Sunday, May 18, 2014

Is That Right?

--Drones, Schot de Volksrant

Our faith is our strength
--motto of Tristan da Cunha 

I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the
Heart's affections and the truth of the Imagination
--John Keats 

Freedom is a bourgeois prejudice
V.I. Lenin 

"Truth", "Freedom", "Rights", "liberties", endowments ... these terms occur in our foundational documents, but have never been definitively explained. That is why a person like Edward Snowden is either deified or demonized -- we are not sure what we are allowed to do.

The most famous line from the Declaration of Independence (1776) states:

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.

But in a society based upon laws, definition is important. How can these be "self evident" when at the time of the Declaration's writing, all men (= people) were not treated as though they had been "created equal[ly]"? If they are "truths", then they would have trumped behavior to the contrary.

It would take the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteen Amendments to confer freedom, full citizenship and the right to vote upon black males. It would not be until the 19th Amendment (ratified in 1920) that women would gain the right of suffrage.

Perhaps one may believe in universal equality of the construction of man, yet still believe that some few ubermensch retain the right to overmaster them. However, that is not societal equality, of the sort that a government document may confer. Further, how can it be "true" and "self-evident" that all are created equally when the observed evidence is so contrary. 

If rights are inalienable, they why need they be conferred by a "Creator"? If one were a citizen atheist, one still maintains his rights even though he denies they have been conferred upon him by a Creator. If rights are inalienable to my existence, then they need not be conferred, and are just a fact. 

If rights are "inalienable", then they are indwelling in the human, and may not be divorced by fiat or behavior. The Existentialists argued for man's radical freedom, even in cases of incarceration or death sentence, but that is a philosophical argument arguing for freedom in one's head space, a domain on which the government has not yet intruded.

Supreme Court Justice Brandeis sought to protect that intangible freedom in his dissent in Olmstead (1934), when he foresaw a time when governments might develop and enlist technology to invade even that private sphere -- a "thought police", of sorts. However, one's actual physical condition may indeed be constricted, either by one's violation of his contract with the State or bad faith behavior of the State itself. So one's essential "liberty" is not a truth.

Liberty is not so much a right as a very tenuous condition. While an enlightened individual may eke out a mental zone of free thought when physical freedom may be denied to him, liberty is only the result of an agreement between the free man and his government, and only exists in the zone when both are performing their responsibilities correctly. Slavery and servitude is more generally man's state. 

"Life" is the one given among the "truths", but even it is not a "Right" -- life is simply a biological imperative. It is the seed seeking rich soil, the egg seeking fertilization, and then implantation. The impetus to life is a dumb fact if one is existing on this planet, much as when life has been extinguished, death and the absence of life will be a fact.

The Articles of Confederation also alludes to the “Great Governor of the World.” Were these references to a Big Guy just sops to simple people fleeing religious persecution? Many of the Founders were Deists, but they also believed in an "unmoved mover", a disinterested creator of all that is.

In Jefferson’s view, the rising generation, once sustained by complete liberty of conscience, would abandon religions based on biblical revelation in favor of those founded on reason. “There is not a young man now living in the United States,” he predicted in 1822, “who will not die a Unitarian.” (Separation of Church and State.) But reason had its day with The Enlightenment. 

In fact, there are NO inalienable rights; ask Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. There are "rights" conferred by government, rights which may be abridged, abrogated or annulled, either judicially or extralegally.

We must be honest about who we are and what we want if we are to understand our present condition, yet who can do this even on a personal level? Our founders were brilliant and brave, their rhetoric soaring, but the words belie terrific contradictions and outright misstatements.

We are a riven society because men are riven, and men have created these concepts called rights.

[cross-posted @ RangerAgainstWar]


  1. One of my mentors spoke of the dangers of unrealistic expectations. Rights carry responsibility. For there to be a "right" of free association, then I am responsible for granting that right to others. In short, there can be no "whites only" lunch counter.

    However, present day society is really no different that that of the Founders. It's just a matter of those who are less equal being differently identified. Self interest has not been diminished.

    The most interesting lesson in "Constitutional Theory" I ever learned was delivered by a high school senior, when I was substituting for a senior social studies teacher. A girl was presenting a "paper" on the reasons for a "Pro-Life" amendment to the Constitution. One of her premises was that a Constitutional Amendment would change the people's "values". A classmate (Navy dependent) said, "The Constitution or legislation may be able to influence people's behaviors. If they could change values, racial discrimination and hatred should have disappeared in 1868, or in 1964. Whites in my last school down South still weren't happy about having to take gym showers with blacks. They just knew they had no choice."

    You are correct in saying that "rights" are created by men, and usually in expressing self interest. "Responsibilities" are a societal issue, arising from the "rights" claimed by aforementioned self interests. Just that we don't want "rights" that might entail some costs, such as responsibilities. IMHO, a large swath of the population does think there are some forms of a "free lunch".

  2. People are such delightfully complicated creatures.

    There are things that people *say* and things that people *do*.
    There are very strong expectations to say and do acceptable things. Alas, The two are only slightly correlated.

    Furthermore, people often don't realize that words and actions don't line up.

    You can't ask what you should be doing because you get an answer which is in the "things people say" domain. You need to *watch* what people do for you to understand what you should be doing. This is why it can take a long time for people to acclimatize to a new workplace culture.

    Laws are in the domain of "what people say". Law enforcement is in the domain of "what people do". You'll get a headache if you try to line the two up too closely.

  3. Kinda of like how one of our high school teachers described "The Honor System", where student exams were not necessarily supervised by a teacher:

    The school can claim "Honor", but the students will develop the "System".

  4. Ael,

    Yes, it can be headache-inducing :)

    Aviator correctly says,

    "'Responsibilities' are a societal issue, arising from the 'rights' claimed by aforementioned self interests." . . .

    Isn't it interesting how we view society as a thing apart from ourselves? I'm reminded of the great Charlton Heston line, "Soylent Green IS People!"

    Likewise, "society" is people -- it did not exist ab initio. Yet we are all too willing to blame society for the various lackings and bigotry of mankind.

    And yes, "honor system" is the original oxymoron, no?