I emailed a philosopher:
What do you make of the idea that people are born with natural rights? Some people believe that we are born with rights bestowed on us by God but “rights” receive virtually no attention in classical Judaism or Christianity or the Bible… so I am skeptical of transcendent rights.
I’ve been reading a lot of books on historicism and it has become a reflex for me when approaching an event or writing asking who wrote/did this, what was the context… So do you believe there are universal truths about the human condition that transcend a particular context? Are there writings that you approach without asking about the context they arose in ala who wrote this, when was it written, for whom was it written?
My reaction to situational ethics comes from Dennis Prager — the situation determines the absolute… Absolute ethics I ascribe to God and His revelation through Torah based upon a leap of faith on my end.
The philosopher responds:
Those are such hard questions. I guess my answer is… I don’t really know! I’m inclined to believe that there are some fundamental truths about the human condition, and moral truths in particular, but I’m also skeptical about “natural rights”. And I’m very skeptical about most of the “natural rights” that lots of people nowadays postulate. Maybe there is a natural “right to life” in some sense, or some kind of natural right to autonomy, but I can’t believe that there is a natural right to gay marriage. (And the question of whether there are objective or “absolute” moral truths might not be the same as the question of whether there are natural rights.) To take an example, I have the strong moral intuition that it’s wrong for adults to have sex with children. I can’t believe that this would be morally good or acceptable if our social or historical situation were different (though I can believe that we’d think it was okay if we’d been acculturated differently).
Here are some quick thoughts about your questions…
It always makes sense to ask who wrote something–and to ask about the point and context of writing. This helps us to understand the author’s meaning and reasoning, for one thing. No, there are no texts I’d read without asking these kinds of questions. On the other hand, someone might write in a specific context (and with some personal or political purpose, with a specific audience in mind) while also stating absolute truths about morality. So if historicism is the belief that everything people say or write is non-absolute (or “relative” or “subjective”) then I’m not a historicist. If historicists claim that Plato’s philosophy must be understood simply as a product of his historical situation, or that it can’t be both a product of his situation and also a statement of timeless ultimate truths, then I disagree.
But even if we allow that historical context (etc) doesn’t rule out the possibility of stating or knowing absolute moral truths, it could still be very hard or impossible to figure out which moral claims really are absolute or objective. I agree that a leap of faith is the only basis for believing that some particular set of moral rules or claims is objectively right. And I’d also allow that maybe there are none.