PHIL 338, Philosophy of Human Rights

Talbott (5 credits)

Daily 1:10 – 3:20 pm (SAV 138)

        This course will provide you with a comprehensive introduction to the philosophy of human rights.  The course begins with an overview of the main issues in the conceptualization and justification of human rights.  The course then considers the following special topics:  Should human rights be understood only negatively, as rights not to be coerced, or they include positive rights—that is, rights to be provided with something (e.g., subsistence, health care, or education).  Are human rights culturally relative?  We will consider the position that human rights reflect "Western values" and do not apply to other societies.  We will also consider the potential conflict between women's rights and traditional values; and feminist criticisms of human rights as androcentric.  Other questions include:  Are there gay and lesbian rights?  Are human rights individual rights, or do they also include group rights?  We will also discuss international enforcement and the role of the International Criminal Court. 

 

 

 

There will be a Midterm Exam, a Final Exam, and several short written assignments.  [In summer quarter, students do not have the option of doing service learning with a Seattle-based human rights organization and preparing a service learning report.]  Everyone will do a research paper on a human rights issue.  This course qualifies as a core course for the Human Rights Minor.  Meets I&S Requirement. 

Prerequisites:  None. 

Required Texts:  Patrick Hayden, The Philosophy of Human Rights and Volume 1 of the course reader.

Optional:  William J. Talbott, Which Rights Should Be Universal? and Volume 2 of the course reader.  Volume 2 of the course reader contains the required readings from the Talbott volume.  You should buy one of them, but not both.  You have the option to choose the one you want.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NORMATIVE TERMS are terms that have ACTION-GUIDING [PRESCRIPTIVE/ PROSCRIPTIVE] force. 

 

Some common normative terms are:  ought; duty; obligation; permissible; and forbidden.  When applied to actions, appropriate and inappropriate are normative terms.  [Note that not all NORMATIVE terms are MORAL terms.  For example, ought can be used in a NON-MORAL, PRUDENTIAL sense, as in:  One ought to eat nutritious foods.]

 

NORMATIVE MORAL TERMS are NORMATIVE TERMS with MORAL ACTION-GUIDING force. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EVALUATIVE TERMS are terms that express approval or disapproval. 

 

Some common evaluative terms are:  good; bad; excellent; and awful.  EVALUATIVE TERMS can express moral approval or disapproval, but can also express other types of non-moral approval or disapproval (e.g., The statement that apples taste good is a non-moral evaluative statement).

 

 

PURELY DESCRIPTIVE TERMS are terms that are NOT NORMATIVE and NOT EVALUATIVE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PURELY DESCRIPTIVE STATEMENTS are statements that contain only PURELY DESCRIPTIVE terms (no NORMATIVE or EVALUATIVE terms). 

 

NORMATIVE/EVALUATIVE STATEMENTS are statements that include at least one normative/evaluative term. For example, moral statements about what one ought or ought not to do (e.g., the statement that one ought not to steal or the statement that one ought to tell the truth) are NORMATIVE, because they contain the NORMATIVE term ought.  [Note that not all normative statements are moral.  See above, for an example of a normative prudential statement.]

 

[Note that Normative/Evaluative statements can contain SOME Purely Descriptive terms, but Purely Descriptive statements cannot contain ANY Normative/Evaluative terms.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

        In this course, our focus is on normative moral statements.  You will be frustrated in this course if you try to limit your statements to the purely descriptive. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

METAPHYSICS AND EPISTEMOLOGY

 

Metaphysics Deals With The Nature Of Reality‑‑How Things Really Are.

 

Epistemology Addresses How We Can Have Knowledge Or Justified Beliefs. 

 

Questions of Moral Metaphysics:  Are there moral truths?  If so, are they universal or relative/parochial?

 

Questions of Moral Epistemology:  If there are moral truths, can we ever have moral knowledge or justified moral beliefs?  If so, are justified moral beliefs and moral knowledge fallible or infallible? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MORAL BELIEF

 

1.  RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS (in my special sense). 

Metaphysics:  Universal Moral Truth

Epistemology:  Infallible Authority (e.g., sacred scripture).      Individual judgment is not encouraged; often it is forcibly suppressed. 

 

2.  THE PROOF PARADIGM (Positive Manifestation).

Metaphysics:  Universal Moral Truth

Epistemology:  Infallible Moral Knowledge.  Reason Discerns Self-Evident Truths and Uses Them as Premises for Infallible Proofs.  Reasoning is Top-Down from Moral Principles to Particular Moral Judgments.  The Proof Paradigm is individualistic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FROM THE U.S. DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE:

 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4.  NORMATIVE MORAL RELATIVISM.

Metaphysics:  Moral truths are relative (e.g., to a culture or a religious tradition)

Epistemology:  The cultural or religious group or individual determines applicable moral truths. 

 

5.  MORAL ANTI-REALISM/MORAL SKEPTICISM/EMOTIVISM

Metaphysics:  No moral truths.

Epistemology:  No moral knowledge and no rationally justified moral beliefs.

        Moral judgments are not the product of reason.  They involve emotions or something else understood not to involve reasons or reasoning. 

        Views of this kind are often the negative manifestation of the Proof Paradigm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.  THE PROCESS OF MORAL DISCOVERY PARADIGM.

Metaphysics:  Universal Moral Truth.

Epistemology:  Fallible moral knowledge and justified moral beliefs. 

        Reasoning is Bottom-Up, from Particular Moral Judgments to Moral Principles that explain them. 

Because moral principles are not self-evident, there is no presumption that they are simple principles.  Moral judgment is complicated and messy.  The Explanation/Discovery Paradigm is not individualistic.  We need each other to help us correct our moral blindspots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MORAL NORMS OR PRINCIPLES AND PARTICULAR MORAL JUDGMENTS

 

A moral norm is a generalization that applies to all acts of a certain kind (e.g., Killing another human being is wrong.) 

 

A moral principle is a generalization that applies to a wide variety of kinds of actions (e.g., Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.)

 

A particular moral judgment is a moral judgment about a particular actual or hypothetical case (e.g., it was wrong for Adolph Hitler to attempt to exterminate the Jews).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TWO PARADIGMS FOR MORAL REASONING

 

1.  TOP-DOWN REASONING: 

 

        Reasoning from Moral Norms or Principles and other Acceptable Premises to a Moral Judgment about a Particular Case (a Particular Moral Judgment). 

        For religious traditions with an infallible moral authority and for the Proof Paradigm, all moral reasoning is Top-Down.  Both of them require an infallible source of the fundamental moral principles (e.g., God or our Reason).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How the Assumption that Moral Reasoning Must Be Top-Down Has Led to Moral Nihilism/Skepticism

 

Consider the following particular moral judgment: 

Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jews was wrong.

 

On the top-down model, to justify that my belief in that particular moral judgment, I would have to be able to derive it from a general moral norm or principle.  What might that norm or principle be?

 

Possibilities:  It is always wrong to intentionally kill groups of 5 million people.

 

Or:  It is always wrong to intentionally kill groups of 5 million INNOCENT people.

 

Other suggestions?

 

If I cannot find a norm or principle from which to derive the particular moral judgment, there can be no top-down justification of it.  So I come to the conclusion that there is no justification for believing any particular moral judgment.  This is moral skepticism.

 

 

2.  BOTTOM-UP REASONING: 

 

        Begin with judgments about particular cases.  There are two kinds:  In one kind, a judgment about one or more particular cases leads to giving up a norm or principle.  In the other kind, one begins from particular moral judgments and tries to find the moral norms or principles that best explain our Particular Moral Judgments about actual and hypothetical cases. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AN EXAMPLE TO ILLUSTRATE THE CONTRAST BETWEEN TOP-DOWN AND BOTTOM-UP REASONING

 

PREMISES:  P1.  It is always wrong to kill another person. (This is a Moral Norm.)

        P2.  You are a person.

        P3.  If I shoot you, you will kill die.

 

CONCLUSION:  PMJ1.  It is wrong for me to shoot you now (This is a Particular Moral Judgment). 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A SECOND EXAMPLE

 

PREMISES:  P1.  It is always wrong to kill another person.  (Moral Norm)

        P2.  You are a person.

        P3.  If I shoot you, I will kill you.

        P4.  If I don’t shoot you, you will kill me. 

 

CONCLUSION:  PMJ2.  It is wrong for me to shoot you now (even though you are going to kill me if I don’t shoot you).  (Particular Moral Judgment)

 

Let PMJ2' be the judgment that it is not wrong for me to shoot you now if it will prevent you from killing me. 

 

If I reject PMJ2 and accept PMJ2', I must also reject one of the premises of the above derivation.  The premise that seems to need revision is the moral norm P1. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding a New Norm or Principle that Explains Both Particular Moral Judgments

 

        Why is it usually wrong to kill other people, but not wrong in cases of self-defense?  This question suggests that there might be a more complex principle than P1 that would explain why killing is usually wrong but not wrong in self-defense. 

        Consider the principle that everyone has a right to life (i.e., a right not to be killed).  This principle is sometimes interpreted as though it is just another way of asserting P1, that it is always wrong to kill another person.  But I believe that this is a mistake. 

        The claim that everyone has a right to life does not imply that killing another human being is always wrong.  It is an attempt to articulate a more complicated idea—roughly:  It is wrong to kill another person, unless that other person is failing to respect another person's right to life. 

        This example illustrates how the attempt to explain particular moral judgments could lead us to the discovery of human rights principles by bottom-up reasoning.  In this sort of reasoning, we should not expect the fundamental principles to be self-evident.  On the contrary, it is very difficult to discover them. 

 

THE PROCESS OF MORAL DISCOVERY PARADIGM

 

        On the Moral Discovery Paradigm, our Particular Moral Judgments are based on a sensitivity to moral rightness and wrongness in particular cases.  These judgments are not regarded as infallible.  On the Moral Discovery Paradigm, moral norms or principles are always regarded as fallible, because we may discover other actual or hypothetical cases that they do not explain. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Moral Discovery Paradigm, how would we rewrite the Declaration of Independence?

 

“Although for most of human history it has seemed to most people to be almost self-evident that human beings have very different capacities that justify their being treated in very different ways, we have discovered through a long process of trial and error in human social practices that all normally functioning adult human beings ought to be treated in such a way that respects certain basic and inalienable human rights. Any attempt to list these rights should be understood to be fallible and subject to correction in the future, and the interpretation given to the items on the list should also be understood to be fallible and subject to correction in the future. Our best hope is that, over time, we will gradually make progress in defining the basic human rights that should be guaranteed to all adult human beings. Right now, the best we can do is to offer the following list: . . . "

 

 

 

 

 

 

EPISTEMIC MODESTY AND METAPHYSICAL IMMODESTY

 

EPISTEMIC IMMODESTY = A claim to certainty or infallibility.

 

EPISTEMIC MODESTY = An acknowledgment of fallibility and the lack of certainty.

 

METAPHYSICAL IMMODESTY = A claim that moral principles are objectively universal—that is, they apply to all moral beings, even those who don't agree.   

 

METAPHYSICAL MODESTY = Moral relativism.  There are many varieties of moral relativism—for example, the claim that our moral principles only apply to members of our own species or our own linguistic community or own religion or to those who accept our moral principles, etc. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One theme of this course:  It is possible to combine epistemic modesty with metaphysical immodesty.  The best explanation of our particular moral judgments may be a universal moral principle (e.g., a principle that all normally functioning human beings have or ought to have certain rights).  But we should acknowledge that our attempts to formulate such principles are fallible and subject to revision and we should be open to the opinions of other people, because they can help us to correct our moral blindspots.