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Is There a ‘There’ There? Peterson, Harari, and Holland on Human Rights

One of the most illuminating courses I took as an undergrad was on the morality of human rights. As with most philosophy courses, it tried to explain the logic of the obvious and complicated the matter. In the first half of the course, we surveyed attempts to give a rational account for human rights and why they ought to be seen as normative and binding: Kantian, utilitarian, positive, social constructivist, and so forth. (We didn’t even broach a theological reason, as it was assumed to be a nonstarter.)

Most folks in the 21st-century WEIRDER West take the notion of human rights for granted. As the Declaration of Independence puts it, rights are “inalienable” and ought to be “self-evident.” But the only thing I was convinced of by the end of the human rights survey was that none of the secular programs could pull it off. Each had debilitating criticisms of the other positions. As far as I could see, no secular, rational grounding could bear the tremendous weight of such a crucial concept in contemporary moral discourse and international law.

In a philosophy class, you can shrug and move on once your paper is done. But out in the real world, what happens when the basis for your entire international moral order is exposed to be an emperor with no clothes? What happens when we discover there’s no “there” there?

Out in the real world, what happens when the basis for your entire international moral order is exposed to be an emperor with no clothes?

This question isn’t confined to university classrooms; it’s being debated in public forums. Witness the recent controversy surrounding the comments on human rights by Yuval Harari—public intellectual, history professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and author of bestsellers Sapiens and Homo Deus. In a video that circulated on X, he said,

Human rights are just like heaven and like God: it’s just a fictional story that we’ve invented and spread around. It may be a very nice story. It may be a very attractive story we want to believe. But it’s just a story; it’s not reality. It is not a biological reality. Just as jellyfish and woodpeckers and ostriches have no rights, homo sapiens have no rights. Take a human, cut him open, look inside: you find their blood, and you find the heart and lungs and kidneys, but you don’t find there any rights. The only place you find rights is in the fictional stories that humans have invented and spread around. And the same thing is also true in the political field. States and nations are also, like human rights and like God and like heaven, just stories. A mountain is a reality: you can see it, you can touch it, you can even smell it. Israel or the United States, they’re just stories. Very powerful stories. Stories we might want to believe very much, but still they are just stories. You can’t really see the United States—you cannot touch it; you cannot smell it.

Reflecting on these comments, as well as the surrounding controversy, is worth our time. They lay bare some key fissures in the moral consciousness of our post-Christian culture. They carry lessons for those looking to speak well about the God of creation and redemption to a world that lacks a grasp of the former—and so cannot understand the latter.

Just a Story?

Given Harari is an atheist and a naturalist, it’s no surprise he articulates a fairly standard, philosophically unsophisticated form of scientism, a nonscientific belief that itself cannot be scientifically verified. The only “real” things are biological realities such as mountains, bugs, and blood—things that can be tested, tasted, smelled, or physically observed.

On that account, things like God, heaven, hell, nations, and even “human rights” aren’t real—they’re nice stories we tell ourselves to get along with the world. But they aren’t “there” in the structure of things. There are no human rights to the left of your pancreas or written into your physical being, like your DNA or chromosomal structure. A consistently naturalist metaphysics looks around at the world that exists as it does, just because it does, and can’t find a place for an absolute ought written into the way things are—much as we might like there to be one.

That this speech sounds like the prelude to a cartoon villain’s revelation of his master plan—to eliminate large swaths of the planet to avoid climate change or something—doesn’t seem to bother Harari. It’s the way things are. We need to accept it if we’re going to deal rationally with the world.

No ‘There’ to Be Seen, but the Story’s True

Seen from another angle, this isn’t far from a point historian Tom Holland makes in his groundbreaking book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. The concept of human rights emerged in a specific time and place (12th-century Italy), from specific people (canon lawyers), under the influence of specific doctrines (for example, the image of God), based on a specific story (the Christian narrative of creation and redemption).

In one sense, human rights are the secularization of a deeply Christian concept. As Holland himself affirmed, they have “no more objective reality than, say, the Trinity. Both derive from the workings of Christian theology. Both, if they are to be believed, require people to make a leap of faith.” (Happily for Holland, he seems to have since made that “leap,” affirming human rights as true along with their source.)

In some aspects, Holland and Harari seem to agree—there’s no objective there there to be observed when it comes to human rights; it must simply be taken on faith. The difference is that Holland is happy to do so while Harari isn’t. Holland believes the there really is there when it comes to rights, though he shares Harari’s epistemological premise of empiricism—the only thing that counts as “objective” is what can be tasted, seen, smelled, and so forth.

There’s a ‘There’ There, Regardless of the Story

One more response is worth noting. Weighing in with partial disagreement with Holland, psychologist Jordan Peterson challenged the shared premise that, when it comes to human rights, there’s no “objective” there there:

The doctrine of rights will soon be shown to be an inexorable consequence of the semantic network of meaning—that it’s encoded implicitly into the relationship not only between words and verbal concepts, but stories and also patterns of behavior. Built into the structure of human being, and perhaps even Being itself. In other words, “rights” are the semantic representation of the archetypal reality that characterizes sustainable, upward-oriented, reciprocally altruistic human interactions.

Not arbitrary at all. Quite the contrary.

The language is admittedly Byzantine and convoluted. But Peterson is holding out for confirmation that our sense of unique human dignity and value is rooted in the nature of thing, being, or Being itself. It’s not arbitrary, not a social construction, not a social-ideological chimera foisted on the Western conscience with no root in the world.

Of course, given the murkiness of his metaphysics and theology (Peterson’s evolving views seem to be a nontheistic, quasi-religious mashup of Jungian psychology that tries to add depth to some of the findings in the developing field of evolutionary psychology), he doesn’t have an account of what that value is or how it exists there. There’s a sense of promise, an anticipatory expectation—a faith, as it were—that this truth will indeed become verifiable or quantifiable in some way. But at this point, it seems a conviction without a rational justification or explanation.

Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Conscience: Suppressed or Supported?

What are we to make of this conversation with these thinkers? What light can Christian doctrine and the Christian “story” shine on the confusion of the current moment? Understanding the basic shape of Christian anthropology can illumine the various ways they’re all right and wrong—as well as point the way forward in our conversations with neighbors and friends.

The Law Written on Our Hearts

In Romans 1–2, Paul tells us all humans were created with a natural knowledge of God and a sense of right and wrong (1:18–23). This is known as “natural theology” and “natural law.” When our moral and cognitive properties are functioning correctly, we come to understand both that there’s a Creator who transcends it all, who is worthy of all worship and honor, and that he makes demands suited to the kinds of creatures we are. One such demand is to treat other creatures with dignity and respect—not abusing them, engaging in unnatural sex with them, murdering them, slandering them, and so forth (vv. 24–32).

Further, we must be clear it’s not just Jews or Christians in view but also Gentiles—non-Jews who don’t know and haven’t received a special or supernatural revelation from God. When Paul talks about the Gentiles, he says that even without the law, they act as a law unto themselves and “by nature do what the law requires” (2:14), because “the work of the law is written on their hearts” (v. 15). There’s a universal human sense of right and wrong—a notion of law written into our being that transcends all times, cultures, and places. This is what C. S. Lewis called “the Tao,” which everyone knows they ought to be abiding by in some way.

So while someone might not be able to articulate a clear doctrine of the image of God as given in Genesis 1, the Bible says they should be able to look at their fellow humans and, morally and rationally, have a proper sense of how not to treat them.

Fallen Reason and Ideology

What accounts for the moral divergences within and between societies? How can one society think something is absolutely just and heroic while another opposes it as intrinsically disordered and unjust?

There is a universal human sense of right and wrong—a notion of law written into our being that transcends all times, cultures, and places.

There’s no such thing as an amoral society. Each one has comprehensive norms it teaches and ingrains and by which it orders itself—testifying to that inborn, universal sense. That said, the Bible insists humanity’s natural knowledge has been bent because of sin. Our capacity to discern the lineaments of the created order is broken due to our alienated relationship with God. Our moral compasses no longer point due north, and so we tend to suppress and distort the knowledge of God and his law.

We do this in all sorts of ways. We make up false gods, idolizing features of the creation and remaking the moral law into our own bent images. To invoke Harari’s idiom, naturalism is a nice story we tell ourselves to cope with the fear we might face divine judgment for how we treat our neighbors. In that sense, ideology is one of the more sophisticated implements in the human arsenal of truth suppression.

Consistency, Materialism, and Grasping at Truth

This is what we find in Harari’s technobiological naturalism which, at its core, is a rationalized, truth-suppressing ideology. At least it’s consistent. Indeed, the sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, and naturalist philosophers working on the problem agree there’s no way to generate a normative account of morality. (See James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky’s Science and the Good.) The problem is that it’s a consistently false read of reality that exacerbates our natural tendency to deny God and the true value of our neighbor.

Peterson, on the other hand, has been publicly wrestling with the question of God and the truth of the Gospels for a while. He’s trying to affirm the truth of natural law and natural rights without a God who commands and gives rights, who authored “the archetypal reality,” rendering it worthy of dignity and respect. His is a fallen, groping inconsistency.

Leap of Faith?

What of Holland’s response? While historically the doctrine of human rights arose under the influence of Christianity, Holland’s response is too fideistic and historicist in not recognizing the revelation given in nature. Holland looks at the fact that “rights” talk arose in a particular way under the influence of the story of the gospel as evidence that “rights” can’t be inherent in nature as an “objective” reality.

Tackling the idea that ethics is mostly a matter of choosing to believe the right story, theologian Oliver O’Donovan writes,

We cannot object to the idea that history should be taken seriously. A Christian response to historicism will wish to make precisely the opposite point: when history is made the categorical matrix for all meaning and value, it cannot be then taken seriously as history. A story has to be a story about something; but when everything is a story there is nothing for the story to be about.

O’Donovan is arguing that while the gospel is a story, it’s a story about reality that’s there outside its narration. It’s telling a story about what is and exists, about the world God made in a particular way with a particular shape, which is there for us to discern. For that reason, natural law and natural rights ought not to be seen as supervening or imposed on the reality of nature but inherent within it.

Believing the gospel is a matter of receiving a message that clarifies, purifies, and, in some key cases, confirms what our fallen reason was grappling to acknowledge despite itself. Supernatural revelation corrects our fallen and sinful perception of natural revelation and completes it by giving it a truth that’s nonetheless beyond it.

Peterson is right to hold out for a moral meaning within nature that we discover, not decide. Holland is similarly correct in recognizing this meaning needs a warrant and a clarifying revelation from beyond nature. Only if the story of God creating the world in this way is true can it have the moral meaning we so desperately hope for in our affirmation of human dignity. Ultimately, only a word from God—the story of God—can help us believe, understand, and be confirmed in what we know deep in our bones.

Confidence in the Story of Reality

Where does this leave us?

First, it’s good to recognize to what degree Harari is right if there’s no God and no gospel. We are meat, and we have no rational basis for asserting the dignity of human nature. This is a point as old as Dostoevsky and Nietzsche but no less relevant or worth pressing on people for the simple reason that Harari isn’t right about the matter—and most know better.

Believing the gospel is a matter of receiving a message that clarifies, purifies, and, in some key cases, confirms what our fallen reason was grappling to acknowledge despite itself.

Most are unwilling to publicly suppress the truth of the dignity of human nature to the extent he does. Even extremely secular folks have instincts like those of Peterson. They want to affirm human dignity and rights, if only to be assured of their own. Christianity offers a clarifying justification that goes far beyond what they could come up with under their own metaphysical and rational steam.

Christians, rooted in the truth of Scripture, can affirm that all humans of every tribe, tongue, and nation have unparalleled value and dignity rooted in their being made in God’s image. Not only that, they have the further dignity that comes with the gospel. Humans are so valuable that God himself became one in the person of Jesus to die, pay for all their crimes and sins and injustices against their fellow image-bearers, and restore them to their intended glory.

Second, there’s something counterintuitive about this result. In the contemporary moment, the biggest challenges against Christian doctrine and truth come not against our miracles but against our morality—not against the supernatural but against our understanding of the natural order, especially expressed in our beliefs about marriage and the nature of men and women. Here we seem to be on our back foot, performing a rear-guard action, scrambling to defend our views as loving and just.

This is only an optical illusion. The moral order is precisely the place Christians need to be prepared to press the apologetic advantage for the truth of the faith. Secular ideologies are being exposed as insufficient to counter violent ideologies that demean human dignity and encroach on human rights. Christianity stands in firm contrast and can give full-throated affirmation to that which other ideologies can only offer weak wishes.

Humans are so valuable that God himself became one in the person of Jesus in order to die, pay for all their crimes and sins and injustices against their fellow image-bearers, and restore them to their intended glory.

If this story is true, Christianity cannot come as a mere confirmation of what we’ve always believed. We must be prepared to receive it as a correction of all the ways we’ve suppressed the truth of our consciences. We must be willing to hear not only a confirming word but a convicting word that stands in judgment over us.

Given humanity’s violent crimes and sins and atrocities against our neighbors—our genocides, rapes, racism, and bigotries—we might also expect our reason to have suppressed the truth in other areas. When Jesus comes along teaching what we don’t want to hear about our sex lives, sexualities, or gender identities, might we not expect some shocks? We must.

Third, as we press these points, we cannot do so without ourselves being pressed by them. We speak as created and fallen image-bearers to other created and fallen image-bearers. That means speaking with both humility and confidence. We speak as those who ourselves regularly must receive correction from the Word for all the ways we suppress the truth in unrighteousness.

This humility is an excuse for neither laxity nor hopelessness. Not only do we have the truth of the gospel and the power of the Spirit, but God has left a witness in the hearts of those we’re trying to reach—the law itself is written there, pressing on their consciences, longing for the liberating judgment of gospel of Jesus Christ (Rom. 2:16).

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