What happens when nihilism is taken to its logical and philosophical conclusion?
“Human rights are just like heaven and like God. It’s just a fictional story that we have invented and spread around. It may be a very nice story… but it’s just a story. It’s not a reality.”
So says Noah Yuval Hariri, a historian and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of Homo Deus (“Man God”), along with many other bestselling publications, including children’s picture books.
Harari’s chilling quote above comes from a TED Talk he gave almost a decade ago but that has been making the rounds on social media recently and garnering millions of views and thousands of negative comments.
Here’s some more context to what Harari said in that talk:
Many—maybe most—legal systems are based on this idea or this belief in human rights. But human rights are just like heaven and like God. It’s just a fictional story that we have invented and spread around. It may be a very nice story; it may be a very attractive story—we want to believe it. But it’s just a story. It’s not a reality. It is not a biological reality. Just as jellyfish and woodpeckers and ostriches have no rights, Homo sapiens have no rights also. Take a human, cut him open, look inside. You find the blood, you find the heart and lungs and kidneys, but you don’t find any rights. The only place you find rights is in the fictional stories that humans have invented and spread around.
Klaus’s top adviser tells us where things are headed. pic.twitter.com/Y3UxCJWvcx
— Epstein’s Sheet. 🧻 (@meantweeting1) January 19, 2024
The full video can be viewed here, but be warned: There is no redemptive story arc; no happy ending—either in Harari’s TED Talk or his nihilistic worldview.
Harari couldn’t sound more assured in his assertions that both God and human rights are fictional.
But his remarks are just that: assertions. Harari is asking us to believe him but offering no evidence for his assertions.
Worse, he is exposing the dangerous and nihilistic logical endpoint of this worldview. Namely, that if there is no God or higher power, then even the most fundamental moral boundaries that the vast majority of human nations have subscribed to are null and void. No moral evil is ultimately out of bounds in a world without a higher power or objective moral foundation. Not terrorism, not pedophilia, not murder.
Not only that, but if God is fictional and human rights are fictional, then so is mathematics, reason, and love, not to mention human meaning and purpose.
Noah Yuval Harari faces a predicament known as the is-ought problem—and it’s not the first time he has stumbled on this point, as previously highlighted by Intellectual Takeout.
A perennial of secular philosophy, the is-ought problem is that without a higher power, there is no way to cross the threshold from what is in the world around us, to what ought to be.
Specifically, in the realm of morality, unless there is a moral standard that transcends human cultures, we could justify many terrible deeds as our human tastes shift from one era to the next. Moral relativism might be a convenient framework for people who want to live without moral restraint, but over the long haul, it has no power to hold people or civilizations back from the most wicked deeds imaginable.
While many secular philosophers see this as a problem, Harari promotes it as some kind of triumph. So did his intellectual antecedents—men like Friedrich Nietzsche. The horrors of the 20th century loom in recent history as examples of what this line of thinking can justify.
What of the argument that human rights are secular, not theistic?
Actually, human rights, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and similar documents, have distinctly Christian origins.
According to the University of Notre Dame’s Iain Benson, “The major proponents of human rights as it was developed and codified in the twentieth century were themselves Christians—people like Jacques Maritain from France and Charles Malik in Lebanon.”
Nick Spencer, author of The Evolution of the West, agrees. He says, “In the sense that the Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t draw explicitly on any religious doctrines of course it’s thoroughly secular, but if you lift the lid you find an awful lot of Christian workings underneath the bonnet.”
So while Harari, an atheist, might gleefully credit atheism or nihilism with “freeing” us from the obligation of human rights, what he actually does is the opposite.
It’s a reminder that if human societies are to function at all—if nations are going to hold themselves and each other to any moral framework—we need to believe in something. The question is what that something will be. Will we rise to the morality that founded our civilization, or will we submit to the forces that seek to destroy life and liberty?
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