October 27, 2017
esponding to an invitation to celebrate the first 50 years of American independence, Thomas Jefferson noted that the mass of mankind has not “been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately.” Few disagree, but we concentrate on extreme violations—tyranny, genocide, or chattel slavery—while overlooking minor ones, such as government arbitrariness or a lackadaisical respect for property rights. We don’t distinguish between the pre-civil natural rights of life, liberty, and property and the civil rights that formalize our relationships between each other and the state. We also tend to confuse respect for natural rights with the virtues and social niceties that are integral to civil society’s proper ordering. All told, our talk of “rights” has become muddy.
Dissatisfied with this confusion, King’s College philosophy professor Andrea Sangiovanni’s new theory eschews the notions of human “dignity,” which artificially prop up all other moral theories in his opinion. In Humanity without Dignity, Sangiovanni grounds his “Negative Conception” in a Rousseauian universal distaste for cruelty toward others. But he must first overcome the traditional, aristocratic, Kantian, and Christian accounts. Sangiovanni’s refutations of the aristocratic and Kantian traditions are compelling; his treatment of the Christian tradition less so.
Sangiovanni partially conflates the Christian tradition with natural right theory, and his refutation suffers from this confusion. He also imperiously declares the Christian premises hardest to prove “sectarian,” leaving his readers dissatisfied. He never seriously addresses the historical importance of the Christian doctrine of human equality and dignity based in our creation in God’s image and likeness, nor does he address the distinction between body and soul.
For Sangiovanni, insofar as an action harms or destroys one’s capacity to develop and maintain an “integral sense of self,” it is cruel. Our natural tendency is to recoil against cruelty: we empathetically reject treating others as inferior to ourselves, because to do so through slavery, torture, or the like, would be cruel. Cruelty dehumanizes an individual by precluding him from maintaining a coherent personality, which is Sangiovanni’s requisite for a good life. Thus, we are committed to moral equality insofar as it is defined as not acting cruelly towards others and allowing them to maintain a sense of self.
Our empathy also gives rise to our moral duties’ reciprocal nature, a restatement of the Golden Rule. While developing and maintaining an integral sense-of-self may be a positive prescription for a good life, it cannot ground a positive moral philosophy centered in rights and duties. The problem is that empathy is undefinable: the material, psychological, or emotional requirements for the sense-of-self may differ across individuals. Sangiovanni tries to circumvent this by identifying three areas universally essential for sense-of-self maintenance—our bodies, our social relations, and the distinction between our inner and outer selves. Unfortunately, he ends up only compounding the problem. Identifying these areas is no shortcut for identifying rights and duties. Satisfying one’s particular bodily needs still requires situation-dependent and relativistic solutions.
Sangiovanni’s relativism comes to the fore even more when he asserts that rights originate in the duties we recognize we have to one another. Since we eschew cruelty, and thereby must never trample on another’s ability to maintain an integral sense of self, we ourselves have a right to this same treatment. We have to do unto others. This necessarily entails our right to protection from all possible infringements on our ability to develop and maintain a coherent sense of self.
Telling a lie, for example, is a possible rights infringement, since we have a right to the truth from others. While we ought not lie to others, at least most of the time, our obligation takes the form of a duty—our honesty is a virtue. Civil society flourishes when its citizens are virtuous. A virtuous man necessarily respects the rights of others.
Government, however, is obligated to protect rights, not enforce virtues, even though there is overlap in many cases. By conflating and combining rights with virtuous action, Sangiovanni tacitly endorses legal enforcement of all our moral obligations. His theory’s relativism would only further expand the scope of our rights without offering any corrective or parameter to what government might require for their enforcement. This flaw also undermines Sangiovanni’s lengthy discussions about discrimination and international human rights.
That said, his precision, clarity, and devotion to decent and humane politics is admirable. His failure lies in misattributing the philosophical source for this decent treatment. Our duties to others originate from myriad sources—the obligations that are essential in our natural rights, our human nature, and the obligations arising in social relations. Conflating rights, obligations, virtue, and politeness into a single system misinterprets our relationships to government and to each other. The Declaration’s natural rights guarantees are the foundation of our rights to life, liberty, and property, while virtue fosters a just, harmonious social and political landscape. Social niceties, civil rights, and politeness glue civil society together. These are necessarily distinct. Despite the allure of an all-encompassing system of duties such as Sangiovanni’s, our duties are better understood by acknowledging this distinction.