@ 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.

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.

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).

@ 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.

@ 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

@ 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).

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.

@ 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).

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.

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

"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."

@ 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.

@ bob:
Materialism strikes deep.
Into your ontology it will creep.

@ 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.

@ 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.

@ 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.

@ 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."


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!


@ 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?

@ Fourcheese casady:
I'll give you a summary of Huyler's discussion later, and will be very interested in your reply - perhaps tomorrow...

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.

@ 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).

@ Fourcheese casady:
Hobbes provided the framework that, via Locke et al, the natural rights theorists needed to supersede.

@ narciso:
Huh - don't get the "obtuseness" - I criticized Litman, twice, and I linked a piece explaining inalienable vs unalienable.

@ 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?