I have to admit, it never occurred to me to attack the question of rights from the perspective of mathematics. I studied physics in college, and I remember plainly the division between physics professors and mathematics professors. The physics professors were uniformly disdainful of the mathematics professors, and vice versa. The mathematicians were interested in math for math’s sake, ignoring any practical applications and appreciating primarily the elegance of the science. The physicists were interested only in the practical application of mathematics to solving the questions of physical reality, appreciating the elegance mostly as evidence of the correct application of the tools.
You can imagine which side of this divide I rested on. However, as I said above, I think we’re approaching consensus here, but perhaps only asymptotically.
Dr. Cline in his opening explicitly connects the question of rights with the question of morals, and I think it’s important to make clear here that the two are associated, but not interchangeable. That’s probably understood, but as I said, it is necessary that we be unerringly precise in this discussion.
I quoted Ayn Rand’s statement that “A ‘right’ is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.” I believe this to be true, but Websters defines “moral” as “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior.” A quick study of history shows that what is moral for one society may be immoral for another, as in the example I gave of the Maori and Moriori from Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs and Steel. Yet Dr. Cline’s position is that there is a single “objective standard of morality” and that objective standard is based on the rights of man which are corollaries of Rand’s “one fundamental right: a man’s right to his own life.”
Dr. Cline believes, and makes a good case, that those rights can be determined just the same way the laws of mathematics are: through discovery by logical thought.
We’re ==><== this close!
We’re stuck in that no-mans-land between mathematicians and physicists, I think. Dr. Cline argues for the theoretical ideal, while I’m oriented towards the pragmatic. His “this is the way it should be,” and my “does it work?“ Settle in for another dissertation-length essay. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I stated in the earlier piece:
The whole purpose of morals is to ensure survival, and whatever works to ensure survival is, for that society, “moral.”
This is accurate, but incomplete. There are at least two bases for morality: survival, and individual rights. For the overwhelming majority of the existence of Man, the morality of any society has been based strictly on survival – anything that worked to ensure survival was, by definition, “moral.” For example, drawing another citation from Guns, Germs and Steel, New Guinean cannibalism can be pragmatically understood if you study the food sources available to the cannibal tribes. There simply wasn’t enough protein available in their environment to sustain their populations without it. Even though cannibalism can be dangerous to its practitioners for biological reasons (diseases like Kuru and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, for instance), when the alternative is rapid death from starvation or slow death through malnutrition, the choice seems obvious. Since their only significant available source of protein was meat, and the only large animal species in that ecosystem was humans, and it remained thus until these tribes were reached by Europeans bringing high-protein crops and domestic animals formerly unknown, then the choice of their source of dietary protein was simple. From our perspective, cannibalism is a moral horror; involving the taboos of both murder and of the consumption of human flesh. From an individual rights perspective, the systematic slaughter of people is wrong as it is violative of their rights. We can mitigate our revulsion if the situation is obviously extreme; sailors adrift at sea, isolated survivors of an air crash, but the idea of a culture based on cannibalism is abhorrent to us.
And perfectly normal, natural, and acceptable to them.
This is difficult to square with Dr. Cline’s insistence on the existence of one objective standard of morality if you do not recognize this dichotomy between the pragmatic and the ideal, and I must confess to not expressing this well or clearly earlier. The rules of a society’s morality, to use a mathematical analogy, are like the deceptively simple equations that define very complex bounded chaotic systems. So long as the overall system is stable within its bounds, the morality of that society “works,” despite how it might offend or even repulse members of another society, and regardless of how it relates to an ideal of individual rights. The only thing that can upset it is a catastrophic change imposed from outside, (the offended society attacking and slaughtering them, for instance) or something truly extraordinary from within.
Man has existed for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years, and our social structures have struggled slowly and painfully up from the band, to the tribe, to the chiefdom, to the state over that long time period. Throughout all of it we have done so without an ideal system of morality, just as we did without mathematics, agriculture, metallurgy, chemistry, or physics. We’ve been too busy just surviving. A theory of individual rights is much like mathematics – something of great value that requires time and resources to explore and develop. Dr. Cline states that such a theory of rights is every bit as real and as useful as the laws of mathematics, and he may be right – though I must throw out the caveat that it is crucial to recognize that man can survive without either, and might again. I quoted Rand earlier, concerning this:
The concept of individual rights is so new in human history that most men have not grasped it fully to this day.
I think it’s critical that we remember it.
Dr. Cline believes that he has a personal “innate moral knowledge” and he “suspect(s) that others do as well,” but by stating that I think he admits that such knowledge may not be and probably is not universal. That “innate moral knowledge” is akin to Newton’s ability to develop the Calculus by his pure logic, or Einstein’s conception of the Theory of Relativity through his. These are talents that are rare in humans, and when such people apply themselves to the questions of morality, we call them “philosophers” – people like Rand, Kant, Popper, and Aristotle, and also Marx, Neitzche, and Kierkegaard. It is important to understand that when humanity is the topic, “irrational” implies much more than “the square-root of 2.”
During that long trek from band to tribe to chiefdom to state, it is arguable that the freedoms of individuals in those societies have been increasingly restricted, violated, and abrogated. In exchange, much of humanity has gone from a life that was “nasty, brutish, and short” to one of wealth, comfort, and health. It is understandable, then, when we see people willing to trade their freedoms for the security of even an oppressive society, and equally understandable when others would rather not. Would you rather live as a Kalahari Bushman, or as a Russian worker under Stalin? One was unquestionably more free, but the other had indoor toilets (though probably no toilet paper.) One might be killed by a lion, the other “disappeared” by the KGB. However, we have reached a point in human development where we have begun to restore freedoms once taken away, in part because the restriction of those freedoms is no longer essential to the survival of the society, and in part because we now have the time and resources to allow philosophers to think about it, and the technology to disseminate their thoughts broadly to those not so gifted.
Dr. Cline states that “rights are simply statements of what is right and wrong”. I think that’s a bit in error. Morals are simply statements of what is right and wrong; “Thou shall not murder.” Rights are the statements of an underlying philosophy that explains why; “Each individual has a right to his own life.” Conversely, the reason (as it probably was for centuries) could be given; “The power to murder is exclusive to the State. Violation of this rule will result in the execution of the non-state murderer.” No right involved. Stay in line or get hammered down.
Dr. Cline and I agree (I think) that the one fundamental right can be defined as Rand defines it, “the right to your own life.” The problem comes from trying to ascertain what all those corollary rights are. Dr. Cline believes that there is a single, determinable objective standard of morality, based on that fundamental right and its corollaries. I don’t. The reason I don’t is because we’re talking about human beings here, and not theoretical concepts like mathematics and physics. Remember: “irrational.” What Dr. Cline is arguing is also partially what he was protesting against when he took exception to my reference to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers citation:
Starship Troopers is not the correct novel to reference – at least not unless you’re a die-hard communist or fascist. The government presented therein is a fine example of a fascist/communist nanny-state, and its subjects/slaves are clearly worshippers of Nietzsche’s “New Idol” – the state.
Yet it is from that citation that this comes:
“A scientifically verifiable theory of morals must be rooted in the individual’s instinct to survive — and nowhere else! — and must correctly describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts.
“We have such a theory now; we can solve any moral problem, on any level. Self-interest, love of family, duty to country, responsibility toward the human race — we are even developing an exact ethic for extra-human relations. But all moral problems can be illustrated by one misquotation: ‘Greater love hath no man than a mother cat dying to defend her kittens.’ Once you understand the problem facing that cat and how she solved it, you will then be ready to examine yourself and learn how high up the moral ladder you are capable of climbing.”
That certainly sounds to me like Dr. Cline’s “objective moral standard” based on “a man’s right to his own life.” My problem is that I don’t think it’s really possible to “describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts.” The equations of morality are deceivingly simple in appearance, but difficult to conceive and inherently sensitive to initial conditions. Logic can lead us down inescapable dead-end paths as it did the Moriori, if we neglect to consider that others exist who do not share our morality but to whom we try to extend it because our morality is obviously the “right” one. We see it still today in the policies of governments that try to protect their populaces by disarming them, and in nations that repeatedly attempt appeasement and accomodation when their antagonists see it as weakness and lack of will. On the converse, it is possible for logic to lead to aggression to force that “single objective standard” of morality onto others, which is what some on the Left are currently frothing at the mouth about and accusing the U.S. of doing in the Middle East (while their own attempt to subvert the current American morality for their Leftist one continues to fail), and it is what the Wahabist Jihadis are attempting – and failing – to accomplish worldwide.
In his initial comments, Dr. Cline stated:
I think what I am saying is an important point, indeed it is THE important point in the American Revolution and all of Ayn Rand’s writings. These rights are not things that can be removed; they are innate and inalienable; they are conditions of morality itself. If one TRULY believes that rights and morality are “socially constructed” the only sensible option is to join those in power (the always present “communist masters”) and claim your share of their unjustly gained loot.
I don’t believe this – I won’t DO this – and I think (I hope) the same is true of you.
This is the statement that “since thus-and-so is morally right, I will not act in violation of that moral.” In the main, this is true for me as there are acts that I will not perform even unto death. I was asked, in the comments of that original post, “Is it wrong to rape?” It is for me. There are no circumstances in which would commit it, and I believe its practice to be violative of rights and thus immoral and evil. But I recognize that this belief is not universally held. I believe, too, in that fundamental right to one’s own life, so I don’t support the idea of invading and attempting to force my morality upon those nations not so enlightened, but I have only mild objections to peacekeeping forces killing rapists out of hand when caught in the act. (The potential abuse of due process being the only one that comes immediately to mind.)
Dr. Cline also said in his last missive:
I would gather from this post that you would disagree and say that either that there is no morality, morality is meaningless (i.e. morality is just a word), or perhaps morality only exists relative to a certain society or certain people.
No. There is morality, and it is not meaningless. Nor is morality restricted to one people or society. There are MANY moralities, one for each society extant, of which the objective question is “do they work?” Do they support the continued existence of their societies? ALL societies are violative of Rand’s “one fundamental right” to some extent or another. This is the objection that the Spoonerist Anarchists have – any violation of rights, they believe, is grounds to abolish the governing force of that society. It’s an unfortunate truth, though, that societies that are coercive and violative of rights are successful and powerful and can easily overrun anarchic collectives. Because all societies are violative of the “one fundamental right,” from my pragmatic perspective only those “rights” that are generally recognized and defended by the majority of the populace are protected. Thus the premise of the original post: A “Right” is what the majority of a population believes it is. Otherwise it is not protected and may as well simply not exist.
Because man has no innate moral instinct, we are dependent on philosophers to use reason to determine what rights are actual corollaries to that one fundamental right, and to convince the rest of us as to their existence. That’s an ongoing struggle of some significance these past two thousand years or more.
I live, I believe, in a society that is the most free and most advantageous to the individual of any that has existed since tribalism supplanted free-roaming family bands of hunter-gatherers. Still, many of the freedoms that we have are severely restricted; some for survival reasons, some for reasons of societal inertia. These freedoms are being further restricted as the society ages because of the human nature of some to acquire power for the sake of wielding it, and the human nature of others to submit to such power in a search for safety.
It is not enough to believe that there is a single objective standard of morality, based on the corollaries of the fundamental right to one’s own life. It is necessary to convince others of the “rightness” of that standard and those corollaries, and to inspire them to support and defend that standard against attack by others who hold different moralities as “right.” No society currently exists based on that ideal single objective standard, and I honestly think it will be centuries – if ever- before one might. In the mean time, I believe that the basic rights first enumerated by the Founders of this nation are as close as we’ve ever gotten, and that we need to convince more of our population that they are valid and need defending. Else they may disappear as if they had never been expressed, and they will mean no more to a survivor smashing open a human thigh-bone for the marrow than would the concept of the mathematical construct; i.