Conservative Theology

February 28, 2010

Religion and Politics / Why Food is NOT a Basic Human Right


One thing that is problematic in modern public policy debates has been the expansion of what are considered "basic human rights".  There are several reasons why unwarranted expansions in this area are problematic:

  1. It muddies the water as to what is a basic human right and why they should be basic rights.
  2. Most expansions of rights have put the government in the position of granting or removing rights, thus leading to a public perception that the government is the source of these rights.
  3. If rights come into conflict with each other too often, then the whole notion of rights itself breaks down, leading to the loss of all of them.

The third one is the one I want to concentrate on.  While it would have been more appropriate to our current concerns to say "why healthcare is not a basic human right", I thought that it would show how basic the case is if in stead I made the case why food is not a basic human right - some humans can live without health care, but no human can live without food.

So why is food not a basic human right?  Because a human right cannot be something that can be produced.  It must be something that is innately possible within an individual person.  More to the point, for something to be a right it cannot rely on someone else for its invocation.

For example, lets look at the freedom of religion and the rights of conscience.  Neither of these require anything from anybody in order for someone to express them.  Now, there may be some things that must be done to ensure that other people don't abridge them, but their normal operation does not entail any other party.

Take a look at the bill of rights.  These are all things that fall into one of two categories:

  • Tell what CANNOT be done
  • Tell WHAT ELSE must be done to do something

Neither of these require anything from the people for their normal function.  Congress "not making any law" means that congress should get out of the business, not into the business.  The right to a speedy trial, in fact, only applies if there is a trial at all. If the citizens do not wish to give a speedy trial, they can simply let them go free.  Thus, in no case does congress require that any item or service be rendered to any other person.  It merely restricts what restrictions can be placed, or identifies what must be done in the event that a government decides to pursue an end.  But never is the government requred to pursue that end.  In fact, if there were no government at all, the Bill of Rights would be followed exactly.

Nowhere in the Bill of Rights, for instance, is there a guarantee that criminals will be prosecuted.  Nowhere is there a guarantee that someone will be given food.  Nowhere is there a guarantee that a militia will be active.

Why not?

It's a basic feature of reality - that of limited resources.

Let's say, for instance, that we decide that having Widget X is a basic human right.  Therefore, in a new amendment to the bill of rights, each human being receives at least one Widget X is a basic human right.  However, let's say that, in this hypothetical example, that we have a population of 4 billion people.  Then,  after manufacturing 3 billion Widget X's, we run out of some resource essential for producing Widget X's.  Therefore, in this scenario, 1 billion people are not being given their "basic human rights". 

How, then, can it be a basic human right if there is a potential that it can't be delivered?  Does that mean that we must tear heaven and earth apart looking for the missing component to ensure basic human rights?  We might start that way, but soon, the economic burden of doing so will cause us to rethink this policy, and, instead one of two things will happen. 

First, we might decide that it isn't a basic human right.  The problem, here, is not just that there is a disagreement on what the basic human rights are, but that a right is bound up with the practical problem of delivering it.  That is, rights become rights when we can deliver them, and cease being rights when we can't.  Thus, no right is "basic", but rather they are all derived from our economic circumstances.  Therefore, someone may argue, for any right, that our economic circumstances are different, and we should have a different set of rights.  As you can see, our "rights" in this case are quickly shifting from being "basic" to being "arbitrary".  And thus, even if we retain the terminology, we lose the whole concept.

Second, we might conclude that it is a basic right, but that, since there is not enough to go around, we must decide who gets the right and who doesn't. Thus, the source of the right moves from God to the government.  These are no longer basic human rights, they are government-granted rights.  We then have a classed system - those with rights and those without.

Thus, the rights granted in the Bill of Rights, and, I would contend, anything properly called a "right", does not depend on an economic product to deliver.  That is, the right must, at least in theory, be deliverable without cost.  And, as such, you can read the Bill of Rights and see that it is consistent with a situation in which no government at all exists.

Thus, food cannot be a basic human right, because there is no way for the government to guarantee that there will be enough to go around.  Many countries survive on imports.  If their trade relations went south, then there simply would not be enough food to go around.  And declaring food a "basic right" wouldn't change that economic fact - it would simply de-value the idea of rights as a whole.

That doesn't mean that needs such as food and shelter and healthcare should never be touched by the government, it just means that the "rights" language needs to go.  This is an economic decision, not a rights decision.  It is a decision about allocating resources.  There is always an economic end to the amount of resources which can be put to something, and, if something should count as a "basic right", it should be impervious to that resource wall.

Since that is the case in the case of food, it is even more the case in the case of healthcare.  In any situation, there can always be more money applied at a problem.   At some point, the money runs out.  I have been the recipient of generous amounts of money, both from friends and from insurance, for the healthcare of my children.  But, even with the amount spent, more could have been spent.  The question is, where does it end?  If it does have an end, then the decision is an economic one, not a rights one.  If it did not have an end, then we would need to open up a new research department for every unknown illness encountered the moment it was encountered, and not wait for pesky things such as foundations and research grants.

Therefore, it is important for the preservation of the idea of rights, that rights not be bound up in any way with economic goods.  As soon as they do, the whole notion of rights will be swept away with a giant whooshing sound.

The problem with left-wing politics is that it falls apart as soon as you assume that the world's resources are finite.  The advantages of conservative politics is that the finite-ness of the world's resources are at its basic core.  This is why conservatives are often considered "heartless" - what we can do in reality is more important than we might want to do if we had infinite resources.  Conservatives focus on the "can" and "likely" to be done, while the liberals focus on the "wish" could be done.  Conservatives aren't any less likely to help others, they are just less likely to believe that there is an endless pool of resources from which the generosity comes.  And, I think, in the end, that makes us all the more thankful for the help we do receive, because we realize all of the other economic goods that the money could have alternatively been spent on.  I think about this almost every day.















February 19, 2010

Religion and Science / Steve Fuller on Theological Anthropology and Science


A very interesting video by Steve Fuller on human nature.  I think the Q&A session is better than the main talk, but you have to listen to the talk to understand the Q&A session.


The liberal and conservative views of human nature have swapped over the last century.  Marx viewed humans as being beyond nature, and being able to refashion the world according to our image.  The conservatives in Marx's time emphasized the constancy of human nature and the inability for improvement for humanity.  The modern left wants to downgrade the human's nature, making us more of a part of nature, while the conservatives endorse a view of humanity that is beyond nature.  He then shows how this interplays with science, and that science is based on humanity's being beyond nature, and that downgrading humanity also downgrades the role and scope of science.

My View:

Conservatives view humans as being both physical and spiritual.  The left is waffling between extremes because they are reductionistic, and, failing one reduction, they move to another.  Christians, on the other hand, only find a reduction in God, and therefore resist either extreme.


The video is much more interesting than my summary would suggest.  Especially the Q&A.  The Q&A pushes on the discrepancy between western intellectual traditions and the evolutionary view of the human, and how many people hold to both even if they aren't compatible.

February 18, 2010

Religion and Politics / Christians and Environmentalism


The thing that annoys me most about the environmental debate, is that the "effect" of being pro-environment is not open for debate.  That is, if someone is to think of themselves as being pro-environment, then they must automatically be, for example, for lower energy consumption.  Or protecting the wild african spelling bee.  Or whatever the current cause is.

Now, let me make something clear - I am for lower energy consumption, but it has nothing to do with the environment.  If we want to lower energy consumption, I think we should first start by talking to God about all of the stars He put in the sky, especially the innumerable ones which are nowhere near life-inhabited planets, and tell Him that He needs to be conserving energy.  There is an uncountable amount of energy being consumed in the sky, for what?  Making the sky pretty?

The fact is, no matter how fast we consume energy, we can't outpace God.  I think having a giant fusion furnace 9 million miles away pumping energy through space is excessive.  I'm not complaining - I think the excess is wonderful.  God is extravagant!  And if you don't believe that God is extravagant, you should cut open a bell pepper and count the seeds.  Most of those seeds will go to waste.

My point is that honoring the environment as a work of God doesn't necessarily mean lowering energy consumption or being less extravagant.  Both of those things might be good, but not because of the environment! 

Therefore, I hereby protest the idea that the environment comes with one, prepackaged way for us to respond to it, and especially that environmentalists have any idea what that way is.

February 11, 2010

Religion and Science / Science Without its Magisterium


Steve Fuller has a new book coming out called Science in Acum Publishing's "The Art of Living" series.  Here a snippet from the book's description (bold mine):

...Fuller argues that science is undergoing its own version of secularisation. It is not that people are coming to lose their faith in science per se but rather they are losing the compulsion to conform to a specific orthodoxy that is upheld by a specially anointed class of “science priests”. We are, in a sense, all scientists now, says Fuller. Taking science into our own hands, we have become emboldened to affirm ideas and claims that conform to our own or our community’s experiences even if they go against the authorised experience of the laboratory.



February 07, 2010

Religion and Science / Religious Knowledge and the So-Called "War" Between Science and Faith


I have had it with people talking about the war between science and faith.  It is simply the most absurd concept I've ever heard of in my life.  If there is such a war, it certainly isn't being engaged on the theological side of the aisle.  The only reason for the claim of a war is to remove any real integration of theology into academic conversations.

Let me explain my problems with the idea of a "conflict" between science and religion.  Has anyone met anyone in the entire U.S. who disagrees with the entirety of the scientific enterprise?  The only way that this could be true is if someone viewed science as a series of facts to be memorized.  If that is their view of science, it is a decidedly anti-scientific view of science.  Science is a process, not a result.  Anyone who calls the results science instead of the process, is not promoting science, but something else.

Now, science is just one part of human knowledge.  I think that even the most ardent reductionist materialist would agree that, at least in our present state, in the absence of complete scientific knowledge, there are other non-scientific avenues of inquiry which yield real knowledge.  The materialist would hopefully at least allow for such avenues to yield "stand-in" knowledge, while we wait for knowledge.  In addition, in absence of complete knowledge, these other avenues might actually deliver better knowledge on some avenues than current science does, even if one believes that in the end science will produce the better knowledge.  In any case, I think we can safely say that there are a multitude of ways of obtaining knowledge other than science, even if someone believes that in the long run science is the ultimate form of knowledge.

Therefore, the question is, what happens when religion and science come to different conclusions?  Should science give in?  Should religion?  Should they each continue independently?  Should they find common ground?  My contention is simply this - no matter what they do, it would be improper to consider it a "war".  If a mathematician criticizes an engineer, we wouldn't talk about a "war between math and engineering".  Nor should we consider many of the criticisms of evolutionary psychology by evolutionists as a "war between science and science".

The fact is, if a discipline can yield real knowledge, then, in our finite and imperfect state of knowledge of all fields, it is likely that some of that knowledge will in fact be contrary to a few or many parts of other fields.  There is nothing wrong with this.  The part that is problematic is interpeting these conversations as a war.  The only reason why some people see this as a war is not because there is a conflict between disciplines, but rather that some people don't see theology as a proper discipline that yields any real knowledge.  That is the only way in which a "conflict" status between science and religion could emerge.  Everyone believes that science can at least yield some real knowledge.  But many materialists think that it is plainly improper for theology to yield real knowledge.

Therefore, the "war" between religion and science, if it is being waged at all, cannot be thought of as being waged by the religionists!  If there is merely disagreements, then the only person who would see that as a war, as opposed to merely the common result of multiple disciplines with incomplete knowledge, is someone who saw religion as having no proper role to play within the development of knowledge.

That is why the proposed "solutions" to the "war between science and religion" are so infuriating... they all involve simply ceding all knowledge claims to science!  Either that, or, even worse in my opinion, is to gloss over "science" with a meaningless ex post facto theological brush.  The only thing that does is tell everyone that yes, theology is adding nothing of consequence to the conversation.

The true solution to the "war" between science and religion is for theologians to understand science better - not so as to merely capitulate to someone else's claims, but rather to be able to more effectively engage in constructive dialogue.  I believe absolutely in the claim that "all truth is God's truth".  I disagree, however, that this necessitates us to think that everything a scientist says represents truth. 

If religion contains true knowledge, then, if all truth is God's truth, that truth should be instructive in fields beyond our just theology. 

I think the biggest fear that is preventing this is the fear of, "what if theology makes a claim that turns out to be wrong?"  Well, so what?  Isn't it amazing that science can overturn itself every few decades without a loss of confidence, but we are scared to death that even a single statement we make might turn out to be wrong.  I think, perhaps, that we are holding ourselves to too high of a standard.  Instead, we need to engage, and engage with the knowledge that we might be wrong.  But if we use the possibility of being wrong as a reason to not engage, then we might as well just quit altogether, and tell everyone to just listen to the materialists since they are the only ones with real knowledge.









February 02, 2010

Religion and Politics / The Abuse of "Story"


Postmodernism has greatly increased the relevance of "story" in both the interpretation of the Bible and in interpersonal interactions (for those of you who are unaware of what this is, here is a really good short summary by a friend of mine).  On the whole, this is a good thing.  However, recently I have been reading books which abuse the notion of story as to become propoganda.  This is a phenomena which I believe we will see more of, and is an unintended effect of our culture's shift towards "story" as a way of understanding. 

The problem is that "story" can easily become a substitute for "rational argument".  When we overemphasize story, we fail to be able to analyze a situation critically.  The book I'm currently reading is about the "story of the universe," and, actually, it is much worse than previous books I've read on this subject.

With story, one need not give an argument.  One simply presents heroes and villains and victims.  It is not possible to ask of a story if the heroes were heroic or evil, or if the victims were actually villains in someone else's story.  Story prevents you from asking many questions which are essential for discerning truth.

That isn't to say that story can't be used to communicate truth.  I certainly believe that the Bible does that.  The problem is that "story" only communicates truth when the teller of the story is a trusted source.  The only difference between story and propoganda is the trustworthiness of the teller.

Therefore, the postmodern shift towards story, while it may be good for both Biblical studies and interpersonal relationships, could really damage us in the realm of public knowledge, because to rely on story for this critical aspect of life will mean that it is inevitably susceptible for anyone to create a good enough story, with beautiful looking heroes and mean, nasty villains, and, since "story" instead of "argument" is the key phrase, public villainizing can be substituted for public debate.

"Story" is not impartial, and it's usefulness depends on the trustworthiness - and shared ideals - of the teller.