An Illustrative Example

or “Politeness and a Gun Will Get You Much Further than Politeness Alone.”

This post is in relation to the discussions below in What is a “Right”? – Revisited, Parts I and II.

As I noted, I’ve started reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and it so happens that in a very early chapter of that book, he describes a perfect illustration of my point concerning the “realness” of rights. Chapter 2, “A Natural Experiment of History,” opens with the following narrative:

On the Chatham Islands, 500 miles East of New Zealand, centuries of independence came to a brutal end for the Moriori people in December 1835. On November 19 of that year, a ship carrying 500 Maori armed with guns, clubs, and axes arrived, followed on December 5 by a shipload of 400 more Maori. Groups of Maori began to walk through Moriori settlements, announcing that the Moriori were now their slaves, and killing those who objected. An organized resistance by the Moriori could still then have defeated the Maori, who were outnumbered two to one. However, the Moriori had a tradition of resolving disputes peacefully. They decided in a council meeting not to fight back, but to offer peace, friendship, and a division of resources.

Before the Moriori could deliver that offer, the Maori attacked en masse. Over the course of the next few days, they killed hundreds of Moriori, cooked and ate many of the bodies, and enslaved all the others, killing most of them too over the next few years as it suited their whim. A Moriori survivor recalled, “[The Maori] commenced to kill us like sheep. . . . [We] were terrified, fled to the bush, concealed ourselves in holes underground, and in any place to escape our enemies. It was of no avail; we were discovered and killed – men, women, and children indiscriminately.” A Maori conqueror explained, “We took possession. . . in accordance with our customs and we caught all the people. No one escaped. Some ran away from us, these we killed, and others we killed – but what of that? It was in accordance with our custom.”

If rights are “natural,” real, and universal, why did the Maori not believe in the Moriori’s “right to life”? How did their natural right not to be murdered protect the Moriori, and to whom do the Moriori put their “just claim” to for the violation of this right?

Dr. Cline argues “what barbarian invading forces did is no proof text on morality.” Yet my point is that morality is society-specific. For the Moriori, what was done to them was a great evil – and I agree. But to the Maori, what they did to the Moriori “was in accordance with our custom” and not wrong. Dr. Cline postulates that “all rights are simply universal conditions ‘which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore.'” Yet the rights of the Moriori were completely taken away as their entire populace was enslaved and murdered. The question of rightness or wrongness is moot, because the Moriori were not prepared to defend themselves against an outside agressor.

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