Rights, Morality, Idealism & Pragmatism, Part I.

The discussion with Dr. Danny Cline continues. He sent me his reply to my previous post yesterday. I read it and thought about it and then read it again.

This is a difficult topic because the discussion goes to something so fundamental that the words we’re forced to use carry many layers of meaning, while what we’re trying to do is flay them back and be unerringly precise in what we’re saying. There’s much opportunity for misinterpretation here, though I think we’re approaching a consensus on the topic. As I did before, I’m going to post Dr. Cline’s submittal for you all to read and think on, then later I will post my reply which will be predated to appear physically below this post. That way, anyone stumbling onto this full front page or reading a monthly archive will be able to read the two posts as one continuous piece.

Dr. Cline emailed to me in plain text, so I have taken the liberty to edit his piece very slightly for readability (if I screw anything up, Danny, leave a comment and I’ll fix it.) Here is his latest response:

First let me say that the order in which I’ll respond to your comments is not necessarily the order they appear in your post. First I think I’ll take up the statement:

“I think Dr. Cline believes that man has an innate moral instinct.”

Well, I’m not going to argue much against this statement. I do indeed believe that man has innate moral knowledge (I wouldn’t say an instinct, but that’s a pretty minor problem). I should say rather that I believe that I have innate moral knowledge. I’ve never been very convinced of the applicability of knowledge about one’s self to knowledge about others. So instead let’s say that I believe that I have moral knowledge and I suspect that some others do as well. However, that belief is not the underlying support of my quibble with your posts. The source of my support is rather the question of whether there is an objective standard of morality. Note that the question of whether or not there is an objective standard of morality is wholly different from the question of how or if, we have access to this standard. My belief is that there is. 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.

This gets us to the first of a series of difficult questions, namely, how can we have a priori knowledge (knowledge not based on experience – of which our discussion of morals and rights certainly brings into question)? Now, although our questions are ones of morality here, there are many other areas in which the knowledge (as much as it seems to be very concrete) is still a priori. For example, the axioms of geometry, or even the truth of arithmetic are not things that we feel need to be proven, and are as such a priori knowledge. Indeed, in 1931 Kurt Gödel demonstrated that there is no way to completely list all of the necessary axioms for a complex system such as mathematics. Any attempt at a list of all necessary axioms (again a priori knowledge) will necessarily generate propositions that are undecidable within the system. These propositions could be made into axioms themselves, but then would be still more undecidable statements generated within the system.

Thus, some things we accept (the axioms underlying arithmetic and geometry) are indeed knowledge we are neither able to prove nor knowledge that we even derive from experience. This is the essence of a priori knowledge. Now, one certainly could claim that a rejection of all a priori knowledge (including such things as simple arithmetic) is valid. However, while not inherently self-contradictory, that sort of skepticism is notoriously unproductive, and not even in line with how we (or I, at least) view the world. One might instead claim that certain claims of a priori knowledge is justified (perhaps the truth of the laws of logic and mathematics) while other such claims are not (in this case, the existence of an objective standard of morality). Here we are still treading on difficult ground, as we’d need to examine why certain claims can be considered true without proof, while others cannot. For example, why should we accept that there are external objective truths of arithmetic and logic but not such objective truths of morality? The claims some make about moral truths being relative to society are intended to be such a difference. However, this seems to me to be nothing more than the claim that we cannot have objective standards of morality because people (or perhaps one of these complainants might say “reasonable people”) might disagree about them. In my experience teaching mathematics at the college level, I have found the same thing occurs.

Many (otherwise) reasonable people cannot add fractions correctly, or cannot understand that IF we know that P implies Q AND we know that P is true THEN we know that Q is true. At the higher levels of mathematics, even those who have studied mathematics and know a great deal about it have disagreements, not because there is no right answer but simply because the questions are hard. Thus, either the complaint that morality has no objective standards because otherwise reasonable people may disagree on issues of morality fails or mathematics, and indeed logic itself suffer the same problem (and if we reject logic, there is little point in continuing this, or any other, argument). The fact that this sort of a priori knowledge causes disagreements is not a sign of its non-existence but rather its difficulty. This knowledge does not spring fully grown, armed, and armored from our heads like Athena; it must be sought out. Reflection is our path to this knowledge, and often it is a difficult path confusing even our greatest minds. The fact that we may be unsure of the contents of an objective standard of morality does not imply that none exists.

Indeed, at one point in your response, you do claim that there is such an objective standard, with a quote from Ayn Rand:

“A ‘right’ is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life.”

Immediately afterward you say that

“[t]hat right is, in my opinion, REAL, but it can and has been trampled, folded, spindled, mutilated, and – worst of all – unrealized, for the overwhelming majority of Man’s existence upon the Earth.”

This is entirely correct. The right and its corollaries ARE real AND they have been violated. One of these clauses does not negate the possibility of the other. A right is not like a law of physics; it is simply a statement of morality. It is not a statement of what CAN happen, but what SHOULD happen. However, almost immediately, you contradict this statement with:

“[Jefferson] and the other Founders may have held those truths to be “self-evident,” but for centuries if not [millennia] before they were neither self-evident nor true.”

This statement is only half-correct, and in that half you don’t go far enough. In the millennia before, the statements were true – but they were not then, nor were they in Jefferson’s day, nor are they now self-evident. These truths, like all a priori knowledge are not things that we can prove, but are things that we must discover. It is not easy to uncover reality or truth – not in mathematics, not in morality, and not in science.

Finally, in response to your statement and the following question:

“Telling a murderer that he is violating your rights won’t stop him from doing it, and if he kills you is he not “taking away your right to life”? The question I have is: the claim to whom? [To whom] do we go to with our claims to our proper rights?”

The answers are as follows: No, the killer is not taking away your right to life – he is violating it. He is taking away your life, not your right to it. Rights and guarantees are not the same; rights are simply statements of what is right and wrong. The answer to your second question “the claim to whom” is a rather sad one, namely, that we can take it to no one as this is not that kind of claim. Rights are not a part of some cosmic insurance policy in which if they’re violated we get a new toaster. Again, and I cannot emphasize this enough, they are simply statements of what is right and what is wrong. The rights are universal conditions “which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore” quote we have been bouncing back and forth in these emails is correct enough in its way but can be very misleading. The rights can’t be taken away, the things they grant are ours can be. A tyrant couldn’t take away my right to life, but unfortunately he (or she) could take away my life. Mr. Dale Franks makes this exact same fallacy in his quote. Rights are NOT laws of physics, and as much as we might hope that they should be, their nature does not prevent their violation. A right does not exist in the same way as a table, or a molecule. His questions:

“Where are your rights now? What protection do they afford you?”

are answered easily enough. My rights are “where” they always are. They are ideas, and have no physical form, much as Newton’s second law has no physical form, or the number 567 has no physical form. “Where” is not the kind of thing one ought to ask about a nonphysical entity like truth or 43 if one wants an understandable answer. To the second question, my answer is again, sadly, they don’t afford me protection. They never have and never will. I’ll have to protect myself (or not) as I am able.

Again, I think your troubles with my post are related to an assumption that I am saying one doesn’t need to defend one’s self from murder or theft or imprisonment. I am most certainly not saying anything of the sort. If one wants to live, one may very well have to defend one’s self. My rights won’t defend me, but again, that is not what they are meant to do. They are meant to tell us what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil.

You and Mr. Franks both come somewhat near the fallacy of the logical positivists, who said “any statement not of natural science is meaningless.” This was meant to put an end to all such questions of rights and morality. Unfortunately, it is self-contradictory, as it is itself a statement not of natural science. As you don’t quite cozy up to it, this is not an accusation, but your continued examinations into the questions about how rights are supposed to have a physical effect (they aren’t) comes tantalizingly near to it.

In the end you say that your objection to my position is that it encourages members of a society to disconnect. Perhaps it does. If we are arguing from consequences, though, I’d say your position – at least the one where you doubt the existence of right in any true universal way – encourages people to buy that whoever has the greatest might is justified in doing whatever he or she wants. Your question to me “[i]f you believe, as Dr. Cline believes, that “All rights are simply universal conditions ‘which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore'” then why would it be necessary to defend them?” I have answered several times – we do not defend the right, we defend what it claims is rightfully ours. This question prompts me to ask one of my own. If you believe that rights are not real or are meaningless (as you indicate in some places but not in others and Mr. Franks flatly states in the post of his you have quoted) what is the purpose of defending them or respecting those of others, particularly those incapable of defending theirs and unprotected by society?

See why I do this? The free exchange of ideas forces you to think. It’s work I thoroughly enjoy.

Back later. Maybe much later. This will be a tough one to get just right.

UPDATE: Part II is done.

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