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His Truth Is Marching On: Selma’s Clarion Call

Editor’s note: This article was originally published at Christ and Pop Culture. 

By Marybeth Davis Baggett 

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

There’s a poignant scene towards the close of Ava DuVernay’s new film Selma, a scene made all the more compelling by its prescience. John Doar, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, warns Martin Luther King of credible threats against his life that await him in Montgomery, the destination of the Selma march protesting barriers to African American voter registration.

Doar implores King to drive—rather than walk—into the capital and to nix the planned speech, to minimize his exposure and prevent any possible harm. “Don’t you want to protect yourself?” Doar asks. King’s response here is telling, as it speaks of his convictions and highlights the worldview animating the film and, more importantly, the nonviolent resistance movement whose story it portrays.

I’m no different than anyone else. I want to live long and be happy, but I’ll not be focusing on what I want today. I’m focused on what God wants. We’re here for a reason, through many, many storms. But today the sun is shining, and I’m about to stand in its warmth alongside a lot of freedom-loving people who worked hard to get us here. I may not be here for all the sunny days to come, but as long as there’s light ahead for them, it’s worth it to me.

The specific threats of violence against King echo the egregious wrongs perpetrated throughout the film—the disenfranchisement of black citizens, the murders of innocent children and protesters, the brutality of local and state police against unarmed marchers. And yet the activists refused to be intimidated. “We go again,” Dr. King says after so-called Bloody Sunday—the brutal attacks by police and posse alike on the protesters during their first attempted march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The injustice on display in Selma is heart-wrenching. Few will leave the theater dry-eyed after witnessing the powerful using their positions and privilege, their weapons and words, to dehumanize others. Again and again, the protesters are at the receiving end of such abuse. They suffer indignity after indignity in exercising basic human rights—registering to vote, checking in to a hotel, protesting peacefully.
This process—resisting the impulse to respond to injustice in kind, to daily wait on the Lord to set wrongs right, to proclaim truth without fear, to stand in solidarity with the downtrodden—is hard. It is in fact beyond hard; it is impossible in our own strength.

The scenes projected on the screen provoke outrage and disgust. And yet, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by King rejected retaliation in kind, however tantalizing the temptation. After one particularly humiliating and damaging attack, several protesters plan to round up some guns, only to be reminded that the police and government force will always be much greater than theirs. “We have to win another way,” SCLC leader Andrew Young counsels.

Resisting the logic of lex talionis—an eye for an eye—seems counterintuive and countercultural at best, foolhardy at worst. Achieving victory by turning the other cheek seems impossible. Conceived in secular terms, victory over subjugation requires defeating one’s foes by force—be it legal, corporal, psychological, economic. But justice in Selma goes well beyond tactics; it points to a radical conception of reality itself.

Justice in the minds of the Selma freedom-fighters is a metaphysical fact, a real state of affairs promised and being worked out by a good God who is setting the world aright at the incalculable cost of his own son. And driven by their Christian convictions, the SCLC embraces the privilege and responsibility of participating in this process, of co-suffering with Christ.

While the scenes of outrageous abuse will infuriate viewers, the resolve of the protesters not to multiply evil through retaliation will inspire. What Marilyn Adams writes in a different context is attested to by the protesters’ courageous example: “To return horror for horror does not erase but doubles the individual’s participation in horrors—first as victim, then as the one whose injury occasions another’s prima facie ruin.”

Without granting its theological foundations, King’s campaign was worse than foolish. Knowingly placing himself at the mercy of those who would oppose with appalling force the truths he preached took courage, courage borne from the conviction that justice is the natural bent of the universe. The values of the kingdom of God turn those of this world on their head.

As Selma testifies, King understood that his real enemies weren’t government officials assassinating his character, racists and segregationists who thought themselves superior, nor even the man who would eventually kill him. No, he fought instead “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). And he knew that in the face of an all-powerful and all-loving God, these spiritual forces of darkness and entrenched systemic evils would not and could not stand.

Selma gives us a glimpse into how this redemption works in our own lives here and now; it’s terrifying, convicting, and inspiring all at once. This process—resisting the impulse to respond to injustice in kind, to daily wait on the Lord to set wrongs right, to proclaim truth without fear, to stand in solidarity with the downtrodden—is hard. It is in fact beyond hard; it is impossible in our own strength. In our personal lives we all face indignities, abuses, and wrongs—all of which Selma magnifies in horrifying detail. We can thus sympathize with King’s weariness, his call for support, his pleas for divine intervention, his temptation to give in and give up.

In the crucible of this maelstrom, we see, too, the resurrection of hope, the power of community, the hardiness of righteousness, an enactment of the gospel. We see the church at work, Christ’s body setting the world to rights little by little, through the most powerful weapons there are, and the only truly efficacious ones—faith, hope, and love.

The saga of Selma echoes its clarion call to Christ’s body today to be faithful heralds of truth and justice, to live and labor in the hope of what we still can’t see except in fleeting glimpses and furtive glances. It is a glorious and sober reminder that if Christ be raised we have seen manifest the first-fruits of a coming victory so resounding, and a glory so amazing, that it will dwarf and eclipse any and all of this world’s sufferings. Like Dr. King, let this blessed assurance inspire us to proclaim truth with boldness, battle injustice with hope, and daily carry our cross with courage.

Podcast: A Christian Perspective on Bioethics with Mark Foreman

On this week’s podcast, Dr. Mark Foreman gives a Christian perspective on some key bio-ethical issues. Dr. Foreman helps us understand how we should think about trans-humanism, fertility treatments, abortion, assisted suicide, and euthanasia. Working from a Christian and Aristotelian and natural law perspective, Dr. Foreman explains how right action results from careful consideration of human nature.

Image: “Icarus.” by Rogério Timóteo – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Podcast: Mark Foreman Explains Why Abortion is Wrong in Ten Minutes

On this week’s podcast, we hear from philosopher and bioethicist Mark Foreman. Dr. Foreman explains in about ten minutes why humans still in the womb are persons and deserve all the rights due to human persons.

An Argument against Abortion in Ten Minutes with Mark Foreman

Image: “Embryo week 9-10″ by lunar caustic. CC License. 

Equality, Human Value, and the Image of God

 by Paul Rezkalla

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

These timeless words penned by the Founding Fathers declare a simple, yet profound moral maxim: All humans are equally valuable and ought to be treated as such. This has come to be known as the Principle of Equality (or Equal Treatment).

Almost all societies throughout history have accepted this truth and lived by it. Jeremy Bentham pointed out that any ethical system must begin with the presupposition that “Each to count for one and none for more than one.” We share a strong intuition that all human persons ought to be treated equally, prima facie. Interestingly enough, the pro-slavery South accepted and lived by the Principle of Equality. Even modern-day racists might accept the Principle of Equality as the most basic moral maxim.[1] A racist, however, will seek to redefine the term “human” or “person” to exclude a group of people that he deems unworthy of rights or value. Hence, the racist can happily affirm that all people are equal and ought to be treated equally, and yet disagree on who to include in the category of “people.”

Most rational people today will recognize that racism is wrong—it is evil. However, the problem arises when we seek to ground the Principle of Equality. Why is it that all people are equal? Why is it that all people are born with unalienable rights? Why is it that all people are inherently valuable as ends in and of themselves? In other words, what makes the Principle of Equality really true rather than merely a clever and effective tool to keep society in check?

As it turns out, answering this question is not as easy as it might seem. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain, who helped draft the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, said, “We agree on these rights, providing we are not asked why. With the ‘why,’ the dispute begins.”[2] Our task is to figure out some common property or set of properties that all human beings share that can bear the weight of substantiating the intrinsic value of the human person. Some potential candidates for grounding human worth and equality might be rationality, intellect, or our capacity for moral reflection and deliberation. Peter Singer argues that all three of these fail. With regard to rationality and intellect, “we can have no absolute guarantee that these abilities and capacities really are evenly distributed evenly, without regard to race or sex, among human beings.”[3] In other words, it’s implausible that all humans have the same intellectual capacity; many people are born with severe mental handicaps. Does their diminished ability to function make them less human? Of course not. Does their inability make them less valuable? Of course not. Singer goes on to say, “it is quite clear that the claim to equality does not depend on intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters of facts.”[4] The facts of human intellectual ability, moral capacity, strength, and the like cannot serve as the basis for human value for two reasons:

  1. These abilities are not evenly distributed among all people. Some people are strong, some are weak. Some people are bright, others are not.

  2. It is not clear what it is about these properties that makes them the grounds for inherent human worth. There is nothing in the human capacity for rational reflection that explicitly bespeaks the intrinsic worth of every human being and can serve as its ontological grounds.

Singer finally concludes his argument with a profound point and a concession, “There is no compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to satisfying their needs and interests. The principle of equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged equality among human beings: it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings.”[5] Singer looks at the different attempts to ground human worth and finds them all lacking. He concedes that there is no description of humanity that justifies or substantiates the principle of equality, and yet we still ought to treat humans as if we are all equal. For Singer, the Principle of Equality has no basis in reality, but it is a useful fiction and we should still aim to live by it.

Singer’s candid concession is honest and laudable, for on his naturalistic position, there is no such property or set of properties that seems likely to bear the weight of Singer’s challenge. What could serve as the foundation for intrinsic human value? It is at this point that the theist has the advantage. The theist can take any number of viable approaches in answering this question.

The theist can argue that human persons all possess the Imago Dei—the Image of God. God has created all people in such a way that we all carry and reflect the image of the Creator of the cosmos.
The theist can argue that human persons all possess the Imago Dei—the Image of God. God has created all people in such a way that we all carry and reflect the image of the Creator of the cosmos. Every person from the weakest to the strongest—from the least-known to the best-known—has this property. We carry the Image of God. The theist can also ground human value in God’s intentions for humanity. God has created human beings with certain ends in mind so that any disruption of those intentions is a disruption of the way God made humans and intended for us to interact. These two options, moreover, are not mutually exclusive by any means. Theists can happily affirm both of these options in answering Singer’s challenge. God, as both our Source and End, having created us and imbued us with our telos, provides the robust ontological foundation for intrinsic human worth and moral standing. These approaches take the burden off various human capacities; even when human beings suffer handicaps or lack certain faculties, their ontological status has not diminished one iota. On this view, God has created all people as inherently valuable. All people regardless of race, sex, age, ability to function, sexual orientation, or location are ends in and of themselves—priceless, precious, and loved by God.

While the naturalist can see the need for grounding the Principle of Equality, the theist can offer a viable set of solutions. A Principle of Equality that hangs suspended in mid-air is both ineffective and dangerous. A robust understanding of what ties us all together and validates the notion that all humans are intrinsically valuable is vitally important, now more than ever. It would seem that theism offers a fuller account of the descriptive and prescriptive components of the Principle of Equality than does naturalism.

For further reading on this important issue, including a systematic critique of various secular efforts to ground moral standing and intrinsic human worth, see Mark Linville’s “Moral Argument” available online here:



[1]    James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (2015), p. 79-80

[2]    Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (1951), p. 77

[3]    Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (1975), p. 4

[4]    Singer, p. 4

[5]    Singer, p. 5


Image:”Scaffolding & First Amendment Of The Constitution Of The United States Of America, Pennsylvania Avenue, NW (Washington, DC)” by takomabibelot. CC License. 

A Couple of Reasons to Think Theism Best Explains Moral Obligations

By Jonathan Pruitt 

Here is a moral fact: It is wrong to torture babies for fun. (Let T stand for “torture babies for fun.”)

But in what sense is it wrong to T? One answer, and a quite popular one, is that T’ing is wrong because it is irrational to do so. Why it is irrational can be explained a several different ways. One option is the egoist option. It is wrong to T because it is not in my self-interest to do so. It may not be in my self-interest because if I T, others might torture me back or otherwise degrade me in retaliation for my T’ing. The idea here is that it is in my self-interest to live in a world where people don’t torture each other for fun, so, in order to bring about that world, I ought to act in a way consistent with the world I want to bring about. Or perhaps we could say it is irrational to T because it is inherently degrading to myself. I destroy my own soul if I go around T’ing and that is not good for me so it is irrational for me to do so.

We might also say that it is wrong to T because it lowers the aggregate human happiness. Since living in a society where, on the whole, there is more happiness than less, I should not T because it is better to live in a more happy society than a less happy one. Or possibly it is wrong to T because there is an implicit social contract being broken when I T. By virtue of living in a society, I implicitly agree to follow certain norms and T’ing counts as a violation of those norms.

Notice that the theories I listed above all cash out the wrongness of T’ing in terms of bringing about an undesirable result. It is wrong because it will result in states of affairs that are not desirable.  Surely, this cannot be the full explanation of why it is wrong to T because, presumably, it would be wrong to T regardless of the consequences. Natural law provides one way to say it is wrong to T, whether the consequences are desirable or not (and it is worth pointing out that on many of the initially suggested options, counterexamples can be constructed in which T’ing would produce desirable results and therefore our belief that it is wrong to T would be undermined).

One way to say more is to appeal to a natural law account of human rights. The idea here would be that human beings, by virtue of being human beings, have certain rights that are owed to them. T’ing would be wrong because it would be a violation of the baby’s rights that obtain by virtue of the baby being human. This is a better explanation than the ones given above because it makes the wrongness of T’ing more than instrumentally wrong.

Now, consider what naturalism might say about how it is that humans have the rights presupposed to exist on a natural law view. Remember that that naturalist is committed to the idea that everything is composed of only matter and is determined by natural laws.  How could norms of action be generated from mere matter and physics? Rights and the associated norms seem like an odd fit on naturalism. Perhaps the naturalist would appeal to Kant here. Kant thought that moral duties obtain because of the dignity of human beings as rational agents. If humans are rational agents, then we ought to never treat them merely as a means and always as ends. However, Kant himself was no naturalist. And the appeal to Kant here by the naturalist is question begging because the naturalist still has not provided an account of how such properties as “dignity” obtain in a naturalistic universe.

But suppose that we grant that if humans really are rational agents, then we ought to treat them as ends and never merely as means. But consider what must be true of humans in order for them to be rational agents. Obviously, they must at least be rational and an agent. Being rational would seem to require that humans act for good reasons. Here the naturalist faces a problem because human action can be fully explained in third person, physical terms. We don’t think machines act for reasons; we think they act because of physical causes. Some naturalists, like Daniel Dennett, think that acting for reasons and being determined are not incompatible. Possibly he is right. But there is another problem. If humans are agents, this would seem to require libertarian free will. If humans are genuine agents, they must at least be understood as being the cause of their own actions (in contrast to the cause of their actions being fully explained in third-person, mechanistic ways). Again, naturalism will have trouble with explaining how humans could be agents in a naturalistic world. So Kant is no help to the naturalists here.

On the other hand, consider how such rights might obtain in a theistic universe where humans are souls resembling God. Here it seems natural to think that divine image bearers would possess essential, natural rights. If we think about Kant’s view of duty and his categorical imperative, we say that plausibly, being a rational agent just is being a divine image-bearer. And so theists can appeal to Kantian ethics as a possible way to ground the wrongness of T.

However, I suspect there is yet more to say about the wrongness of T. There is a kind of authority to the wrongness of T that cannot be fully explicated just in facts about human persons and their nature. Rather, it seems that if I were to T, I would be in violation of moral obligations that obtain not just as a result of degrading human beings. And we can see how this might be so by paying careful attention to what humans actually are, oddly enough.

Suppose of the sake of the argument that humans really are created in God’s image. This provides a ready explanation for how it is humans have rational agency  and why degrading them would be wrong, for sure. However, if humans are the creation of God, then a violation of their rights is not merely a violation of their dignity as humans, but also a violation of God’s intentions for them as humans. When God created humans, he intended for them not be tortured for fun. That is built into human nature, but not reducible to it.  That is to say that two kinds of violations occur: a violation against the human victim and a violation against God himself by virtue of his intentions towards humans. In this way, we actually defy God himself (by defying his intentions) in T’ing.

Now consider the gravity of these two offences taken together. When T’ing, a person not only violates another human person, but a Divine Person. A person who is ultimately valuable, completely good, holy, and maximally authoritative. That is, the breaking of moral obligations constitutes a defiance of God himself. This means that moral obligations, while serious enough understood just in natural law terms, takes on an exponentially greater seriousness when we consider that we have also violated God himself.

I think this view provides a good explanation of the phenomenology and reality of guilt. When we violate a moral obligation, the guilt we feel seems to extend beyond “feeling guilty for violating a human person.” And to be sure, that considered in itself should create a tremendous amount of guilt. But feelings of guilt often extend beyond that. We have not just harmed a person, but we have gone against the grain of Reality itself. When we do what we are morally obligated not to do, we do not just feel out of sorts with the person, but we are in contention with reality itself. Now, how could we make sense of this phenomenon? It does not seem to make sense that we have failed the universe understood naturalistically; rather the better explanation of this feeling of guilt is that we have failed a Person. That is to say, in addition to feeling guilty about violating  the victim, we also feel guilty about violating the intentions of God himself and this better explains the experience of guilt.

Therefore, theism better explains how it is that humans could have natural rights and the full gravity of the wrongness of T’ing than does naturalism. And if theism more successfully explains these things, human rights and the guilt of failing a Person, it also better explains the reality of moral obligations, since both human rights and moral guilt for failing a person entail moral obligations.


Image: “Holocaust Day 19147” by Ted Eytan. CC License. 

Link: Does Humanism need God? A Debate with Angus Ritchie vs Stephen Law

One of our contributors, Angus Ritchie, recently debated atheist philosopher Stephen Law on whether “atheistic humanism can account for the human dignity, morality and reason it espouses.” Ritchie, along with co-author Nick Spencer, wrote an essay defending the idea ” that Christians ought to be more aware – and more proud – of their humanist credentials, rather than allowing humanism to become a cipher for atheism. Were it not for Christianity, they argue, the core ideas of humanism would simply not have developed in Europe.” You can listen to
the debate over at Unbelievable?.

Photo: “The Good Samaritan” by Lawrence OP. CC License. 

Selma and Sacrifice: Dignity and Vigilance

By David Baggett

Watching Selma is a visceral emotional experience. True to life, it didn’t need to resort to the hyperbolic or maudlin, the sentimental or heavy handed—which makes it, to my thinking, considerably more profound and authentic than the self-important trainwreck God’s Not Dead. The story of Selma is itself compelling enough, a drama about issues like equality, dignity, respect, humanity, inhumanity. It requires no extra props, no tortured plot, no artificial melodrama, nor fictional caricatures to promote an agenda. It need not feign meanness or superficiality; history here is sadly replete with actual instances of such real people who, unwittingly, played their inverted roles to help justice prevail.

The movie chronicles the story of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) going to Selma, Alabama to protest the de facto lack of voting rights among the black citizens there. They had the legal right to vote by this time, but in practice they were denied it by the enforcement of all sorts of arbitrary and prohibitive local requirements—like the need to quote the Preamble of the Constitution by heart or answer a series of highly specific legal or political questions at which most contestants on Jeopardy would stumble.

Spearheaded by the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—who once said that anyone who doesn’t understand the religious underpinnings of the movement doesn’t understand the movement—this arm of the civil rights front was, unlike those in the tradition of Malcolm X, committed to nonviolence. The restraint, wisdom, and courage of this approach is on full display in this remarkable film, which by turns stirs both shameful despair and soaring hope. We can read about such events and be deeply moved, but seeing various facets of the tale graphically depicted on the big screen—a church with four innocent girls blown to pieces, a young man shot defending his elderly grandfather against police brutality, women punched and kicked and beaten, men bludgeoned with a hideous array of blunt objects—carries with it an undeniable new level of poignancy.

The success of the movement would arise from the crucible of anguish and pain and sacrifice—as images of gross injustice, wicked violence against innocents, and beautiful and inspiring courage gradually did their work to capture moral imagination and change and turn the heart of a nation whose conscience had been seared and for which accommodation to evil had become normative—too often draped with the imprimatur of sanctimony. It is remarkably moving to see the tenacity displayed, the hope that survived such adversity, the faith manifested in the darkest of hours and in the face of such systemic and unspeakable violence, only bolstered by a silent White House—or worse, an administration that, to knock the movement from the radar and render silent its most prophetic and erudite voice, used tactics of intimidation, fear-mongering, and character assassination to undermine King’s credibility and resolve.

By certain recurring foibles, King was in fact susceptible to moral criticisms, and the movie doesn’t shy away from this uncomfortable fact; this unflinching honesty is one of the film’s many virtues. As is known, King had several adulterous affairs with other women, and the movie includes this regrettable feature of this great man with feet of clay. David Horner discusses this aspect of King, using “GMT” for “Great Moral Teacher,” writing that

Dr. Martin Luther King is almost universally considered a GMT, despite evidence of his sexual infidelities. … Why is it that we consider Dr. King a moral authority, despite his moral imperfections? Part of the answer, surely, has to do with the importance of what he said. The truths he expressed concerning human dignity were much “bigger” than he was, so to speak, and his infidelities do not cast doubt upon them. … But, of course, anyone—including Adolph Hitler—could have said those things, could have articulated those same propositions. What is it that made Dr. King a GMT, and not merely a conduit or reporter of significant moral truths? A necessary, core condition, I submit, is a special case of what I am defending here, and that is integrity, which expresses the coherence or intrinsic relation between content and character. We consider Dr. King a GMT, despite his lack of complete moral integrity, partly because he never claimed to possess the latter, and partly because there was coherence between what he did claim and how he lived. He uttered profound truths about liberty and racial equality, and he lived consistently and with integrity with respect to them, to the point of being jailed, beaten, and ultimately killed. I dare say, however, that had his central message been the importance of sexual fidelity (or had it turned out that he was actually a secret informer for the Ku Klux Klan), he would not in fact today be considered a GMT—no matter how exalted had been his teaching in other respects.

I remember a civil rights course in college as one of the best classes I ever took. In that class we read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” After watching Selma, I reread the letter, and I would encourage you to do the same if you can find the time. It’s really quite remarkable. So many lines stand out from this letter to ministers who were lamenting the involvement of the SCLC in Birmingham, but I’ll share just a few:

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

In that letter King outlined a few of the reasons nonviolence was his favored approach, the sort of nonviolence we see in Selma. “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

Explaining that justice too long delayed is justice denied, King goes on to make clear that the time for action had arrived:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. … Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Much could be discussed from Selma. This is nothing like a thorough review of this terrific film which offers a painful snapshot of actual history about brave men and women putting their lives, reputations, and bodies at risk to battle grave injustice and be given a voice. The film features people animated by and collectively embodying a rejection of Bentham’s perverse notion of human rights as nonsense on stilts. Their example was a living, breathing refutation of the idea that our only rights are those that government deigns to confer.

More primordial underlying moral truths are the real bedrock on which our legal and political rights reside, and it’s those unchanging moral verities alone that can ensure a trajectory of justice, however incremental and protracted, labyrinthine and excruciating, the political process required may prove. Under totalitarian rule that categorically denies God-given and intrinsic human rights and equality and dignity, callous to claims of justice, victory in this world is by no means an ineluctable, inevitable historical contingency, which reminds us all the more that a sanguine dismissal of the ultimate foundations of morality is a foolhardy, historically myopic, and objectionably short-sighted pitfall we need assiduously to avoid.

Jean Bethke-Elshtain once wrote, “It is interesting—and troubling—that we are in an age of human rights par excellence, and yet there are forces at work in our world that undermine the ontological claims of human dignity that must ground a robust regime of human rights.” So the one take-home I want to emphasize is that the battle to accord human dignity and value, worth and equality, their proper pride of place is one bathed in blood and sacrifice, and that vigilance is necessary to ensure that this labor was not in vain.

As Selma shows.


Photo: Jack Rabin collection on Alabama civil rights and southern activists, 1941-2004 (bulk 1956-1974) , Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University.

Podcast: David Baggett on the Failure of Secular Ethical Theories to Account for Human Value and Dignity (Part 1)

On this week’s episode, we get a special preview of Dr. Baggett and Dr. Walls’ upcoming book, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning. In this first part of a two part series, Dr. Baggett takes on a wide array of secular ethical theories and explains how each fails to provide an adequate explanation for human value and dignity.

David Baggett on the Failure of Secular Ethical Theories to Account for Human Value and Dignity (Part 1) (Right click to download)

Photo: “Collapsed” by G. Fornaro. CC License. 

The Failure of Naturalism as a Foundation for Human Rights

By Dr. Angus J. L. Menuge

(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.