Posts Tagged ‘Equality before God’

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 4)

June 11, 2019

In a curious way, this nihilism offers a possible justification for an attempt to reestablish the notion of “human rights” on a firmer foundation.[i] The moral theory of human rights, as outlined in such documents as The Geneva Conventions and The International Bill of Rights, is an attempt to establish a universal moral framework for international statements and action on behalf of the rights of all persons. This theory holds that all people are essentially equal, and have equal rights to such things as freedom of conscience and expression, freedom to live without persecution due to religion, ethnicity or other relevantly similar condition, and so on. As a universal ethic, it is not dependant on any religious or philosophical creed, but simply on a set of moral principles or axioms that are, to coin a phrase, held to be self-evident. However, writer Michael Perry (and some other philosophers) question whether this ethic is in fact as purely secular as it claims. Nietzsche proclaimed the “death of God,” the demise of a universally-accepted morality and foundation of value; but Perry argues that we have by and large simply ignored his critique and proceeded as if in fact we all were on the same page. In this view, “human rights” is founded on a concept of human equality drawn from religion, or perhaps from several religions, and includes such ideas as “we are all equal before God,” “we are all children of God,” the Golden Rule, and other moral principles that seem to be (or at least are taken to be) found in all major religions. But what if this equality is, despite the generations of secular usage, still implicitly a religious notion, with no rational secular foundation? In that case, human rights morality itself has no foundation. This does not mean we have to stop using it; we could simply declare that human equality is an axiom like “straight lines do not intersect,” and go from there. But at least one possible response to the death of God is to deny the claims of self-evidence, and to insist that human equality and human rights be established on other, more rational grounds. The creation of a panel of ethicists to find such grounds, with the idea of basing national policy on human rights upon their conclusions regarding the rational grounding and nature of those rights, would seem to be a reasonable action.

However, Perry’s questions about the ethics of human rights rest on a premise which most American social conservatives would find unacceptable: the death of God. If God is not dead, then there is no reason to believe human rights are dead, either. Nor, in fact, is there any great need to rethink the notion of human rights morality. If our conception of human rights is in fact rooted in beliefs about God, human nature and the relationship between them (that God created all people as essentially good and equal, that God loves everyone and wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, etc.) then we don’t need to fundamentally redefine human rights at all. We might run into problems with those who simply reject the entire religious framework and with it reject human equality, in which case we might run into the problem Wittgenstein is said to have faced when asked how you can rationally argue that a Nazi is morally wrong. He supposedly responded, “You don’t argue with Nazis. You shoot them.”[ii] But with anyone who is willing to accept the moral axioms of equality, dignity and such, we can viably carry out moral conversations.   We could even say that human rights ethics IS a form of natural law morality, and natural law legal theory: a moral system deriving moral principles and guidance from human nature and nature in general, and a legal theory that our national and international law should be based on such moral principles.

It seems that by saying that we need to rethink and reestablish the entire conception of human rights, the Trump administration is saying that God is dead, therefore belief in human equality is dead, and thus we need to establish our notion of human rights on some other grounds. More traditional American conservatives (like Paul Ryan or Rand Paul) might have chosen to start with Ayn Rand, and the Objectivist definition of humans as innately selfish and rational, so that the richest people are the most rational and since to be rational is also to be just and not to seek unfair advantage for oneself we should just let the rich and powerful do what they want with no government interference. The failure of such ethics when attempted proves, or at least strongly suggests that this view is based on a faulty anthropology; so we can be grateful if Trump relies on Robert George, who seems more inclined than Rand to listen to Kant and other reasonable philosophers.[iii] It seems more likely, for reasons I shall argue later, that Objectivism was passed over not because it was a flawed philosophy, but because it was too consistent. Rand in fact rejected religion, and the Christian ethic of love; she denied the personhood of the fetus and therefore allowed abortion; she was doubtful about the death penalty; and in short, while she opposed “socialism” and consistently conflated democratic socialism with Stalinism, she also stuck to her principles and in doing so took a knife to many conservative sacred cows. If you want to make sure your “independent panel of moral experts” comes out in favor of Republican ideology, you need to stock it with people other than honest Objectivists.

(It may seem strange that Ayn Rand has for decades been such a darling with conservatives, given her expressed contempt for Christianity, Ronald Reagan, and other idols of American conservatism.  After examining comments from politicians and others who express deep love both for Jesus and for Rand, I have concluded that in fact many who love Ayn Rand have never really read her, or at least have selectively read snippets out of her fiction without regard either for the overall message of her novels, or the explicit statements in her philosophical essays.  This has led to absurd statements such as the one from the congressman who required all his staff to read Atlas Shrugged but who was surprised to learn that Rand was an atheist.)

To be continued….

[i] Michael J. Perry, “Morality and Normativity;” in Morality and Moral Controversies, ninth edition, ed. by John Arthur and Steven Scalet (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc. 2014) pp. 56-64. Originally published in Legal Theory 13(3-4) 2007; pp. 211-55;

[ii] I can’t find the source for this story. I was told it was a BBC interview with Wittgenstein. But it makes sense to me; on Wittgenstein’s terms, his game theory of language would imply that there is no way to communicate with someone like a Nazi who simply refuses to join in any shared project or values with you; furthermore, you are making a conceptual mistake to try. The proper language-game to play with Nazis is not “Rational Debate,” but “War for Survival.”

[iii] Denise Cummins, “This is What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously;” PBS Newshour Feb. 16, 2016 (

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. xiii)

May 30, 2013

            What “way out” do role-playing games know?  In a sense, they know “actuality’s way out” even when they are most fantastic.  They may be unrealistic, but they must be internally consistent; and within that consistency the characters expect the assistance of actuality fully as much as do the heroines in A Story of Everyday Life.  Even in Call of Cthulhu, you need to give the players some chance to survive against the eldritch horrors they alone know lurk in the darkness, and chances for victory (however temporary and limited) against the evil plots of insane wizards and fanatical cultists.[1]  On the other hand, the theories of Jung and Campbell suggest that whether or not the myth is understood as actual history or poetic metaphor, it still functions by lifting the individual out of the concrete particularities and trafficking symbolically with great existential and metaphysical realities.  This would seem to be “imagination’s way out” by Kierkegaard’s standards.  Perhaps part of the power of role-playing games is that they uniquely combine elements of actuality and transcendence, by allowing players to act as particular concrete (albeit fictional) characters who still symbolically express and embody universal powers and eternal values.


            Kierkegaard says, however, that the escape of imagination or actuality will not suffice; only the religious can save from the power of leveling.[2]  The individual who wishes to escape leveling cannot hope to stand alone against the combined envy of everyone else, not to mention the power of his or her own reflection and the self-doubts it raises.  The individual must choose to stand as an individual against the power of leveling to force everyone back into the herd; but that choice alone is only the first step.  The next step is to stand before God as an individual, and to allow one’s relationship with God to affirm one as an individual.  The fact is that leveling is right, in a way.  Envy says, “Who do you think you are; do you think you are better than us?”  Religious humility says, “I am no better than any of them; we are all equal before God.”  But just as people in the age of revolution were individually oriented towards an idea, and united in being oriented towards the same idea, so in the age of reflection an individual can be oriented towards God and sustained as an individual; and all those who likewise orient themselves as individuals towards God are united with one another as individuals in equality.  Without some greater idea, selfhood collapses, and all becomes crudeness and the herd mentality.  Only those who have something more to live towards than their own selves can preserve their own selves in the crowd, by living as individuals with a great task; but reflection tears down every partial idea and incomplete goal, calls them into question, undermines them and the self-confidence of the individual who looks to them for sustenance, and ultimately reflection wins the day, leaving the essential equality of all individuals to collapse into the mutual envy of the members of the herd.  God is not a partial idea; God is the absolute telos, as Kierkegaard says in another book, the goal that can relativize and also complete all other goals.  For this reason, Kierkegaard thinks, the individual can turn to the religious to find the power to sustain the sense of individuality even in the age of reflection.  Only the religious provides the task that unites all tasks, the “idea for which I am willing to live and die.”[3] 


To be continued….

[1] From a Campbell/Jungian point of view, such games seem to symbolize the journey of Life and the struggle against Death, a struggle we know in the end we will all lose.  Horror role-playing seems to accept that dark reality, but seeks to find meaning in the struggle itself for as long as it lasts.  From Tolkien’s perspective, this seems similar to his understanding of the pagan world-view in general, and the Norse view in particular; see “The Monsters and the Critics,” p. 117.  The players, like the Norse warriors, are called to fight on the side of right, knowing all the time that Chaos and Unreason ultimately will triumph; for it is better to be right and defeated than dishonorable and victorious.

[2] Two Ages, pp. 85-90, 106-109

[3] as Kierkegaard put it in his journal on August 1, 1835