I count myself among the “New Athiests,” and I don’t even object to the label, as some do. But let’s forget labels for a second. The particular beliefs I share with, say, PZ, Dawkins, Coyne, etc. are (a) science tells against religion and (b) religion, in being anti-reason, makes the world a worse place.
How does science tell against religion? Well, either God’s existence and activity are supposed to have something to do with the events that occur in the natural world, or they aren’t. If they are, then we can directly falsify religion. If God caused a worldwide flood, we can check the geological record for evidence. If God made the earth stand still, we can use physics to tell us what that would entail and look for evidence. And whenever and wherever we look for evidence, revealed religion will lose. It won’t even be accidentally right, because now we (materialists) are in an excellent position to explain every phenomenon by adverting solely to natural laws.
So if God exists either (a) he* is causally inert (b) he causes natural phenomena, but always in a way that was overdetermined—that is, the world would have gone the same even without God (c) he caused the initial conditions or (d) he did the initial conditions and some overdetermined causation. But (a) and (b) both meet the edge of Occam’s Razor: don’t multiply entities beyond necessity. Occam’s Razor is part of scientific practice, so it’s science itself that rules out these options. And (c) and (d) meet with what I take to be Dawkins’ master argument (though I haven’t read his book, so I just picked up on this somewhere): if the initial conditions need a cause, because everything does, then God too needs a cause; if they don’t need a cause, then postulating God as their cause again violates Occam’s Razor.
I believe something like this, but I don’t want to defend it in this post. Here I won’t be pointing the finger at Believers and saying “ye fools!” Instead, I’ll be pointing the finger at my fellow New Athiests and saying “ye hypocrites!” Why are we hypocrites? Because we accept that science tells against God, but not that it tells against inalienable natural rights. But it tells against them too!
The argument against God goes: we have a complete story of the world, and it doesn’t involve God; and sticking him in is irrelevant and unnecessary. And my argument against inalienable natural rights is that we have a complete story of the world, and it doesn’t involve rights; and sticking them in is irrelevant and unnecessary.
We’re told that we have a fundamental right to believe whatsoever we want to believe, to not be coerced in matters epistemic. But how do we know we have this right? Do we train our rightometers on the oppressed, and notice a spike when they’re forced to keep silent? The other day I read a discussion regarding some individuals’ claims that they had a right to not be offended. Predictably, people said they didn’t have such a right. But how did they know that? How could they know that? It seems as though they couldn’t. This is because rights don’t have effects. They are causally inert. If you have a right to free speech and I make you shut up, the situation is exactly the same as if you don’t have the right and I make you shut up.
Inalienable natural rights are magic.
You might think I’m joking, but I’m not. I’ll give you the alternative proposal: the only morally relevant features of any situation are human happiness and human suffering**. Notice that whether someone is happy or is suffering is determinable by scientific investigation. We can tell whether an action mitigates suffering or increases happiness. There is no magic here.
You might think that talk of rights can be cashed out in terms of suffering and happiness. But I don’t think so. The other day I was reading about a woman in
Now my thinking goes as follows. Some men in some parts of the Arabic world believe that it is not morally abhorrent to throw acid at women. Because this is the case, women must walk down the street in constant fear that these idiots will disfigure them permanently, with little to fear from the law. And many women must live having been permanently disfigured by idiots. If a law allowing these women to demand an eye for an eye were on the books and were applied when applicable, there would be overall less suffering. So it is moral to enact such a law and to apply it, at least until overturning it would bring about a decrease in suffering and an increase in happiness—presumably when men stopped thinking disfiguring women was all in good fun. So please take your human rights elsewhere; I care about people, not about magic.
I think that we’ve become bogged down in nonsensical ‘rights’-talk. Consider the case of abortion. The debate often revolves around what rights fetuses have and what rights women have, etc. But these debates are intractable precisely because there’s no way of determining who has a right to what. One side says “I imagine such-and-such” and the other says “I imagine so-and-so.” But you can keep your imaginings, and you can keep your rights. Fetuses don’t have a right to life, because no-one does; and women don’t have a right to choose, because no-one does. There’s only one morally relevant question here: will there be an overall decrease in suffering if abortion is allowed, as opposed to if it is not allowed? And you don’t have to be a rocket scientist, or even a social scientist, to know that the answer is yes.
One more: Do homosexuals have the ‘right’ to get married? Of course not: no-one does. The question before us is clear: will there be an increase in happy lives if gay marriage is allowed? Yes. Case closed.
I’ve been a little polemic in this post. Good, maybe you’ll comment. But I want to end by pointing out a few things. First, my case against rights does not rest on the truth of act utilitarianism. Rights don’t exist because they’re magic, and they lie beyond the realm of evidence or even fruitful speculation.
Second, you might reply “oh, but there are sophisticated deontological theories of rights that look into both the metaphysical and epistemological issues you’re raising.” Perhaps. But this is a version of the Courtier’s Reply. Your man on the street whining about his right-to-this and his right-to-that does not gain his knowledge of rights by discovering a contradiction in universalizing maxims. There also would not be much in common between what rights he said he had and what rights a scrupulous application of the Categorical Imperative said he had. I am calling him out. I’m saying “what allows you to know that these claims you’re making are true? What makes you think these rights even exist?” I’ll save my battles with the sophisticated deontologists for another day.
Finally, I haven’t given any arguments for utilitarianism. I held it up as an example of a moral theory that does not quantify over magic. Happiness and suffering are real, and measurable. Thus, they are potential candidates for morally-relevant properties. They are not the only potential candidates, and it is a deep question how we determine what matters for ethics. But I know what doesn’t matter. Invisible, undetectable, inalienable natural rights.
Conclusion: the Enemies of Reason™ aren’t limited to those who persist in believing bronze-age myths. Some persist in believing enlightenment-era myths. These myths were important and helpful to our forebears, and they brought about many positive changes in politics and law. But it is time to kick away the latter of myth we climbed in on, and embrace the one obviously true moral principle: nothing cramps your moral powers like not existing!
[* Yes I know God isn’t supposed to have genitals. But that’s what they call it: ‘he.’]
[** I should add animal happiness and animal suffering, but for rhetorical force I’ll ignore animals for the moment. This should not be taken to indicate that I think animal happiness or animal suffering is not morally relevant.]