Absolutely Natural Universalities

I was observing yet another strange discussion conducted seriously on serious subjects by serious people.
Serious philosophical arguments based on painfully obvious fallacies:

  • Truth can (and should) be absolute
  • Certain moral principles are universal
  • The most fundamental human rights are “natural”

Every one of the above statements is wrong.

  • Truth cannot be absolute and it does not have to be;
  • Morality is not universal, it cannot and it should not be;
    …and
  • There is absolutely nothing in rights that is natural.

Even a cursory examination should reveal that the generally accepted assumptions about those meanings are questionable. Flawed assumptions lead to flawed conclusions which can lead to bad decisions.

I tried to address the question of absolute truth in some posts (The Nature of Truth part #1, #2 and #3).
I also had a limited discussion of some aspects of universal morality in “Islam and the Golden Rule.”
The one I wish to address here, before returning to the first two, is the silly notion of natural rights.
Jeremy Bentham called the notion of natural rights “nonsense upon stilts.
I also understand that I am arguing against a long list of philosophers and that I am ‘attacking’ the most sacred one of the libertarian sacred cows.

Natural rights

Before going further, stop for a second and think about your own definition. How do YOU define rights?
I could recommend to look at the dictionary definition, but I’m afraid that you will just walk away from it more confused than you were before reading it. The answer should be simple.
Let’s demonstrate this simplicity with some Crusoe philosophy.

How much sense does the notion of rights make to Robinson Crusoe? What are his ‘rights’ in nature?
Does he have the ‘right’ to the land he occupies? At what point does his claim become a right? Did he have the right to salvage things from the sinking ship he was traveling on? Things that were not his property to begin with?
Would the Cannibals who came to ‘his’ island have the right to be there, or was it he, Robinson, who was the trespasser?
In a famous passage of the book, he admonishes the uselessness of money. He has absolutely no use for it in his situation.
Much like money, the very notion of rights makes no sense outside a social context.
‘Rights’ won’t feed you, ‘rights’ won’t protect you from the cold, predators, or in his case: cannibals.

The only thing that can protect him is power. His might is his only ‘right.’
In human societies, might is the power of the collective.
In nature, we can do whatever we can physically do. In a human society (or any, for that matter) we can only do with what the collective allows us to do. We can only talk about rights in terms of human interactions.

Rights must be articulated, understood, codified, protected and applied justly before we can call them rights.

The right you cannot understand or articulate does not exist

Non-sentient, non-self-aware beings cannot have rights. Objects cannot have rights. Animals cannot have rights. Children cannot have rights. Embryos cannot have rights. The environment does not have rights.

The essence of rights is that they must be understood by the person/being who may claim them.
The rights relating to the above examples could be called ‘assumed’ or ‘custodial’ rights. While animals have no way to claim their ‘rights’, a society may impose obligations on its members to treat them ethically, according to standards defined by social consensus. These are not the rights of the animals, but obligations imposed by society on their handlers.

The question of abortion is about the primacy of two conflicting types of rights: a woman’s rights over her own body versus society’s custodial (or proxy) right over the unborn child. Whatever your position on the issue is, it must be understood that the fetus, per se, has no rights. Saying that it does is just political rhetoric. The debate is over custodial rights and their extent.

The right you cannot claim does not exist.

If we cannot physically defend our rights we must delegate their protection. For that we need a mechanism that codifies them (laws), another to claim them (the legal system) and a system to which we can delegate their policing (law enforcement)
Without those, our rights are meaningless.

The right you cannot defend does not exist

I learned this when I was 19. For a short while, I was living on the street. I tried once to sneak into some parked railway cars to sleep, but I was picked up by a policeman at around 3am. He told me that if he ever sees me around his train-station again, he will beat the crap out of me.
– You don’t have the right to do that, – I said.
– Really? – he answered and gave me a slap that made my ear ring for minutes. I got the message.

Our rights, in order to be called ‘rights’, must be applied fairly, objectively and consistently. It does not matter how great our laws are if they are not respected and enforced.

The common element of the above examples are human societies. Rights do not exist without them. Hayek makes the best case for this point in “Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 2: The Mirage of Social Justice” where he describes both justice and morality as something that emerges from communal consensus.
Hayek describes the concept and the process in the abstract, his book is not concerned with cultural differences, even though it is clear that our understanding of rights and obligations is very much culture specific. The Japanese have a much stronger focus on obligations while Muslims obsess over submission and obedience to the ever-shifting demands of their faith.

Universal morality

Like natural rights, universal morals are also nonsense.
The fact that the similar ideas pop up in most cultures, does not make them universal.
They are not inevitable, their interpretation is not necessarily the same, and quite often, they only apply to the ingroup. Some human cultures were all-out cannibals, some only ate members of other tribes. Some claimed to do it for spiritual reasons.
Some were throwing their ‘defective’ babies of the mountains, some were (and still are) stoning their members for behavior they disapprove of.
They all considered their morality universal while also keeping it cultural. It has been argued that Mark 12:31, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” was not meant to be a universal commandment, but what it literally said: love the members of your own tribe.

The dangers of the universalist assumptions

Truth, morals and rights cannot exist outside a social context. They have to be formulated, expressed, understood, accepted and protected. However abstract at times they may appear to be, truth, rights and morality are not pure abstractions, but the living manifestations of the values of cultures.
Postulating our own values as universal is cultural arrogance.
The greatest danger of axiomatic claims is that they push the debate about them into the realm of politics which means the realm of power. Absolutes need no discussion or defense, absolutes know no compromise.

The point of this post is not moral, epistemological or cultural relativism. Quite the contrary.
I firmly believe that:

  • Some ideas are better than others
  • Some cultures are better than others
  • Some religions are better than others
  • Some political arrangements are better than others
  • Some political practices are better than others

….and that it is not only possible, but imperative to understand, evaluate and RANK them.
Postulating our culturally defined values as universal frees us from the obligation of doing that.

Calling them universal is the lazy way to justify them, a cowardly way of avoiding their defense.
It is also very dangerous. Arrogating our own values to the level of universality makes us weak and vulnerable. Our values do not have to be universal, only the best there is.

Maybe, at some point in the future we will have a universally shared culture of humanity, but we are not even close to that. Pretending that we are is putting into serious danger the only set of cultural values that may take us there.

I will leave you with an important legal question:

When a tree falls in the forest without a lawyer around, does it still have rights?

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