The Failure of Naturalism as a Foundation for Human Rights

(Ed. Note: Dr. Menuge is the current president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society)


Almost everyone is in favor of human rights, and many of our cultural debates depend on pitting one alleged human right against another.  Both of the major human rights instruments, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1953) include the basic right to life, for the obvious reason that without life, none of the other rights can be exercised.  Yet today, it is common to claim that abortion and physician assisted suicide are also fundamental human rights.  Since the set of rights claims is inconsistent, we all need some principle that will tell us when a particular claim is (or is not) justified.   As Dave Baggett[1], Paul Copan[2] and John Warwick Montgomery[3] have argued at length, theism clearly provides such a principle.   But most philosophers are committed to naturalism.  So, can human rights be given a naturalistic foundation and avoid the need for God?

I will begin with a few remarks about the nature of human rights, and indicate the prima facie implausibility of naturalistic theories.  Then we will examine Evolutionary Ethics in more detail and show that its attempt to ground morality in natural history faces a serious dilemma.

1. Human Rights and Naturalism.

The modern idea of a human right developed as a response to Nazi atrocities in World War II and the inadequacy of appeal to the positive law of particular nations, since, in point of fact, the atrocities were legal.[4]  At the Nuremburg trials it was recognized that human beings have fundamental, intrinsic value and dignity deserving of protection, and that the state has no authority either to grant or to revoke human rights: these rights are universal (all humans have them), inherent (one has them simply in virtue of being human) and they are inalienable (they cannot be suspended or taken away).

An interesting consequence is that the obligation to protect human rights holds of normative necessity.  To be sure, a higher right can override a lower one (thus the right to self-defense may override an attacker’s right to life), but this is a case of two rights worthy of moral consideration, not one.  It cannot be said, in utilitarian mood, that one has a human right only if the consequences are good and thus perhaps that the attacker had no right to life:  rather, he had a genuine human right to life worthy of moral consideration that was overridden by a higher right to self-preservation.  Thus even though it may be overridden, the existence of a human right as a morally considerable factor is not contingent on circumstances, and this is why (at least) a prima facie obligation to protect human rights has normative necessity.

It is not hard to see why naturalism finds it difficult to ground such obligations.  This is just a special case of the general difficulty naturalists find in accounting for the existence of objective moral values and duties.   For naturalism, the entire cosmos is an unintended collection of undirected natural processes.   It is not true of any of these processes that they are (or are not) supposed to be a certain way.   Thus, on the face of it, the natural processes leading the members of a tyrannical regime to commit genocide are no different, morally speaking, from the natural processes that led Mother Teresa to care for the sick and the poor of Calcutta.   These processes simply are, and we cannot say that some are good (e.g. those protecting human rights) and some evil (e.g. those violating them).

The general problem is the well-known naturalistic fallacy.  No amount of facts about what is going on in nature imply anything about what ought, or ought not, to be going on.   Now a naturalist might embrace nihilism or some very strong version of moral anti-realism, but then they can no longer (without equivocation) claim to justify human rights claims since they do not believe human rights exist.  So what is a naturalist who affirms human rights to do?

A rather desperate suggestion is Atheistic Moral Platonism (AMP).[5]   According to AMP, it is just a brute fact that reality contains both the physical universe and a “Platonic” realm of moral universals (like justice and goodness), and so it is possible that there are objective moral obligations and duties.  However, this is highly implausible. The defender of AMP seems to have whipped out his philosophical credit card and added moral universals to the ontological cart with no serious attempt to show that the moral universals are grounded in the physical universe.[6]  And since there is no substantial relation between the physical and moral realms, there is no reason to expect that the moral universals have anything especially to do with us: why should they not protect the rights of rocks and mollusks, but be indifferent to human beings?   And even if these universals did apply to us, how could they generate obligations?  It is simply incredible that we can have moral obligations to impersonal universals like the form of the good or justice.   And this reveals a more fundamental problem: in our experience, moral obligations (e.g. to keep promises, be fair and impartial, etc.) obtain between persons, for it is persons who prescribe, persons to whom we are morally accountable, and persons whom we can wrong.

Most naturalists realize that they must show why moral values and duties are to be expected in a physical universe.   Naturalists may be either strict or broad.[7]  For strict naturalists, no teleology is operative in nature and so there are no goals (not even impersonal ones) that could ground moral obligations.  If this is how nature is, then J. L. Mackie was surely right to conclude that “objective intrinsically prescriptive features … constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events…”[8]  Indeed, there is no way (besides magic) that completely non-teleological processes can ground objectively binding prescriptions since there is no way the world is supposed to be.   It is not surprising then, that strict naturalists have often concluded that a non-cognitive approach to ethics is required (e.g. emotivism or constructivism[9]), and this means that any idea that we should respect and protect human rights must be an illusion.

However, broad naturalists typically claim[10] that even though teleology is absent at the level of basic particles, as more complex arrangements of these particles in physical systems develop, various higher level properties appear (e.g. consciousness, reason, free will, moral values[11]).  It is further claimed that these properties still qualify as naturalistic because they wholly depend on the physical arrangement of particles (via supervenience or emergence).   On this view, the basis for human rights is to be found in the natural, causal history of human beings: it is only because human beings developed the right kind of complexity that they have special rights.   Yet, it is precisely this claim of historical contingency that appears incompatible with the very idea of a human right.

2. Evolutionary Ethics.

While several versions of evolutionary ethics (EE) are possible, a shared claim is that the moral sense of human beings is the result of their natural history.   Since this history is contingent, it follows that our moral sense could have been different, leading us to make different moral judgments than those we actually do.  Darwin illustrates the point with a striking illustration.

If … men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.[12]

In this scenario, humans might have thought that (select) acts of fratricide or infanticide were not merely permissible, but obligatory.

But Darwin is not clear about whether these counterfactual moral beliefs would correspond to a different moral reality, and this leaves the defender or EE two options, which I call Weak EE and Strong EE.  For Weak EE, it is only moral psychology (our moral beliefs) that would be different if we had been raised like hive bees.  So fratricide and infanticide might still be wrong even if we didn’t think so.   But for Strong EE, it is moral ontology itself (what is right and wrong) that natural history explains.  And so in that case, had we been raised like hive bees, fratricide and infanticide would have been right.

Now it is certainly possible for a proponent of EE to defend either moral skepticism[13] or some version of moral anti-realism.[14]  But that would not be sufficient to show there is a genuine moral obligation to respect and protect human rights.  Our question, then, is whether either Strong EE or Weak EE is a plausible foundation for this obligation.  I submit that it is not.  Strong EE faces a serious ontological problem: if it is true, it does not seem that there can be any such thing as human rights.   Weak EE faces an epistemological problem: while it is compatible with the existence of human rights, Weak EE makes it incredible that we could know what they are.  Either way, there is no effective, practical basis for defending human rights.

A. The Ontological Problem for Strong EE.

The trouble with Strong EE is that it makes human rights unacceptably contingent.  Of course, even a theist will say that rights are contingent in some ways: they are contingent on our having been made in the image of God.  However, granted that we are so made, the theist affirms that being human is enough to secure our rights and denies that any further contingencies (such as class, race, intelligence, strength or wealth) are relevant to our value.   By contrast, on Strong EE, being human is no guarantee that we will have any particular set of rights, since our rights will also depend on the details of our natural history.  Thus, had we been raised like hive bees, (select acts of) fratricide and infanticide would have been right, and this means that (certain) brothers and female infants would not have a right to life.   If so, then any right to life such brothers and infants have (because we were not in fact raised like hive bees) is not inherent: we do not have it because we are human, but because of the way we were raised.

Now of course, a defender of Strong EE might bite the bullet and say that his view still allows us appropriate rights in the actual world, where we were not raised like hive bees.  But this move incurs several serious costs.  First, the defender of Strong EE still must deny that there is any normative necessity to our obligation to protect life.  That brothers and daughters have a right to life just happens to be the case.  And yet the only difference between these individuals and others who happen to have been raised like hive bees is extrinsic (we are, note, not assuming some ghastly genetic experiment, so that in the counterfactual case, humans actually become hive bees).  Thus, second, Strong EE seems to violate the principle of relevant difference: it says two classes of individual have different moral value without indicating a relevant difference between them.  And third, Strong EE seems to have the same problem as classical utilitarianism.  When confronted with the fact that a majority may be made happy by the genocide of a minority, utilitarians typically retort that in the real world and over time, most people are made unhappy by such atrocities.  Even if true, this would imply that had a tyrant been more effective in brainwashing or slaughtering those who disagreed, genocide would have been right.  It is surely absurd to suggest that genocide is only wrong in the actual world because of administrative incompetence!

What is more, the defender of Strong EE is in no position to claim that human rights are inalienable or necessarily universal.  This is because changes in future living conditions could affect what rights we have.  Thus, suppose some tyrant loves hive bees (he sees them as model citizens) and decides that, henceforth, we are all to be raised in similar fashion.  With a stroke, brothers and female infants lose their right to life.  So even if they currently do have such a right, it is not necessary that they do, and the state could easily engineer circumstances which revoke that right.  Indeed, more horrific scenarios are possible, reminiscent of various science fiction novels and movies, where human beings are used as living batteries, fertilizer or food, and in which no one has a right to life (or has it for very long).   More realistically, we see that societies frequently have attempted to engineer living conditions such that (they claim) some group does not enjoy (full) human rights: slavery, child labor, the caste system, forced concubines, ghettoes and apartheid.  All of these, though, are clear examples of human rights abuses, and reinforce the fact that human rights are not dependent on living conditions as Strong EE claims.

Underlying this failure of Strong EE is that it appears to confuse two notions of “good.”  Natural selection can explain the retention of characteristics that are good for an organism, community or species, in that they increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction.   But as Richard Joyce points out, the fact that X is good for Y does not imply that X is morally good.[15]  Assassination is good for removing political leaders and exterminating people in gas chambers is good for ethnic purity, but this does not make either of them morally good.   And the same point applies to the biological good.  That mosquitoes serve malaria’s biological good does not imply that mosquitoes have any moral value, and the fact that (to use one of Darwin’s examples) tribal warfare serves the biological good of a particular tribe by enhancing cooperation and cohesion within it (even if the tribal warfare violates all conditions of a just war) surely does not imply that such tribal warfare is morally good: indeed it could constitute a major human rights abuse.  And similarly, the fact that fratricide and female infanticide might be biologically good for human beings if they lived like hive bees does not imply that those behaviors would be morally good.  Thus there is a logical chasm between what serves the biological interests of a species and what is morally valuable.

A yet further problem is that once our rights are made contingent on the actual distribution of natural capacities conferred by our natural history, there is no good reason to think that only human beings, or that all human beings, have special rights.  If rights are based on our degree of biological adaptedness, then, as James Rachels points out, the humble cockroach is just as well adapted.[16]  So Peter Singer would be right to reject the claim that only human beings have special rights as “species-ism.”  And if rights are based on our natural capacities, then it will always be possible to find individuals who suffer physical and mental defects and thus do not have rights.   And in any case, natural capacities are not uniformly distributed, and this would undermine the basic equality of human rights.  Thus, since some people are naturally smarter or stronger (etc.) than others, it appears some people will have more rights than others.  Yet again, being human is not enough for naturalism: one has to be the right kind of human.  This utterly subverts the idea of human rights, rights one has simply in virtue of being human.

So, if Strong EE is true, it seems that there really are no universal, inherent, inalienable rights.  Even if there are some “rights” (e.g. conventional or contractual ones), human rights will not exist.

B. The Epistemological Problem for Weak EE.

Weak EE, as a modest thesis of moral psychology, is certainly consistent with the existence of human rights.  However, it also has nothing to do with the explanation of those rights.   On this view, had we been raised like hive bees, we would have believed that fratricide and female infanticide were right, but that would have nothing to do with moral reality.    Certainly, this view allows that we might have true moral beliefs, since what our natural history disposes us to believe might happen to correspond to moral reality.   But Weak EE surely gives no grounds for thinking we could know moral reality (including human rights) and even some reason to think that we could not.

It is virtually universally agreed amongst epistemologists (whether internalists who demand we can see why our belief is true, or externalists who are satisfied provided we are in fact reliably connected to the truth) that it is impossible to know that p if one is only right by accident in believing that p.  Thus, if I look at a broken clock that says 7:30 and it is 7:30, my belief is true, but I do not have knowledge because I was only right by accidental coincidence.   A natural explanation of what went wrong here is this: the fact that it was 7:30 had nothing to do with why the clock said 7:30, and hence nothing to do with why I believed that it was 7:30.

Unfortunately for Weak EE, if it is true, then we are in a precisely similar situation regarding our moral beliefs.  For on that view, natural history is causally relevant to our moral beliefs, but does not account for moral reality.  So if we had been raised like hive bees we would think fratricide and infanticide were right even if they were not.  And, it could be that we think fratricide and infanticide are wrong (because we were not raised like hive bees) even though they are right.  But now suppose that our belief that fratricide and infanticide are wrong happens to be true.  Still, it is not knowledge, because what made us believe this has nothing to do with why our belief is true.

Notice that internal conviction of certainty is of no avail.  Suppose we were to meet a tribe of humans raised like hive bees.  They would be just as convinced that we were wrong, holding back out of superstitious ignorance from our sacred duties of fratricide and infanticide, as we would be convinced that their behavior was morally abhorrent.  Thus the best that Weak EE could hope for is that we are right by the fortunate accident that we were raised a certain way.

But then of course, one must also ask how likely it is that our beliefs would track moral reality if Weak EE is true.  We have already seen that there is no logical connection between biological adaptedness (what is biologically good for an individual or species) and the moral good.   If so, and given the vast number of possible natural histories we might have had, it seems highly unlikely that our belief-forming mechanism would be apt for moral truth.

This is not merely because of the well-known general problem for naturalism, that biologically useful beliefs do not have to be true.  In the case of beliefs about physical reality, the naturalist can at least offer some sort of causal theory of representation that connects the physical state of affairs with a belief, and it is not wholly implausible that having true beliefs about some local aspects of the physical environment would be adaptive.  Matters are wholly different with moral beliefs since moral values are not physical items with which a creature’s body and brain could causally interact (at least, not on any naturalistic view of causation).  As J. P. Moreland points out, “value properties are not empirically detectable nor are they the sorts of properties whose instances can stand in physical causal relations with the brain.”[17]  So even if moral values are out there in the world, naturalistic evolution has no credible account of how our belief-forming mechanism could be formed and honed so that we could come to know what they are, making moral skepticism the most reasonable option.  In fact, matters are even worse, as Richard Joyce points out.  On naturalistic assumptions, we would have the moral values we do because they are biologically useful even if no objective moral values have ever existed![18]  So if the explanation of our moral faculties and beliefs does not even depend on the existence of moral values, it surely follows that we cannot know them if they do exist.

So if Weak EE is true, even if there are human rights lying around somewhere, we can never claim to know what they are (indeed, for similar reasons to those given above, we cannot even have evidence of their existence and character).  This is as good as useless in justifying human rights and adjudicating competing human rights claims.


It is not difficult to see that the dilemma for Evolutionary Ethics is but one instance of a general problem for Naturalistic Ethics.  Given only the contingencies of naturalistic causation, there is no way to ground claims that hold of normative necessity.  Just like the authority of deductive logic, the authority of fundamental moral obligations depends on a kind of normative necessity that does not depend on, or reduce to, the contingent interactions of humans with their physical environment.  Indeed, we can run a precisely analogous argument to the argument against EE above if the naturalist appeals to individual learning history rather than the natural history of the species.   If we believe in real obligations, like those to respect and protect human rights, we should abandon naturalism.



[1]For example, see David Baggett and Jerry Walls’s, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[2]See Paul Copan, “Ethics Needs God,” in eds. J. P. Moreland, Chad Meister and Khaldoun Sweis, Debating Christian Theism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 85-100 and “Grounding Human Rights: Naturalism’s Failure and Biblical Theism’s Success” in ed. Angus J. L. Menuge, Legitimizing Human Rights: Secular and Religious Perspectives (Farnham, UK; Ashgate Publishing, 2013), 11-31.

[3]See John Warwick Montgomery’s The Law Above the Law (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishing, 1975) and Human Rights and Human Dignity (Dallas, TX: Probe, 1986).

[4]John Warwick Montgomery, The Law Above the Law, 24.

[5]An example of this sort of view is provided by Erik Wielenberg, “In defense of non-natural, non-theistic moral realism,” Faith and Philosophy 26:1 (2009) 23-41.

[6]See the critique of Wielenberg in Paul Copan’s “Grounding Human Rights: Naturalisms’s Failure and Biblical Theism’s Success,” 13-14.

[7]See Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro’s Naturalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).

[8]J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 115.

[9] Sharon Street, “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value,” Philosophical Studies 127:1 (2006): 109-66.

[10]An exception is Thomas Nagel [Mind and Cosmos (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)], who attempts to build teleology into nature at a foundational level.  Arguably, though, this natural teleology then stands in the same need of explanation as all of the “remarkable” phenomena (consciousness, reason and morality) which it is invoked to explain.  Otherwise, it suffers many of the same problems as AMP, since there is no reason to think the teleology is especially concerned with us, and nor is it the sort of thing to which one could have a moral obligation.

[11]See, for example, Larry Arnhart’s Darwinian Natural Right (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998) and Darwinian Conservatism (Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2005).

[12]Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), 102.

[13]Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson, “Moral Philosophy as Applied Science,” Philosophy 61: 236 (1986): 173-92.

[14]For example, Sharon Street defends the idea that there are no moral facts, but that moral truths derive from a process of reflective equilibrium.  This is no use for defending human rights as those who gathered together to plan the “final solution” for the “Jewish problem” reached reflective equilibrium.

[15]Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 170.

[16]James Rachels, Created From Animals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 70.

[17]J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei (London: SCM Press, 2009), 149.

[18]Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality, 183.


Photo: "Broken" by hjhipster. CC License. 


Angus Menuge


Angus Menuge is professor of philosophy and Concordia University Wisconsin and President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.  His research interests include philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, apologetics and C. S. Lewis.  He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Diploma in Christian Apologetics from the International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism and Human Rights, Strasbourg.  He is editor of C. S. Lewis: Lightbearer in the Shadowlands, Christ and Culture in Dialogue, Reading God's World and Legitimizing Human Rights.  He is author of Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science.