Sunday, June 6, 2010

Great Discussion on the Foundation of Rights

A good and productive discussion about the foundation of rights has broken out in the comments section of my last post. The following is a comment that was left by Chris that sparked the discussion:

"I don't think it's surprising that, at least in primary and secondary schools, the Schoolmen are "forgotten." They have two things going against them: 1.) They were writing within a fairly narrow context (everything was Christian and Paripatetic, and not necessarily in that order since their Christianity was so distinctly Greek), making their work somewhat esoteric to contemporary readers and 2.) While they were undoubtedly influential among the early moderns, the early moderns either altered their ideas or expressed them in a way that is much easier for non-experts today to make sense of; certainly easier than it is for them to make sense of Scotus or Bonaventure directly.
That said, I wonder who you're directing this sort of thing at. Historians of ideas have never doubted or underplayed the influence of the Scholastics on the early moderns. If intellectual historians of the American founding have, then that says all I need to know about that particular field's rigorousness. And if you're merely after the rabid "secularists" (seriously, how many of these are there? and how many as compared to the number of "Christianists"?), then you're plaints are likely to fall on deaf ears, as they are either well aware of the Christian dominance of western thinking even through the early modern period (seriously, you don't even need the Scholastics to point this out), but find it irrelevant to the larger point, or they are simply blinded by prejudice and beyond reasoning with."

I responded with this:

"My goal is to bring this history back into the light. It is the history of the birth of inalienable rights grounded in equality. There are some scary Scientists out there who cannnot coherently tell you what a human is in their worldview. I look at Rwanda, Nazi Germany, The Balkans and see that dehumanization is the foundation of genocide. We untie ourselves from our Christian sense of justice to our own peril."

Chris then responded with this:

"KoI, I couldn't disagree more, on so many grounds. One, inaleniable rights grounded in equality predates Christianity, as I am sure you know, and therefore doesn't logically require it. Two, while Christian does put its own spin on the metaphysical source of equality, this does not mean we can't learn from them (and Seneca, say), and ground it in something else. This is, in fact, what many if not most modern philosophical conceptions of justice have done, producing, some would argue, even better versions of equality and justice.  Next, not only do equality-bases inalienable rights predate Christianity, but so does the claim that separating these sorts of things from god/the gods. Read your Aristophanes. If separating them from Zeus and his ilk, or their Roman counterparts and their ilk, isn't metaphysically problematic, why should we believe that separating them from the Christian God would be?"
Tom Van Dyke provided a link to this enlightening article and the following comment that I think shows the slippery slope of rights not grounded in imago dei:

"The fact is that in a state with limited resources, the more that is spent on keeping alive the severely impaired, the less there is left for spending on schools and medical research. Tough choices have to be made. Many children, even in the developed world, have terrible upbringing and poor education. Devoting more funds to this would make a massive difference to those children’s lives. Given that a society cannot do everything, it is not entirely obvious that spending perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on keeping alive a single severely impaired person, rather than transforming the life chances of dozens of children, is the right thing to do."

19 comments:

Mark said...

I'm a lurker here and don't post because I am but a grain of sand on the wide swath of beach when it comes to my knowledge of the Founders and their beliefs about religion or otherwise, but as a human and a non-believer, I'm intrigued by the discussion.

KOI writes:
That is my worry. It is one thing to say something has worth. It is another to say why?

And he'll have to pardon me for putting words in his mouth or assuming too much, but I can only guess that this is why he thinks God or some religious foundation is necessary for ethics in a societal (as opposed to individual) sense? If so, isn't it really just begging the question? In much the same way as saying God creates everything begs the question of what creates God, doesn't saying that humans have worth because God says they do beg that same sort of question?

And somebody please tell me if I'm up in the night as to whether this is what you are all driving at with this topic and I'll beg off, but can't we look at a guy like Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer and ask if they really had any worth at all? And I realize that question can only be sufficiently specualted in hindsight as I'm sure their mommas loved them as much as mine loves me. And it doesn't necessarily address the topic of "essence" as Mr. Van Dyke put it.

And maybe it's entirely possible that this is silly idealism on my part, but why couldn't you base the foundation of your ethics on the idea of reciprocity or "the Golden Rule" for others?

Anyway, I hang out here a bit and enjoy everyone's take on things but am so novice about the topic I don't dare comment. However, in discussing the number of angels dancing on the heads of pins, I'm well-qualified.

Thanks,

Mark

Mark said...

Pinky,

An early example of the Golden Rule that reflects the Ancient Egyptian concept of Maat appears in the story of The Eloquent Peasant which is dated to the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040 - 1650 BCE): "Now this is the command: Do to the doer to cause that he do."[5] An example from a Late Period (c. 1080 - 332 BCE) papyrus: "That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another."[6]

The Golden Rule was a common principle in ancient Greek philosophy. Examples of the general concept include:

"Do not to your neighbor what you would take ill from him." – Pittacus[7]
"Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing." – Thales[8]
"What you do not want to happen to you, do not do it yourself either. " – Sextus the Pythagorean[9] The oldest extant reference to Sextus is by Origin in the third century of the common era.[10]
"Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others." – Isocrates[11]
"What thou avoidest suffering thyself seek not to impose on others." – Epictetus[12]
"It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly (agreeing 'neither to harm nor be harmed'[13]), and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life." – Epicurus[14]
"One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him." - Plato's Socrates (Crito, 49c)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Golden_Rule

Now it may be considered sacrilege to use Wikipedia as a source, but is it possible that this idea predates Jesus by a few? And if Jesus uttered that 2+2=4, would that not be the case independent of his utterance?

bpabbott said...

Re: "You mention the "Golden Rule" [...]. That comes from Jesus, right?"

Yes, but there are earlier examples as well.

bpabbott said...

Re: "I can only guess that this is why he thinks God or some religious foundation is necessary for ethics in a societal (as opposed to individual) sense."

We try to remove our personal beliefs from the discussion. Its not so important what we personally believe regarding the foundations of inalienable rights. Instead we try to focus on what the founders thought about the foundations were.

As it was, the founders appear to have universally agreed that inalienable rights are grounded in monotheism.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The Golden Rule falls short of mercy.

The lex talionis, an eye for eye, is perfectly just. But we reject it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_for_an_eye

The Wiki is basically accurate, but lex talionis is not merciful, it's merely just. In the olden days, put the king's eye out and he'll take your life. Lex talionis was an improvement on that, at least.

The Christian ideas like mercy start creeping in when we begin to think of incarceration as not just punishment, but a chance for "rehabilitation."

You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38–39, NRSV)

Reciprocity or even "justice" begin to take on new meanings in our modern age: for instance, "social justice" goes far beyond any possibility of reciprocation.

This is all leaving out the real modern problem, starting with the "severely impaired," who can reciprocate nothing, and by some quite coherent schemes like Peter Singer's

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Singer

don't quite qualify for absolute essential protection by being "human."

Anyway, this is all stuff to think about. I think we---the world---don't even have a clarity yet about "human rights": what are "rights," from where does the "right to have rights" stem, indeed, what is "human?"

Mark said...

Tom,

But wouldn't us wanting others to be merciful to us as reasoning for us to be merciful to others fulfill the requirements of the golden rule?

And when you talk about mercy, doesn't that mean different things to different people, especially when we talk about end of life and quality of life issues?

Mark said...

bpabbott,

Even if the founders thought that morals and ethics were grounded in monotheism, and I defer to all of you in that regard, are we entitled to discuss the validity of those views?

Pinky said...

.
Hey, Mark, thanks for that information.
.
I never knew that about the "Golden Rule".
.

Tom Van Dyke said...

But wouldn't us wanting others to be merciful to us as reasoning for us to be merciful to others fulfill the requirements of the golden rule?

I dunno. Is mercy just?

And when you talk about mercy, doesn't that mean different things to different people, especially when we talk about end of life and quality of life issues?

Everything means different things to different people. That's why despite Maritain or Rorty's attempts to paint a happy face on "human rights," none of us are talking about the same things.

You're free to debate the validity of anything, I guess. I've never seen it lead anywhere, since the participants do not share a common language. I mean, the words are the same, but the concepts behind them aren't.

My interest in in the political philosophy of these things, not their cosmic truth, which is of course unknowable. I just don't think "Onward Kantian Soldiers" is gonna swing it in the real world.

bpabbott said...

Re: "Even if the founders thought that morals and ethics were grounded in monotheism, and I defer to all of you in that regard, are we entitled to discuss the validity of those views?"

We do our best to avoid the culture wars that are typically destructive to discussions of religion and/or politics.

While this blog's topic is of religion and politics, the discussion is dominated by a historic perspective of how these things were viewed by the founders. We try our best to keep our personal opinions out of it. We don't always succeed, but are quick to correct each others transgressions.

There are occasions when some share their personal perspectives, but promotion, or demotion, of specific world views is discouraged.

In any event, feel free to join the discussions.

Chris said...

Tom, surely you're aware that people having different ideas about what human rights, or even the two components thereof, is integral to Rorty's philosophy, and his liberalism in particular. Consequences of Pragmatism and Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity are quite clear on this. The idea is that our representations of these things converge through interaction and discussion (a fact confirmed by research on "common ground" and other conceptual effects of dialog).

For me, this and other reasons make a grounding of ethics on subjectivity and intersubjectivity the most tenable (if you want one of the common threads in my previous list of influences). And there's no reason to think such a view is inconsistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Buber and Levinas were religious Jews, after all. In fact, one of its strengths is that it places ethics prior to metaphysics, as metaphysical differences are more frequent, and bigger, than those related to basic ethical principles, which seem to be to some degree universal.

Mark said...

Well I appreciate everyone's input and comments. And I must apologize for being a bit thick when it comes to comprehension of some of your remarks, most specifically, Mr. Van Dyke, who makes Dennis Miller's ability to draw an historical or literary or religious reference or allusion to any given situation, seem amateurish in comparison.

And I understand that you try to avoid the culture wars where possible, but at some point it leads back to a question asked by another commenter a few days ago (I think it was here): So when we haved gleaned all the historical meanings of the founders' writings when it comes to their views on religion and its proper place in American life, foundationally, politically, legally, or otherwise, then what? Having read the blog for over a year, it strikes me that, depending on which founder we look at, we can make all sorts of reasonable assumptions about their personal views regarding religion and its place in America, but what do we DO with that, especially given the disparity of their views?

I cannot avoid my bias as a non-believer and when I go to the Constitution itself (which one would gather is the "compromise" that all these great minds came up with) it gives little mention of religion other than the first amendment and the rather specific and telling prohibition in Article VI. Which, granting that the strength of the Judeo-Christian tradition and philosophy in the Founders thinking is fairly well-established (the trinitarianish-ness of that thought is open to question) why would they make the prohibition against religious tests in Article VI if they were of the mindset, as some of the Pat Robertson types try to insist, that we were established as a "Christian" nation?

In the end, despite the attempts by militant atheists or militant religionists to try to make this a black and white issue, isn't it really always going to be various shades of gray?

I realize this fondles the Pandora Box of culture war that you hope to avoid, but my question is sincere: After all the parsing and the historical hair-splitting is done, what will we be able to do with all that information, other than confirm that, indeed, the water is very muddy and that we can probably draw no definitive conclusions about much other than that the founders had varying views on religion (when we could determine them at all, a la GW) and what role it should play in the nation?

I have blathered on sufficiently for now. Thank you all again.

King of Ireland said...

" realize this fondles the Pandora Box of culture war that you hope to avoid, but my question is sincere: After all the parsing and the historical hair-splitting is done, what will we be able to do with all that information"

Hopefully have as clear as possible idea of where we came from in order to pick and choose what gets to come along with us where we are going.


Mark,

I am a history teacher and have read a lot of history. I look back and realize that discussing things on this blog:

1. Showed me that I really did not know that much

2. Got me up to speed real quick

Do not sit back. Jump in and learn with the rest of us all. Thanks for your comments.

King of Ireland said...

As fas as Maat goes their equality was not grounded in imago dei. That is the difference and what makes the use of this basis for rights exclusively Judeo-Christian. Good point about the Mono-theism Ben.

Simply put, I think that Aquinas and Jefferson were speaking of the same God in regards to what natural law can tell us about him with a few additions found in the Bible like imago dei and mercy like Tom stated.

Mark said...

KOI,

Thanks for the invitation.

You wrote:
Hopefully have as clear as possible idea of where we came from in order to pick and choose what gets to come along with us where we are going.

And this touches on my concern: If we suddenly found tomorrow a trove of letters from Jefferson or Madison or any of the other more skeptical founders that said that they thought the country should place the Christian religion in the kind of "favored child" placement that some of the culture warriors would like it placed, would we be wise to do so? Which leads to the next issue: When is it okay to question the founders? Many have placed the views of these men in such a position of infallibility to be almost gospel. But they were human just like us. At some point (and this is where your "pick and choose" comes in) can't we have a rational discussion about the merits and (I hope not to invoke Mr. Van Dyke's wrath in using this term) utility of certain ideas?

And I have learned quite a bit over the last year thanks to all of your collective contributions.

King of Ireland said...

"At some point (and this is where your "pick and choose" comes in) can't we have a rational discussion about the merits and (I hope not to invoke Mr. Van Dyke's wrath in using this term) utility of certain ideas? "

That was the point of this post. There is a difference between "culture war" cliches and honest discussion about how this history relates to our lives as we move from one era of history to another. I think this discussion is the latter. Certainly germane. I think Tom would agree with me on that.

Have at it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Mark. Joe [King of Ireland] and Ben Abbott state my feelings as well---jump in and try out ideas. It's possible I write the most here of anyone on this blog, but mostly in the comments sections.

When one takes to the mainpage, one is giving a monograph, a speech. It's not Socratic dialogue, where the real learning takes place. And as mark McCormick, the writer of What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School said, you can't learn anything while you're speaking.

As for the reference to Dennis Miller, I'm honored. I'm obscure by intention when I want to stay out of the grenade-tossing, the rehashing of familiar arguments. Glad to hear somebody gets the jokes and references. They're written for gentlepersons like yourself.

Again, to continue to return to the first things is the only avenue toward truth, Socrates-like. There are layers upon layers of confusion piled upon the first things, which is why all we talk past each other these days.

...when we have gleaned all the historical meanings of the founders' writings when it comes to their views on religion and its proper place in American life, foundationally, politically, legally, or otherwise, then what?

I don't believe we've gleaned them atall. Rather we have the secular revisionism of the 20th century's "Harvard Narrative," and now we're dealing with the counter-revisionism of David Barton and that bunch in the 21st.

[And in the 19th, you had Parson Weems turning GWash into Jerry Falwell and a generation of preachers trying to grab Lincoln for their own as well.]

And so, the reason I don't like getting into anti-revisionism as a topic in itself is that we never get anywhere else!

The study [and truth] of religion and the Founding is still an open subject; the ink is not yet dry, which is why I find this blog---and this blog in particular for its resistance to the culture war grenade-toss---so worth my time. I've never seen anything like it, not just on our core topic but on any topic, where left and right, theist and non-theist get together and actually discuss stuff with courtesy and productivity.

The true Socratic ideal, not Plato's version---to try out ideas, kick it around, learn from and teach each other, as joint inquiry and love of wisdom, not bloodsport.

What was the question again? Oh, yeah. I'll do a Part Deux, so as not to exceed the character limit.

But welcome to all, Chris, too. Men of good conscience [women too] are this blog's greatest assets.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Part Deux ...

Again, it's how to approach the problem, the study of this religion and the Founding thing. The method.

What I cannot accept is a hopelessness we can ever make sense of it. It's not just a matter of competing quote-grabs, that one can grab a Founder quote that contradicts the other guy's Founder quote and 1 minus 1 equals zero.

So what's the use?

Chris Rodda touched on this in recommending the study of how the Founding [and the Constitution] were put into practice in the immediate post-Founding era, and I agree wholeheartedly with her. Their actions tell us far more of their understanding of the Constitution---the people who ratified it and lived it---than any abstract 21st century parsing of the words. "Custom and practice" become part of law, too, the establishment of mutual and common understanding.

Far more than the Framers' "original intent." Madison himself says in at least two places that's immaterial, it's the ratifiers understanding of what the text they were ratifying that matters.

More than any of the Founders' private thoughts. mental reservations are not recognized by law. It's their public actions that matter.

And to return to first things, the letter of the law tells us nothing about the spirit of the laws, and no society can survive just on strict parsing of the letter of the law. There is an entity called "society" that's organic in itself; law itself is an artificial representation of ethos, the spirit.

In the end, despite the attempts by militant atheists or militant religionists to try to make this a black and white issue, isn't it really always going to be various shades of gray?

Oh, I think it's a definite shade of gray, or rather, one that can be put into a far more narrow band of gray than current culture war discussion permits.

For instance, in Olympic ice skating or diving, they throw out the outlier high and low scores. I meself simply suggest that if we throw out Jefferson's private writings---[and pick one from the "other" side for balance, too, John Jay, Patrick Henry, whoever], the Founding begins to come into a much clearer focus.

Then we could start discussin'.

Character limit tells me a Part Tres will be necessary. Thx for being you, y'all.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't want to gloss over any of the great points and questions from above yet I want to yield the floor.

My problem with subjectivity is, what happens when you put two masochists in a room and tell them to exercise the Golden Rule?

That's glib, but it's not a koan or a sophistry. Do you let your depressed brother jump under the train? Buy a drunk a drink? Give him the gun he asked you to hold for him? [That last one's in Plato's Republic.]

Your brother's drunk, waving a gun, and playing on the railroad tracks. What ought you---man---"society"---do? The "law"---any law---is simply inadequate here. Law is not reality. Repeat, law is not reality.

Chris brings up a Jewish view per Levinas and Buber, that of ethics over metaphysics. I don't think it's any coincidence atall that the Supreme Court will soon be composed entirely of Jews and Catholics.

As for the "utility" of various metaphysical or ethical systems, that's actually closer to where we need the discussion to be than any claims of cosmic truth.

GWash, Farewell Address:

"Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

That's the political philosophy discussion. Onward Kantian Soldiers. It is acknowledged, stipulated and happily hereby conceded that those here gathered who eschew "religious principle" are indeed the gentlepersons under the "influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure" the wise GWash had no worries about in the republic as good, decent and ethical human beings.