Showing posts with label Social Justice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Social Justice. Show all posts

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Intrinsic Human Rights – by function or by nature?

Pervading a lot of popular level discussions of morality and social justice there is talk of “human rights”, often modified by adjectives such as “innate”, “intrinsic”, “inherent” or “unalienable.” The idea seems to be that, by virtue of being human, we are entitled to various things – for instance, education, free speech, life, private property, etc. When the issue comes to the right to life of the unborn, however, a different tactic seems to be taken quite frequently.
One move is to de-humanize the unborn child – “it is a clump of cells” – and hence to make out that it is not a human child. This tactic seems to be largely an emotional appeal, because all humans are clumps of cells. Certainly, adult humans are very complicated clumps of cells, but unless one wishes to invoke the idea of an immaterial soul (an idea which would complicate the issue even more), then the distinction between an unborn child and a newborn child must be made on grounds other than material constituency.

More sophisticated versions of the “clump of cells” argument turn on the much more real distinction between the clump of cells which is an adult human, and the clump of cells which is an embryo. Here, the right to life of the prenatal child is objected to on the grounds that the child is not functionally a human being.

Our intuition about who has a right to life, even for those who think that prenatal children are excluded from the category, is veritably pushed to difficult limits by assigning human rights (and consequently, the right to life) to only those who are functionally human. The difficulty is this: whatever attributes are said to be the ones that define a functional human, there can be found some post-natal human that lacks it and who we would still want to consider "fully human".

For some, particularly the consistent consequentialists, this is not a problem. Some people argue that yes, human rights must be given to people who are functionally human, and then go on to propose criteria for such a state: perhaps capacity for abstract thinking, or some loosely defined form of self-awareness. For pro-abortion activists, such definitions may seem appealing, and yet, they tend to leave the line in an unacceptable place - abstract thinking comes years after birth, and when self-awareness comes depends on the definition, but it is clear that such a definition would not discriminate between the mere location of the child (ie, inside or outside the mother's womb).

It seems clear that functional definitions of humanity will point to attributes that are not necessarily developed until definitively post-natal infancy, leaving as legitimate killing the immediately post-natal child, that is to say, infanticide. Still, such a view does not end at that side of life - it calls into question many elderly people, who by the end of their lives also lack various attributes common to adult humans. Put bluntly, there are elderly people who could very easily be denied their functional humanity, and so lose the right to live; perhaps it would be thought of as legitimate, even if sad, to kill our society's elderly. Maybe arguments could be made about the resources they would take up if they were not killed, or their diminished quality of life made grounds for their death.

Without attempting to be overly-precise, I suggest that human rights can either be had on the basis of the human nature of a being or the human function of  being, that is to say, based on what the being is or what the being does/can do. Since most people are not willing to strip elderly people or newborn children of their human right to life, it must follow that most people are compelled to grant the right to life on the basis of nature, that is, on the basis of the humanity of the subject.

This has important ramifications for the abortion debate, because if this is the case, then prenatal humans have human rights. This does not, in fact, settle the issue of abortion outright, because the language of rights is too malleable - for instance, some argue that one can have rights to do wrong, or that there is a hierarchy of rights such that, in some cases (war is suggested example), rights that seem fundamental (like the right to life) can be rejected for the sake of some other right. In short, the very concept of a right does not lead logically to its unalienable character, at least not without some more argumentation. This hierarchical view of rights seems to be the one given by a leading feminist in the third wave feminist movement, Naomi Wolf:

"War is legal: it is sometimes even necessary. Letting the dying die in peace is often legal and sometimes even necessary. Abortion should be legal; it is sometimes even necessary. Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die. But it is never right or necessary to minimize the value of the lives involved or the sacrifice incurred in letting them go. Only if we uphold abortion rights within a matrix of individual conscience, atonement and responsibility can we both correct the logical and ethical absurdity in our position and consolidate the support of the center." ("Our Bodies, Our Souls", October 16th, 1995, The New Republic)

Various people have rebutted Wolf by asserting the more fundamental nature of the right to life - it is, after all, a requirement of most other rights, since almost any other conceivable right assumes that the person is alive. That line of thought may be fruitful, and yet, I wish to suggest an alternative: that rights are misleading and incorrect concepts in the realm of ethics, that they should be relegated to the realms of legal and political philosophy and that instead, ethics should use another conceptual framework which sheds more light on these issues. Whilst what I have proposed in terms of rights seems to still be valid under the current legal framework, the new framework which I will propose will give the ethical dimension more clarity. 

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Though I Walk Through (Fortitude) Valley, I Will Fear No Beggar

Written for Social Justice Sunday, 29th of September, 2013 AD.[1]

I get off at the Valley railway station.

[i]It is a Thursday in the evening, as I walk through Brunswick Street to do some errands. People hailing from all parts of the world, particularly the neighbouring East Asian countries, bustle in the walkway going about their daily lives. The night brings people dressed in more expensive clothes, ready to partake in the Valley's night life. Some are wearing more formal dresses and suits, others seem to be going for sexual appeal - all seem to be getting ready for the entertainment the Valley brings.

Except not quite all. Looking a little more carefully at the people not rushing to get somewhere or huddling in large groups, some people are wearing rather inexpensive clothes indeed, perhaps sufficient for warmth in the upcoming months of Australian spring and summer, but barely enough to survive the ending winter. They seem to live on the streets, making surviving off the waste and generosity of others. Or perhaps they do have some accommodation – still, they barely scrape by the day.

One such person walks up to me now, a lady probably in her early-thirties, but looking closer to fifty years old. Her body looks fatigued, but her eyes dart rapidly around, as if she were paranoid about being attacked by someone behind me. We lock eyes and she, after looking at my chest for a split-second, approaches me with a little more energy.

“Spare a few bucks, mate?”

I stopped.


Someone like me gets asked that sort of question around Brisbane daily and probably every other second somewhere in the world. I suspect that anyone reading this has been asked on the street for money – not just by someone busking, but by someone in financial woes.

When I talk to people about the issue of giving money to beggars, or giving alms in language that is more common in the Bible, what the saying that usually pops up is “give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day, teach him how to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.” That sort of logic seems to me to be correct: giving in a way that produces sustainability is better than giving in such a way that produces dependence.

When Caritas International says something to the same effect, I nod my head. Browsing the financial statement for Caritas Australia, I can see that every cent in produces a cent out in targeted and wise relief and humanitarian aid.[2] However, when I talk to the average person about giving to persons such as the lady that approached me on that Thursday evening, I am more than often talking to someone who justifies not giving fish by fooling themselves that they will teach them how to fish.

The brilliance of using that line is obvious upon a little reflection: one is able to justify to oneself one’s lack of kindness by pretending that one is being truly kind. After all, those darting eyes probably came from spending the last merciful soul’s money on drugs, right? One can rationalize the competing desires to give alms because it seems right, and keeping the money because we like money, by making out that keeping one’s money is actually right! With all one’s generosity, one can now abundantly not give.

The utilitarians can stop reading now. Considering only the outcomes of the action, and given that utilitarians are practically obliged to give away the money anyway, their not-giving is more like the targeted giving of Caritas.[3] Though I used to be a utilitarian, I must say I fell too often into the trap of self-deceit and selfishness. I should have known better than to conjure up a rule that justified my doing what I really wanted to do anyway.

The Christian perspective on giving is dramatically different. Of all the numerous parables, discourses and sayings of Jesus about judgement, caring for those in material need is one of the most prominent: be it caring for Christian brethren in need (such as in Matthew 25), or the poor person in the street (such as the parable of Lazarus and the rich man). In fact, Jesus gives us the very clear command to give to whoever begs from us, right after  talking about turning the other cheek, giving one’s cloak after having one’s coat taken and walking two miles when forced to walk one:

"Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you." (Matthew 5:42 – see comments here)

Anyone who refuses a beggar is, in a very real sense, sinning. But the reason we managed to convince ourselves that we were doing the right thing originally is that there was some truth in the fear that the money would just go towards making the lady’s eyes turn red, and it’s distinctly possible that this will be the case now.

Let me say a few words about people in material need who abuse drugs and alcohol: there may be very few people in the world who have more of an aversion to these two substances than me. For various cultural and personal reasons, substance abuse in all its forms is abnormally repugnant to me. It probably is to them, too. These people often abuse substances because forgetting their woes for a few hours, even a whole day, is often far more exciting a prospect than having some food. Particularly those involved in the sex industry, substance abuse can be the only way to get through the day. More generally to the question “what do you do with your pain?” that I heard asked to a group recently, the response was fairly quick: “get drunk.” Another said “Sex, drugs and rock and roll”. This is not a poor investment for many of them: it is an attempt to remedy something deeper, a reflection of the fact that “man does not live by bread alone.”

Suppose there’s a good chance any money given will be squandered on drugs – then is it OK to ignore the beggar? No. We followers of the Risen Lord have the example of Jesus to model our love on. Consider the recklessness with which Jesus graces us: imagine the angels giving counsel to God, saying “you shall give them the grace to do great things, and they shall squander it with sin!” I cannot speak for anyone else, but when God has given me much, too often I have used it all for my own gain. When, by the sheer love that Christ in his forgiveness has lavished upon me, I am pardoned of all my transgressions, when I am invited to dine with Jesus at the Supper of the Lamb, I frequently decline in favour of wrongdoing. So no, the chance, even a high chance, of misuse is not grounds for Christians to refuse alms.

I would go further and say that even the bank note in my wallet[4] is not mine by right, but instead mine by grace. St John Chrysostom famously said "Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs." The grace given to me in the form of wealth is in fact a chance to give it away to someone who needs it more. This grace of Jesus is the essence of the Gospel, and grace dies if it is not shared, that is, the Gospel withers in a person if it is not nourished by its proclamation by word and deed.

Money might produce temptation in a drug addict, so if we are fairly certain the person will misuse the funds, then are we justified in not giving? Almost, yet absolutely not. As I said, people in material need rarely take drugs because they are overflowing with cash. It is the rich-though-spiritually-needy who try to fill the holes in the soul with the extravagance of drugs, not the materially needy. So although giving money might produce the temptation which leads to sin – obviously a negative outcome – it is still the lack which ultimately produces the sin. We as Christians are not justified in not giving, now is the moment when we must give the most: now we must give instead our time, energy, mental strength, compassion, and not just our money. For instance, I have at times had the opportunity to go out for lunch and talk – or perhaps just listen – to people who usually get ignored because of the guilt they produce in us.

I, at least, must remember that the added energy that came to the lady after glancing down at my chest came from the hope she saw in the Cross of Christ which I wear around my neck. From there all my hopes come, from there her hope came. I should never disappoint, for I have never been disappointed by God.

[1] My gratitude to Marc who wrote an inspiring piece that I have borrowed in large part and recast as my own here. See his version:

[2] The Caritas Australia financial statement for the financial year ending 2012 can be found starting page 70 here:

[3] For an understanding of why this is the case, see the "Demandingness Objection" - I would have said I was Singerian, though very poorly:

[4] I am, as a university student, not exactly rich anyway, though I have far more than many and my parents provide for all my basic needs. Every so often, though, I do have some spare money in my wallet.

[i] Source for Image: