Human Rights and Human Dignity

We are accustomed these days to rights talk. Rights have a significant degree of authority behind them. The European Convention of Human Rights is a foundational document ratified by a number of European countries. The concept of rights contained therein appears to command the assent of a number of Western democracies. Not only that, when an appeal to some human right (or the violation of such a right) is made it is often capable of putting to rest most social and political discussions.

Nevertheless, there remains some confusion over the nature of human rights, and whilst public discussions may often appeal to rights and rights talk, such discussions are rarely ever principled or follow a logical train of thought. Not only that, significant public voices addressing the issue of rights in relation to abortion, including representatives of Amnesty international, have stated that one is only a subject of rights if such rights are afforded to the individual by some governing body. Hence, if, on their reading, the unborn are not afforded legal protection, then they are not subject to rights and human rights do not apply to them.

This confusion quickly clears up when we actually read the human rights documents, that is, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. The UDHR is quite clear in linking the ‘equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’ with human dignity, and the ECHR follows the UDHR in listing those rights that pertain to all humans in virtue of their dignity.

It is human dignity that grounds rights, and human dignity is something that one possesses not in virtue of being a member of a privileged group, such as all those who have been born, or some positive law granting one legal entitlements; rather, human dignity is something one has in virtue of being human. This dignity flows from human nature, and it does so precisely because human nature is rational nature. Human beings are the kind of things that are rational, whether they exercise their rationality or not. Hence they are the kinds of things capable of determining their own ends (regardless of whether they do so or not), and as so capable they themselves must not be the instrument for anybody else’s end; for that would be to treat them as less than human. Hence every human being is to be treated in light of the dignity that they have; regardless of the legal recognition or otherwise of such dignity. Indeed, it is precisely because humans have such dignity independently of state recognition that one can criticise the state or its authorities for abuses of such dignity.

Rights primarily flow from dignity insofar as human beings must be treated in such a way that their dignity is not violated. This fundamentally entails not subjecting their lives to the will of others, in which case we have a right to life, a right not to be tortured, not to be enslaved or put into forced labour. Flowing from this freedom from being subject to the will of others humans have a right to liberty and security, a fair trial when accused, and a legal framework within which punitive measures are exercised. Being free from the will of others all humans have a right to a private and family life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression, assembly, and association, and the right to marry.

It is clear then that beginning from the principle of human dignity we draw out these various rights all of which revolve around dignity; failure to respect these rights is a failure to treat humans as fully human. Effectively what these rights ensure are the conditions by which we can live lives in accord with our human nature. In focusing human rights on human dignity, the drafters of the human rights documents did not envisage human rights as things conditional upon state or legal recognition. At the time these documents were drafted Europe had just emerged from a second war which saw some serious human rights abuses, and it is doubtless that having states sign up to these rights and ensure compliance therewith is a good thing. But compliance or otherwise with these human rights by a state does not entail that one is not subject to these rights. Hence, regardless of whether or not a state grants to humans or a certain class of humans, such as the unborn, these rights, those human beings nevertheless have these rights. Any sort of rights talk which classifies humans in one way or another and attributes rights to one class and not to another is absurd and contrary to the nature of human rights which all humans have in virtue of being human.

Dr Gaven Kerr


The Splendour of Truth

Pope St John Paul II was a significant figure in the latter part of the 20th Century. This is not simply due to the fact that he was the leader of a significant world religion or that he tirelessly travelled the globe evangelising Catholics and non-Catholics alike. John Paul II was also a consummate thinker and philosopher; and it has been rightly remarked that he could easily have held a chair in academic philosophy (phenomenological philosophy in particular) in any European university. His numerous writings as pope attest to the profundity of his thinking, and his philosophical publications (including Love and Responsibilty and The Acting Person) can sit on the shelves of any academic philosopher’s library. Hence when John Paul II addressed philosophical issues, he did so not as a run of the mill affair – something relevant to Catholicism but not to him as an individual Catholic; John Paul II was personally invested in his treatment of philosophical matters as pope.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II’s encyclical treating of moral theology and philosophy. What is significant about this encyclical is that John Paul II does not limit himself to addressing a particular moral issue such as contraception or abortion; rather he treats of the whole field of moral theology and how a genuinely Catholic moral theology can be worked out. This encyclical is valuable precisely because it not only speaks to Catholics in the determination of Catholic teaching, but it also addresses important issues in philosophy more generally, moral philosophy in particular.


The first feature of the document that is worth reflecting on is the prominence it gives to truth. Truth is the agreement or conformity of the intellect with thing, so that if my thinking is about some object and the nature of that thought is in agreement with the nature of the object, then we have truth. Hence, truth is the measurement of the intellect and signifies a proper relationship the intellect has to its object. In moral matters then, truth is the agreement of the moral agent with what is good, such that the actions that he or she undertakes are good actions.

The focus on truth sets the tone for the entire encyclical, and it is important that it do so. This is because the pope is keen to stress that in matters of truth, man is not the measure of things, the objective facts are. Hence, it is not the intellect which is the measure of the facts, but the facts which are the measure of the intellect. Should the intellect not measure up to the facts, then the intellect is not functioning as it ought. The same goes then for the moral agent; there is a good which is the measure of the agent which is captured in the natural law, and should the moral agent not measure up to this good he or she is failing as a moral agent.

Freedom in action

A moral action is one that is freely undertaken, since if one is forced into performing an action, one does not bear responsibility for that action. Hence, freedom is essential to the performance of a moral action, and this stands to reason since we as rational agents are able to consider what the good is and choose to implement it or not – this is what is involved in morally evaluable activity.

So far so good, but there is a conception of freedom that the pope is keen is dispel, and this is the notion that treats of freedom as so utterly free that there can be no constraint on it. On this account then, any moral law which seeks to curtail free activity is fundamentally at odds with freedom and thereby at odds with the truth about the human person. The natural law cannot be the measure of free human activity on this view.

But this is a flawed account of freedom. Freedom is a feature of human nature because human beings are rational beings; we can envisage possibilities and opt for them. However, not all these possibilities are consistent with freedom, since many of them can undermine our freedom. Hence, freedom is only genuine when exercised in those actions consistent with it. So in chess, there are lots of moves that one is free to make, and these moves are consistent with playing chess. Once one starts breaking all the rules, one is of course exercising one’s freedom to do that, but one is no longer playing chess, and the game has ended; with the end of the game, one is no longer free to play chess. The same applies to the use of human freedom and the moral law. Any action which undermines human nature is clearly an action inconsistent with freedom; for freedom is an essential feature of human nature, so to undermine that nature is to undermine freedom (just as freely breaking all the rules of chess entails that one is no longer free to play chess). The natural law encapsulates the principles of action which principles are in agreement with the truth about human nature, in which case the exercise of freedom in agreement with the natural law (like the moves within the chess game), far from destroying freedom, fulfils it.

The Human Person

What is by far the most significant theme of the encyclical and of John Paul II’s thinking more generally is the significance of the human person. Thus far we have been considering issues relevant to the human person, but we have not focused on the human person itself. It is the person that pursues truth, it is the person that is free, and it is the person who engages in moral activity. The person then is the locus of moral action and it is the perfection of the person towards which the natural law works.

Now the human person is a rational substance, and as a rational substance the human person is capable of knowing and willing the good. It follows then that the human person has an intrinsic dignity, and this because the person can will ends for himself. This means that using a person as a means to an end is to subvert his or her personhood and take away something that is essentially theirs, i.e. their ability to will the end. Hence, the only legitimate activity in relation to the person is to treat him or her as an end in himself or herself, and never a means. And this means that the only relation one ought to have to a person is one of love.

The Splendour of Truth

We return then to the issue of truth, and this is because it is neglect of the fact that reality is the measure of us that leads to problems in moral thinking.

Often too much of a stress is put on the exercise of freedom such that it is assumed that so long as an action is free it is morally legitimate. Hence even free action against truth is seen as morally good. But freedom is not enough for moral goodness precisely because there are some actions inconsistent with human nature which only serve to undermine the very freedom that is lauded in opting for them. Accordingly, freedom must be exercised in conformity with truth, and not in contradiction to it.

Relatedly, it is sometimes thought that devising moral principles informing action, such as the natural law, is problematic because different situations call for different responses; situations are diverse and there cannot be a one size fits all approach. In a rather benign sense, all moral principles are somewhat abstract and they have to be internalised and implemented in every individual situation. Thus, just as there is a rule for moving the knight in chess, but many different circumstances in which the knight will be moved in the game, so too there is a moral law (the natural law) and different situations in which it is implemented. This is unproblematic and does not amount to a relativism of moral principles because just as in the chess game the moves are uniform but realised in different situations so too in moral action the principles of right acting are uniform (the natural law) but realised in different situations. A non-benign relativism creeps in when it is argued that there are some situations in which the only reasonable course of action is one inconsistent with the natural law. This would be like having a rule stipulating the right move for knights but then modifying it if the knight is in a tricky situation. It is problematic to change and modify the principles of the natural law because it is the moral outlook which permits one to live in accord with one’s human nature as a rational substance. Any activity inconsistent with the natural law is at odds with human nature and hence at odds with reason. Thus, activity inconsistent with the natural law is manifestly unreasonable. As John Paul II writes at 51.3: ‘…[T]he natural law expresses the dignity of the human person and lays the foundation for his fundamental rights and duties, it is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all mankind. This universality does not ignore the individuality of human beings, nor is it opposed to the absolute uniqueness of each person. On the contrary, it embraces at its root each of the person’s free acts, which are meant to bear witness to the universality of the true good’.

This reasoning further militates against a kind of consequentialism in moral matters. Consequentialism is the view that the moral worth of an action should be judged on the basis of its consequences; and depending on how one measures the outcome of an action, one will measure the act accordingly. On the contrary, by giving the conditions for good action the natural law allows us to live in accord with our natures as rational substances. But we are able to live in accord with our natures by considering that nature of itself, and not the consequences of our actions when we perform them. Thus, the moral worth of our actions is determined by the kind of action itself that is performed rather than what the action brings about.

Veritatis Splendor is a lengthy document full of fine grained reasoning from a pope who specialised in philosophy. I have teased out some of the central themes of the document, but for those who either agree or disagree with its outlook, it is hoped that they will engage with its reasoning themselves and come to terms with the argumentation.

Dr Gaven Kerr


Noble Disagreement in Moral Matters

In a previous post I made the case that moral discourse can be civilised by attending to the reasoning and argumentation made on behalf of the conclusions adopted, so that the positions can be thought through and if agreement is not attained, at least one can see how one’s opponent gets from A to B to C ( What this view presupposes is that there can be noble disagreement in moral matters such that whilst two interlocuters disagree, their disagreement is not based on any unworthy sentiment of the one to the other, e.g. hatred, malice, fear etc; rather their disagreement is a reasonable one such that either sees the weight of his or her respective reasons as outweighing the other’s.

It is often presupposed that this sort of noble disagreement is impossible in moral matters; this is because of a general widespread commitment to moral relativism. Failing any objective moral principles by which moral judgements can be made, the relativist often argues that such judgements are based on subjective tendencies of the one making them. Hence, when moral disagreement occurs it is not a result of some reasoned framework which grounds the judgement; rather it is a judgement of the other person motivated by some underlying sentiment. Hence, moral relativism often frames moral judgements as a kind of disapproval of the person acting in a way that we dislike, to which the obvious response is that if you don’t like X, don’t do it, but don’t tell others not to. Clearly on such a view there can be no noble disagreement in moral matters, because all moral disagreement rests on some ignoble motivation for objecting to the behaviour of another.

In order to circumvent this scenario and allow for noble disagreement and in turn civilised moral discourse we must distinguish between making a moral judgement and judging a person’s moral behaviour; the two are not identical.

When we make a moral judgement we do so having outlined and defended a moral framework which considers species of acts and determines whether they are good or bad accordingly; hence one striving to be good seeks to act in accord with that framework. All three of the main moral traditions (virtue ethics, deontology, and utilitarianism) outline a framework by means of which moral actions can be categorised.

Making moral judgements as to what is right and wrong given a moral framework is quite distinct from judging a person’s moral character. A person may be committed to some moral framework, for example the utilitarianism of Singer defended in Practical Ethics whereby we consider equally the interests of all who have a stake in some action. That person may be trying her best to form her actions in accord with that outlook since she is convinced of the truth of Singer’s view. However, given her personal history, her weaknesses, aspects of Practical Ethics she finds challenging, etc she may fail to live up to the standards of Singer’s outlook. Nevertheless, given her starting point, that person may have come quite far in her own endeavour to live by a particular moral vision. She should be praised accordingly for that, even though in a number of respects she fails to live by the standards of the outlook she has adopted.

A person, for whatever reasons, may fall short of the standards set by some moral framework; that doesn’t make the standards any less true, and the inability to live by those standards, as in the above example, is not an immediate condemnation of the person. Only the individual person knows how far (or not) he or she has come in trying to live a good life by some standard; but the standard itself can be considered independently of the people trying to live by it (or not) and assessed in itself.

One can have a noble disagreement in moral matters precisely because one can consider the truth or falsity of a moral outlook independently of those who do or don’t live by that framework. Hence, when one argues that A, B, C are right or wrong, one is not making a judgement on a person who does or does not do A, B, C; rather, one is making a judgement on the rightness or wrongness of A, B, and C. And this can be done by appealing to independent reasons and not on the basis of some sentiment about the practitioners of A, B, and C. Noble disagreement in moral matters then requires that we focus more on the truth or falsity of the moral framework involved, e.g. the truth or falsity of Singer’s Practical Ethics or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and less on the person who strives, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to live by that framework. That way we can avoid imputing to those with whom we disagree ignoble sentiments as founding the disagreement and thereby focus more on the reasonableness of the moral outlooks involved.

Dr Gaven Kerr


The Paradoxes of Tolerance

Tolerance is an almost sacred concept in contemporary public discussion. It is taken to be a concept that when put into practice almost always guarantees the moral uprightness of the practitioner. There is nothing worse in the estimation of others than to be intolerant. Tolerance is taken to be such a foundational norm of behaviour that it transcends the general moral relativism which abounds these days and can seem to cut through any moral system. Nevertheless, there are certain paradoxes of tolerance that are often the focus of discussion in the literature in this area. I shall focus on three pertaining to important aspects of the nature of tolerance.

The Nature of Tolerance

The general notion of tolerance is that it involves at least the recognition or acceptance that there are people, beliefs, practices etc with which one does not agree, which one finds objectionable in some way, but which one does not take steps to suppress or undermine. So there is something that one finds disagreeable or objectionable, yet one tolerates it for some reason.

The first essential feature of tolerance then is the objection component – in order to be tolerant, we must find something objectionable. If one does not find something objectionable, one does not tolerate it, one is simply indifferent to it.

The second essential feature is that in spite of what we find objectionable, we accept it in some way. This does not mean that we endorse what is objectionable or that it is no longer objectionable, but that the reasons for accepting what we find objectionable outweigh the reasons for finding it objectionable. And so we are led with good reason to tolerate what is objectionable.

The third feature then is that there has to be a limit to toleration. This is because sometimes the reasons for finding something objectionable far outweigh any reasons that could be provided for accepting it. Murder is a classic example in this regard; the reasons for objecting to murder are always weightier than any reason for accepting it. Hence we do not tolerate murder.

On the basis of these three features of tolerance, there are three paradoxes.

The Paradox of Objection

Finding something objectionable is an essential feature of tolerance; if we don’t find something objectionable, we are not said to tolerate it, we are simply indifferent to it. It follows then that the more objectionable we find something and yet are able to accept it, the more tolerant we are and hence have a stronger moral character. But there is a paradox looming here.

Suppose we have a racist who is genuinely convinced of her racism. This person finds people of other races objectionable; yet she realises that the reasons for being tolerant are stronger than those for being racist. Hence, she decides that in spite of finding people of other races objectionable, she will accept them nonetheless. The paradox here is that if tolerance is a fundamental virtue to possess, then this tolerant racist is really being quite virtuous and has a good moral character. Thus, somebody with quite a depraved and indefensible moral outlook can be said to be morally virtuous – and this is an obvious paradox.

The Paradox of Acceptance

To be tolerant one not only has to find something objectionable, one also has to accept what one finds objectionable. So the reasons for acceptance in this regard are stronger than the reasons for rejection. There are plenty of mundane examples of this kind. Many parents of small children will often find the general chaos and disorder of the home objectionable – they would rather it not be like that. But the reasons for objecting here are very slight compared to the reasons for accepting such disorder, e.g. giving children space to thrive, growing in love through play, allowing children to express themselves, watching them grow etc.

On the other hand, there are cases where the reasons for objecting to something are very strong, almost as strong as the reasons for accepting it, and so there appears to be a kind of stalemate. In such cases, if we tolerate that for which we have very strong reason for rejecting, we end of tolerating something that we have very good reasons for finding objectionable. And this is evidently paradoxical since we ought not to tolerate that which we have good reasons to reject.

The Paradox of Limits

There has to be a limit to toleration since we cannot tolerate everything. So if our reasons for rejecting something outweigh our reasons for accepting it, we are thus intolerant of it. But there is a certain paradox here in the very idea of a limit to toleration. If tolerance is taken to be something good and virtuous, then its complementary opposite, intolerance, is taken to be something vicious and not good. But there are quite straightforward cases in which the right thing to do is to be intolerant of something, e.g. we do not tolerate murder, racism, sectarianism etc. The paradox here is that whilst tolerance is conceived as a virtue we can also be said to be virtuous when we practice its opposite and are intolerant.


Given these paradoxes, what are we to do? Are we to reject tolerance as a virtue to cultivate? Certainly not!

In the history of thought, paradoxes have often played an important role in clarifying an issue. Indeed there is a well established proof in logic known as reductio ad absurdum such that if we assume some premise and establish a contradiction on the assumption of that premise, then we can reasonably infer that the assumed premise is not the case or must be clarified in some way. The consideration of paradoxes thus allows us either to deny a premise or clarify its meaning.

In the case of tolerance, we do not deny the need to cultivate tolerance as a virtue, so given the paradoxes we must clarify tolerance in some way. What the paradoxes show is that tolerance is not something that is morally normative. It is not enough to be tolerant; one has to be tolerant in the right circumstances with the right object. The only way to do this if we weigh the reasons for objecting to something and the reasons for accepting it. But the only way to do that is if we have certain moral norms more basic than tolerance by which to evaluate what is objectionable and acceptable, i.e. what is right and wrong. Hence, tolerance does not tell us what is right or wrong, it only goes to implement what we already take to be right and wrong. Tolerance is therefore not a sure guide in moral matters, but rather latches onto a deeper moral framework which is our guide; it is the strength of justification of that framework and its informing our actions that will establish whether or not we are acting virtuously, not how tolerant we are.

Dr Gaven Kerr


Morality, Religion, and the Natural Law

With the falling popularity of the study of academic philosophy, and the preference for academic subjects that are seen to lead more securely to employment, the public discussion of morality has suffered somewhat. When one comes to study academic philosophy, a course in moral philosophy (hopefully several) is usually essential (along with metaphysics, epistemology, and logic). Whilst one can get a smattering of philosophy in other academic subjects, one rarely gets the opportunity to study it in depth unless one undertakes a course in philosophy. That then entails that there is a general lack of recognition in public discussion of philosophical issues, and this particularly is the case with the discussion of moral matters.

In general, there is an awareness of some conclusions that are adopted in moral reasoning, especially with regard to hot button social issues that have their roots in moral philosophy. These conclusions did not come from nowhere, and significant voices in the philosophical tradition have offered reasoning on their behalf. But because of the lack of awareness of moral philosophy and often only a smattering of philosophy from elsewhere, the conclusions are known, but not their means of demonstration (indeed, in my experience of teaching moral philosophy, the very notion of demonstration in moral matters is one that has to be neatly and gently laid out before any exploration of the thinking of a particular philosopher is considered).

Now, moral philosophers are not the only individuals to draw conclusions in moral matters, the Church does so as well. And it is often the case that a moral philosopher draws the same conclusion as the Church, e.g. a number of moral philosophers agree with the Church that murder is wrong. But it is often assumed that a moral position advocated by the Church on some particular issue is one that is defended on the basis of religious belief and not on the basis of natural reason.

However, the latter view is incorrect. The natural law position in morality that is adopted by the Church is not one that depends on revelation for its cogency, nor does one even have to believe in God in order to accept that position. Indeed significant defenders of the natural law have explicitly stated that it can be known by all without recourse to God; so for instance John Finnis in Natural Law and Natural Rights, pp. 48 – 49 states clearly that knowledge of God is not needed for knowledge of the natural law, and indeed he states that part II of his book is an articulation of the natural law without advertence to the existence of God, His nature, or will; Aquinas argues that the principles of the natural law are self-evident, and its further precepts can be elucidated on the basis of rational reflection on human nature (Summa Theologiae, IaIIae, qu. 94, art. 2:

What the natural law position in morality maintains is that human beings have a nature and given that their actions are rationally willed, in order for humans to flourish as the kind of things they are, humans ought to order their actions in a way consonant with that nature. This is not a moral position that depends on God or revelation for its cogency, but simply on philosophical argumentation, as Finnis, Aquinas and others have articulated it. It stands in contrast to other moral theories, in particular utilitarianism and deontology; and it, like them, is defensible on the basis of natural reason.

The point here is that whilst natural law reasoning may coincide with the Church’s position in moral matters such reasoning does not depend on religious belief. In that case, the conclusions that the Church adopts on the basis of the natural law are not conclusions immune from philosophical discussion and scrutiny or indeed defence (they are not matters of faith), since they have publicly accessible reasons on their behalf. But if they have publicly accessible reasons, then they are as much up for grabs in the public discussion of moral matters as those defended from other moral perspectives.

Dr Gaven Kerr