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Erik Wielenberg and the Autonomy Thesis: Part Three Standard Objections to the Autonomy Thesis, Human Rights and Dignity without God

March 25th, 2017 by Matt

In my last post I looked at Erik Wielenberg’s response to the objection that, in the absence of God, people lack compelling reasons to comply with morality’s demands.  A second objection Wielenberg briefly addresses is that without certain theological doctrines, one cannot provide a plausible basis for human rights and dignity.  Wielenberg, here again, takes Craig as paradigmatic.

defaul1If there is no God, then what’s so special about human beings? They’re just accidental by-products of nature that have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and that are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time[1]

Craig’s rhetorical question alludes to a serious point, made in more detail by Peter Singer, Louis Pojman, and Nicholas Wolterstorff, this is that it is hard to plausibly accommodate the thesis that all human beings have equal dignity and rights outside a theistic framework. Wielenberg’s response is that human rights are grounded in “non-moral intrinsic properties of human beings” He notes: “Human beings can, reason, suffer, fall in love, set goals for themselves and so on. God or no God, human beings obviously differ when it comes to intrinsic properties than dogs or mere lumps of clay[2]

Wielenberg here appeals to certain higher cognitive capacities human beings possess that other animals lack.

This brief response to Craig is central to his Wielenberg’s rebuttal of evolutionary debunking arguments against moral realism latter in the book. Sharon Street and others have raised epistemological challenges to moral realism by noting that many of our basic evaluative capacities, our disposition to judge certain types of behaviour as morally wrong, has been shaped by naturalistic evolution.  Naturalistic evolution, however, isn’t guided by considerations of truth, in selecting such dispositions, but by adaptability, these basic evaluative judgements exist, because making such judgements enabled our ancestors to reproduce effectively in the environment in which they lived. Street notes “the striking coincide between independent moral truths posited by the realist and the normative views evolution has pushed us towards” and “challenges the realist to explain this coincidence.”[3]

Wielenberg proposes that “our cognitive capacities” explain the coincidence. Moral rights D supervene upon any creature that possesses certain cognitive capacities.  Seeing these are the same cognitive capacities which produce moral beliefs. It follows that any being which believes it has moral rights will necessarily have them.[4]

Wielenberg specifies that the supervenience relationship here involves both modal covariation, and a form of “robust causation” analogous to the way theist understand God’s relationship to the created universe, just as Theists believe that God immediately sustains the universe in existence moment by moment simply by willing its existence. So, natural those properties which constitute our higher cognitive faculties, robustly cause the existence of moral rights, without any intermediatory agency or laws of nature.

This answer both to the grounding of human rights and evolutionary debunking arguments has a cost.  As Wolterstorff [5] and Singer [6].  have both pointed out, while it is true that normal adult humans have the cognitive capacities in question, many important categories of human beings do not. Infants and small children cannot reason, or fall in love, set goals for themselves, nor do they have the developed moral cognition Wielenberg refers to. In fact, David Boonin has noted: “by any plausible measure dogs, and cats, cows, and pigs, chickens and ducks are more intellectually developed than a new born infant.”[7].

So, Wielenberg’s answer gives us no reason for thinking a child or infant has a rights or dignity, over and above any other animal. In fact, seeing moral rights modally covary with possession of the relevant cognitive faculties, such capacities are necessary and sufficient for the possession of moral rights.  Consequently, His position seems to entail that infant’s small children, and mentally impaired human adults have no moral rights.


[1] Wielenberg, Robust Ethics 51, the citation is from William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong God: A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) 18

[2] Ibid 51

[3] Ibid 155

[4] Ibid 134-175

[5] Nicholas Wolterstorff Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008) 325-341.

[6] Peter Singer, Writings on an Ethical Life (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001) 186-187

[7] David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 121, the neurological data is summarised in Michael Tooley’s Abortion and Infanticide (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983) Ch. 11.5.

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1 response so far ↓

  • Hi, Matt,

    My two cents:

    Street’s argument has been challenged by a number of philosophers, but while I think the challenges succeed in showing that Street’s specific formulations of the argument fail, an argument in the vicinity succeeds as an epistemic challenge to some types of moral realism. Here there is a problem of definitions: Different philosophers mean very different things by “moral realism”.

    For example, if one goes by the concept of moral realism in the SEP’s article (by Geoff Sayre-McCord), or the concept used by Michael Huemer in his defense of moral intuitionism, or the concept used by David Copp, etc., Street’s arguments (like Linville’s theistic argument) only challenge some moral realist theories, but other alternatives are in no way affected. Street herself recognizes that (in “Reply to Copp: Naturalism, Normativity, and the Varieties of Realism Worth Worrying About.”), but argues in support of her definition of moral realism. I don’t agree with those arguments – I think philosophers who use a much broader definition capture what really matters at least to most of us -, but in any event, the issue is one of definitions, and there is no problem resulting from this kind of challenge for non-theists who are realists in a broader sense of the term.

    (I don’t think theism would save that sort of realism; rather, Street’s argument, or something like that more precisely, would also show that theists are committed to bold claims about exobiology. But that’s another issue).

    “Naturalistic evolution, however, isn’t guided by considerations of truth, in selecting such dispositions, but by adaptability, these basic evaluative judgments exist, because making such judgements enabled our ancestors to reproduce effectively in the environment in which they lived.”
    A reply is a color analogy: One might as well reply that our judgments about color exist because making such judgements enabled our ancestors to reproduce effectively in the environment in which they lived. If that’s a problem for unguided evolution, this is not linked to the matter of metaethics – it goes global, like Plantinga’s EAAN. I don’t think that it succeeds at all, but that’s another matter.
    The reply is to challenge the challenger to say what is it about morality that makes debunking evolutionary arguments successful in the moral domain but not in the color domain (or in pretty much any other domain).

    You quote Street saying “the striking coincide between independent moral truths posited by the realist and the normative views evolution has pushed us towards” and “challenges the realist to explain this coincidence.”
    Street is only challenging some sort of moral realism (under her definition, all of it), but she is not an error theorist. She’s a moral anti-realist under her definition and some alternative definitions, and a moral realist under other alternative definitions, but in any case, she agrees that our evolved faculties do guide us to truth, at least generally.

    I don’t think Wielenberg’s answer is successful, but that’s a only problem for non-theists who believe in that sort of realism, not in other sorts of realism. If you choose a different definition, I would point out that this is not a problem for other non-theists who believe that most of our ordinary moral judgments are true, and also that when there is a moral disagreement, there is an objective fact of the matter as to who’s right, in the ordinary sense of the expression “objective fact of the matter”.