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Godless Morality? Why Judeo-Christianity Is Necessary for Human Rights

by Edward Feser

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  • Description:
    This essay evaluates the role that Judeo-Christianity plays in upholding the natural law and the struggle for human rights. Edward Feser paints a dismal picture for the future of societies which ignore their responsibility toward God and mankind. For example, Europe was once the bedrock of Judeo-Christianity, but now the effect of the immorality flaunted by the majority of her citizens is evident in alarmingly low birth rates, empty churches and synagogues, and a blatant disregard for decency.
  • Larger Work:
    Crisis Magazine
  • Pages: 24 – 31
  • Publisher & Date:
    Morley Publishing Group, Inc., Washington, DC, July / August 2006

"Europe will return to the Faith, or she will perish. The Faith is Europe. And Europe is the Faith." So wrote Hilaire Belloc in 1920, when the death of Christianity on the European continent appeared to loom over the horizon.

Now that horizon seems to have been reached. A mere 21 percent of Europeans say they regard religion as "very important" to them, and even fewer — a paltry 15 percent — attend weekly worship services of any kind. Only 41 percent even believe in a personal God. The heartland of what was once Christendom has become a vast empire of sometimes intolerant secularism.

Last year, the candidacy of distinguished philosopher Rocco Buttiglione for commissioner of justice for the European Union was rejected on the grounds that he is a believer in traditional Catholic moral teaching on sexuality despite the fact that Buttiglione made it abundantly clear that he was opposed to using the power of the state to enforce this teaching.

Needless to say, Europeans generally do not appear much worried by this turn of events, and most certainly wouldn't endorse Belloc's apocalyptic prognosis. There are exceptions, though. Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor Pope John Paul II have expressed alarm at the trend and called for a "re-evangelization" of the continent. Nor can the concerns of these men be dismissed as stemming merely from a manifest vested interest.

Some prominent thinkers who are neither religious nor even politically conservative — most recently the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, who is both an atheist and a leftist — have expressed the view that the values of individual rights, moral equality, and human dignity might not survive the decline of the Judeo-Christian cultural framework within which they first developed. And there are very good reasons for believing that there's an essential connection between those values and the framework in question — a connection that ought to lead even non-believers to hope for the revival of the religious traditions of Western civilization. A thoroughly secularized Europe will not long remain a free and civilized Europe.

The idea that a human being per se has an inherent dignity began with the Jews. It is well-known that the ancient Israelites were unique in insisting that their God was not merely one tribal deity among others, but was the very Creator of the universe in whose image all men were made.

What is perhaps less widely realized is that this distinctive metaphysical conception of God served as the foundation of a distinctive moral outlook. For given that every human being reflects the image of God Himself, it follows that every human being has a worth that surpasses that of anything else in creation, and that every human being is, in this respect, of equal worth. Moreover, this God — being an omniscient Lawgiver — commands all men to act in a manner consistent with their unique status, and will hold those accountable who fail to do so. The Jewish conception of God has, accordingly, often been described as an "ethical monotheism"": No arid philosophical abstraction, it calls on men to change their behavior toward each other as well as their opinions about the nature of the divine.

Christianity inherited this universal moral interpretation of monotheism from the Jews and carried it further. So important are human beings in God's plan that God Himself condescended to become one of them in the person of Jesus Christ, suffered the indignity of death on the cross to pay the penalty for their sins, and was raised from the dead to guarantee for them the possibility of eternal life. These doctrines of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection elevated human dignity to the greatest conceivable limit, as evidenced by the manner in which the Church worked out their implications over the centuries.

From the beginning Christians took the view that God was not merely a distant First Cause but an ever-present and all-loving Father, whose call to every human being was to become a son or daughter who would dwell in His household forever. This developed into the concept of theosis or "divinization," in which the aim of the Christian life was to take on — as far as is possible for a finite creature — the very nature of God Himself. As St. Athanasius put it, "God became man so that man could become God." This perfecting of man would make possible the Beatific Vision, an everlasting direct communion with the divine; children now become adults, as it were, capable of mature fellowship with their Father.

The social and political consequences of this lofty vision of human beings' place in the cosmic scheme of things were dramatic. The shabby treatment afforded the poor, the crippled and diseased, and the otherwise powerless in pre-Christian pagan societies was no longer considered morally tolerable. The Roman practices of gladiatorial combat, infanticide, and infant abandonment were abolished, as was abortion. The sexual act was no longer to be treated as a means by which a man might exert his dominance over women and other men (and, now and then, perhaps pro-create, too), but was elevated to the status of a physical manifestation of a marital love mirroring that of Christ for His Church. Fornication and adultery were prohibited for men no less than for women, and divorce and polygamy were condemned as incompatible with respect for the dignity of marriage.

For these and other reasons, the status of women improved immeasurably. Wives could no longer be regarded as the property of their husbands, or as mere breeding machines or instruments for personal pleasure. A man was now expected to find release for his sexual appetites only under the condition that he bind himself to one woman for life, forsaking all others and undertaking not only to provide for her and for every child that might be born as a result of their union, but to love and sacrifice for her as Christ had for him.

Feminists who somehow see in this a paradigm of sexist oppression fail to realize how vastly superior it was historically to the status of women in every culture outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, the improvements that have occurred in such cultures — the abolition of sati (the practice of a widow immolating herself on her husband's funeral pyre), foot binding, and clitoridectomy, for instance — have typically come about precisely as a result of the influence of that tradition. And as Alvin Schmidt documents at length in Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, the Judeo-Christian tradition is the direct source of all of the moral reforms concerning the treatment of the individual — such as the abolition of slavery — that modern Westerners take for granted, and that have spread from the West to much of the rest of the world.

That tradition is also the direct source of the notion of universal human rights, which has become a hallmark of the rhetoric of internationalist bureaucrats of the European stripe otherwise contemptuous of Europe's Judeo-Christian heritage. The distinction (if not separation) between church and state has always existed within Christianity, and its import was in part the putting of strict limits on the power of government: Ecclesiastical authority served to counter-balance the state, and to protect families and individuals from its overweening ambitions.

The Christian Scholastic thinkers of the medieval period, St. Thomas Aquinas chief among them, developed a sophisticated system of natural-law ethics according to which there is an objective and rationally ascertainable moral order, against which the legitimacy of all social conventions and the decrees and actions of every ruler must ultimately be judged. The late Scholastic successors of these thinkers derived from the natural law the first well-worked-out theories of natural rights as a way of putting humane limits on the power that European rulers could claim over the native inhabitants of their new colonies. Spanish theorists like Francisco de Vitoria and Bartolome de Las Casas argued that the American Indians, though unbelievers, could not justly be deprived of their life, liberty, or property: As fellow human beings, they were no less subject to the natural law than were Christians, and thus they possessed the same natural rights as Christians.

Within the context of Protestant Christianity, John Locke developed the version of the natural-rights theory that has been most influential within the Anglo-American political tradition. Locke starts with the idea that human beings are God's workmanship, and thus His property, "sent into the world by His order and about His business." If every human being is owned by God, though, then anyone who harms another's life, liberty, or property thereby damages what belongs to God. To avoid the violation of God's property rights, it follows that we are obliged not to harm any other human being in these ways; this entails treating them as having natural rights to their lives, liberty, and property. Relative to God, every human being is a servant who must account for his actions to a divine Master, and thus has no right to himself; but relative to every other human being, he is a self-owner who cannot be used as a means to others' ends.

It's clear enough that the moral ideals that Western secularists value had — as a matter of historical fact — a theological origin. But could they not be given a foundation instead in some other, non Judeo-Christian religious tradition — or in a purely secular philosophy? It doesn't appear so. For the dignity that the Western tradition has attributed to human beings derives entirely from the idea that their distinctive attributes — reason and free will, personhood and moral choice — reflect the very nature of the ultimate reality that is God Himself.

Non-Western religions typically downgrade the significance of human beings and of the personal attributes that distinguish them from the lower animals. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism tend to see ultimate reality neither as a heavenly Father nor as a moral lawgiver and judge, but as an impersonal absolute existing beyond good and evil and indifferent to human concerns. Salvation, as viewed by these religions, tends to be understood not in terms of the continued existence after death of the person, in a perfected form, but instead as something close to the opposite: the extinction of the self — indeed, the disappearance of the illusion that any genuine self ever existed at all.

Even Islam, despite its historical relationship to Judaism and Christianity, has a very different conception of God. Allah is not a heavenly Father whom the believer may approach as a son or daughter, but a forbidding and over-powering Will to which one simply submits as to an irresistible force. Neither the idea of man as made in God's image nor the notion of free moral choice is much emphasized, and is often even regarded with suspicion. Salvation, accordingly, is not a matter of becoming more fully God-like and attaining the Beatific Vision, but mainly of gaining access to an everlasting cornucopia of decidedly creaturely delights — food, drink, and the company of beautiful women (albeit some Muslim theologians would give these a symbolic interpretation).

It is no surprise, then, that the concept of the dignity of man as unique in all of nature and the bearer of inviolable natural rights did not develop within these non-Western religions. Nor is it obvious, given their conceptions of human nature, that this concept could easily take root if transplanted into such alien soil.

Might some purely secularist justification for this ideal nevertheless provide a common basis on which all could support it? Here too there are serious difficulties, especially since the concept of human nature endorsed by most contemporary secular theorists seems closer to that of the religions outside the Judeo-Christian framework than to the one enshrined within it. Ever since Darwin (if not before), secular thinkers have been increasingly prone to assimilate human beings to the lower animals and to debunk any suggestion that their capacities for reason and will are qualitatively different from the capacities of other creatures. Indeed, the very idea that human beings have an objective, fixed nature or essence and a natural end or purpose — the core presuppositions of traditional natural-law theory — is derisively rejected by such theorists.

Philosopher Derek Parfit speaks for what might be a majority of contemporary secular intellectuals in holding that there is no objective reality corresponding to the traditional understanding of the concept of a "person." Human beings exhibit certain continuities in their psychological and bodily characteristics over time, and certain discontinuities. Sometimes the discontinuities are minor, and sometimes — as in brain damage, mental illness, sex-change operations, and so forth — they are great. In neither case, though, is there a permanent abiding "self," much less a soul, underlying these various characteristics. As in Buddhism, the notion of the self, or of an immortal soul destined for eternal life in heaven or hell, is an illusion.

Such trends in modern thought have led Columbia University legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron (who is by no means a member of the so-called religious right) to suggest that it is a very serious question whether the Western ideal of equal human rights can be given a secular justification. In his book God, Locke, and Equality, Waldron notes that even Locke — who, as an Enlightenment-era Protestant, abandoned the medieval Scholastic notions of an objective human essence and natural ends or purposes, and with them the traditional foundations of belief in natural law and natural rights — faced a grave problem of how to justify belief in human equality. Locke's solution was to appeal to the idea that even if there are no fixed boundaries to human nature, human beings at least have a capacity for reason that is adequate to lead them to a belief in God, and thus to grasp the idea that they are His creatures and responsible to Him for how they treat others.

The Scholastics had believed that even though man's fixed essence and natural end or purpose derive from God in some ultimate sense, we can infer from this essence and natural end a doctrine of natural law and human rights without appealing directly to God's will. But Locke, rejecting these core notions, has nothing left but God's will to appeal to: Since we can't — in his view — know anything about human nature per se that will tell us that we have any rights, we have to rest content with the knowledge that we are God's property, and thus that we'd be violating His rights if we harmed one another.

Locke's theology was thus absolutely crucial to his political theory — a theory that was perhaps the chief intellectual influence on the American Revolution — and accordingly, he regarded atheism with utter horror. "The taking away of God," he said, "though but even in thought, dissolves all." For this reason, though Locke was the preeminent theorist of religious toleration in early modern philosophy, he emphatically denied that toleration could be extended to atheists, for atheism undermined the very possibility of any justifiable belief in equal human rights.

As Waldron acknowledges, denial of toleration to atheists is not a serious option for us today. But he argues that this does not mean that there isn't a serious problem of how belief in human equality can be justified on secular grounds. Indeed, the problem is especially acute given that contemporary intellectuals are even less inclined than Locke was to believe in a fixed human nature or a natural human purpose or end. They regard human beings as nothing more than the accidental and purposeless products of the blind forces of natural selection; as differing from other animals only in degree rather than in some absolute metaphysical way; and as having no nature that cannot in principle be changed via social and / or genetic engineering. Nor, to state the obvious, can a direct appeal to God's will come to their rescue as it did for Locke: Such theological concepts are, to the modern intellectual, even more abhorrent than the notions of natural ends and essences.

So what is left to form the basis for a doctrine of natural human equality or universal rights? Justice McLean's dissent in the infamous Dred Scott decision defended the cause of justice even for a slave on the grounds that "he bears the impress of his Maker . . . and he is destined to an endless existence." McLean did not say, after the fashion of naturalistic secularism, that a slave is — like every other human being — merely one meaningless product of evolution among others, destined for annihilation; nor did he say that the slave's sense of "self" is an illusion reflective of nothing metaphysically deep, and that the idea that he partakes of a universal, fixed human nature is a mere medieval superstition. And it is not easy to see how such a deflationary conception of human beings could support a condemnation of slavery as objectively unjust.

The state of things in contemporary secular moral theorizing does not appear to provide much ground for optimism. Benedict XVI, in a speech given just prior to his recent election, warned that "we are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires."

The very idea of universally binding moral standards — including standards of justice that could justify a commitment to human rights — is regarded as passé by much of the intelligentsia. Some commentators in the academy, and especially in academic philosophy, have criticized the pope's statement on the grounds that relativism (understood as the doctrine that there is no such thing as objective truth) is not nearly as prevalent among intellectuals as the popular image would have it, and that postmodernism and other explicitly relativistic doctrines constitute the views only of a loud minority rather than a prevailing orthodoxy. There is at least a grain of truth in this response: Most intellectuals do not doubt the objective truth of science, for example, and even where ethics is concerned, at least many of them believe that the liberalism they tend to be committed to comprises universal moral principles that ought to be accepted by every reasonable person.

Still, to dismiss the pope's warning on this basis would miss the point. Whether most professors believe that there is objective truth even where morality is concerned, modern intellectual life has been relentless in its assault on traditional moral and religious views and in promoting the idea that the only respectable intellectual attitude is one of constant questioning of all received ideas. This has had the result that most of what ordinary people still regard as the paradigms of moral and religious truth — namely, traditional opinions on these matters — have been derided by the intellectual class as mere prejudices, and that any firm commitment to an opinion on such questions has come to seem irrational and dogmatic. The lesson that the average non-intellectual has taken away from this is that intellectuals believe that most people's judgments about morality are mere expressions of subjective feeling, and that everyone ought at least to be open to the possibility that other people's moral views might be just as good as one's own.

To be sure, this is not what professional philosophers mean by "relativism," for it leaves it open that there might actually be such a thing as objective moral truth — regardless of whether it corresponds to traditional views and whether we should ever let ourselves be too confident that we have discovered it. But it is part of what most other people seem to mean by "relativism," or at least has some of the ingredients they fear in relativism.

If traditional views are simply wrong, and no view can be held except in a tentative way, then it seems inevitable that there can never be widespread commitment to any moral principles substantial enough to hold a society together. When every man sees himself as rationally permitted — indeed even obliged — to follow only those moral rules that seem reasonable to him, then he can only regard policies that are based on other rules (whether or not they are accepted by a majority of his fellow citizens) as having no moral authority. The consequences of this view are precisely those cited by the pope: Nothing is recognized as certain, and the arbiter of moral truth becomes, in practice, "one's own ego and one's own desires."

The secular moral theories favored by contemporary liberals only tend to reinforce this outcome. For instance, utilitarianism, as interpreted by most of its contemporary advocates, holds that the ultimate aim of morality is to maximize the satisfaction of individuals' subjective preferences. This claim is presented as objectively true, and in that sense is not relativistic. But insofar as it makes the fulfillment of individual desires, whatever they happen to be, the point of morality, it seems clearly vulnerable to the pope's criticism — as can be seen from the conclusions (pro-abortion, pro-euthanasia, even pro-bestiality and necrophilia) well-known utilitarian philosophers like Peter Singer derive from the theory.

Of course, utilitarians do not hold that every desire ought to be gratified — they would say that the fulfillment of some desires (such as a fleeting desire to kill someone who has just cut you off on the freeway) might lead to the frustration of many others (since the relatives of the other driver might exact revenge on you), and thus should be ruled out. But utilitarianism notoriously has a tendency to entail the possibility — at least in principle — of sacrificing some people for the sake of others, if this would maximize the overall satisfaction of preferences. It is, for that reason, generally regarded as incompatible with any robust conception of justice and individual rights. And it is certainly incompatible with any notion that human beings have a special dignity: In holding as he does that some brain-damaged infants have less value than some animals (who also have desires that can either be fulfilled or frustrated), Singer is merely following an "animal rights" tradition within utilitarianism that goes back to Jeremy Bentham, the theory's spiritual father.

Most liberals would likely prefer some kind of "social contract" theory to utilitarianism. The idea here is that the fundamental principles of morality are whatever rules self-interested, rational individuals would agree to follow in their dealings with one another. But the more seriously this sort of theory takes the motives of real, flesh-and-blood, rationally self-interested people, the harder it is to see how it could support any substantial commitment to universal human rights. For a "rationally self-interested" person might be one who sees no reason why he shouldn't take advantage of others — even to the extent of depriving them of their lives, liberty, and property — if this can serve his purposes and if he can get away with it.

Some social contract theorists try to avoid this problem by arguing that a rationally self-interested person would not adopt such an attitude, since if he got a reputation for holding it he might find that others would not trust him enough to have any significant dealings with him. Whatever one thinks of this sort of strategy, though, it's clear that it once again gives us a theory that puts "one's own ego and one's own desires" in the driver's seat. And since there's very little in the way of moral rules that all real-world, rationally self-interested persons would plausibly agree to, we seem once again bereft of any principles substantial enough to hold a society together. Moreover, if the rules apply only to those who agree to them, then anyone who doesn't agree to the rules — anyone who either cannot or will not "sign the social contract," as it were — would fail to have any rights at all. The possibility of universal human rights would therefore be ruled out. (It is no surprise, then, that contemporary secular social contract theorists tend to favor abortion and euthanasia no less than utilitarians do.)

Other social contract theorists, most prominently the liberal philosopher John Rawls, do not in fact regard the actual motives of flesh-and-blood human beings as significant. Rawls starts instead by asking what rules would be agreed to by idealized rationally self-interested individuals — those who exist behind what he calls a "veil of ignorance" that hides from each of them knowledge of his race, sex, class, religion, and any other potentially biasing factor. Rawls thereby avoids the problems alluded to above, but at a cost. For since he does not appeal to the motives that real individuals actually have, it is hard to see how the principles he wants to defend can be binding on real-world human beings. Indeed, as he approached the end of his life, Rawls came increasingly to acknowledge that he had not provided a justification of his conception of justice that could reasonably be expected to convince anyone who was not already broadly sympathetic to its ideals.

And secularist liberal philosophers like Richard Rorty have appealed to Rawls's work to show that the liberal conception of justice and rights is one that cannot be given a foundation outside a society that is not already essentially liberal. In Rorty's view, different societies — liberal and illiberal, free and totalitarian — ultimately have different fundamental moral commitments, and there is no hope for the project of finding an objective standard outside all of them by reference to which some might be judged better than others. Here we see even more explicitly how a secular liberal moral theory seems to lead to the kind of relativism the pope was speaking about — and also how it confirms Waldron's fears that a belief in basic human equality might be incapable of a rational justification on purely secular grounds.

It should be emphasized that nothing said here is meant to imply that the irreligious cannot believe in human dignity, justice, and rights. Nor is it denied that some societies outside the Judeo-Christian tradition do indeed have free social and political institutions. It does seem, though, that where those institutions exist outside the West, they have either been imposed by the West, or imported from it on the basis of their perceived economic benefits. Moreover, where certain specific freedoms do not seem essential to the economic benefits, they have often been abridged — as in newly capitalist China, Singapore, and other exemplars of the ideology of "Asian values."

The idea that all human beings as such have an inherent dignity — and that this entails a doctrine of objectively valid, absolute, and universal human rights — seems to exist only in the Judeo-Christian West, and the moral (as opposed to economic or political) pressure other societies might feel to conform to this idea seems to come only from the West. Those who value these ideals, even if they are not personally religious, would seem therefore to have an interest in the continued health of the Judeo-Christian tradition, for whatever basis this or that individual person might have for endorsing these values, it is not at all clear that they can be maintained at the societal and global levels in the absence of that tradition.

At this point in history, it is in the United States, the leader of the Western world, that the Judeo-Christian tradition seems healthiest. In its European heartland, that tradition is dying. And many of the differences between Europe and the United States where moral and political opinion are concerned seem clearly linked to this difference in religious outlook.

From the point of view of many Americans, Europeans are too willing to submit themselves to smothering state bureaucracies, caring less for individual freedom and responsibility than for the security the government claims to provide. They are also, from this point of view, excessively prone to evaluate human action in impersonal social-scientific terms rather than by reference to moral categories, and are therefore increasingly incapable of recognizing evil for what it is — hence the tendency of European commentators to treat a Palestinian bomber who intentionally targets children and an Israeli soldier who accidentally kills a child while defending himself as morally equal.

And then there is the apparent obsession with legalizing and even celebrating all manner of vices — such as pornography and drugs — to a far greater extent than has occurred in the United States, the collapse of marriage and the traditional family in many European countries, along with an alarmingly low birthrate, and the vigorous promotion of euthanasia. We're left with a continent that appears to see no greater end in life than to eat and drink well as far as possible at others' expense, to work little, and to copulate frequently without the bother of marriage or children; to idle away the remaining hours with various entertainments and illicit pleasures, and, when these distractions start to bore, to end this pointless existence as painlessly as possible with a quick injection at the hands of a government physician.

If this is a caricature, it is hardly a groundless one. And from the traditional Judeo-Christian perspective, the way of life it describes already sounds halfway like a description of hell. It is surely understandable if those still committed to that perspective might wonder if it is a harbinger of worse things yet to come.


Edward Feser is the author, most recently, of The Philosophy of Mind: A Short Introduction (Oneworld, 2005) and editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Hayek (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

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