April 18, 2006

The Minority Retort

Kevin of The Smallest Minority is a good writer. I've been reading him since a few weeks after he started blogging & I highly recommend him to be on your list of daily reads. He has a very nice three part series which you should read post haste. The last installment has links to the previous ones & it's called Governments, Criminals, and Dangerous Victims.

He has another one entitled Those Without Swords Can Still Die Upon Them Or: Why I Am a 'Gun Nut'. I feel almost ashamed to mention it but it expands greatly on a related theme I wrote about in a post of mine called The Means, Knowledge & Will to Resist.

In Those Without Swords.... Kevin makes the case that personal armaments were essential for the development of Rights theory. After all how can you really philosophize about a Right which you cannot defend from attack? My post was concerning the three things I think are necessary for a people to remain free.

In most things Kevin & I are in agreement. However there are a few differences.
I refer you to the following posts of his:

What is a "Right"?

It's Not All Faith

Rights, Revisited

History and Moral Philosophy

In these you'll find the main difference between Kevin & myself: He's a Contractualist whereas I'm an Absolutist. I think we both agree as to some of the problems society currently faces about Rights: namely that we are pretty damn apethetic in general about the most important ones.

Where we differ is in the origin of those Rights. I'll grant that for most purposes this difference is strictly academic but there are some practical applications which do depend on the origin theory.

A Contractualist believes that Rights are strictly a construct of the social contract. In other words Rights are dependent on society agreeing that they are in fact Rights.

An Absolutist believes that Rights are inherent & exist independently of the social contract. Rights are an inherent thing not given to men by men, but bestowed upon us by Nature or Nature's God (depending upon your belief system).

Kevin often uses a quote by Heinlein (from Starship Troopers)to illustrate his point that Rights are not inherent nor are they absolute. Here is the quote:

"Life? What 'right' to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What 'right' to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of 'right'? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man's right is 'unalienable'? And is it 'right'? As to liberty, the heroes who signed the great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called natural human rights that have ever been invented, liberty is the least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.

"The third 'right' - the 'pursuit of happiness'? It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can 'pursue happiness' as long as my brain lives -- but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can insure that I will catch it."

Tackling the first part, which I believe is the bulk of the argument against an inherent or Absolute Right, we see Heinlein's logic at work. Since a Right can be taken away by nature, then it is therefore not a Right in the Absolute sense of the word. If it were in fact Absolute then Nature would not be able to take it away.

From a certain point of view this is correct. Then again from a certain point of view damn near anything can be correct. What it hinges on is the proper definition of the key terms.

From Meriam-Webster:

1 : qualities (as adherence to duty or obedience to lawful authority) that together constitute the ideal of moral propriety or merit moral approval

2 : something to which one has a just claim: as a : the power or privilege to which one is justly entitled b (1) : the interest that one has in a piece of property -- often used in plural (2) plural : the property interest possessed under law or custom and agreement in an intangible thing especially of a literary and artistic nature

3: something that one may properly claim as due

- of right 1: as an absolute right 2 : legally or morally exactable

I'd say that definitions 2 & 3 are the most relevant to the discussion. A Right is something which someone has a just claim to or can claim as a proper due.

But the question is why do we have a just claim to what we consider a Right? Is it because society agrees on it in some fashion or is it because that certain things we consider to be Rights are universal & inherent to human beings?

Before we explore that let's define another word.


4: having no restriction, exception, or qualification



The lack of restrictions or exceptions is typically what you think of when you hear the word "Absolute". But it's not exactly correct in the context of this discussion (though it's close & perhaps merely an idealized state of the word). Let's say that Absolute in the context of Rights refers more to definitions 5 & 7 than any others; Rights are positive (meaning that a Right is active and effective in social or economic function) & fundamental (meaning that a Right serves as a basis supporting existence or determining essential structure or function as well as belonging to one's innate or ingrained characteristics).

Kevin will argue that Morals are not something basic or inherent; they're a learned behavior. I can't say as I disagree with him much on that. But I think he's of the belief that since Morals are learned rather than naturally occurring then Rights, which can be argued are based on or are similar to Morals, are not naturally occurring & thus solely a construct of society.

I do wish to point out an error of interpretation in Heinlein's work. The last paragraph discusses the "pursuit of happiness". But when Jefferson penned those words he was paraphrasing; using artistic license to cover a concept that was fairly well known.

"As american as baseball & apple cider"

You know what the phrase is supposed to be. Well when Jefferson penned "...life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness..." most people of the day knew the correct version of that phrase. Many now do not. It was originally "...life, liberty & property..." as penned by Locke.

Heinlein wrote fiction & as such I won't fault him for a misdirected rant. But property should have been what was addressed, not the ethereal pursuit of happiness.

Getting back to the allegory of the man drowning in the sea, Heinlein (& subsequently Kevin) argues that since the man cannot seek any sort of actionable claim against the sea to protect his Right to Life, then that Right does not exist except as a social construct. I disagree.

A man has a Right to Life. It's inherent & from conception (though some would argue from birth or some other point in between conception & birth) he has that Right. Now this does not mean it can't be unjustifiably taken away from him. In fact it's a very fragile Right in that it is not self sustaining. Inaction will cause a person to lose it. If a man does not eat or drink water then after a certain period he will die. That's just part of the limitations of the corporeal existence we have.

But what constitutes the “Right” to life isn’t a guarantee that it will be preserved, but merely the plausibility that it will be used & the lack of a just claim anyone else has on it.

Rights – as the Absolutists usually define them – are not explicit grants of material things, but rather acknowledgements of potential.

Let’s assume that a Right to healthcare is proposed. Most folks (myself included) would shudder the moment such a proposal looked like it had serious momentum. Why? Because those of the collectivist bent usually equate a Right with the realization of potential, not the mere potential itself. So a “right to healthcare” proposal would generally include some form of subsidization of the cost. But that’s not what the phrase is supposed to mean if we respect definitions at all.

A “right to healthcare” already exists, in that you’re free to seek any & all health care that you think you need – as long as you can either provide it yourself or bargain to have it provided for you. The “right” in this context is not a license or grant of service, but a moral freedom to seek such services.

So taking it back to the “Right to Life” question – there is no guarantee that you will have life. The only thing a Right does is to say that you may not be justifiably prevented from seeking to exercise the object of that Right. Because someone or something can take away your life does not mean that you have no Right to it. It merely means that you were not successful in your goal of keeping it. In the case of the sea taking it you were just out of luck. If a government had thrown you into the sea because you said nasty things about their uniforms then you’d have a case that your Rights were infringed.

One thing that hangs a lot of people up is that because a Right can be temporarily or permanently restrained then they assume it’s not a Right at all, or at least not Absolute or Inalienable.

Again I must disagree.

I think we can all agree that property is a Right. So let’s say that your mother or aunt or sister or girlfriend or wife is walking down the street with a brand new purse on her arm that you bought for her. You transferred your right of property in said purse to her. By the concept of Rights, specifically property Rights it’s hers.

But now let’s say a guy comes up behind her & cuts the straps & runs off with the purse. Because she could not keep it from being stolen is her property Right in the purse negated?


Rights exist in Nature but not for the sake of Nature. Rights exist whether you’re by yourself in the wilderness or if you’re by yourself in two square feet of downtown Atlanta, Georgia. But Rights are applicable only with regards to people.

If a stone falls out of the sky & kills you that’s just part of the game. It sucks, & in a bad way but those are the breaks. The rock was not acting with malice when it landed on you. It was behaving as rocks behave in gravity.

If a person walks up to you & for no justifiable reason drops a rock on you & kills you, then we have action with intent. We also have a good use of why Rights were communicated.

People. Be it a person acting singly or a group acting as a government, people are the reason it was necessary to define & articulate & communicate what exactly a “Right” is. They are, in essence, boundaries to prevent action from or by other people that would halt or slow you down in seeking or trying to achieve something that is necessary & proper for you to do.

But I believe the ultimate purpose of a Right is not just a warning to others that a line has been drawn but it serves to give you justification for an action. It gives you a reason to not accept reality in a sense.

A large man walks into your house & tries to kill you. Reality is that a large man can overpower you & do whatever the hell he wants (assuming you’re not a large man yourself). But Rights let you rationalize that his action was not proper & it would be proper for you to kill him or otherwise prevent him from killing you rather than submit to your own demise because it’s the more realistic outcome.

In general I do not have problems with laws preventing a person from walking into a mall & shooting indiscriminately or discriminately inside the place. These laws do not interfere with my Rights (for the most part). Now if a law says I may not carry the means to prevent such an attack from taking my life, then my Rights are tampered with. Similarly if a law would punish me for shooting someone who was shooting indiscriminately or discriminately inside the mall then I’d be mentioning that my Rights were being violated. But as long as I could carry my firearm in said mall without a law providing a punishment for doing so then I could exercise my Right without consequence.

So if we define a Right as something applicable against other humans – as boundaries to justify the quest for a certain state of being, then I think things become a little clearer for all sides of the debate. However if one faction sees Rights as something that demands a gift, achieves a result or goal, or that negates nature’s influence then we start to argue from two very different points.

If I know Kevin as well as I think I do one of his strongest defenses of his Contractualism will be that it's realistic. After all, how can one use or enjoy a Right that society does not believe exists or actively scorns?

The answer lies in one of his own pieces. One of the three I linked to above in context of this disagreement. In it there's much discussion of Protestantism being instrumental in establishing societies that believed in certain Rights. Now the concept of Rights pertaining to individuals is relatively recent. Or rather their recognition by governments is relatively recent. 500 years ago there may have been discussion of what "ought" to be, but the concept of Natural Rights wasn’t something that a baron would hearken to if he heard it from a peasant.

Now we have at least some primitive acknowledgments in many countries of what they consider human rights which is off the mark a little bit (in most cases) from what we mean by Natural Rights but it'll do to make this point.

We did not go from a system where a King could by law sleep with your bride on your wedding night to one in which your choice of arms is protected by the government (hey - in theory at least) by being realistic. Neither di we go from being a British colony to a free state (& later a free country) by being realistic

I really am all for accepting reality. I do it every damn day (whether I wish to or not). But setting such parameters on your goals, principles or ideals is not the way to achieve those goals, principles or ideals. We do need to know & understand our limitations, but we also need to struggle to exceed them.

If 51% or 99.9% of the people in the society I live tell me that there's no such thing as a Right to Self Defense or a Right to Arms I will not, can not accept that. I can accept that I'd be in trouble with the collective should I be caught exercising either, but a plurality or a majority or a super majority can be wrong.

The short version is that Rights as I'm speaking of revolve around one word: Property.

I "own" my body. I also "own" my life. Consequently I "own" the produce of both. To ensure that no one unjustly takes away my "ownership" of my body or my life I have weapons to defend myself with. Now this does not mean that I'll always be successful at such a defense. This does not mean some thug (with or without a badge) won't take either away from me or make it almost impossible to use either as I'd want. & society could very well back up such a move on the part of a thug or thugs.

But that does not negate my Right. It interferes with it. It hampers my use of it. It cna even take away the vehicle of said Right. But the Right is still there.

How? Why? Because I think. I reason. I believe. Not a blind faith, but a rational one; one that tells me that no matter the outcome my life & my body are my own.

Let's say 20 ATFU agents storm my door. They just need some kitten stomping practice & got my address confused with someone who was an easy mark. Further let's say I'm having an off day & only get 19 of them, with the 20th nailing me with a lucky shot.

They will have taken my life. But not my Right to it. If I submitted to them that they had power of life & death over me, then a good argument that my right was negated could be made. & it's obvious that with me dead they've effectively impaired my ability to use said Right. But as long as I breathe the Right exists. Or rather as long as I can think. Or as long as others of like mind can think.

Let’s assume the Davidians did have a machine gun without the $200 tax. Did they have the Right to it? They’re dead (most involved with the federal attack at least) so many would say no – even if in theory they did they have no means of exercising it, therefore the Right does not exist for them. But I have argued before (& will again) that machine guns are part of the Right to Arms & that the feds were wrong in their actions. So my contention is that they did have a Right to a machine gun. That they lost their lives over it is not proof that they had no Right, but that they were wronged by those who ignored their Right. Pragmatically it doesn’t matter for them anymore, but for us, for the ones left alive it is a very valid topic, & one that we need to discuss. Most importantly it’s one that we need to convince others of.

The origin theory (if you will) of Rights is important because it helps define exactly what the nature of those Rights are. What they constitute, what they entail. What they mean in the real world even.

There might be some differences in the Rights Kevin & I deem valuable, but I don't think it's much of a difference, certainly not enough to discuss if it is a difference at all.

What is notable is the origin of Rights in our own respective views. His is dependant on what 51% of society says they are, whereas mine is dependant on what I can reason. His does seem to be a pragmatic approach to things, but I cannot go along with it. I'm sure if he takes the time he'll pick out flaws with my reasoning on the matter just as I can with his. Neither of us will change our minds anytime soon I suspect. But it is very important we understand the differences. We are working towards the same goal but our bearings are slightly different because of different starting points.

Kevin is perhaps the best example on our side of a Contractualist. He's well reasoned & downright eloquent at times which is why I'm picking on him. I'm just saying so no one thinks I bear any malice or ill will towards him (though I do get irritated when he doesn't post regular range reports about his Garand :D ).

Pragmatically there are certain problems with the Natural Rights origin theory. But despite such problems I've been led to think that it's the correct view of what Right are & where they came from. It makes the most sense to me.

Now whether God Himself handed them down or whether they were realized over the centuries along with other natural laws is going to make someone much linked to if they deign to write about it from either angle. But for me I think it's workable to view them as part of Nature, which would cover the religious as well as secular reader whom I hope will contemplate this issue.

Rights exist for people; namely the person they're applicable to as a justification & a limitation for their actions, but also to set boundaries for others. They are inherent in that they exist independent of social construct. Whether the object of those Rights (life for instance) is realized is irrelevant to the existence of the Rights themselves. Similarly they do not hinge upon a consensus for their existence. They are part of our basis for survival as individuals as well as societies. They can be trampled & the objects they seek to protect can be taken away, but not justly (in most cases) which is what makes them Natural Rights instead of Natural Laws.

That's the starting point I & most other Absolutists have. We can differ with the Contractualists & still get along (I'm into "big tent anti-prior restraint-ism") most of the time. But it is important to discuss the pros & cons of both sides & most importantly, to figure out what common goals we have & work towards them. After all, one thing the Contractualists have gotten absolutely right (yes; I'm that into bad puns) is that we need to have better PR & get the undecided on our side. 51% does not make something right, but it sure as hell makes it easy.

Note: This was originally started on August 26th of 2004. I delayed publishing this post til I felt a more appropriate time for the subject came up. Obviously I think that time is now, though that's no guarantee that I'm (ahem) Right. :)

Posted by Publicola at April 18, 2006 05:35 AM
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