Does anyone really hold those truths to be self-evident?

The Constitution, our dear Constitution, did not give us our rights. Our rights came from God and they are inalienable rights. The Constitution created the government to protect our God-given and unalienable rights.

Thus Sarah Palin in her speech earlier this month in Missouri, at the “Win America Back Conference.”

Though Palin’s words received the usual uncomprehending and comically overwrought response from at least one leftwing critic, the statement hardly represents a novel departure for a conservative politician.  Even that little inalienable vs. unalienable problem goes all the way back to the Founding.  More important, in recent years acceptance of the premise that “our rights come from God, not the government” has been become almost definitional for American conservatism.  Search for the phrase and close variations on the internet, and you’ll find pointed, high-profile utterances, virtually word for word, from Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, Newt Gingrich, Jim DeMint, Paul Ryan, and George W. Bush.  For Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Howard Dean, and Nancy Pelosi, the same searches will tend to turn up conservatives reacting to whatever latest leftwing heresy.  You may have to go all the way back to John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address to find a leading Democrat who could voice the idea clearly, and seem to mean it.

The concept is, of course, embodied in one of the most important single sentences in American history – arguably in all of human history:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In the speech that first brought Barack Obama to national attention in 2004 (the “no red states and blue states” speech), he did at least recite the sentence:  It didn’t boil his mouth away, but that may be because he sought to interpret it as a mere generalized endorsement of egalitarianism – as though, in writing the lines, Thomas Jefferson had been dimly prophesying the arrival of someone like… Barack Obama in our political life.  Most conservatives, especially those of a libertarian inclination, along with most historians, understand the statement very differently – but that does not mean that contemporary conservative politicians are using it more wisely.

Students of the Founding know that Jefferson was neither dreaming of politicians to come nor in any sense innovating.  The Sentence derives from earlier writings on natural rights philosophy, a comprehensive worldview whose precepts, as the intellectual historian Jerome Huyler has amply demonstrated, were widely shared at the time – not just by the writer and signatories of the Declaration of Independence, but by the revolutionary generation they represented, and to a great extent by Americans colonists even to the first settlements.  “Equal creation,” “unalienable Rights” as a gift of the “Creator,” and the immediate enumeration of the most significant rights were familiar to educated Americans and especially to all “thinking revolutionaries” in Great Britain and the not-yet-united states long before July 4, 1776.

It is hardly surprising that the use and even the insistence on just this language remains common on the American right, where both the deity and the Founders are treated with reverence.  Nor is it surprising, or any less indicative, that the concept leaves many on the secular left dumbfounded.  When reacting to Fred Thompson’s invocation of divinely ordained natural rights in 2007, for instance, “university scholar” Jacques Berlinerblau, faith-blogging for the Washington Post, saw only a calculated pitch to social conservatives, with a gesture to libertarians “on the backstroke. ” Double doctorates notwithstanding, Berlinerblau, like the HuffPo’s Malia Litman reacting to Palin as linked above, betrayed no apparent awareness of just where the wacky righty got his quaint notion.

Yet the ill-founded condescension and kneejerk suspicion from the likes of Berlinerblau and Litman underline a deeper challenge to the conservative right, as brought home during Rand Paul’s recent travails as well as in the rather appalled reaction to Newt Gingrich’s comparisons, under the rubric of “secular socialism,” of Obamaist liberals to Nazis and Communists.  There may be an essential, not merely a contingent or politically useful, connection between libertarianism and Judeo-Christian moral philosophy, but in the America of 2010 the idea is far from consensual, or even widely held. It doesn’t even qualify as widely understood, and intimations of its rigorous implementation, theoretical or practical, are received as wholly unacceptable where not merely controversial.

Jefferson’s “we” ain’t us – not all of us anyway.  His truths, where taken to be true at all, will seem far from “self-evident.” Many Americans will hide, or not even bother to hide, a contemptuous snicker at the phrase “created equal,” unaware that it’s gone completely over their heads.  At best, since most like the idea of equality at least in the sense of fairness, they may decide to help the Dead White Male out, and, like senate-candidate Obama to fellow Democrats, adapt the phrase for present purposes (perhaps while reminding each other in superior tones that the DWM owned slaves).  And when the skeptics reach “endowed by their Creator,” the snickering may escalate to New Atheist-style catcalls, or possibly to more polite forms of stubborn dissent.  It’s only by the time that we get to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit,” with its hedonistic resonances, that much of the audience will be back on board at all.

When conservatives invoke the Founders’ formulation, asserting and demanding consensus, it therefore has the opposite implication and effect.  It points to a lack of political-social consensus, and to a large extent seems meant to – typically dividing an audience of sympathizers from a vast societal other.  Indeed, if the consensus were general, it wouldn’t need to be proclaimed at all, the minions of King George having long since been vanquished.

As the strongest advocates of the view hasten to remind us, the lack of consensus would not be an excuse for resisting the truth of their position.  They believe that the failure to acknowledge the transcendental origins of our rights renders those rights vulnerable – turns them into mere matters of opinion rather than the unshakable foundations of our freedom.  Long before Dostoevsky, the American Founders and their intellectual precursors worried that “without God, everything [would be] permitted.”  Though many modern readers sense first a fear of moral chaos in this statement, the natural rights theorists, like their descendants among us, were at least equally concerned with resistance to tyranny – with what a government (or government-established religion) that didn’t respect natural rights might permit itself.  Following Locke, the concept of equal creation for them leads logically to “equal protection”:  In matters of material property and conscience both, and in a manner prior to and beyond any social contracts between rulers and the ruled, government cannot infringe upon these natural rights without coming into conflict with the higher law, God’s law, and therefore with God.

The proponents of faith-based libertarianism see themselves to be offering the one political ideology whose commitment to freedom and equality is fundamental and absolute.  Yet their argument for the divinely ordained inviolability of rights turns immediately into its opposite for anyone on the outs:  If our rights depend on God and God alone, then non- and less-than-ardent believers, it would seem, are left to conclude that our rights must be fully negotiable, or at any rate that conservatives lack a good argument to the contrary.  Even believers may be left uncomfortable by the sense that conservatives are promoting an inherently exclusionary and prejudicial worldview.

The rationale that often follows – “just between us smart people” – that
it’s better for society if people accept religious belief, whether or not it withstands inquiry, sooner or later tends to confirm the skeptic’s suspicion of an elite in waiting whose members are as or more interested in temporal power than transcendent verities.  However we were created, and by whatever, and to whatever supposed effect and purpose, a corrosive and inherently vulnerable inequality, between the as-good-as-atheist illuminati and the masses manipulated for their own good, is put forward as a bargain whose terms must never be spelled out, for the sake of order.  The purveyors of self-evident, transcendent truth seem to reveal themselves as willing dissemblers and ends-justify-the-means materialists after all.

Until we have translated Jefferson’s words honestly, accurately, and accessibly into a contemporary and inclusive idiom – inclusive enough to be spoken by Allahpundit and by James Dobson, by John Derbyshire and by Sarah Palin, too – the opponents of constitutional conservatism will find justifications for ridicule and general resistance, alongside potentially critical divisions in the conservative coalition.


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88 comments on “Does anyone really hold those truths to be self-evident?

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  1. “(1)We hold these truths to be self-evident, (2)that all men are created equal, (3)that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, (4)that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    Wonderful Post,CK,we have a lot of work to do to boil the above out of our mass unconsciousness.

    (1)Opinion/I disagree being an Agnostic
    (2)Error in Fact
    (3)Opinion/I disagree being an Agnostic
    (4)Opinion/I disagree being an Agnostic

    I would say,”that we hold these truths to be consistent with a Civilized Society,that all men must be treated as if they were equal by our Government,and under our laws and jurisdiction,that Civilized People have determined that our citizens have inalienable rights,such as,but not limited to,life,liberty,and pursuit of happiness”.

  2. It is clear to all, I hope, that belief in a god or gods is not necessary for natural rights theories.

  3. @ Fourcheese casady:
    Not clear to the conservatives I quoted and their followers, and apparently not clear to the Founders and their precursors.

    Can you point to an agnostic natural rights theorist who would be persuasive to them and would satisfy their requirements vis-a-vis unalienability, equality, and property?

  4. Now you’re being obtuse, honestly, CK, that was not Sarah’s coinage but Jefferson, Malia Littman, honestly she’s as deranged as Andrew
    Sullivan in her own special way. Maybe the left has so fundamentally slipped it’s mooring than there is no common ground, the coverage of
    the Texas education standards, which none other than Ann Althouse, had to correct the record on. Obama believes the state grants rights,
    and when need be, retracts them with total munificence, for our own good of course

  5. @ CK MacLeod:

    Couldn’t possibly know which theorists would persuade some group of conservatives.

    It probably was clear to some or all of the FFs, unless they were familiar with Hobbes.

  6. @ narciso:
    Huh – don’t get the “obtuseness” – I criticized Litman, twice, and I linked a piece explaining inalienable vs unalienable.

  7. It was a revolutionary conception of a nation state, based on these principles, slavery and segregation did violence to that image, but it is
    a worthy goal. Without it, you have the brutal pendulum swings of Jacobinism and reactionary regimes, that wracked France for the better
    part of a hundred and fifty years

  8. It might be fine if pretty much everyone saw things the way Rex does, but I think he’s missing something. I think the “no atheists in foxholes” argument holds for rights as well, and suggests they possess what we might call a “sacred” character. If the movement to return to asset based currencies picks up steam to the point where the powers-that-be start rounding up the ringleaders, when they knock on Rex’s door I think it is less likely that he will say something like “your behavior is inconsistent with the treatment required for a civilized society to continue” and more likely that he will say something a bit more along the lines of “you can’t do this–I have rights!” And, furthermore, I think he will believe it, and not just see it as a reasonable and socially beneficial belief.

    Hannah Arendt took from Duns Scotus the following “proof” of freedom: let those who deny freedom be tortured until they admit it is possible that they not be tortured. It is impossible to be marked for violence without believing (even if only fleetingly) that it is both wrong and could be otherwise. There are, undoubtedly, many idioms in which this belief can be expressed, but I think any of them will lead us to something transcendent. In each community there is a tacit understanding that certain kinds of violence risk tearing the community apart; in our society, for all kinds of reasons, the kind of violence that is the riskiest is that directed at the scapegoated, innocent individual. Rights are a way of reducing that kind of violence to a minimum, but for that to work we must believe in the sanctity of those rights, not just think they are a pretty good idea, to be weighed against other good ideas. And I am suggesting that we all do believe in them–disbelieving in them is the hard work, the work requiring abstruse theories and rationalizations.

  9. @ Fourcheese casady:
    Hobbes provided a justification for state power, including the curbing of threats to power. Locke provided justification for revolution – in favor of freedom of conscience and equal protection of individual rights. Hobbes is a political philosophy for dire pessimists, Locke for believers in reason. I’ll see if I can find an appropriate passage from the Huyler book after the basketball game.
    @ Rex Caruthers:
    I think your secular re-formulation is on the right track, and I also don’t think that if Adam was seized by the secret police, he’d cry out that he had been “endowed by his Creator with certain unalienable – or if you prefer inalienable – rights!” It’s not a question, or only a question, of having something to cling to in your foxhole, in the state of emergency, in the state of nature, etc. (beset by violence whatever the source).

  10. adam wrote:

    let those who deny freedom be tortured until they admit it is possible that they not be tortured.

    Also: Could you possibly try re-phrasing that? I don’t quite get it.

  11. @ CK MacLeod:
    No, Tsar, Hobbes provided a framework for a state that’s based on consent of equal, rational men who erect that state in the hope that by ceding most of their natural, unlimited rights as individuals they’ll raise a power that will be used to allow them to achieve things that they aren’t likely to long secure on their own.

    If you read Hobbes closely, you’ll find that he says that even after a sovereign is selected, each citizen retains at least one natural right, because there’s at least one right that no one can ever alienate.
    Should the state attempt to usurp that retained right, even through agency of duly declared, and even freely agreed upon law, the individual retains the right to forcibly resist to the full extent that he can.

  12. @ CK MacLeod:
    It’s a thought experiment meant to suggest the impossibility of denying freedom: if a strict determinist were being tortured, he would be unable to deny that he might not be tortured, i.e., that the torturer is free to do otherwise.

    Regarding your response to Rex, yes, my outcry would be much more succinct–that’s my point, “we are endowed by our creater,” etc., is the declarative reformulation of what is really a more intuitive or “ostensive” grasp of our rights. A declaration of independence or constitutional can’t exclaim “I’ve got rights!”, but that’s the sense its encoding and institutionalizing. Now, you might say that the declarative formulation comes first–that I can cry out “I’ve got rights!” because I live in a society with a Constitution guaranteeing them. In a sense that’s true, if we approach it very literally–the word “right,” in the sense of limits on government power has a history, of course, and didn’t always exist. But in any social order, even the most tyrannical (part of the horror of totalitarianism is that it tries to push to the limits here), there are things “you can’t do to me.” Those kinds of forbidden violence are themselves embedded in rituals and customs but the rituals and customs must have emerged because of the sense that those kinds of violence risked embroiling everyone in catastrophic violence. Ultimately, we discover these “ultimate” forms of violence and we are created as a community through the discovery–it’s a paradox: those “rights” wouldn’t be there without us (of course), but we don’t simply invent them either. There is a real sense in which we “discover” them and in that way become who we are.

  13. @ narciso:

    Dear Dr. Bones,

    Nothing works better than half the truth to destructively create an entirely misleadin’ neoïmpression.

    Pretty near anyzombie in the Party-of-Grant base an’ vile can bark “Obama believes the Wicked State grants rights, and when need be, retracts them.” Lots of em do so bark.

    Swaddled in their illiberalism and antidemocracy, however, the sweet puppies hardly ever add that the fiend in question, being a brand-name Democrat as well as a generic demoncrat and liebral, takes popular control of the Wicked State for granted.

    Happy days.

  14. Who is it, who has spoken of ‘negative rights’, none other than President Obama, who recently said, ‘information is a distraction’ in the administration like Mark Lloyd, FCC commissar, has sad ‘freedom of speech” in an obstacle to redistribution of wealth, and community organizing, who has said opposing views must be infiltrated by the
    government, that would be Cass Susstein, who has said the Government can determine what is free speech, that would be the
    Supreme Court nominee, Kagan,

  15. My problem with the “God-given primacy” argument is that a) it’s unnecessary and b) it’s unprovable. It also hinges on how one reads the statement, putting the stress on either “they are endowed by their Creator” or “with certain unalienable Rights”. Is the first incidental to the first, another way of saying “they’ve been there since the beginning” (I think CK suggested as much in a recent post I perused)? Or is the key point that they come from the Creator, and that of course the Creator is Judeo-Christian God (not, oh, say a Deist one, a first principle who then left mankind to its own devices).

    The basis of liberty does not need to be that Papa Up in the Sky granted us the privilege of being free. It can more firmly be based on the notion that we are inherently independent of other beings and that any infringement upon our freedom of mind or action is a violation of “self-evident” right. And since definitions of God vary, not to mention belief in anything that could be called God (including amongst many on the right – what would Ayn Rand make of Palin’s statement? there’s probably a quote out there somewhere that tells me, of course), resting our natural rights on this foundation seems to be planting the Constitution in a pit of quicksand.

    Personally, I do believe in God but don’t think he cares much about us, indeed I don’t think he’s a “he” at all but an “it”; in fact, looked at rationally, the notion of a Big Person in the sky feeling and thinking like we do, investing us with some sentimental patronage because, you know, we’re we and who wouldn’t like us, seems monumentally preposterous and hubristic. As I see it, God or no God we are in fundamental ways on our own and a stronger sense of rights and liberty can derive from an ethical framework which recognizes the tangibility of suffering and, yes, the “self-evident” nature of personal freedom and tries to avoid the first and facilitate systems which will guard the second.

    Malia Litman’s article is stupid and tired. And this is appalling:

    “Many Americans, men and women, knowing of the risks of having a baby when over the age of 40, undertake to have a surgical procedure to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Even if people might be opposed to surgical intervention, they still take responsibility to use birth control to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Not Sarah Palin.”

  16. @ adam:

    There may be no atheists in foxholes. I’m not 100% sure of that, never having been in a foxhole, and not quite considering myself an atheist – it’s always struck me as a sin against amorality to pretend to know what I believe. I’ve heard that victims of torture, extreme violence, and severe illness frequently call out for their absent, distant or long-dead mothers as well. What people will resort to in extremis, when there are no advantages left to be gained through rational action, may be an inappropriate basis for rationally approaching political life. On the other hand, I recognize that you’re as concerned with the origins of social life, and that one’s view – you might say scenarization – of the beginning often determines one’s view of the path and the end – thus the different implications of Hobbes’ state of nature as opposed to Locke’s as well as historicist, evolutionary, mythical, and other visions (not just ideas on the facts, but assumptions about how the facts can even be envisioned).

    I’m also not arguing that “rights come from God” is necessarily untrue given a proper understanding of its terms, but that the statement cannot be accepted as consensual and therefore received as true in a mass society where those terms are very differently defined and understood by large numbers of equal citizens. The very thing that makes the statement not merely valid but emotionally satisfying for the ardent followers of Sarah Palin is what makes it emotionally distressing to others, and may make them unwilling to to perform the translation from “godspeak” to “secularian.”

    That said, I don’t believe that we can expect or ask the social conservatives to drop the God talk anytime soon. It pleases them too much. They greatly value religious testimony, and tend to distrust anyone who doesn’t testify. For many, one of the main reasons they’re interested in politics at all is that it provides them with any opportunity to spread the Good News, and to make the world safer for believers to express themselves and to exert moral influence. They stood by George W Bush and they stand by Sarah Palin in part because Bush and Palin openly identify with them – they see that open identification as a good in itself.

    I think it’s probably more important for non-members of those faith communities to find a compelling language that comprehends both traditional and non-traditional modes of belief. One question would be where exactly Rex’s formulation, or one that he worked on a little longer prior to submitting it to the world, really would be incommensurate with Jefferson’s, taking it as a given that neither is what any of us would shout on the day they came to take us away. I believe that atheists and agnostics “naturally” believe in something that intersects with and overlaps whatever it is the God-fearing/-bothering are saying they believe in when they say they believe in God. I recognize that the statement “rights come from that something that the faithful mean to refer to when they use the culture-bound word ‘God'” is a tad unwieldy. I also assess that many religious people are engaged in a kind of magical thinking, and I don’t mean that pejoratively, as I’m not confident enough in my lack of belief to belittle all their spells, and, even in the worst case, who am I to interfere with the benefits of whatever placebo effect might help along their treatments?

    The frog says that you can have natural rights without god or gods, but until I see how he or whoever he’s thinking of defines those rights and their meaning, I’ll assume that a Demiurge will be hiding somewhere in plain sight. In Rex’s statement the words “civilized” and, more subtly, “must” describe his leap of faith, representing the unnameable something that allows for a “must,” and that accounts for the difference between “civilized” and “un-civilized” and makes the former preferable to the latter. The question remains whether there’s enough to what I’m calling faith-based libertarianism to seek to broaden it. If not, then what exactly are we supposed to do with the Founding, other than to try to hit political opponents over the head with it and be disappointed when it doesn’t knock them out?

  17. read Edmund’s big speech ( the one that ends “now, gods ,stand up for bastards!”) in Lear to hear Shakespeare mocking the case for rights without god.

  18. EDMUND

    Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
    My services are bound. Wherefore should I
    Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
    The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
    For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
    Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
    When my dimensions are as well compact,
    My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
    As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
    With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
    Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
    More composition and fierce quality
    Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
    Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
    Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
    Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
    Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
    As to the legitimate: fine word,–legitimate!
    Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
    And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
    Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
    Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

    http://shakespeare.mit.edu/lear/lear.1.2.html

  19. @ Fourcheese casady:
    To summarize the comparison of Hobbes and Locke in Huyler, it’s the view of Huyler and other scholars that Locke situates himself between Hobbes’ “atomism” and Filmer’s “Adamism.” Interpreting Tully, Huyler writes:

    Hobbes, the arch materialist, looked at man interacting in his natural habitat; he could not find “society.” The human condition, for him, was not all that different from the physical condition: it was all matter in motion. For Hobbes, the original state was composed of individuals, socially isolated and in competition, one with another, for scarce resources and for reputation and glory (upon which each one’s preservation depended). It was a state of “warre: and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.” And in this state, “the life of man, [is] solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” But Tully’s Locke “never considers a congeries of presocial and isolated individuals. He cannot because society is an irreducible datum of man’s existence.” In his Essays on the Law of Nature, Locke appears to reject the egoist impulse outright. Is it true, he inquires, “that what each individual in the circumstances judges to be of advantage to himself… is in accordance with natural law… and that nothing in nature is binding except so far as it carries with it some immediate advantage?”

    It is this we deny,” Locke answers… Locke explains, “an Hobbesist with his principle of self-preservation, whereof himself is to be the judge, will not easily admit a great many plain duties of morality.” And it is precisely these “plain duties of morality,” these “natural positive duties toward others,” that draw Tully to his pivotal interepretive reading of Locke’s social thought. Man is not an “atom,” existentially isolated and alone. Man is God’s creation, the product of his workmanship, and is therefore dependent, not independent, floating in a vast moral vacuum.”

    He goes on to quote Locke again on the natural positive social essence of humanity and on “Preservation”: “Every one as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his Station willfully, so by the like reason when his own Preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind.”

    This difference is important for many reasons. Among other things, according to Huyler, it was of paramount present political concern to Locke and his patron Shaftesbury, who stood on the side of toleration and sought a rationale for the “Whig exclusion” of a monarchical successor who, they believed, would imperil their freedoms:

    The debates over toleration and resistance ultimately boiled down to two competing estimates of human nature and to a question of whether humans could be trusted with a moderate measure of ordered liberty. The Laudian High Church answered in the negative, believing that society could be saved only if individuals were bound and restrained in the use of their mental and moral energies. And so it demanded total submission to the spiritual and temporal powers that be. The moderates of the Low Church were somewhat more optimistic in their assessment of human nature, allowing a wider latitude for individual thought and action. It was a debate that pitted the cynicism of a Hobbes or a Calvin, who found in the bowels of humanity only unruly passions and everlasting enmity, against the optimism of a Cudworth, a Whichcote, or, in short order, a Locke, each of whom cared to trust in the power of reason to rule over human affairs.

    Huyler goes on to demonstrate how a similar debate was broadly re-produced, yet transfigured, in revolutionary and post-revolutionary America, in some ways in the Federalist and anti-Federalist debates, for instance, in which the participants by that time shared many Lockean presumptions, but different estimates of human nature influenced views on the proper role of the new state.

    I’ve been reading Pestritto’s book on Wilson – I had meant to pick up the companion anthology of Wilson’s essential writings, but God or the Devil saw fit to send me a copy of Pestritto’s main book hidden, by printer’s error, within the covers of the anthology! Either way, I have no choice but face my fate and read on. It turns out that Wilson’s dismissal of the founders’ natural rights in favor of a version of historicism is one of Pestritto’s main interests in the first chapters of the book, and, to Pestritto’s credit, he gives Wilson plenty of chance to “hang himself.” I am finding Wilson’s views rather persuasive on their own terms, however, and I would summarize them as “Our rights come from history.” The Darwinists might say, “Our rights come from evolution.” I want to isolate what difference, if any beyond catering to a particular constituency’s good opinion of itself, there has to be between those formulations and “Our rights come from God.”

  20. Fourcheese casady wrote:
    read Edmund’s big speech ( the one that ends “now, gods ,stand up for bastards!”) in Lear to hear Shakespeare mocking the case for rights without god.

    Shakespeare mocks every opinion. What he doesn’t mock is “Absolute” goodness as dramatized by Cordelia,Desdemonia, and Juliet. What fate do these three have in common?

  21. @ CK MacLeod:
    Real quick (and more later): either the rights are absolute and prior to all discussion (including, of course, discussion on how to interpret and ensure those rights); of the granting of rights is a result of a process of reasoning, in which case reason can determine that other things may be more important than rights (social unity, efficiency, economic growth, etc.) I think the first approach is the only viable one, even though it will be violated repeatedly in tha name of all those other imperatives. We need to recognize them as violations, though. And that’s part of the reason why I start with emergency conditions–we know what rights are when they are violated; we have rights because certain actions of other people and governments could be noticed and named as “violations.” Grounding rights in God is a way of emphasizing the first, “absolutist” approach–otherwise, if we want to support that first approach, we would end up using words like “sacred” and “inviolable” anyway–we would just say we are using those terms metaphorically, even though I don’t think that would be the case. If “rights” is just a way of referring to the way reasonable people should treat each other–well, reasonable people can disagree.

  22. Real quick (and more later): either the rights are absolute and prior to all discussion (including, of course, discussion on how to interpret and ensure those rights); of the granting of rights is a result of a process of reasoning, in which case reason can determine that other things may be more important than rights (social unity, efficiency, economic growth, etc.) I think the first approach is the only viable one

    The first approach is no more viable than #2. Both are opinions that yield to endless amending.

  23. Evolutionary psychology provides another direction for locating the basis of rights – our biology.

    In a pluralistic society it has the appeal finding rights in the bodies we all posess.

    Just as our physical form is the result of adaptation, so are the structures of our individual and group psychologies. Indeed, religion then becomes an adaptation.

    The ontology of this will be disturbing to many. The evidence is controversial. But I think it is worthy of consideration.

  24. “Grounding rights in God is a way of emphasizing the first, “absolutist” approach–otherwise, if we want to support that first approach, we would end up using words like “sacred” and “inviolable” anyway–we would just say we are using those terms metaphorically, even though I don’t think that would be the case.”

    I was reading this piece just now that connected the above to Economic Theory. I’d be very interested in your analysis.

    “By “free market,” the Chicago Boys mean giving free reign to the financial sector – as opposed to the classical economists’ idea of freeing markets from rent and interest. Whereas traditional religion sought to lay down precepts for regulation, the Friedman Institute will promote deregulation. Physically replacing the theology school with a “temple of neoliberal economics” is ironic inasmuch as one tenet that all the major religions held in common at one point or other was opposition to the charging of interest. Judaism called for Clean Slates (Leviticus 25), and Christianity banned interest outright, citing the laws of Exodus and Deuteronomy.
    The Chicago Boys thus have inverted traditional theology. Yet the teaching of economics as an academic discipline began as moral philosophy courses in the 18th and 19th centuries. The leading universities of most countries were founded to train students for the ministry. The moral philosophy course evolved into political economy, dealing largely with economic reform and taxation of the unearned income accruing to vested interests as a result of legal privilege. The discipline was stripped down into “economics” largely to exclude political analysis, and the distinctions between productive and unproductive investment, earned and unearned income, value and price.
    The classical economists saw rent and interest as a carry-over from Europe’s feudal conquest of the land and the privatization of money and finance into an institutionally based debt and monopoly overhead. The classical economists sought to tax away such “unearned income,” to regulate natural monopolies or shift them into the public domain.
    Needless to say, this history of economic thought will not be taught at the Friedman Center. The first thing that the Chicago Boys did in Chile when they were given power after the 1973 military coup was to close down every economics department in the country – and indeed, every social science department outside of the Catholic University where they held sway. They realized that “free markets” for capital required total control of the educational curriculum, and of cultural media generally.
    What free marketers realize is that without an Inquisition authority, you cannot have a “stable” free market – that is, a market free for the financial predators who presumably are targeted as the major potential donors to the U/C’s Friedman Center. Chicago School monetarists have achieved censorial power on the editorial boards of the major refereed economics journals, publication in which has become a precondition for career advancement for academic economists. The result has been to limit the scope of economics to “free market” celebration of rational choice theory and a narrow-minded “law and economics” ideology opposed to the ideas of moral justice and economic regulation that formed the basis of so much Western religion.”
    http://www.counterpunch.org/hudson05242010.html

  25. @ Rex Caruthers:
    Let me put it this way–there is a better chance we will all agree that someone who wrote an editorial the President doesn’t like shouldn’t be taken out and shot than that we will agree on any chain of reasoning justifying rights. Even those who have never really thought about it will be horrified by an extra-juridical killing based on disagreement. Why? If there’s no intuition regarding transcendent truths, what is it–conditioning?

  26. “–will be horrified by an extra-juridical killing based on disagreement.

    National Security type extra-judicial killing of US citizens is OK?

  27. strangelet wrote:
    @ Rex Caruthers:you forgot Lavinia

    Yes, The Tree Girl from Titus Andronicus,Thanks

  28. Rex Caruthers wrote:

    “–will be horrified by an extra-juridical killing based on disagreement.
    National Security type extra-judicial killing of US citizens is OK?

    marginally.

    US citizens taking up arms against the US seem fair game.

  29. US citizens taking up arms against the US seem fair game.

    Ruby Ridge? If there’s a crime,what’s wrong with the state having to prove there was a crime.

  30. Right, the Chicago school, extorted it’s way on to the major journals in this country, give e a break. Keynesian economists are the only ones
    that count for Mr. Hudson, Austrians are clearly ‘doubleplusungood’
    in his view.

  31. Interesting Story:

    Israel’s Nuclear Disclosure
    Here’s an interesting story from The Guardian:
    Secret South African documents reveal that Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime, providing the first official documentary evidence of the state’s possession of nuclear weapons.
    The “top secret” minutes of meetings between senior officials from the two countries in 1975 show that South Africa’s defence minister, PW Botha, asked for the warheads and Shimon Peres, then Israel’s defence minister and now its president, responded by offering them “in three sizes”. The two men also signed a broad-ranging agreement governing military ties between the two countries that included a clause declaring that “the very existence of this agreement” was to remain secret.
    Israel’s nuclear arsenal isn’t exactly the world’s best kept secret, so these revelations aren’t going to have much of an impact in that regard. It will, however, complicate efforts to discredit Judge Goldstone (of the infamous “Goldstone Report” on the Gaza war).

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/23/israel-south-africa-nuclear-weapons

  32. Polakow Surasky, recently in the Huffington Post, is a little too diligent in defending Judge Goldstone, who has become a tool of Hamas and other Salafi, against Israel

  33. @ narciso:
    narc, you hammerhead, are you being a bit blunt in terming as a tool the Judge?

    mayhaps you mean to indicate the report is being made free with, not the man.

  34. fuster wrote:
    @ Rex Caruthers:
    I read the story. The links don’t supply any proof of an Israeli offer to supply nukes

    I said it was a story,I didn’t send it to the World Court.

  35. Nuclear tipped Jerichos would have been have the state of the arm weapon for Israel in 1975, I doubt Shimon, would have been eager to
    give them to such a sometime recent possible ally, something about this, strikes me as disinformation

  36. @ narciso:
    I don’t believe Hudson qualifies as a Keynesian, incidentally. He appears to me to be carving out a space for his own neo-progressive economics. Not sure what he calls it, if he has a name for it.

  37. Believing that rights have a transcendent basis has nothing to do with believing that people are always good, that rights never get violated, or that economists never revise their theories or seek to influence public policy. If one is outraged that an injustice was done at Ruby Ridge, or in Chile, or by Israel offering nukes to S. Africa, why, exactly? Why the outrage–what makes it something other than as esthetic judgment, or the joining of a mob of those similarly outraged?

  38. If one is outraged that an injustice was done at Ruby Ridge, or in Chile, or by Israel offering nukes to S. Africa, why, exactly? Why the outrage–what makes it something other than as esthetic judgment, or the joining of a mob of those similarly outraged.

    It isn’t something other,it’s part opinion,part emotion. There’s only three options,take Ruby Ridge,you’re either Pro-Government,anti-Government,or indifferent. With Israel,you’re pro-Israel having Nukes,anti,or indifferent.

  39. @ Rex Caruthers:
    But you should know from you reading of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky that all of the terms of any such decision are already a social construction, which isn’t the same as artificial. Adam suggests that the limiting case and organizing determinant of that construction is a taboo of some kind, if I understand him correctly. (Possibly has something to do with why the patricide in the Brothers K takes place “offstage” and is neither depicted nor truly solvable.) I think he means that once we define what would destroy us, then we can begin to construct a world with everything that’s left over.

  40. CK,
    I think Adam is saying that not only without God,Everything is Allowed,but that everything is equal in its meaninglessness,without God,we have pure,equal opportunity,Nihilism.

  41. @ CK MacLeod:
    Yes, very good, enough to keep the discussion going–thanks. The taboo is some unspeakable violence (unspeakable because we wouldn’t survive it) that we have averted and continue to avert. Of course, at a certain point, the methods of aversion themselves become a new source of violence, requiring a new event and taboo. My historical argument is that Judaism, Christianity and modern liberalism trace a fairly rare upward trajectory, one in which the taboos are less and less ritualistic and more and more based on transparent processes of distinguishing innocent from guilty. That’s when it becomes possible to theorize rights located “in” the individual.

  42. @ Rex Caruthers:
    OK, if I understand you, I might endorse this formulation–the implication, then, is that “God” need be nothing more than the collective bestowal of meaning (on reality, on being, on us) through deferral, through all of us letting be the thing we all want, so that we can create a process of sharing it in an orderly way. I’m personally not a believer in any conventional sense, but I think Judaism and Christianity (and probably other religions of which I know less) understand this anthropological insight far better than atheism–and they probably convey it better than my (or, really, Eric Gans’s) more theoretical discussion could.

  43. @ Rex Caruthers:

    A promise to provide nuclear weapons is not the same thing as delivery of nuclear weapons. States that want something from one another lie to one another all the time.

  44. “through all of us letting be the thing we all want’

    I’m more comfortable with a conflicted existence with Fate pitted against letting us be what we want,or appearance,(the hybris and denial that we find so much of in “everyday” life) vs reality,Being what’s underneath the thin veener.

    Check out “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson,that says just what I mean to say.

  45. @ Rex Caruthers:
    Not letting us be what we want–let be the thing we want, that is, the object on which our desires (each one’s desire spurred on by everyone else’s) converge.

    It’s been a while (I remember them showing us the movie in school, who knows why) but isn’t “The Lottery” a story of a community that uses a public, collectively enacted slaughter of a scapegoat, selected randomly, to preserve the community (in their own minds, at least)? The anthropological insight is strong, the ethical one less so, if the suggestion is that that is what we are really always doing anyway, so why not be honest about it? I might be misreading it, though–like I said, it was a long time ago, and I didn’t actually read the story. I do have some clear memories of the movie, after many decades, so it must have made some impact.

  46. if the suggestion is that that is what we are really always doing anyway, so why not be honest about it?

    You certainly got the gist of it:I didn’t know it was a movie.
    When reminiscing about the Vietnam War the other day,I recalled the Vietnam Lottery(Did you know that a Lottery System was used to determine who got Drafted,in the 1970s),and that reminded me of Ms Jackson’s famous story.

  47. @ Rex Caruthers:
    OK, in that case, I disagree with the suggestion that we have not overcome scapegoating–of course, we repeatedly lapse back into that very powerful tendency and perhaps we always will–but the cultural pulls in the other direction are also powerful and equally real (and not merely “superficial” or “thin veener”).

  48. @ bob:
    Don’t want to lose the idea that some version of evolutionary psychology might be helpful, but deriving “ought” from “is” is tricky: The new ought usually turns out to be the old ought in disguise – where it doesn’t collapse back into mere is and the negation of all ought, contradicting the whole point of the operation, and preparing a descent into materialism of the worst kind.

  49. @CK

    Ay yes, the legions of materialism are many.

    Nihilism being the main charge.

    Functionally, I think nihilism is the emotional acting out of those who are frustrated and thwarted in their relation with the world.

    The implications of recognizing ourselves as completely contigent beings are no more nihilistic than any version of eternalism anyone has discussed here. If anything, those in the throes of nihilism often implicitly believe they themselves exist – how can “anything is permitted” be true for some one who doesn’t exist?

    The issue is how we understand what it means to exist, rather than the existence of existence or non-existence.

    The issue is how do we reconcile our manifest contingency with the compelling experience of our point-of-viewedness.

    The word most used to do this is “embodied” – experience is a physical phenonomen embedded in our bodies which are embedded in the world.

    This of course suggests that the word “individual” could use some redefining.

    I think this approach is different enough from our hapbitual patterns of thought that we might have a chance of using it to better out situation rather than conducting a little mental interior decorating.

  50. @ bob:
    Seriously – it’s an open question to me whether we can plug some set of hypotheses about the nature of cognition, about that not-merely-a-thing we call the human mind, into a modernized natural rights discourse. We may generally have a creeping sense that big pieces of what we are is “things doing things” while something looks on without really caring (because caring is also just things doing things), but it’s that very perception that we’ve learned to fight or flee. I really, really didn’t want to do this… but I’m afraid I’m going to have to go all Heideggerian and say that we in-sist, because we ek-sist, on the pre-primacy of the what’s-more without which trees never fall in the forest. (The frog’s existentialist formulation was already prodding in this direction.) As Adam noted, religious believers are happy to abbreviate such processes – he refers to “collective bestowal of meaning” – in their God concept, though I would side with them (and suspect Adam would, too), if they called that particular definition too reductive.

    Until we see, perhaps until we actually read, the actual translations or interpretations of old natural rights formulations to whatever new formulations, we can only guess how we would react – suspect that they’ll be redundant or defective. We pre-judge because there’s no other alternative, prior to the actual emergence of the thing that is to determine newly how we judge.

  51. We hold these opinions to be as true as other opinions that are equally likely truths. That all men, and women, and others who self classify differently, and others who choose not to self classify, are to be made equal, endowed by their betters, and others who do not self classify as betters, with certain more or less unalienable social constructions, among them life, except when inconvenient in the context of the cost of state provided health care, liberty, except when it conflicts with other rights which may be defined by a progressive state, and the pursuit of happiness, up to the point of enough as defined by their Obama (PBUH).

  52. “We hold this hypothesis to be tested and proved: Just and durable government requires equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all citizens.”

  53. I hold this hypothesis potentially interesting: All valid human rights can be derived directly from the presumptions underlying the inquiry.

  54. @ CK MacLeod:

    There is, of course, always Chou En Lai’s point of view that it’s too soon to tell about “durable.” And, absent a Judge, who is to define “just.”

    Not ever having been up on philosophers I tried (not too hard I must admit) to find the frog’s answer, or anyone’s succinct answer, to your question re the source and definer of “rights” absent a Source and Definer; but I failed.

  55. “Trees falling in the forest” is Zen rather than exstential, as are frogs jumping in ponds from the Poetry Month discussion.

    Buddhism and Heidegger have meaningful similarities. A big difference is that Buddhism provides a path to living while Heidegger does not. The embodied mind of Evolutionary Psychology and the Deep Ecology movement are the children of Heidegger in the west attempting to find a path for living coming out of the western tradition.

    The closest current expression of how to live (perhaps a more direct formulation of the word “rights”) with these insights currently existing is the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. I specify this school because of its analytic tradition proceeding from the observation that everything has a cause and everything produces effects.

    Here, a primary result of these observations is one of the hallmarks of all schools of Buddhism: no self.

    In the west this idea upends conservative thinking completely. In the east it is deeply conservative.

    Part of my fascination with current neuroscience is that the piciture of the mind that has so far emerged form it it seems to support several aspects of the Buddhist picture of the mind. To be sure, differences abound, especially what the Dalai Lama calls the “ontological confusion” of science.

    I have avoided going in this direction here because it seemed either too far afield or too contentious (despite the blog’s title). I bring it up now only to provide a living illustration of the implications of what I have been discussing.

    Perhaps there are significant defects to this way of looking at things. But I think they are not of any greater scale than the defects of proceeding from the assumption of truly independent individuals, which seems to produce a lot of confusion just in defining basic terms.

  56. Rights endowed by God upon you,
    His blessings said to whisper, “I love you”
    Life, liberty and happiness, whee,
    Were just a little dream or three.

    Say nighty-night to those dreams,
    Since sage despoilers of the skeptical teams,
    Have us alone and just as blue as can be,
    Can’t dream a little dream or three.

  57. bob wrote:

    But I think they are not of any greater scale than the defects of proceeding from the assumption of truly independent individuals, which seems to produce a lot of confusion just in defining basic terms.

    This confusion is fundamental politically, though easily lost when the cultural scenery is foregrounded and submitted to modern American coalition politics. The left is culturally associated with free expression (“Piss Christ”), which is in turn popularly associated with individualism – “do your own thing, free to be you and me, including your two daddies.” But the libertarian right is arguably more correctly associated with a defense of individual economic and political rights against the encroachments of state power, and this carries through in the character of Republican appeals for economic freedom and limited government.

    How we conceive of the inwardnesses and essential selfhood of those individuals whose rights to free expression and a basic living tend to be defended most vociferously by the left, and whose rights to be left alone and keep the fruits of their labor tend to be defended most vociferously by the right, is less clear to me. I can see, however, how a biological picture of irreducible instincts and general tendencies of human beings could eventually influence the shape of public policy, including which battles aren’t worth fighting, but also including those rights that need most to be afforded special protection, or which must be presumed. For instance, the argument that some prized human attribute was not biologically favored might become an argument for affording it even greater protection, rather than for giving up the game. There was even some discussion a few years ago in Germany of declaring “complex individuality” a kind of scarce resource or endangered species.

    On the other hand, if through our philosophizing and neuro-scientific research – and drugs – we end up reducing respect for individual subjectivity and individual rights, we still might determine that we needed a sense of inviolability of the private sphere for the mass enterprise to function at its highest levels pragmatically as well as morally.

  58. @ Sully:
    In durable and just I was sneaking God back in – or what the notions of inalienability and endowment by the Creator do for a sentence that otherwise is written as an observation of “self-evident truth,” not an assertion of anything at all – as though Tommy was writing a letter home about the fad he and his buddies happened to have latched on to. A system that didn’t recognize The Rights might conceivably be durable, but couldn’t be just; or it might be just in the abstract or perhaps for a moment (a state of nature or a state of everywhere equal consumption… just before anybody got busy), but couldn’t be durably so. In this case, both terms are relative: We’ll never be able to prove that such a system will be eternal, but we can argue that in the real world a system guided, even if imperfectly, by respect for those rights can survive multiple generations more or less intact, to relatively and progressively more just outcomes (i.e., now more just than previously, and more just than all or most competing arrangements).

  59. @ CK MacLeod:

    I hold this hypothesis potentially interesting: All valid human rights can be derived directly from the presumptions underlying the inquiry.

    Because if we undertake, in the spirit of genuine inquiry, to discover the source of rights we will find that first of all we need the right to such an inquiry (in order to protect such a spirit)?

  60. adam wrote:

    @ CK MacLeod:
    I hold this hypothesis potentially interesting: All valid human rights can be derived directly from the presumptions underlying the inquiry.

    Because if we undertake, in the spirit of genuine inquiry, to discover the source of rights we will find that first of all we need the right to such an inquiry (in order to protect such a spirit)?

    Yes. In addition, we presume that the inquiry might be worthwhile, implying the existence of a community of fellow inquirers susceptible to reason and potentially of influence. All of which isn’t really that far from the thought process and moral reasoning of the Lockeans, which they put in terms of salvation. If salvation requires the believer to come by free inquiry to true belief (acceptance of the truth), then government (established religion) that impairs freedom of speech and conscience does grave harm. The difference would be that the language of religion gives a static form to the presumed goals of free inquiry – as though knowing God or God’s will could be the solution to an equation, with the same result applying equally to all regardless of their differences – rather than an open-ended and evolving experience unique to each believer – which is also why the opposite of the frog’s formulation is also true: our rights come from our basic dissimilarity (possibly also from our non-existence, but I don’t think I can think my way through to the end of that one before the end of halftime).

    I think it was Yogananda who spoke of every person pursuing his or her own personal love affair with the divine. I may be garbling his message here.

  61. @ CK MacLeod:
    I think we agree here–if I can conduct such and inquiry and hence realize the need for the right to do so, then I can’t exclude the possibility that anyone else might be able to do so, and so everyone must have the right. This puts things in the necessarily minimal terms. I suppose an atheist or materialist might say this would be true for any inquiry, not only one into God; but why are we able to share the process and results of inquiry in the first place? Where does the faith that we can do so, a faith without which the inquiry would be neither initiated nor continued, come from? You could probably construct an evolutionary process: “honesty,” in the sense of reliably informing others of, say, sources of food and danger, was “selected for”; developing a “reputation” for “honesty” would in turn be selected for, because such a person would be protected and supported by others; finally, “honesty” in the broadest sense of a love for the truth would emerge as one of the characteristics of humankind. In the end, though, we would have to remove the scare quotes around “honesty”–since no other species has anything to do with anything like “honesty,” in the sense of choosing to seek and communicate the truth (and to keep faith with others) when one could have chosen to lie (and betray that faith), we have found ourselves with a defining characteristic of humanity that had to have been “created” before it could be “selected for.” And, as I take you to be saying (or at least thinking with some affinity to), that creation must have been a salvation: without discovering a way to keep faith with each other, and therefore something to keep faith in, we would not have survived.

  62. @ adam:
    Thinking this over – am drafting some rambling thoughts – wanting 1) to substitute an expansive definition of “communication” (including non-verbal and internal communication, and meta-communication) for what you call honesty, 2) to relate it to will to power as opposed to mere “survival,” 3) to find a way back to a functional and accessible definition of political rights as rights to seek a meaningful existence (requiring the practical economic and survival rights as well as freedom to communicate).

  63. @ CK MacLeod:
    Yes, something like “communication” is better, but I think any use of signs will require some notion of “intention”–not in the narrow sense of “what did Keats mean to say in ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn'” but in the more minimal sense of making space for others and soliciting a response. And if we can grasp another’s intention there must be some sense in which we “trust” them, so signs always include some implicit references to the presumed trustworthiness of the person issuing them.

    And meaning as “salvation” includes both survival and “will to power,” doesn’t it? And more: meaning, or our ability to live and breath through signs creates the “world,” and therefore goodness and beauty as well–along, perhaps, with the uniquely human forms of evil, like envy, betrayal, malevolence for its own sake, etc.

    I still think more complex forms of property rights is going to provide the answer to the third desideratum you lay down here.

  64. Interesting discussion.

    Seems to me there is no semantic bridge capable of spanning the philosophical gap at the base of the question. An existential view of life (which I would say necessarily devolves to the will to power) or an essentialist view (which would include Christianity, Judaism, deism and all of the founders). The line in question presumes the latter view and cannot be rendered coherently without the essentialist presuppositions on which it is based. Any attempt to de-mythologize this statement destroys its meaning.

  65. @ John:
    Took a break for a day from this discussion while letting the last exchanges settle (and taking care of some other business/getting caught up in other scraps), but you re-state the fundamental question succinctly. Adam can speak for himself, but I suspect that he would take the position along with me, though perhaps reach it by other means, that what you call the existentialist position can only offer a pretense of being non-mythological. According to this framework I would suggest that Comments 71-5 could be interpreted as a demonstration that any participation in the inquiry already presumes and recognizes the necessity of symbolic exchange. You can’t intelligibly claim the lack of a semantic bridge without crossing one.s

  66. @ bob:
    Are you a fan of the movie MEMENTO? It just occurred to me, as I was watching the video, that it could be viewed within the frameworks we’ve been discussing. If you’ve seen the movie, then you know that the main character has suffered a brain injury that has scrambled his ability to remember things. He’s continually coming aware in predicaments that are completely new to him, because he doesn’t know how he got wherever he is. He therefore has to reconstruct his own intentions, and determine his own role from the context in which he finds himself, sometimes with the aid of notes he’s written to himself, either on his body or on snapshots he’s taken.

    So he continually has to re-create social relations from scratch. No matter how far from “normal” he travels, and no matter how broken and reduced he is as a human being, he always ends up recapitulating a provisional normalcy whose exigencies he’s able to master on their own terms as he understands them.

    I’d link to a favorite scene or two – I believe the whole movie may be on YouTube – but I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you if you’ve never seen it.

  67. the existentialist position can only offer a pretense of being non-mythological.

    Yes, I caught that. And I do agree that atheists of a certain stripe frequently sneak God in the back door without admitting it. Along those lines, Adam seems to be seeking an evolutionary explanation for a Kantian categorical imperative in #73. I think this is, once again, the bridge to nowhere, i.e. you can’t get there from here. It may work semantically (or appear to work) but you never really go anywhere.

    Kant tried to do for the golden rule what you’ve been toying with doing to the Declaration. But I think we might agree that all he’s really done is give it a patina of disbelief. There’s still a lot of magic hiding underneath which he can’t account for.

  68. John wrote:

    Kant tried to do for the golden rule what you’ve been toying with doing to the Declaration. But I think we might agree that all he’s really done is give it a patina of disbelief. There’s still a lot of magic hiding underneath which he can’t account for.

    My understanding of the critique of the critiques is precisely that Kant, though struggling mightily and covering vast territories in the process, in the end as in the beginning had to depend on a leap of faith. Derrida referred to Kant’s “parergon” (or frame) – and, wonders of the internet, I was able quickly to find a nice summary and a useful quote from Kant directly on this subject:

    Because reason is ‘conscious of its impotence to satisfy its moral need’ it has recourse to the parergon, to grace, to mystery, to miracles. It needs the supplementary work.

    As Derrida demonstrated (over and over), such admissions support the non-dichotomous position (often, ironically, in the act of re-asserting whatever dichotomy or opposition). There’s no need to cross a semantic bridge to anywhere because, as Derrida might say, we’re always already coming back the other way.

    None of this is to suggest that in the comment thread of a small internet blog we’re going to arrive at a philosophic work for the ages, nor are we trying to have our God and eat him, too. All I’m really seeking, or all I set out to look for, is a defensible, non-sectarian, accessible interpretation of natural rights that derives from the actual necessary presumptions of democratic life rather than from a pre-existing, identifiably culture-bound religious discourse.

    In the top post I argue that “our rights come from God” is not a consensual position. The relevant question to me is whether that would mean that we lack a societal consensus on some very fundamental level, or, what I would prefer to believe, that we possess that consensus or a capability for sufficient consensus, though may not have found the words for it (or may have found them – just no one bothered to inform me).

  69. I agree with your assessment of Kant. That was the point I was making as well.

    As for the semantic bridge, you seem to be saying (or saying Derrida says) that there is no such ground on the other side at all. If that’s your point, I would disagree. I think nihilism is a genuine alternative, a separate place if you will. This, I believe, is where existentialism always ends up if it’s honest, which is why real atheists have angst not humanist manifestos. That gap will, IMO, always remain unbridgeable. And so I think the easier job would be to try and convince the humanist atheists (you mentioned Allahpundit, whose work I respect tremendously) that they’re not really living on the ground they claim to be living on. They’re expatriates who really live in the same world of unsupportable moral beliefs as the rest of us (and not among the nihilists). Of course I have to acknowledge that my take is influenced by my perspective as an evangelical. We tend to see conversion as the answer to everything ;-)

    I hope you didn’t take my jumping in as an attempt to be critical. On the contrary, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this thread and was impressed with the level of thought going on. I envy you your readers very much and just wanted to get in on some of the fun you seemed to be having kicking this thing around. And frankly I’m a bit weary of discussing SB1070 over at my place.

  70. To the contrary, your contributions and your criticisms are very welcome, and I wish I had more time right now to go into them in further detail. I think you have accurately assessed my approach to the humanist atheists – and towards atheists and believers generally.

    I’ll be looking up your SB1070 discussions – and will later be adding Verum Serum to our blogroll. Was just yesterday watching that bizarre Folks/Haley animation that I guess one of your colleagues dug up.

    These threads, befitting the name of the blog, tend to live on, or come back to life unexpectedly, and I anticipate further hair-raising twists and turns on this subject, either here or in subsequent posts – so stay tuned for the next exciting scenes.

  71. CK

    Momento looks really interesting, but I haven’t watched it yet. I ration out my brain injury themed movies for when the “I can relate” response is likely to override the “god this is making me incredibly anxiious” response.

    As to the more substantive comments post #77 my response will have to wait since I’ve just gotten home from some out patient surgery and am pretty high from the pain meds.

    But I don’t see “will to power” inevitalbe at all after deconstructing the self. That was part of my point about Buddhism about nihilism being psychological acting out.

    Good meds.

  72. stay tuned for the next exciting scenes.

    I will. It’s not very often that I encounter someone (much less a group of someone’s) who understand any of this stuff, much less are in basic agreement with me about it. I’m hooked.

    Thanks for the blogroll. Will be doing likewise.

  73. In a sense I’m offering an evolutionary answer, not so much to Kant’s categorical imperative, but to our ability to make sense of the signs we “emit,” which Kant is just one of many to try and figure out. That is, what became human beings must have met certain “preconditions” for the transformation to come, but that transformation was a leap, that took place in a single, unpredictable, even unlikely event (that may, therefore, have something “existentialist” to it)–the emergence of the human, in a sense ex nihilo, in an event, and along with God, is what Genesis gets right. I’m not sure what “bridge” this hypothesis has trouble crossing.

  74. That Russian novel Petersburg, by Bely, has a lot of references to Kant and Nietzche, in almost equal parts. In a land that never sees
    liberty, like Czarist Russia, one could also add Saudi Arabia, one could
    see how extreme philosophies take hold

  75. @ John:
    I’m arguing, I believe in a manner parallel to adam, that nihilism is moral false consciousness. If you’re in any way acting or speaking as though your argument is something rather than nothing, that it can have a truth and that its truth can matter – if, for instance, you participate in an intellectual debate about nihilism – then to the extent you make any sense at all you’re affirming sense and affirming affirmation, along with a comprehensive set of implicit or immanent social relations and objectives. My old deconstructionist perfesser liked to quote Nietzsche at this point: We must still believe in God because we still believe in grammar.

    Logically, the argument as to meaninglessness is either meaningless or self-contradictory. If it’s meaningless then it’s irrelevant, and it can’t be correct, because there is no right or wrong in a world without meaning. If it’s self-contradictory, then that’s because it’s also wrong.

    So, nihilism survives only as a stance, a refusal to be pinned down on particulars, but as soon as it enters the conversation, it becomes something else, at minimum a gnosticism that may refrain from stating its fundamental premises, but must commit to particulars in order to be intelligible to itself and others. I’m not sure that we need to go any further than that to give birth to civilization. As a moral and political philosophy operating within civilization, it could be negative dialectics, which accepts what is, negates it, and lets synthesis take care of itself. It could also operate or be reduced to will to power, while anticipating and advancing, along with Nietzsche again, a transvaluation of values rather then a negation of values.

    So, to return to the main question, I don’t think we have to accept that nihilism is ever an actual alternative, ever really available at all – it’s always already nonsense.

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