October 25, 2006


Although this post shares the name with a Queensryche tune that's entirely coincidental. I'm listening to The Brandenburg Concertos at the moment (followed by The Water Music) & haven't dusted off my Queensryche files for some time (too long in fact). For some reason I'm in an early 18th century mood, musically at least. Though that was around the time of Locke (slightly after really), Hume, Smith (slightly before), Voltaire, etc.

Kevin of The Smallest Minority has a post up entitled The United Federation of Planets. Go read. We’ll discuss it (or some of its points) when you return.

In it Kevin poses three questions:

"A) Are there 'absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, ultimate rights' that exist regardless of whether a society recognizes (much less protects) them;

B) do those rights belong to all people, everywhere, at all times, simply because they are human - and;

C) are those rights 'self-evident'?"

The simple answer to all three is yes. But first we must understand the questions. Or more to the point, how we perceive the questions.

Surprisngly enough Wikipedia has an entry on "Right" which does a fair job of surmising the two schools of thought

To further add to your eye strain reading material Kevin I have had discussions on this subject before. (His posts are italicized.)

The Minority Retort

Publicola Throws Down the Gauntlet


Contracts and Absolutes.


I've Been a Baaaad Blogger

Now Kevin is a very thoughtful fellow. I'm not just saying that to suck up to him (just make the check out to CASH) but since I first read his site way back when I saw he had talent not only as a writer but as a thinker. Where I believe we differ is in a matter of perception.

Kevin is an engineer of some sort I believe. I'm not sure if he builds bridges or operating systems but he constructs things with known parameters to work within. I for lack of a better vocation am a musician. I work within known parameters as well but mine are slightly more flexible than the sets Kevin presumably deals with. But where his occupation demands logic based on known facts mine is almost (but not quite) the opposite; mine demands emotion.

I'm not trying to say that one approach is better than the other or that in a given situation one must always choose between the two. I'm just pointing out the different perspectives which I believe lie at the heart of our (albeit slight & probably semantic) disagreements & the nature of the questions Kevin posed.

I try to be as stoic as possible most of the time. On a day when I'm running my game right I make Spock look like a weepy 3rd grader with a skinned knee. But I am an emotional being. As I grow older I recognize this more & accept it more. I also see places in my past where I forsook that emotion & used logic alone. In some cases the results were less than ideal.

I believe that's a mistake we make when looking at Rights theory. Logic & reason are important but we cannot discount the emotional side of humanity in such discussions. If we do so we risk the same mistake that Marx made, which was to discount human nature or view it as something it was & is not.

Getting back to the questions, if we look at them purely with logic or reason then it's conceivable to conclude that "no" is a legitimate answer to any or all of them. But with emotion thrown in the mix it's harder (for me at least) to say anything other than "yes". to all of them.

Why? Because it's necessary to believe in something & those things seem worth believing in.

as Kevin quoted from Second Hand Lions:

"Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love, true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn't matter if it's true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in."

I believe a logical, rational argument can be made for answering "yes" to all those questions. But what's perhaps most important is that emotionally an argument can be made for them that's equally as compelling.

Of course emotions are subjective & not nearly as quantifiable as logic or reason. Try to explain to your wife/g-f/significant other why you love her without making it sound like you like her for her qualities or abilities. yet some or most of you would still feel the same way for your wife/g-f/significant other if she lost some or all of those abilities. So I won't argue that it's very precarious to make an emotion based argument for the Natural rights theory.

What I will argue is that emotion is the reason for Natural Rights theory.

In a state of nature let's say our model Homosapien is being attacked by wolves. Let's further say that he kills the wolves. Odds are other wolves won't rise in indignation over his actions & lynch him (though that might make a good cheesy sci-fi novel). Further he probably won't have to go through counseling to get past his actions. Neither will he have sat & pondered whether it was moral to kill the wolves or not.

But we are not in a state of nature, least not in a pristine sense. We have other Homosapiens to contend with as well as ourselves. & it is ourselves that the Natural Rights theory is made for.

If a man sees a loaf of bread lying on someone else's window sill & he's hungry then he would (usually) feel wrong about taking the bread. But if the bread was laying on his own windowsill he'd eat it without much hesitation (again usually). This is because in the first case he might not feel justified whereas in the second case he would.

Similarly if a man is raised with the belief that his body & life belong to the state then he wouldn't (usually) lift a finger to protect himself as he's being thrown into a cattle car. A man who believes he has a Right to his own life & determination would be much more likely to resist.

Kevin has pointed out that if another society invades & disregards your Rights then you're pretty much S.O.L. & pragmatically he's correct. To an outside observer my Rights would be insignificant if someone else came to me & abused them by force, especially if I was powerless to stop it. It would be as if that Right did not exist at all.

Except to me. Even though I was beaten & my Right abused as long as I had the belief that I had the Right then it would not be hopeless. Physically & perhaps pragmatically I might have lost, but I would not truly be down & out on the matter unless I gave up my belief.

What Natural Rights theory does (& where the Social Contract theorists have it wrong) is gives me a justification. It sounds like some BS a third rate psychologist would spout but it does have merit. Most people need to feel justified in their actions. Otherwise if they attempt something it's a half hearted effort at best (usually). Having that justification, the feeling that something is morally correct to do, is very important in many things. It's simply human nature & no matter how logical I try to be or wish everyone else was it's an emotional component we must contend with.

We need to feel justified in our actions. If we don't we might as well not bother with them.

Is our sense of justification always correct? Nope; not by a long shot. But it's necessary for humans as individuals & as societies to try to follow our beliefs as best we can. At times this has good results & at times it has bad results. But the alternative is to live a life filled with so much mediocrity that Tolstoy himself would shudder.

Think of it as natural selection in a philosophical/ideological sense. Well, natural selection before outlet protectors (where technology defeats Darwin). If a person or society tries to enforce a Right they believe exists & they fail then people in general move on to another Right to try to defend. Unless of course that Right has such appeal as to not die off easily despite numerous defeats. But the point is that it's better for people & society to try to back up their beliefs than to not have them at all.

So with the questions presented:

"A) Are there 'absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, ultimate rights' that exist regardless of whether a society recognizes (much less protects) them;"

Yes. If this were not so then we'd be wasting our time when we could be fishing or snowshoeing or counting lint from the dryer filter. Societies have only recently been recognizing Rights on an individual level. For thousand of years there were scatterings or rights recognition here & there, but it wasn't till post-Enlightenment that things really began to turn our way. If we as a species had given up on some of those Rights after a few hundred years of being killed & exiled for trying to exercise them then we wouldn't have the country we live in now.

So yes, the Right exists as long as the person believes that Rights exists. I'd submit that even if every person on the planet stopped believing in & recognizing certain rights that they'd still exist even if they were dormant. & they would continue to exist, recognized or not until either human nature changed or humanity ceased to exist.

Rights are a part of human nature, much like joy & sadness & hunger & fear & being hung-over on occasion. That will not change simply because others do not acknowledge those conditions. I'm gonna be hung-over or hungry or sad or afraid even if you beat me to near death in an effort to make me think I'm not so. I might even say that I'm not in any condition you don't want me to be in if the beating is severe enough. But that won't change the feeling within me or the belief that I have that feeling. It's the same with what I consider a Right. The whole world can think that I don't have the Right to my own life & for all pragmatic purposes that Right may not seem to exist. But until they lay my head on the chopping block that Right that I believe in will serve it's purpose - it will give me justification to resist going to the chopping block.

So yes, certain rights exist despite what anyone else thinks. Quantifying those specific Rights can get tricky, but that's another question for another time.

"B) do those rights belong to all people, everywhere, at all times, simply because they are human"

Yes. If we assume that a Right is a construct of human nature instead of a societal arrangement then it would be hypocritical for me to claim that I have Rights that a Hmong man wouldn't. Now if their society doesn't recognize a Right & the individual himself doesn't recognize it I'd submit that it still exists in principle even if it's dead in practice.

It's like being in a state of divorce. Let's say you & your wife split up but you still care for her. As far as society is concerned you don't to any meaningful degree & she might feel that way as well. You can even convince yourself that you no longer care for her. But that does not mean that you in fact don't. Recognition is useful to outside observers & sometimes to ourselves but it is not the surest guide to what exists & what does not.

"C) are those rights 'self-evident'?"

Yes. But that self evidence hinges upon understanding the components that make up the question. The usual argument to my position on this is a Right is self evident then why do people abuse or neglect it? Again we come back to human nature. Some people are evil in nature. Some are greedy or self concerned to an uncool degree. Others are just inconsiderate. But in each case where a Right is trampled or otherwise intruded upon you'll usually find that the offending party has some sort of justification for his actions. "It's not really a Right", "That Right doesn't apply to them", "I had a Right that took precedence", "I'm from the government; I can do anything", etc. It all comes back to justification. It can be used to counter a Right just as it can to motivate someone to uphold one.

But I think that if a person is given the relevant information & comprehends the components of the question & how human nature is involved then some Rights are indeed self evident. Which Rights those are is where it does get sticky, but I think that Kevin & I can agree on perhaps at least a few which may qualify to fit the criteria of the questions posed. & no; universal health care won't be one of them. :)

To restate what I was attempting to say in 20 billion words or less; Rights exist not just (or perhaps not even predominantly) for society to use as boundaries but for the individual to use as a justification for his actions. It's partly an emotional component as well as a reasoned one that makes the concepts of Rights so important to us. With that emotional & logical justification we can more effectively assert our Rights. Without them then resisting attempts to diminish them would be much more difficult & ultimately fruitless.

Posted by Publicola at October 25, 2006 06:10 AM | TrackBack

Publicola, in actuality we are very close to agreement here. I have one essential question, though: If everyone has a natural right to his own life, can you justify the killing of innocents in war?

Posted by: Kevin Baker at October 26, 2006 07:56 PM

Please define "innocents". Also, are we talking about intentional or unintentional deaths?

My personal opinion is that it is wrong to kill non-combatants in war. However, this is predicated by a couple of things.

A) Politicians, royalty, or any other people who are prt of the 'civilian oversight' are NOT non-combatants. This also applies to intelligence gathering operatives and their hierarchy.

B) I'm a libertarian type and thus I do not care for offensive war.

Posted by: Gregg at October 27, 2006 10:45 PM

For example: Carpet bombing a city; Children are innocents, no? If you're going to deliberately bomb civilian areas, then you're going to be deliberately killing children. The killing of al-Zarqaw; A woman and child were apparently also in the house we dropped two 500lb precision-guided bombs on. You can argue that this was accidental, but it was certainly a known risk. In fact, if the 9/11 commission report was correct the reason that the Clinton Administration demurred from attacking Bin Laden in his known camp was at least in part the fear of "collateral casualties" - the deaths of innocents.

When we assaulted Okinawa, our soldiers often had split-seconds to decide if a woman carrying a baby was innocent, or a combatant. "Better safe than sorry" is a tactic most understood at the time, because some were combatants. Same for Vietnam. Same for Iraq.

But don't you argue that these people all have "absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, ultimate rights" simply because they're human beings? Isn't killing them in combat violation of those rights? How do we justify our acts if our society is based on a belief in absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, ultimate rights?

Posted by: Kevin Baker at October 28, 2006 03:18 PM