Thursday, August 23, 2012

From Jersey McJones: Rights Come from Society

Sorry to call you out Jersey, but it has to be done.

Over at Western Hero, Silverfiddle wrote an article about natural rights theory.  When I responded to it, I did so with Jersey in mind because I distinctly remember him arguing against the notion of natural rights theory.  From Jersey's own fingers:
"Rights" are simply things a society deems we can get away with.
According to Jersey, rights are determined by society.  Jersey does not buy into natural rights theory--the notion that human beings all have inherent rights by virtue of being sapient beings.  I subscribe to the notion that one does not even need to believe in God to believe in natural rights theory.  If tomorrow we discovered that God does not exist, I would still maintain that humans have natural rights.

I will explain that later, but for now lets stick with Jersey's line of logic and follow it to its conclusions.  If rights are determined by society, then that would throw out the entire notion of spiritedness--or as the Greeks called it "thumos."  Thumos is that anger, that indignation we feel when we know we have been wronged in some way.

With Jersey's line of thinking, that anger we feel when we are wronged is completely unjustified.  So, since German society decided it was a good idea to round up the Jews and murder them, that's totally fine because rights are determined by society.  The Jews didn't deserve to live--none of them had the right to live in peace because German society said the didn't.

But we all know that's complete bullshit.  If tomorrow, American society decided that women no longer have the right to choose whether or not to keep a pregnancy, I guaran-goddamn-tee that nearly all women would be in an uproar.  Hell, I would be in an uproar, because all women inherently have the right to choose what to do with their bodies.

The Founding Fathers used very careful words in their writings.  They used words such as "abriged," and "infringe," when talking about rights.  They never, ever said that rights can be taken away: because they can't.  Rights are inherent to the human species.  We are sapient.  We are capable of reason, making claims on this world, and we have aspirations.

We are not cattle to be farmed, and we are meant to live free.  How many humans enjoy being slaves?  How many humans like to be told to "shut up" by their government?  Even Jersey feels indignant when he thinks that the Republicans are trying to abridge his rights.

Yes, the government can prevent you from exercising your rights, but it cannot take them away.  Just because your government says that you are not allowed to practice whatever religion you want doesn't mean your right to freedom of religion is gone.  You still have that right, and any human who is not willing to be another man's slave would fight to uphold his ability to exercise it.

This is how we are able to say that the Nazis were wrong, that Stalin was a tyrant, and that the Iranian government is oppressive.  Because all humans, by virtue of their nature, have rights that they ought to exercise freely.

Jersey, by expressing that the Republicans would be wrong to ban abortion, you admit to believing in natural rights.  They simply cannot do that, and if they did ban abortion they would be in the wrong and you would say that they are violating the rights of women.  But by your logic, if the Republicans are in charge then they are the ones who determine women's rights.  So you could not be legitimately angry at them, because they are the bestower of rights.

But you would be angry.  I would be angry.  Most people would be angry, because humans have rights regardless of what the government may say.  Think of rights as freedoms that every human being deserves.  You don't need the government to tell you that you deserve to live free.  You know it in your heart.  Human beings deserve to live free.

Don't we?


Silverfiddle said...

Well said. I could quibble with your abortion line of argument, but it you insist that a child in the womb has no rights, then your argument coheres.

But being that Jersey is pro-abortion, I understand why you used that line of argumentation.

I also liked the "Thumos" argument. That, coupled with an innate knowledge that killing and stealing are wrong, even among those who do it with no compunction, informs us that these rights are indeed natural, and not invented by man.

Jack Camwell said...

Yes, I used the abortion argument because this was geared towards him. Good observation.

It's also worthy to note that those who kill and steal without compunction usually don't want to be killed or have their stuff stolen from them. It's good that you brought that up, because even sociopaths understand what rights are: they just don't care about anyone's rights but their own.

Anonymous said...

Jackie, that's two sides of the same coin. Furthermore, I know you know this?!

Lookie here mang:

Without government that has laws, your "natural rights" would mean precisely shit. Nothing natural about it, as you have already stated.

In an anarchistic society, such as Liberia, natural rights don't really apply that often... not because they aren't human and therefore don't have some sort of inherent value... but because their "government" sucks. If you were a Liberian drug dealer, you sold bad cocaine to a kid, and the kid OD's, no one is obligated to get justice for the kid. Not even us in the states.

Insofar as do I personally feel that all life is precious, yes, this does not encompass human life solely. Would I purposefully ever take a human life unless threatened heavily, no.

You are looking for a universal blanket statement where none applies.

Jack Camwell said...

So if tomorrow an amendment to the constitution passed that nullified the 2nd Amendment, you'd have no problem with that?

Natural rights theory has very little to do with one's ability to exercrize those rights. The free exercise of those rights comes at the end of that entire discussion.

The Bill of Rights does not outline rights that are GRANTED to the American people: it lists rights that the government MUST protect.

We had those rights before the Constitution.

It's like a said, a natural right is not a legal privelage, it's what every single human being deserves to be able to exercise.

And although it may not mean much in Liberia in the sense that people there are not free to exercise their rights, natural rights theory does have meaning because it allows us to say "their rights are being violated, and that is wrong."

If it weren't for the Enlightenment thinkers who came up with Natural Rights Theory, America wouldn't exist.

Anonymous said...

I shall humor you as if you don't know what I am alluding to here.

If they nullified the second amendment I, along with millions, would be infuriated, and yes we would have a huge problem with that.

Here is the flaw in natural rights theory- it assumes a self-perpetuating sense of truth. It is the chicken and the egg. You can't have rights without a society that believes in those rights.

"their rights are being violated and that is wrong" is not objective, but subjective... in Liberia those rights don't mean a whole lot. Even in America under certain circumstances they don't mean a whole lot. America has violated the "Natural Rights" of plenty of other nations and their citizens.

We recognize evil for what it is Jackie, trying to put a blanket statement out saying "this is right, this is wrong" in terms of human behavior is not a "Natural" thing, it is a government and societal thing.

I am not saying I disagree with the moral conclusions of Natural Rights Theory, it is a basic tenant of a society that is moving forward, but to say that rights inherently derive from us being simply alive is a falsehood. It is an idea that has merit insofar as there is a government that enforces it, and people who practice it.

We can say it is wrong because we are victorious before we even enter the battle. The moral high ground is always defined by history from the perspective of the people who "won."

If Nazi Germany won, and took over the world, they would be setting the standard.

If the Zerg attacked earth, they wouldn't give a damn about our natural rights.

Jersey McJones said...



Do you have an argument with that?

Get REAL, man.


Jack Camwell said...

Anonymous Howard Beale,

We both know that you're not a reletivist, so why are you making a reletivist argument?

It doesn't matter if society says you have no rights, because you still do. It's not just because you're alive, it's because of your nature as a human being.

If tomorrow society collectively said "you are not human," does that mean you're no longer a human because that society says so? No. You retain your humanity regardless of what anyone says. Human nature exists whether or not someone says it does.

And our natural rights have merit regardless of whether or not a government protects them or supresses them. A thing exists and has merit even if everyone says it doesn't. The nihilist fascists of the 30s and 40s believed that nothing had any inherent meaning, and the conclusion was that the only meaning anything has is derived from man.

That's what led them to justify their unspeakable behavior--because they determined that the only meaning humanity had was what the fuhrer said they had.


Surely you've read something on natural rights theory. It has NOTHING to do with what society deems acceptable.

For example, the Syrian government clearly does not believe in the right to life of its citizens, so they liquidate them as they see fit. They also don't think their citizens have the right to free speech. So they murder them. You, and any rational person, would say that the Syrian people's rights have been violated.

Or are you saying it's totally fine that they're being slaughtered? Americans have rights, because American society says we do, but Syrians don't have rights because the Syrian government says they don't.

We both know you're going to answer that what is going on in Syria is an attrocity and gross violation of their rights. And you can only say it's a violation of their rights if you believe that human rights are inherent and natural.

Otherwise, you have to accept what's happening to the Syrians, and you would have to accept it if YOUR government decided to liquidate your family.

Anonymous said...

Before there was such a thing as society, tribes, government, etc there were no such things as rights, it was a meaningless idea.

That is not to say primitive people didn't respect some basic form of civil decency... but they did it out of a sense of survival.

Without society, you can say anything... you could claim you are the king of the planet, it does not make it so. Rights are defined by people as a collective, not the intrinsic worth of the individual person.

I am not saying it is "Wrong" or "batshit insane" I am saying that the principle of a natural law and it's validity is solely dependent on an accepted standard, and therefore without a government to "protect" these rights and these values, they vanish. Surely you see this?

You are taking things to the extreme when there is no need. Of course if I was declared not-human I would still be human. The extension you want me to say is I still have a right to my life, and the reality is, none of us do without a society that enforces it.

I wish the US would declare war on the yellowstone caldera, it is threatening the natural rights of half the country.

Also to any would be asteroids that fly our way, I wanna shake my fist at you as well, cause hey damn ya... you are trampling our rights.

While I understand the basic underlying fundamental claim of natural rights theory, and I do agree indeed that the virtues it extols should be followed by all governments and cultures... you cannot separate it from the government as it is a human social construct and falls apart without support from the society it protects.

Jack Camwell said...

"Rights are defined by people as a collective, not the intrinsic worth of the individual person."

I would amend your statement to say this: *Privelages* are defined by people as a collective, not the intrinsic worth of the individual person.

THe problem here is your definition of what a right is. You seem to think that a right is merely something that a person is told he or she can do. That is not a right, that is a privelage. No one in this country has the right to operate a motor vehicle: we are told by the government that we are allowed to operate motor vehicles, and they issue licenses to grant that permission.

A right is a claim to something, not a privelage. A right is something that you ought to be able to do whether or not someone tells you that you are allowed to do it.

Right now in Syria, people's rights are being violated. Their families are being raped, tortured, and murdered by Assad's regime. They are being denied the ability to exercise their rights. But their rights still exist, because the Syrians OUGHT to be able to live free of the fear of being brutalized by their government.

If tomorrow the nation passed an amendment to the constitution that nullified the First Amendment, thus banning people from exercizing their right to freedom of speech, you would cry foul. You, and many others would say, "I don't give a shit what the Constitution says, all human beings have the right to freedom of speech."

Once again, the existence of rights has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not someone is able to exercise those rights.

And no, my example was not going to an extreme, because it has happened before in history. German society in the 30's and 40's collectively decided that Jews were not human beings, and thus could be exterminated by cattle.

You KNOW that was wrong. You would never argue that the Holocaust was totally okay simply because German society said it was okay. You would say that what happened over there was categorically wrong, and you can ONLY say that it was wrong and unjust if you admit that human beings have rights REGARDLESS of what society or government decides.

And in your example of the tribal state of humanity, that "basic civil decency," was the precursor to the articulation of natural rights. Natural rights still existed, humans just didn't have the vocabulary necessary to articulate that. But they knew inside themselves that there was a basic level of decency that each human had to afford to one another.

And no, it wasn't born simply out of survival. Human history has shown us that even the most brutal of ruling structures can survive for a long, long time. You think that in this tribal stage that people's natural rights to property and life weren't violated? Of course they were. People endured it because they had no choice.

Eventually, some people wised up and said "wow, I really don't like the fact that the leader takes my goats whenever he pleases. They're MY goats, and I shouldn't have to give them up unless I want to."

If rights are not natural, if they are purely a human construct, then you can never, ever legitimately fight for your rights if society tells you that you no longer have rights.

But you know that fighting for your rights IS legitimate. If it wasn't, then America wouldn't exist.

Silverfiddle said...

Good job, Jack. You've argued this very well, and you completely shut down Jersey. I loved his ALLCAPS meltdown!

Mr Anon: Just because ancient man did not put a name to it doesn't mean these rights did not exist at that time, just as a tyrannical government that squashed people's rights does not mean they do not exist there.

This is a philosophy, a putting to words and human understanding some axiomatic principles.

Do you have a right to your own life? Do you own your body, or does somebody else?

Many people invoke anarchy when arguing against natural rights, as if those of us who espouse them were anarchists. No!

The founders were not anarchists. Indeed, they formed a government to protect those natural rights, a tacit admission that we need government to protect them, for one and for all.

Anonymous said...

Ok, you have officially gone off the deep end here sir.

In an effort to keep things simpler just consider the following 2 questions.

What do these "rights" truly mean without a group of people (government) actively defending them?

My own answer to the first one is at best they are ideas about how things should be. Modern society and these rights are inseparably linked. You can't have one without the other. Natural rights doesn't stand up under it's own power... any society in this day and age that doesn't protect these "rights" is screwed.

As far as your repeated comments about "this is how we know such and such is wrong because they are violating human rights, you don't want to violate human rights do you, no no no of course you don't, so there!" I understand what you are saying but I don't agree, so here is question 2:

What are we as Americans obligated to do about it?

My answer is simply this: if the so called "government" of Syria calls for aid, fuck em... they earned their problems. As for the Syrian people themselves, they aren't going out into the streets and protesting, they are using weapons and killing people. Sure we secretly root for the rebels like we did in Egypt, but that is we the people. We as in our government propped up Mubarak... which brings me full circle to the point I was making way in the first post is that people determined what these rights are, not the "cosmos" or whatever you define as nature.

Silverfiddle said...

I think you're off the deep end, sir.

Imagine us living in a state of anarchy.

Someone comes to your cave and tries to cart off your wife, and he's armed.

Do you kill him, or do you just let him proceed?

We know innately that killing and stealing are wrong and that killing someone who threatens you and your family is regrettable but justified.

These are not inventions of government, they are imprinted upon the human consciousness.

Jack Camwell said...

Take it easy Silver.

The Anonymous Howard Beale and I had an offline discussion that lasted a good 3 hours, because we feel the need to reconcile our beliefs.

Natural rights are like a battery. Without power, that battery is useless. Sure, it exists, but it can't be applied in any meaningful way.

And that was the gist of what he's been saying. I think that we did have a misunderstanding in terms of definitions, and as I admitted to him I was splitting a very fine hair, but we eventually came to a consensus.

"Without people who feel that natural rights are important, without the people who faught for them, natural rights wouldn't exist."

He's right. If the world got to the point where no human ever felt indignant, where every human was totally fine with being brutalized and oppressed, then natural rights wouldn't exist.

Why? Because at that point we would cease to be human. Natural rights exist only insofar as humanity exists, and what makes us human goes WAY beyond our genetics. What makes us human is our imagination, our reason, and our ability to make claims upon this world and actuate those claims.

Once we lose those intrinsic values of our nature, we would cease to be human. We would be like the Delta class in Brave New World. We would be like Winston at the end of 1984: sub-human. Certainly we would still be homo-sapiens, but those natural rights that we had by virtue of our nature would cease to be.

The POTENTIAL for natural rights to exist and be actuated would still exist, just as the unpowered battery still exists. But without that jolt of energy, it would never have any hope of actuating itself outside of potential.

So it boils down to this question: what makes us human? Your answer to that determines how you view natural rights. If you believe that our genetics make us human, and that is the sole determining factor, then yes natural rights would exist. But I contend that it's more than genetics that make us human, and once we lose those qualities then our natural rights are gone.

Also, natural rights would exist for a sapient alien race. If a race of aliens were able to imagine, reason, and make claims on the world and actuate those claims, then they would have natural rights, too. Because in a sense they would be human.

So human is a word that denotes SAPIENCE rather than species. If tomorrow a gorilla spoke, and was able to express emotion and thought, we would instantly have to grant that gorilla the same basic rights of any human.

Only when humans destroy the gut feeling and inclination of natural rights will natural rights cease to exist for humanity: because at that point we will have ceased to be human.

That was Orwell's fear, that was Huxley's fear.

Silverfiddle said...

OK Jack, you've lost me. This contradicts you post:

"Without people who feel that natural rights are important, without the people who faught for them, natural rights wouldn't exist."

But it doesn't really matter. Have you read Huxley's "Island?"

Jack Camwell said...

No, I haven't read that.

You and I have both said that the basis for natural rights is the fact that we all, for the most part feel it.

We feel indignant when someone steals our shit, and we all feel like we deserve to live.

But if all homo-sapiens on the planet lost that feeling, if they became unable to imagine, reason, or do anything but basically function like robots--eating, sleeping, reproducing, etc..--then homo-sapiens would have ceased to be what we understand to be "human."

Natural rights would not exist, because there would not be any humans. Would it be right for an alien species to then destroy the humans? No, but only because of humans' virtue of being sentient.

Sentience demands that a being be treated with dignity and not be made to suffer, but it is SAPIENCE that determines our natural rights.

Natural rights, as a theory, as a potential, would still exist, but only in theory and it would not apply to those animal-like homo sapiens.

FreeThinke said...

Jersey and Anonymous, apparently believe in the time-honored-notion that "Might Makes Right" -- that the guys (and gals these days) with the loudest mouths, the quickest minds, the rudest dispositions, the strongest bodies, the most ruthless, unrestrainedly aggressive and vicious temperaments get to call the shots and tell everyone else when and how often they must jump and how high they must go, and that that's all there is too it.

Given our violent history of one bloody conquest and subjugation after another it's very tempting to believe that, and consequently either keep your head down, and accept your lot in life as a slave to the nearest bully -- OR -- be prepared to die young in a state of perpetual protest, warfare and the agony that comes with making sacrifices that prove forever futile.

The word "rights" it should be safe to assume is derived from the concept of what is RIGHT and GOOD and what clearly is NOT.

The Golden Rule really does cover it all. It's NOT "corny" or "out-dated" to quote it and make every effort to adhere to it in our own conduct everywhere we go. Think of its vast and wonderful implications, and you can't help but agree -- unless you're cursed with a sadistic, perverted disposition in which case you qualify for imprisonment or extermination -- preferably the latter.

BEHAVE TOWARDS OTHER PEOPLE in the way YOU would LIKE them to behave towards YOU.

Whoever first discovered that thought forgot to add:

NOT according to the way THEY may have behaved towards YOU. In other words don't respond in kind when you're abused or otherwise unfairly treated.

So, Jack and Kurt are absolutely correct in saying that human beings almost universally have had an innate sense that Murder, Rape, Mayhem, Theft, vandalism and Extortion are WRONG and should be forbidden and discouraged in every way possible, which is why we early on dreamt up various versions of The Law.

This basic awareness of right and wrong started to take hold as soon as hominid animals started to emerge as human beings, so it is, therefore, as "natural" as sunrise, sunset, wind, rain, birth, death, and the motion of the tides.

We should be striving to CURB, and to whatever-extent-may-be-possible to PHASE OUT our aggressive, overly acquisitive impulses, and encourage ourselves to be governed by the Ten Commandments, which are really nothing more than a CODIFICATION of COMMON SENSE ways to build and maintain a HUMANE, truly CIVILIZED SOCIETY.

Insofar as we EMBRACE what is clearly, undoubtedly RIGHT and ESCHEW its OPPOSITE, life can be beautiful.

BUT, instead, like the "stiff-necked" Jews, who've made an awful lot of trouble for themselves and others throughout history by continually ARGUING AGAINST the precepts of their OWN religion, we are willful and obstinate enough to prefer chaos and corruption over comity and concord.

As Pogo said so wisely many years ago:

"We have met the enemy, and he is us."

YUP! We have the OPPORTUNITY -- and the implicit DUTY -- to MAKE the BEST of the Gift of Life that God has given us.

Never mind what OTHERS think and what OTHERS do. Just be the best you can be -- even as they're leading you into an abattoir, you could at least spend your last moments trying to comfort your fellow victims instead of snivelling about the terrible injustice of your sad fate.

~ FreeThinke

Jack Camwell said...

The rub between Anon and me was that he was strictly arguing practical application of natural rights.

His premise was that rights are meaningless if you can't practice them, meaningless in the sense that one's life is hopeless at that point.

I brought up "might makes right" in our lengthy phone conversation, and it took some time for us to understand one another.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure if we totally agreed with one another, but at least our views aren't totally out of sync as they were.

Might makes right... in some sense that is reality, but again there are too many wildcard factors at play to say it is an absolute truth.

I don't actively believe in any Creator, I don't outright deny one may exist, but I have no evidence of one existing. The Christian version of God to me, is absolute lunacy.

The whole idea that this supreme being gives us reason, gives us this oasis of life in the absolute abyss... and somehow this creator will only reveal himself to someone for 400 years and generations later we are handed copies of copies of translated copies of copies and told "Buy this for full value because it is what I require... or else" to me sounds like the God of the bible resembles Satan of the bible. That is the machinations of a false God... to say one thing, mean another, and obey.

Yet I am the one who is wrong... for not drinking the Kool-Aid. Religious institutions are like gangs or the mafia going around "busting kneecaps" for obedience... my sense of morality actually transcends that.

Human compassion and understanding does not require requires the ability to see past your choices. Ultimately that is what separates us from all other life on this planet. While other primates and some animals can see 1 or 2 steps beyond their choices at times, we can see far more than that. We can see the road ahead more often than not. You can't see everything ahead of you, obviously, and you learn from those experiences when the path throws an obstacle at you. To quote the matrix "there is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path." All I am contending is that humanity has arrived at the conclusions of Natural Rights after we walked the path.

I hope that clarifies.