Anthropology, Human Rights, and Hume’s Guillotine

While reading the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights, I found myself in a situation similar to that confronted by David Hume some centuries ago. Hume, on reading the leading moral philosophers of his day, outlines the problem in these terms:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprized to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible, but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained, and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it … [I] am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason. – David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

This passage is open to some interpretation, but the general idea seems to be that you cannot deductively infer moral conclusions from non-moral premises. Yet, to his apparent consternation (or amusement), he commonly encounters moralists pretending to do just that. So, with Hume’s observation in mind, I carefully read the Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights and discovered that, in the preamble, there is likewise an almost imperceptible shift from “is” to “ought” in the passage that follows:

Anthropology’s cumulative knowledge of human cultures, and of human mental and physical capacities across all populations, types, and social groups, attests to the universality of the human capacity for culture. This knowledge entails an ethical commitment [my italics] to the equal opportunity of all cultures, societies, and persons to realize this capacity in their cultural identities and social lives.

Granted, the preamble may not be intended as a deductive argument, but, generally, philosophers use the term entailed to mean a conclusion inferred in a formally valid argument. Almost certainly, the authors of the preamble knew this. The AAA’s preamble is ambiguously worded because ethics, while formally a part of moral philosophy, can also simply imply methodological guidelines for effective scholarship. But I read the preamble as making a substantively moral point, and the inclusion of the word “entailed” makes it look like an “is-to-ought” deductive claim.

[Related: “Anthropology in Ruins”]

Whatever the intentions of the AAA writers, Hume’s warning suggests that we move with caution. For those who have attempted to demonstrate that our moral judgments can be readily inferred through deductive reasoning have run headlong into what is variously known as “Hume’s Law” or “Hume’s Guillotine”: this seeming inability to infer through deduction an “ought” from an “is.” In its role as an organization with both scientific and humanistic dimensions based on the rational pursuit of knowledge, the AAA may benefit from a justification for prescriptive statements regarding an equality of opportunity for all individuals, cultures, and societies. If moral prescriptions applying to opportunity, toleration for minority traditions, and valorization of human rights cannot be demonstrated to be valid conclusions inferred from the facts, then on what, exactly, are we anthropologists basing them? The disjunctive syllogism has been proffered as a rational method for moral reasoning, yet Shorter and Schurz have offered counterarguments that, to my mind, render it futile or irrelevant.

Meanwhile, in the numerous articles on activist/engaged anthropology that I examined, I could not find any valid deductions from facts to moral codes. Neither could I find any in the various United Nations pronouncements, nor anthropological statements on ethics, nor anywhere else that I looked in the literature most pertinent to human rights. In light of the strength of Shorter and Schurz’s defense of Hume’s position, I think that if the the authors of the AAA Declaration on Human Rights intended the preamble to be a deductive argument, they employed faulty logic. In that case, I would make the following revision to the preamble: “Anthropology’s cumulative knowledge of human cultures, and of human mental and physical capacities across all populations, types, and social groups, attests to the universality of the human capacity for culture. This knowledge entails nothing of moral relevance whatsoever.”

So how do we anthropologists justify support for human rights guarantees? I’m tempted to agree with Jacques Maritain, who said, “yes we agree about the rights, but on the condition that no one asks us why.” Maybe this is because our feelings, and not rationality, are the sources of our morality. Maybe it is because our preambles and declarations would appear silly if they were sprinkled with hurrahs and boos. Richard Rorty has promoted human rights culture from an emotivist position, and his ideas have provoked thoughtful commentary. Similarly, from a Humean/emotivist perspective, we honor existing obligations because we have entered into international conventions, and we seek to extend human rights guarantees to previously unprotected groups because of our emotions and capacity for sympathy. So maybe we could make a final preamble revision:

“Anthropology’s cumulative knowledge of human cultures, and of human mental and physical capacities across all populations, types, and social groups, attests to the universality of the human capacity for culture. We seek to extend human rights guarantees across all populations, types, and groups because we feel like doing it.”

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  • William Yaworsky

    William Yaworsky recently retired from his position as Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

One thought on “Anthropology, Human Rights, and Hume’s Guillotine”

  1. Quite an interesting point, leading to a humble and honest conclusion. The other thing of course is that some cultures, then and now, incorporate violence and killing other people as integral to their meaning systems. Headhunting (in the past) and female genital multilation (present) come to mind. I suppose the go-to pretzel logic to explain why these are unproblematic under the AAA professional statement is colonialism something something. Otherwise, for the non-woke, rights viz cultural expression comes down once again to a political balance.

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