17 March 2010

He Said It: Burke

"You have theories enough concerning the rights of men; it may not be amiss to add a small degree of attention to their nature and disposition. It is with man in the concrete; it is with common human life, and human actions, you are to be concerned." --Edmund Burke, Letter to Charles-Jean-Francois Depont, dated November 1789


Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Otteson,

but isn't it the essence of any human rights theory to be abstract? Not to look at individual circumstances but to treat every individual the same? And how could human dispositions (or even human nature) tell us something about ethics? We cannot take the world how it is and then go form there and conclude how it ought to be?

Best wishes form Germany,


Anonymous said...

You may want to take a look at this link


It is David Hume's essay on the is-ought problem - that one cannot derive what "ought" to be from what "is" or nature.

James R. Otteson PhD said...

Johannes, thank you for your note. I think you are right that human rights theories tend to be (perhaps are necessarily) abstract, but Burke argues that that is part of the problem with them. By concentrating on an abstract conception of humanity and its (alleged) inherent rights, we run the risk of wanting to implement an idealized blueprint for society that accords with those ideal rights, with little or no concern for how it affects the lives of actual human beings. That is the gravamen of Burke's charge against the French Revolution: It wanted an abstract, rational freedom, and was willing to do almost anything--including murdering its fellow citizens--to achieve it, instead of wanting a grounded freedom for individuals to lead lives as they saw fit.

Your question about whether human dispositions can tell us something about ethics is a venerable one--as the other poster's link to Hume, which of course I know well, attests. Here, perhaps, is not the place to fully join that conversation, but I will say that I think the issue is more complex than it first appears. First of all, "ought" is constrained by "can"--one cannot be morally required to do something impossible--which means that human dispositions, which set limits for human behavior, must tell us something about ethics. Second, one cannot directly derive an "ought" from an "is," but one can do so if one supplies a value premise in the argument. And where would those value premises come from? Human dispositions is one source.

So although the "naturalistic fallacy" is, or can be, indeed a fallacy, there are nevertheless reasonable ways to avoid it while still appealing to human nature.