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Human Rights and Worldview

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[Originally published in 2016 as Does science undermine human rights? No, But Materialism Might.]

I like to read a lot of philosophy and tend to think the Argument From Morality is one of the worst arguments for the existence of God. Nevertheless, as any scientist should be, I am willing to change my mind on the subject if I am presented with evidence that challenges my position.

Recently, I stumbled across some of that evidence, and while it is not enough to change my mind on the subject, it makes me less certain of my derision for the argument from morality.

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The evidence comes from Dr. John H. Evans, Professor & Associate Dean of Social Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. He wrote an article for New Scientist in which he summarizes his original research, published in an Oxford University Press book entitled, What is a Human? What the Answers Mean for Human Rights. In this research, he surveyed 3,500 adults in the United States, asking their opinions on humans and human rights.

He started by asking them how much they agreed with three different definitions for human beings:

  1. The Biological Definition: Humans are defined (and differentiated from the animals) by their DNA.
  2. The Philosophical Definition: Humans are defined by specific traits, like self-awareness and rationality.
  3. The Theological Definition: Humans are created beings that have been given the image of God.

Here is how he describes the questions that followed:

I also asked them how much they agreed with four statements about humans: that they are like machines; special compared with animals; unique; and all of equal value. These questions were designed to assess whether any of the three competing definitions are associated with ideas that could have a negative effect on how we treat one another.

I finished with a series of direct questions about human rights: whether we should risk soldiers to stop a genocide in a foreign country; be allowed to buy kidneys from poor people; have terminally ill people die by suicide to save money; take blood from prisoners without their consent; or torture terror suspects to potentially save lives.

His results were quite surprising to me, but not to those who promote the Argument From Morality.

The Results

He found that only 25% of the public agreed with what he called the “biological” definition of a human being. That’s good news since I think it is the worst possible definition of a human being. Scientifically, it is quite clear that we are much, much more than our DNA.

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Nevertheless, I would think that anyone who is a materialist (a person who thinks that life on earth, and human beings in particular, are just the result of natural processes) would have to agree with that definition. Such a person might also agree with the philosophical definition, but in the end, he or she would have to agree that, at best, the traits that define human beings in the philosophical definition are solely the product of the human being’s DNA and environment. Ultimately, then, they are back to the biological definition for human beings.

The bad news is that for that 25%, their views on human rights are more likely to be immoral. The more the respondents agreed with the biological definition of life, the more likely they were to think of people as machines, the less likely they were to see humans as unique, and the less likely they were to agree that all people are of equal worth!

As the italics indicate, I find that last statement to be the most shocking. Even from a purely materialist point of view, one should be able to see that all people are of equal worth. After all, to the materialist, we are all products of the same evolutionary process and have essentially the same DNA. Thus, from a logical point of view, we should all be of equal worth, even to the materialist. Dr. Evans’s research seems to indicate that isn’t true.

When it comes to human rights, the results are even more shocking. The more the respondents agreed with the biological definition of life, the less likely they were to say that we should risk soldiers to stop genocide. They were also more likely to say that we should be able to buy kidneys from poor people, have terminally ill people commit suicide to save money, and take blood from prisoners against their will. As Dr. Evans concludes:

People who agree with the biological definition of a human are also more likely to hold views inconsistent with human rights.

Now, of course, Dr. Evans indicates that his study is not the last word on the topic, and that’s clearly true. Also, he makes the important point that his study was about what people think, not what they actually do. It’s possible that when it comes to the actions they take, people’s view on the definition of a human being doesn’t play nearly as important a role. Nevertheless, his results are striking.

I am curious if there is any trend in the beliefs of those who are more likely to agree with the philosophical definition of a human being, which is at least a step closer to the truth than the biological definition. Nevertheless, I do think that this study gives weight to the idea that without a God concept, most people are less likely to have a good moral sense.

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Dr. Jay Wile

Written by Jay Wile

As a scientist, it is hard for me to fathom anyone who has scientific training and does not believe in God. Indeed, it was science that brought me not only to a belief in God, but also to faith in Christianity. I have an earned Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in nuclear chemistry and a B.S. in chemistry from the same institution. blog.drwile.com

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Duck on water, photo credit: Wendy MacDonald

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