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Are Human Rights Natural Rights?

HISTORIAN OF SCIENCE MICHAEL SHERMER AND philosopher Massimo Pigliucci have recently disagreed publicly over whether morality and human rights are a part of the natural world.

Massimo has maintained that human rights are not a component of the natural world capable of objective investigation; ultimately, he thinks that “human rights” and “morality” are mere social constructs. Massimo also attempted, unsuccessfully, to belittle and patronize Michael’s argument and credentials, even calling Michael’s writing on matters of morality a “crescendo of nonsense.”1

As someone with a professional interest in the science of morality—I’m a sociologist who wrote the 2015 book What Morality Means: An Interdisciplinary Synthesis for the Social Sciences (Palgrave Macmillan)—I want to set aside Massimo’s exasperated hand-waving and insults and consider the possibility that moral realism may be true. Human values, I contend, are a component of the natural world, fully investigable under the purview of an emerging science of cognition and culture.

Nonsense on Stilts?

This exchange all started when Michael published a Scientific American column titled “You Kant be Serious” (in the print edition), and “Does the Philosophy of ‘the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number’ Have Any Merit?”2 (in the online version), in which he described the results of a peer reviewed psychology paper3 where researchers had provided evidence of two distinct forms of utilitarianism.

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About Skeptic

SCIENCE AND MORAL VALUES Jordan Peterson Phenomenon; Thought Crimes: Jordan Peterson and the meaning of the Meaning of Life; Special Section on Science & Morality. Getting Real About Right and Wrong; No, Being Religious Will Not Save You from Suicide; Lessons from Behavioral Science in a Warzone: How Reason, Skepticism, and Compassion Can Win Hearts and Minds; Moral Philosophy and its Discontents: Can science determine moral values? An Exchange with Massimo Pigliucci, Michael Shermer, and Kevin McCaffree; Facilitated Communication Redux: Persistence of a Discredited Technique; The Mystery of Elite Religious Scientists: A Cognitively Impenetrable Illusion; Five Questions About Human Errors for Proponents of Intelligent Design; The SkepDoc: Beware Stem Cell Clinics that Offer Untested Treatments; Junior Skeptic: Astral Projection