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Truth, justice and human rights

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 11 July 2013


We are used to seeing, perhaps in courtroom drama, witnesses placing their hands on the bible and making an oath that they will tell the truth. This long- standing practice, now under attack by inclusivists, tells us that there has been an association between the truth and the God who is born witness to in Scripture. It is not that we believe that anyone swearing an oath of this kind would be religious and hence will be a more reliable witness, but that the truth in Scripture is a touchstone of all truth. The intention of this article is to examine how our understanding of truth and hence justice has faired in a secular society that refuses to recognise the connection between God and truth.

There is now some consensus between sociologists, philosophers and theologians about our inheritance from the sixteenth and seventeenth century European Enlightenment. No one doubts, except perhaps the radical environmentalists, that the scientific and technological inheritance is central to our civilization and has been mostly a good thing. However, while natural science has been the winner, bringing us untold advantages in all of the material concerns of life, that part of our lives involved in telling us how we should live our lives, of human identity and the meaningfulness of actions has done less well i.e. our understanding of the truth of human existence has been neglected, even has come under attack.

This trade off between the things seen and the things unseen, to use a biblical phrase, comes from the emphasis on autonomous reason and the insistence on methodological doubt. According to Descartes, clear and certain ideas can only be obtained, not from communal inheritance but from the cogitation of the isolated individual. This brought about what has been called "the turn to the self" in which traditional ways of knowing received from others was replaced by the knowing of the isolated and rational self. Natural science was tremendously helped by this turn because the astronomy of Ptolemy could be replaced by that of Copernicus, the physics of Aristotle could be replaced by the physics of Galileo and Newton, the physiology of Galen with that of Harvey. Observations by individual observers took the place of received knowledge as sources of truth.

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Movements that arise in society that are very successful tend to overreach their bounds. We saw this in social Darwinism. This also happened with the empirical method. It was so successful, that it displaced traditional ways of knowing, in the natural sciences for good reason, but to the damage of the humanities. Much of the negative effects of the Enlightenment are with us today in the form of this overreach. While science flourished under the tutelage of the empirical method, the humanities did not because they are not evidence based. Disciplines who found themselves in the middle, like psychology, have wandered for years searching for an academic identity. Does psychology belong to the humanities or the sciences?

This overreach, sometimes called "Enlightenment fundamentalism" insisted that truth must be based on evidence and that it must be open to any rational individual. Thus the truth found in the humanities was relegated to second-class truth; it was not really hard truth as produced by the sciences but subjective truth and hence relative. While educated people continued to delight in the arts and humanities there has been a stream of thinking that would reduce everything to physics and chemistry. Eric Idle's Galaxy Song is a remarkable example of the substitution of a scientific for a humanistic narrative as if the wonder of the dimensions and speeds of the universe can be a comfort to someone facing the exigencies of life.

One of the outcomes of the insistence on autonomous reason is that choice became very important. For, in the absence of any kind of education of desire from a community with ancient roots, individual choice is king. In fact, it is, in our day, sacrosanct. It is the liberal view that choice does not need a warrant. It exists as the epitome of the free person and cannot be criticised, to choose is enough, even if the choices are obviously shallow or self-destructive. This amounts to a construction of the self whose freedom is proclaimed but whose formation is forbidden because any such formation impinges on that freedom. Opponents of Christianity often describe catechesis as brain washing because it impinges on the individual's freedom to choose. Of course it is absurd to suggest that anyone can create themselves out of nothing, we are all surrounded by external influences from our first breath. This kind of freedom is an illusion.

If we return to our discussion of what the truth might mean it is obvious that the self-created person must take his own subjectivity as truth. Truth is relativised to the individual. Again, any assessment of what is true for the individual is true for that individual and hence sacrosanct. This means that there can be no discussion of what is true since we find ourselves in an equalitarian understanding of truth. This argument is overblown but it does point to the ideas that underpin liberalism.

The concept of truth is connected with that of justice and it is significant that talk about justice has been taken over by talk about human rights. Such talk is a kind of personalised talk about justice. Since we have abolished any influence of community and all is loaded onto the isolated individual, justice must become human rights. Thus human rights wants to talk about justice only in terms of the individual. To do this we must invent a mysterious and unfounded property of the individual that is inalienable from that individual. Of course this is just wishful thinking and various new rights are invented because they appear to be a good thing. The exclusive assertion of human rights must destroy community since community has no place in deciding what is just. Society is in danger of becoming the place of competitive rights even when we attempt to balance it with duty and responsibility. Thatcher's much-hated aphorism that there is no such thing as community, there is only the individual, comes to realization.

It is interesting that human rights language has not affected the common practice of law that continues to rest on the precedents of the community. How do you prosecute a murder trial under the sole criterion that the victim had a right not to be murdered? Is there not a truth about murder being fundamentally wrong?

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The language of human rights has come to dominate our world because we cannot any longer talk about truth. This is another way of saying that we can no longer, in the public square, talk about God. Such talk is forbidden because Christianity has become a private matter to do solely with the salvation of the individual believer. It is not a subject for public discussion. Religious people are free to believe what they want as long as they do not attempt to proselytise. This ignores the fact that the search for truth is at the centre of the practice of theology. Christians do not or should not reduce faith to utilitarianism in the hope that belief will provide some benefit. They should be concerned about what is true, a major topic in the gospels, especially the gospel according to John. The eclipse of the understanding of God as truth is the reason we find talk about truth difficult if not impossible.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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