(Continued from Part III)
In regards to reaching an agreement, I think we’re going to shortly reach a point where, unless Dr. Cline changes his mind, we’re going to have to agree to disagree.
If I grasp Dr. Cline’s position correctly, he believes that rights – human rights, individual rights, fundamental rights, however you want to describe them – are like mathematical axioms, where an axiom is defined as:
A fundamental element; a basic principle; something assumed without proof as being self-evident or generally accepted, especially when used as a basis for an argument
He believes further that the corollaries to these axiomatic rights can be discovered a priori from the application of logic to a knowledge of these rights, and an an objective system of morality that is valid for all people, everywhere, at all times can be constructed from these rights.
To that I say, and not as flippantly as it sounds, “Welcome to the United Federation of Planets.” I mean no insult. Please bear with me as I explain the problems I see in Dr. Cline’s philosophy.
Dr. Cline and I have agreed, I think, to at least one fundamental right. That right was described by philosopher Ayn Rand as “A man’s right to his own life.” Rand also stated that all other rights “are its consequences and corollaries.” He and I both agree that this fundamental right is the basic postulate, the self-evident truth, upon which a system of morality should be built. But it’s necessary here to reiterate what I stated in Part II: we have to understand the difference between rights and morality, because the two are NOT equivalent.
Dr. Cline wrote:
Your note that rights are not completely interchangeable with morals is at least possibly true.
No, it is absolutely true, as I tried to explain before. Morals are the rules of behavior of a society, what is and what is not acceptable from its population. This is a critical thing to understand: morality can exist independent of any concept of individual rights, and has for the overwhelming majority of the history of man. Rights may exist as logical postulates, but they have had little to no effect upon human history until very, very recently.
A society is defined by its morality. A society is described as:
A group of humans broadly distinguished from other groups by mutual interests, participation in characteristic relationships, shared institutions, and a common culture.
They usually live in the same general geographic area, and they share a common belief system that defines the limits of acceptable behavior – their morality.
Rights may exist independent of society, but morality cannot. Morality is the set of rules by which people interact, whether those people belong to a band of hunter-gatherers, a tribe of farmers, a chiefdom, or a State. Their morality tells them how to deal with each other, and (hopefully) how to deal with “outsiders” – people with different moralities. The purpose behind having a set of rules of behavior is, at its base, survival. An individual, alone in the wild, has no need for morality. His right to his own life is absolute – and dependent entirely on his ability to survive in the wild. Only when confronted by other people does a question of morality arise – how to best survive as part of a group. Groups of people have a survival advantage over individuals, but membership in a group requires acceptance of the rules of that group – and those rules are learned. They’re first learned through direct experience, and as the society matures, they are learned through instruction.
This brings me back again to Heinlein, and the “History and Moral Philosophy” speech where Col. Dubois states that “man has no moral instinct.” This is the first major problem I have with Dr. Cline’s philosophy. In What is a “Right” Revisited, Part II I stated “I think Dr. Cline believes that man has an innate moral instinct,” to which he replied in his next piece:
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.
Yet, in that same piece I stated:
When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he stated:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
He and the other Founders may have held those “truths to be self-evident,” but for centuries if not millenia before they were neither self-evident nor true. In fact, even today those “self-evident” rights are not acknowledged in much if not most of the world.
In Dr. Cline’s reply to that he says:
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.
I see a problem here. Dr. Cline’s philosophy is based on a concept of rights that exist and are self-evident, as axioms requiring no proof, yet he concurs with me that Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” rights weren’t self-evident, then or now, though he holds them as true (and in retrospect, I agree with him – largely – on both accounts.) As I said before:
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.”
Dr. Cline objected to the tale of the Maori and Moriori, saying:
Your claim of the tale of the Maori and the Moriori as evidence of a lack of an objective standard of morality seems false to me. Again, morals are not inviolable. Saying that the fact that not everyone obeys whatever moral rules there might be is evidence for their absence seems to be expecting a little too much of morality. I might wish morality was self-enforcing, but that will not make it so. Anyone can choose to live how he wants; the Maori (at least those involved) made their choices. Your claim that condemnation of them is inappropriate as their behavior was moral according to their society is simply wrong. Any such claim negates entirely the validity of the rights of the individual, subjecting them to a test by opinion poll or ballot. My claim is that the primary position is that of the individual (a thing with both physical form and, more importantly, a mind) and the individual ONLY. Your earlier claim (following Ayn Rand) was that “the whole purpose of morals is to ensure survival, and whatever works to ensure survival is, for that society, ‘moral.'” I’m not quite so sure that the source of morality is survival only, but whether or not I agree with that, the survival that Rand was alluding to was NOT survival of society, but rather the survival of the individual.
First, the story of the Maori and Moriori wasn’t presented primarily as “evidence of a lack of an objective standard of morality.” It was presented as an illustration that there are many moralities, one for each society extant, each based on the experiences learned by the members of that society, and passed on to other members. Dr. Cline states that “Anyone can choose to live how he wants; the Maori (at least those involved) made their choices.” If I’m reading this correctly, he’s stating that the Maori “made their choices” to not accept his “objective standard of morality.”
But how could they choose it? What opportunity did they have? Is this objective moral standard self-evident, or isn’t it?
The point I was trying to illustrate was that they had no concept of his objective moral standard, no concept even of individual rights, at least outside their own culture. The Moriori were “others,” and as such the Maori attack was moral in accordance with Maori custom. Any attempt to convince the Maori that their behavior was immoral would have been met with a blank stare if not outright hostility. They had no concept of any moral standard other than the one they lived under. They didn’t “make their choices” – they had no choices, because man has no moral instinct. They believed and acted on what their culture told them was moral. An agrarian tribal warrior society doesn’t support much in the way of a philosopher class, and their morality worked until they met Europeans who could overpower them.
As an aside, I don’t attribute my assertion that “the whole purpose of morals is to ensure survival” to Rand. For one, I ammended that statement, and second it’s not her idea, to my knowledge, it’s Heinlein’s if not some other, earlier philosopher. What I said was this:
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.”
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.
It’s not a matter of the Maori (or any other culture) choosing to reject Dr. Cline’s objective moral standard. Such a standard is still largely undefined today. And one reason it is still undefined is because, aside from Rand’s “one fundamental right,” very few rights of the individual are axiomatic. For example, the right to arms isn’t an axiom, it’s a corollary to “a man’s right to his own life.” It’s the means by which he can defend his life and property. (“IF we know that P implies Q AND we know that P is true THEN we know that Q is true.”) It is the work of philosophers to do the logic necessary to “prove” the corollaries, and I don’t believe that there were too many Maori Jeffersons, or Poppers, but probably a couple of Neitzches.
Morality is, then, by Dr. Cline’s definition, a “science.” It’s based on hypotheses formed from observation, and it’s tested constantly in the laboratory of life. If a particular morality is ever disproved, as the Moriori’s was, the society generally fails and is replaced by a new society, often but not always made up of members of the previous society who have learned that their morality was inadequate the hard way, no matter how well it worked previously. The failure may be catastrophic, as it was for the Moriori and uncounted thousands before and after them, or it may be almost unnoticeable culturally, as it has been for America over its history, as our morality has slowly and incrementally morphed from seventeenth-century agrarian state to twenty-first century information-age state.
But all this takes opportunity and effort, and we’ve only had that opportunity and effort available to us for a short while historically. We’re still working on it, and Dr. Cline alludes to this when he states:
I have suggested in my previous letters that we can know certain rules of morality (of what is right and what is wrong) such as “murder is wrong” or whatever. However, my main point is rather not that we know specific rules of morality with absolute certainty – at least not without a great deal of work (as even rules as seemingly obvious as “murder is wrong” may contain subtleties as, indeed, “murder is wrong” seems to in regard to the difference between murder and other forms of killing). Rather my main point was that we know, with whatever level of certainty possible in knowledge, that there are such rules. We must accept that such rules exist before we can find them.
But accepting that such rules exist is not the same as knowing what they are. Figuring out what they are is the job of philosophers, and they have yet to reach anything resembling a consensus after at least 5,000 years of considering the questions.
Dr. Cline argues that rights, at least the fundamental ones, are axioms. Acted on with logic, we can determine their corollaries. From these we can build an objective morality.
I agree, mostly, with the primary argument – fundamental rights are axiomatic; unverifiable and (hopefully) self-evident, given the opportunity to consider them. Once you’ve overcome the problems of day-to-day survival, you might actually have the time to consider them, if you are of a philosophical (and socially benign) bent. Most people are not though, and through most of human history, the problems of day-to-day survival denied the opportunity anyway.
I agree that some corollaries can be discovered a priori through the application of logic, but as with the greatest problems in mathematics, the greatest problems of those corollaries will take long years to wrestle with, and we may never get a “right” answer. But when it comes to morality, we’re going to remain stuck in the realm of science: Apply the theorem, test in the laboratory of life, and keep testing until it fails. Learn from the failure, work up a new theorem, and try again. Heinlein’s “scientifically verifiable theory of morals” (as he meant it) is nonsense, as science doesn’t prove a scientific theorem the way that a mathematician “proves” a mathematical theorem.
Science just tests to destruction.
Dr. Cline states:
In the end, the existence of a society must be of (distant) secondary importance to the existence of the individual. The individual does not exist to serve society; the individual exists for his or her own purposes. Society, inasmuch as it exists at all, exists only to further the purposes of the individual. If we grant… that the existence of society is the primary purpose of morality and even existence, we should not be surprised when individual rights are denied, even by those agreeing with us. In any case, whether we regard the individual and its existence as primary (as I do) or the society and its existence as primary (as you seem to), we may (and probably will) have to fight for the continued practice of our rights, but their protection and their existence are not the same things. If we grant society the top spot in existence, we lose the justification we have in our fight.
I believe Dr. Cline has misinterpreted what I’ve said on this point, and I have to correct him here. What I have illustrated is that, throughout history, the individual has existed to serve society, but – and historically very recently – that has started to change. Rand said it, and I quoted it before:
The concept of individual rights is so new in human history that most men have not grasped it fully to this day.
The idea that society exists to to further the purposes of the individual,
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
is very, very new. Our own government, in the case of Kennedy v. Mendoza-Martinez as recently as 1963 stated:
…for while the Constitution protects against invasions of individual rights, it is not a suicide pact.
Survival, it seems, is still the primary basis of our morality, not individual rights.
I was not endorsing the idea that “man serves society,” but recognizing the fact that it has been that way for millennia. Dr. Cline judges these previous societies against his “objective moral standard” based on the rights of individuals and finds them wanting. I judge them against the question “did they work, and for how long?” because I understand that Dr. Cline’s “objective moral standard” has yet to be even mostly defined. It may exist, I think it does, but we haven’t discovered it all yet.
I repeat: No society currently exists based on that ideal single objective standard, and I honestly think it will be centuries – if ever- before one might. If we do, perhaps then we can build an anarcho-capitalist paradise where coercive governments no longer exist, and we can all live in harmony.
But I severely doubt it.
Even the United Federation of Planets had conflicts with other societies who didn’t share their morality. 😉
Until we do, rights will remain what the majority of a society believes and is willing to defend.
Edited to add: I hardly ever do this in these philosophy pieces, but I ran across a Mark Steyn column that said something I think is related to this discussion and illustrative of the point I’m trying to make about how the role of the individual in society is shifting:
The most vital economic resource is people, and that’s the one thing much of the Western world is running out of. The anti-globalists can demonise sovereign states and sovereign companies — the Dells and other multinationals — but we’re entering the age of the sovereign individual, and that will be a lot harder for the anti-glob mob to attack. By 2010, a smart energetic Chinaman or Indian will be able to write his own ticket anywhere he wants.
Read the whole piece, but that quote directly relates to my point that, more and more, society is beginning to serve the individual, and not the other way ’round.