Dr. Dennis Cooley: The Right to Life is Nonsense on Stilts

On February 4, 2014, Dr. Dennis Cooley, Professor of Philosophy, gave a talk at the Science, Religion, and Lunch Seminar in the Hidatsa Room at North Dakota State University. The talk was entitled, “The Right to Life is Nonsense on Stilts.” Click the button below to listen to a recording of Dr. Cooley’s talk.

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1 hour and 9 minutes

Dr. Cooley explains his argument below.

Philosophy is often controversial because it challenges long held beliefs and social conventions about what is real and how we should think about things. But that challenge is needed so that we can create marketplaces of ideas, as John Stuart Mill called them. A marketplace of ideas is healthy for a society because everyone has the ability to share his or her ideas while at the same time encountering the ideas of others. Of course, in a healthy society , there will be conflicts of ideas from the simple fact that different bright people can and will think in different ways. But that conflict is good because it creates a competition between ideas, and we as rational citizens of the society, get to choose which ideas work for us. This is not a form of relativism, but rather a process in which the truth is found through gradual steps of improvement as everyone adds his or her contribution to uncovering and refining the ideas to match what is real.

Natural and moral rights have long been a core belief of the Western World since the time of the Enlightenment. They are central to our social and political thinking as well as to many forms of ethics. The Declaration of Independence, for example, would not exist in its current form without Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers thinking that rights exist and have a role to play in our political world. Since then, rights have been used repeatedly to justify the granting or taking of privileges from others, including the right to be free, the right to vote, and the right to life in the abortion debate.

However, rights talk seems inherently confusing when we remove moral and natural rights from the pedestal upon which they have been placed. The right to life, for example, does not seem to be able to be violated, which makes it a very strange form of entitlement. In fact, rights in general don’t seem to be able to do the work that we want them to do. So why not replace them with a morality that can do what we need without getting into the weeds of suspect thinking in which we try to force reality to fit our theory rather than for our theory to fit reality?