Wolterstorff and the grounding of Human Rights in God

  1. Human beings all have (grounded) inalienable rights which belong to them regardless of whether they (the rights) are recognized or not.
  2. These rights are not based on any capacities which only some but not all humans have.
  3. There are no capacities which all human beings have.
  4. These rights are not based on capacities.
  5. If these rights are not based on capacities, and they are inalienable and belong to human beings whether they (the rights) are recognized or not, then they must be grounded in some relation.
  6. If these rights are grounded in some relation, then they are grounded in some relation to God.

Let’s take a closer look briefly at this argument, which belongs to Wolterstorff. I think it has some merit. Let us take 1 to be properly basic and/or uncontroversial. It seems as though if these rights belong to all human beings, then they cannot be grounded in qualities which some but not all human beings have, even capacities. For instance, not all human beings have the capacity for rational thought, not all human beings have the capacity to feel pleasure or pain, etc etc. Even if it were the case that all persons now living had the capacity to be rational, or had the capacity to feel pleasure or pain, that would be trivial and immaterial, since it isn’t hard to imagine a human being for whom it was not the case, and therefore we cannot ground rights in such things. 3 seems inevitable upon careful reflection, and 4 follows from 1&3. It is 5 and 6 which are likely to elicit controversy. However, it seems to me that they are agreeable. 5 is plausible given that there is nothing other than either capacities or relations which might ground human rights, or at least none which I can think of. Nature (i.e., here, an appeal to substantial form or something relevantly similar) could maybe be an alternative, but let’s shelf that possibility for now and just ignore it for the sake of the argument.

Why the jump from 5 to 6? Well, 6 is just very abridged, but basically follows from rights being inalienable and ‘objective’ in the sense that human beings would all have the rights they do have even if not even one human being recognized those rights, along with those rights being grounded in some relation. The only thing which plausibly or even possibly grounds those kinds of rights would be a relation to something incontingent – for only then could the rights be inalienable and objective (and grounded). If the relation were to something contingent, then it would be logically possible that some or all human beings lose their rights.

Thus, Dr. Nicolas Wolterstorff has presented an argument from Human Rights for the existence of God (though his argument is not intended to be interpreted as an argument for God’s existence so much as an argument for how we could ground human rights successfully – but it’s double-edged and could be used in Natural Theology).

For an elaborate discussion of this argument, see the Veritas Forum: Best of Audio podcast, where one can find a recording of Wolterstorff defending his position in conversation with secularist and philosopher Dr. David Reidy.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Ethics, Natural Theology, Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Wolterstorff and the grounding of Human Rights in God

  1. Pingback: Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (via Georgetown University Press Blog) - Pilant's Business Ethics

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