Nicholas Wolterstorff considers arguments for how we ground morality and human rights.
A dominant, or at least prominent, line of thought about morality, rights, and so forth stems from the 18th-century great German philosopher Immanuel Kant. And Kant grounds morality in rational agency – the truly remarkable ability that human beings have to act for reasons and not just out of causes.
So I think that that can account for a good deal of morality. It seems to me where the difficulty arises for such a secular account is when we acknowledge that people who are not capable of rational agency, when we acknowledge that such people still have rights and that we’ve still got obligations towards them – since they’re not capable of rational agency, they lack the capacity. So Kant says that it’s respect for the capacity for rational agency that requires of us that we pay them due regard and so forth, but if they don’t have that capacity.
So I think it’s the marginal human beings, the truly marginal: those who are in a long-term coma, those who are suffering from Alzheimer’s, the infant who was severely impaired from birth and so forth. It’s those marginal human beings who I think constitute the great challenge.
Simon Smart: And become vulnerable perhaps.
Nicholas Wolterstorff: And over the long haul I think they become vulnerable.