Sep. 26, 2010, at 10:55pm
There are quite a few books on our shelves that I feel I ought to have read, but haven’t yet. Until a few days ago, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue was one of them. But now I have finally gotten around to beginning it.
Today I came to a section in which MacIntyre argues that there are no natural or human rights. This took me by surprise. He does not just say that rights-talk has gotten out of hand, or that there is too much emphasis on rights and not enough on duties and responsibilities. Nor does he limit himself to saying that an ethics of rights needs to be supplemented with, and grounded in, an ethics of virtue. No, he simply and bluntly denies that rights exist at all: “the truth is plain: there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns.”
I do not have to finish the book to say that I think he is wrong about this. Rights do exist, and it is crucial to recognize and defend them. Still, I am interested in trying to understand the reasons for his position better.
So far I have found two. The first is that virtually no culture other than our own recognizes the concept of natural rights. It seems therefore to be a creation of our culture rather than an objective feature of reality that is in principle observable by all. To this I would reply (in a nutshell) that not all objective facts are explicitly recognized and understood by all cultures. (Especially some moral truths, and certain truths about the person, require a cultural maturity that cannot be taken for granted.) And so in this case our western culture has a decided advantage over most others. The recognition of natural rights naturally grows out of that deep appreciation of “the infinite worth of the individual soul”, which Max Scheler referred to as the “magna carta of Christian Europe.”
But “the best reason”, MacIntyre thinks, for asserting that rights do not exist is of “the same type as the best reason which we possess for asserting that there are no witches,” i.e. that “every attempt to give good reasons for believing that there are such rights has failed.” So far this reasoning seems circular. What he really means, however, is that, in the final analysis, all arguments for natural rights are based on the claim that their existence is self-evident, or that they are known through moral intuition. MacIntyre has no patience for that sort of claim: “we all know that there are no self-evident truths,” and “one of the things that we ought to have learned from the history of moral philosophy is that the introduction of the word ‘intuition’ by a moral philosopher is always a sign that something has gone badly wrong with the argument.”
This reasoning is almost as surprising to me as the claim it is meant to support—especially considering the influence of Aristotle on MacIntyre. Aristotle is well known for showing that if nothing is self-evident then nothing can be proven. Self-evident truths are the ultimate starting point of any argument. Moreover not all self-evident truths are easily perceived or perceived by all. That is why Aristotle thinks that it is useless for young persons—young in age or youthful in character—to attend classes in ethics and politics.
It is true that an appeal to intuition or self-evidence can be abused. But that is hardly a reason for dismissing the notion altogether. Are there any readers who are more sympathetic with MacIntyre on this point then I am? If so, I would love to hear from you.