a discussion of “natural rights”:

    Ah, yes, the ‘unalienable rights.’ Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. Life? What ‘right’ to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What ‘right’ to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of ‘right’? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man’s right is ‘unalienable’? And is it ‘right’?
    As to liberty, the heroes who signed that great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is always unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it is always vanquished. Of all the so-called ‘natural human rights’ that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.

    This is what made me start to reevaluate my position on “rights” . They are NOT unalienable (or inalienable) – they exist only as long as we are willing and able to protect them.

    We give “rights” to each other, as a society we decide together what is a “right”. Designating a right as “god given” is just a way that our society lies to itself.

    1. Even so, believing rights to be inalienable is what gives them the special quality of rights-ness (and us the feeling of righteousness, in asserting and protecting them).

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