Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love, true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn't matter if it's true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.That was part of the "young man's speech" delivered by the character "Hub" - played by Robert Duvall - in the film Secondhand Lions. Those are good words. There's wisdom there. Here are some more good words:
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.Thus the United States of America were born - as no other nation had ever before been born - with a declaration that government exists to serve the rights of the individual, not for the individual to serve the power of the State; and that failure to perform that singular function is sufficient grounds for the overthrow of the government in default.
"L'Etat c'est moi" (I am the state), once said Louis XIV. "The PEOPLE are the State," said Thomas Jefferson. A few decades later Louis XVI found out, once his countrymen came to believe, that Jefferson was right. (Of course, the French then handed the scepter over to Napoleon, but, after all, they were French!)
The day I started this blog I posted my essay What is a 'Right'? and it has spawned a considerable amount of conversation and commentary here and at other blogs over the last three and a half years. On this site alone there have been at least a dozen associated posts, six of which are linked on the left sidebar. The comments to the most recent installment, Contracts and Absolutes from a few months ago, illustrate that the topic is still not exhausted.
Prepare to be exhausted! (That was for you, Alger! ;-D)
In What is a 'Right'?, I stated:
A 'right' is what the majority of a society believes it is.I was taken to task for that position pretty early on. In that six-part exchange with math professor Dr. Danny Cline, we thrashed the topic pretty thoroughly, but not, apparently, thoroughly enough. So, let me see if I can express my position so clearly now as to remove any ambiguity or misunderstanding, and relate this to the current world situation so that you can see why I believe it is important for others to accept my argument.
In my discussion with Dr. Cline he proposed that the rights of man are akin to mathematical axioms; that those rights exist in the realm of logic like the the concepts of pi or Pythagoras' Theorem, and only wait to be discovered. I allowed that he might be correct, but that it takes a certain type of person to do the discovering. There are very few people who think about things like fundamental rights or mathematical axioms. Those who think about ideas like rights are called philosophers, and philosophers (influential ones, anyway) are rare, and rarely in agreement. Like economists, if you lined up all the philosophers who ever existed, they wouldn't reach a conclusion.
This is not to say that their ideas all have equal merit.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." As one commenter noted, that phrase is a slightly modified version of "life, liberty, and property" - a concept philosopher John Locke expressed in his essay Two Treatises of Government. Among other things in that work, written between 1680 and 1690, Locke refutes the long-held philosophy of the "Divine Right of Kings." Given the fact that Locke's father lived - and fought - during the English Civil War, a war in which a king was deposed and beheaded for being abysmally bad at his job, it isn't surprising that Locke was able to logically justify such an act by his countrymen. However, in that same work he also came up - through logic - with a right to property which included ones own life and liberty:
Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom and uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of Nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power not only to preserve his property - that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men, but to judge of and punish the breaches of that law in others, as he is persuaded the offence deserves, even with death itself, in crimes where the heinousness of the fact, in his opinion, requires it. (Book II, Chapter Seven, "Of Political or Civil Society," section 87)I have often quoted Ayn Rand, and her declaration:
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.Rand's "one fundamental right" merely restates Locke's, for "a man's right to his own life" requires his liberty and property, but note the difference between Locke's position and Rand's. Locke argues that in a state of nature Man has the right to do all the things he describes - defending his property (life, liberty, estate) even unto inflicting death upon another, but Rand argues that a "right" is specifically the codification of proper action in a "social context." In other words, rights establish proper behavior between individuals in a society.
Rand's work and Locke's before it stand in contrast to centuries of thought by other philosophers who didn't discover the axiom of the individual right that Locke did, and both Rand and Locke were and are opposed by philosophers contemporary to them and contemporary to us, such as Hobbes, Rousseau, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger.
The core of the discussion to date has involved three primary questions:
A) Are there "absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, ultimate rights" that exist regardless of whether a society recognizes (much less protects) them;My answer is: A) Yes; B) No; and C) Self evident to whom?
B) do those rights belong to all people, everywhere, at all times, simply because they are human - and;
C) are those rights "self-evident?"
Yes, I realize that position A) contradicts my initial "what a society believes it is" statement, but bear with me. I believe in Rand's "one fundamental right," and have so stated in earlier posts. The source of that right I have stated before:
Reason.It's in what comes after that "one fundamental right" that we begin to run into problems.
Or Nature. Yaweh. Christ. Vishnu, Mother Gaia, Barney the Dinosaur. I don't know, nor do I care overly much, but reason works for me.
I believe that right is "real" because I believe that - given the chance - average specimens of humanity will conclude through reason that they are of value (to themselves if no one else), and that their physical selves and the product of their labor belongs to them and not another.
Let's proceed backwards. Are the "Rights of Man" self-evident? Then:
1. List them. All.I think everybody will fail at item #1. I made that point ealier, too:
2. Illustrate which are axioms and which are corollaries of those axioms.
3. Explain why every society in history has violated all or at least the overwhelming majority of these rights, if they're absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, ultimate, and self-evident.
4. Explain what a society that honored and protected these rights would look like.
5. Explain why such a society does not now exist and never has.
"[I]t would not only be useless, but dangerous, to enumerate a number of rights which are not intended to be given up; because it would be implying, in the strongest manner, that every right not included in the exception might be impaired by the government without usurpation; and it would be impossible to enumerate every one. Let any one make what collection or enumeration of rights he pleases, I will immediately mention twenty or thirty more rights not contained in it." - James Irdell, at the North Carolina ratifying conventionHe's right. Everybody can come up with their own list. Professor Saul Cornell, Director of Ohio State University's "Second Amendment Research Center" seems to believe there's a "right to be free from the fear of gun violence." I believe there is no such thing. If there was, there'd be a right to be free of the fear of all other kinds of violence as well. (Tranquilizers for everyone?)
C. Everett Koop, former Surgeon General of the United States believes that everyone has a right to health care. That's nice. It explains where the tranquilizers are going to come from. But who provides it? Who pays for it? And who decides what level of "health care" each individual is entitled to?
Olivia Shelltrack is a resident of Black Jack, Missouri whose family was recently prevented from occupying the single-family home she and the father of two of her three children rented because the couple is not married. Ms. Shelltrack believes "People should have a right to live where they want to live." The majority of the town council believes otherwise. (I want to live here.)
California State Senator Sheila Kuehl believes
"There is only one constitutional right in the United States which is absolute and that is your right to believe anything you want."As Tom McClintock points out in the linked article, that right is the only right a slave has. Interesting that a politician would espouse that one as the only absolute right.
Cardinal Francis Arinze believes "one of the fundamental human rights: (is) that we should be respected, our religious beliefs respected, and our founder Jesus Christ respected." But I don't believe that, either. I've said before, I'm in general agreement with "MaxedOut Mama:"
Liberty is an inherently offensive lifestyle. Living in a free society guarantees that each one of us will see our most cherished principles and beliefs questioned and in some cases mocked. That psychic discomfort is the price we pay for basic civic peace. It's worth it.Do you see the problem?
It's a pragmatic principle. Defend everyone else's rights, because if you don't there is no one to defend yours.
On these topics where we are in disagreement, how do you decide who is "right"? Whose cherished rights do you abrogate, and whose do you defend? Who gets to judge? I mean, if they're absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, ultimate, and self-evident?
Our Founders decided that they needed to enshrine certain rights they believed fundamental into the establishing legal document for our nation. The Declaration of Independence provided the moral underpinnings for the nation, the Constitution provided the legal ones. James Madison, fully aware of the problem noted by James Irdell, tried to protect other, unenumerated fundamental rights by including the Ninth Amendment, but his effort predictably failed as that amendment has been likened to "an inkblot" by no less a figure than a previous Supreme Court nominee.
Jefferson did declare that "all men are created equal," and were "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," yet the Constitution of the United States as written and ratified allowed for the alienation of liberty, life, and property. It even codified slavery. In short, the "unalienable rights" of man have been alienated pretty much without thought, without much argument, and from the beginning of this nation. So, it has been asked, was Jefferson wrong? That depends on your perspective. If you understand that the Declaration was an expression of philosophy, not a statement of fact, then no, he wasn't wrong.
Doesn't matter if it's true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.It's always been a question of what we believe. Ayn Rand, from her 1974 speech Philosophy, Who Needs It? given to the graduating class of West Point:
As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation -- or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears....Societies are defined by their philosophies, regardless of where that philosophy comes from or even how well-defined and coherent that philosophy may be. As I pointed to in An Illustrative Example, author Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel demonstrated that the philosophy of the Pacific tribe of the Moriori - one of peace, restraint, cooperation, and negotiation - served them well for many years as they lived on an island with little material wealth and difficult living conditions. However, when they were exposed to the Maori culture - one of territoriality, violence, and conquest - their philosophy failed them utterly. Had they protested against the violation of their "absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, ultimate rights," it would have availed them nothing, because to the Maori the Moriori were "others," and not due the consideration of equals. This has been the template for human behavior since before recorded history.
The American philosophy has been described (but not defined) here before, from the introduction to David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America:
We Americans are a bundle of paradoxes. We are mixed in our origins, and yet we are one people. Nearly all of us support our Republican system, but we argue passionately (sometimes violently) among ourselves about its meaning. Most of us subscribe to what Gunnar Myrdal called the American Creed, but that idea is a paradox in political theory. As Myrdal observed in 1942, America is "conservative in fundamental principles . . . but the principles conserved are liberal, and some, indeed, are radical."Paradoxical, yes, but this nation was the first modern nation established with a mandate to protect the rights of its individual citizens. However flawed in practice, it's the ideas that matter:
Western concepts of equality cannot truly be described as just another culture competing with others. Western thought is not a mere tradition but rather the outcome of a special political philosophy. It is an artificial construct that derives rules of behavior from reason, as distinct from traditional societies. - Amnon Rubinstein, The New York Sun, May 1, 2006 via Empire of Dirt"Traditional societies" that is, that throughout history have "just growed," like Topsy, developing their cultures haphazardly - strictly from the competing influences of environment, religion, exceptional individuals, and interaction with other cultures. Unlike those other cultures, Western society in general and the American culture in specific is based on "a special political philosophy" indeed: one of individual rights. One that dates back to the Greeks, at least.
This is the problem I want to illustrate with a belief in absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, ultimate rights. Remember Rand:
A 'right' is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context.This definition works perfectly inside a social context. It worked for the Moriori. It worked for the Maori. But when those two societies clashed, the Moriori were wiped out. The Maori were not of their "social context," and to the Maori, the Moriori had no rights. The Moriori had no experience with physical conflict, and were unable to defend themselves. In accordance with their philosophy they tried appeasement and negotiation, and instead received slaughter and enslavement.
We like to pride ourselves that American society is different, superior, more "true" than all other preceding societies. After all, what other polity has accomplished what we've accomplished in the mere two centuries we've existed on the planet? We enjoy an unprecedented standard of living (even our poor people are fat!) Americans invented powered flight. We broke the sound barrier. We went to the moon! And who has a higher moral hill to stand atop? Twice in the last century we've ended Europe's bloody wars. We stopped the expansion of facist, imperialist, and communist forces, defeated their sponsor governments utterly, and have more than once reconstructed former enemy nations into peaceful, productive democracies. As then-Secretary of State Colin Powell stated so eloquently:
We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years and we've done this as recently as the last year in Afghanistan and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in, and otherwise we have returned home... to live our own lives in peace.But to do that, we've sometimes put aside some of our beliefs in the face of hard reality, only to take them up again once the crisis was over.
All societies change, and what changes first is their commonly held beliefs. Robert Heinlein wrote once:
Roman matrons used to say to their sons: “Come back with your shield, or on it.” Later on this custom declined. So did Rome.Ours is not immune. In 2004 I wrote "While Evils are Sufferable" wherein I said:
The "Right," in the overwhelming majority, believes that America, the United States of, is the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. We're the Sword of Justice, defenders of the oppressed from the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli, from sea to shining sea (so long as it's in our National Interest to be.) As long as this belief represents the dominant paradigm, that is the way our nation will act, in the main. We are human, of course. We're not perfect. We will make mistakes, but as I wrote in That Sumbitch Ain't Been BORN!, those mistakes are just that. They are not evidence of our evil Imperialist nature, just mistakes. The "Left," quite simply, thinks we've left the tracks if we were ever on them to begin with. To them, we're oppressive, racist, imperialistic warmongers out to take what isn't ours and distribute it unfairly among the white males. After all, they have centuries of European exploitive colonization to point to, don't they? The Greens think we need to give up industry so that we can "save the planet." They don't hate America, they hate humanity. Of course, the Anarchists see both sides as delusional and dangerous. They believe that the Free Market is the answer to it all, and that we need to give up this nationalistic fantasy crap and start dealing with objective reality.Appealing or not, objective reality is again raising its ugly head, and we must wake up to it if we wish to survive. Not only "survive as a society," but survive individually.
As if objective reality would appeal to people who voluntarily share common delusions.
Locke declared that man in a state of nature...
...hath by nature a power not only to preserve his property - that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men, but to judge of and punish the breaches of that law in others, as he is persuaded the offence deserves, even with death itself....The "state of nature" is the ultimate objective reality. In it, people will do whatever is necessary to survive, or they don't survive. In point of fact, throughout history - even today - people have not only defended their lives, liberty and property, they have taken life, liberty, and property from others not of their society. And they have done so secure in the knowledge that their philosophy tells them that it's the right thing to do. This is true of the The Brow-Ridged Hairy People That Live Among the Distant Mountains, the Egyptians, the Inca, the Maori, the British Empire, and the United States of America. It's called warfare, and it's the use of lethal force against people outside ones own society. Rand explained that:
A 'right' is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context.That's a critical definition. If a society truly believes 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 Happinessthen that society cannot wage war. It cannot even defend itself - because to take human life, to destroy property, even to take prisoners of war is anathema to such a society, for it would be in violation of the fundamental rights of the victims of such action. (See: the Moriori. Or the Amish.)
This creates a cognitive bind, then, unless you rationalize that the rights you believe in are valid for your society, but not necessarily for those outside it. Those members that violate the sanctions on freedom of action within the society are treated differently from those outside the society that do the same. Those within the society are handled by the legal system, and are subject to capture, judicial review, and punishment under law, whether that's issuance of an "Anti-Social Behavior Order" in London, or a death by stoning in Tehran. Those outside of a society who act against that society may be ignored, or may risk retaliatory sanctions up to and including open warfare, depending on the situation. (See: Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, nuclear weapons.)
In every successful society the majority must share a common philosophy and believe that philosophy is superior to all others. It must, or that society will change. The philosophy of any society can be one of aggressive evangelism, or quiet comfort, or anywhere in between, but successful societies are marked by one key characteristic: confidence.
Confidence that (your society) would still be around next year, that it was worthwhile planting crops now, so they could be harvested next season. Confidence that soldiers wouldn't suddenly appear on the horizon and destroy your farm. Confidence that an apple seed planted in your backyard will provide fruit for your grandchildren. That if you paint a fresco, the wall its on will still be standing in a century. That if you write a book, the language you use will still be understood half a millennia in the future. And that if you hauled stone for the great cathedral which had been building since before your father was born, and which your baby son might live to see completed if, the good Lord willing, he lived to be an old man; your efforts would be valued by subsequent generations stretching forward toward some unimaginably distant futurity.But when a society faces the fact that its philosophical foundation does not match objective reality, it is inevitable that there will be a loss of confidence and a societal change. James Bowman has written a book on the loss of confidence in Western culture, called Honor: A History. In it, he describes how the Western concept of honor has been slowly destroyed since the turn of the previous century, beginning with the aftermath of World War I - the war in which Western culture lost its innocence in the face of objective reality, much like a teenager discovers that his parents don't really know everything and therefore must know nothing. It's an excellent book, and I strongly recommend it, but by way of illustration I will again quote English Literature Professor Jean Duchesne of Condorcet College in Paris:
And above all, the self-confidence that you are part of something grander than yourself, something with roots in the past, and a glorious future of achievement ahead of it.
"What is a little disconcerting for the French is an American president who seems to be principled. The idea that politics should be based on principles is unimaginable because principles lead to ideology, and ideology is dangerous."If this is not an example of a society with no confidence, I don't know what is.
Many people have commented on the loss of Western confidence. Peggy Noonan in her recent column, A Separate Peace:
I think there is an unspoken subtext in our national political culture right now. In fact I think it's a subtext to our society. I think that a lot of people are carrying around in their heads, unarticulated and even in some cases unnoticed, a sense that the wheels are coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks. That in some deep and fundamental way things have broken down and can't be fixed, or won't be fixed any time soon. That our pollsters are preoccupied with "right track" and "wrong track" but missing the number of people who think the answer to "How are things going in America?" is "Off the tracks and hurtling forward, toward an unknown destination."Mark Steyn in his piece, It's the Demography, Stupid:
That's what the war's about: our lack of civilizational confidence. As a famous Arnold Toynbee quote puts it: "Civilizations die from suicide, not murder"--as can be seen throughout much of "the Western world" right now. The progressive agenda--lavish social welfare, abortion, secularism, multiculturalism--is collectively the real suicide bomb.James Lileks:
Mind you, it's not the actual news that bothers me as much as the reaction to it; the reactions speak to something amiss in the heart of the West, a failure of nerve, a fatal lack of faith in the civilization we’re entrusted to defend.These are just a few samples. When the normally Pollyannish Noonan and Lileks see a "fatal lack of faith," you know there's something severely amiss.
It is my contention that the loss of faith in Western civilization is the direct result of two things: the secularization of Western civilization, and a corresponding realization that there are no absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, ultimate rights. Or, more specifically, the cognitive dissonance resulting from the refusal to accept this as objective fact.
Western civilization is based on the concept of God-given individual rights, but reality refutes their existence. War cannot exist if such a philosophy is true, yet war exists. People die. Their liberty is stripped from them. Their property is stolen or destroyed. No one is punished for the violation of these rights. If a society abandons religion (as much of Western civilization has done) then we cannot count on God to punish the violators, and they get away with their crimes against us, (See: Josef Mengele, Slobodan Milosevic, and most probably Saddam Hussein) yet we've been breastfed on the idea that our rights are absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, and ultimate - not to mention, self-evident.
World War I soured the West on the concept of "honor." World War II soured the West on the idea of a "war to end all wars" - and it proved conclusively that man's inhumanity to man was still alive, well, and unchanged except in sheer capacity since the time of Genghis Khan. The Korean War suggested strongly that war was nothing but a waste of life, and Vietnam hammered that suggestion home.
Critical Mastiff starkly illustrated the philosophical dichotomy in his post, The Enervated Man of the West:
The difference with the West is that we value life so much that we are willing to kill people to protect it. This requires a sterner mind than does simple nonviolence; it is not trivial to develop a philosophy in which you can willingly kill others at the same time as you hold life sacred, indeed, in service to that sanctity.The political Left has embraced that fear. If you examine it closely, it has wrapped itself in a philosophy that attempts to extend all of the West's "rights of man" to the entire world - up to and including those who are actively seeking our destruction, and the Left holds itself as morally superior for doing so. Attempting to intercept terrorist communications is "illegal domestic wiretapping" - a violation of the right to privacy. Media outlets showing acknowledged Islamist propaganda is exercise of the right of free speech, but suppression of images from the 9/11 attacks - specifically, the aircraft crashing into the World Trade Center, or its victims jumping to their deaths - is not censorship. The humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib is described as a "human rights violation," as is the detainment of prisoners at Guantanimo without trial. For the Left, the war between the West and radical Islamists should not be handled as a war - it should be handled as a police matter - as a society would handle internal violators. Our enemies shouldn't be killed, they should be, at worst, captured and counseled. Our enemies are not at fault, WE are, because we are hypocrites that don't live up to our professed belief in absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, ultimate rights. If we just lived up to our professed beliefs, the rest of the world would not hate us. Yet to believe this, the Left must ignore objective reality. It acts, as the Moriori acted, to negotiate and appease, because that's what its philosophy demands - and the results would be identical.
A word on sanctity. It necessarily implies that human life is sacred everywhere, at all times, regardless of prevailing social mores or laws. This carries with it the obligation to protect human life everywhere, to the best of our practical ability, and regardless of opposing social mores.
(I)t is difficult to reconcile the sanctity of life with the need to kill people in its defense. It is even more difficult for a decent person to kill another, himself (as opposed to supporting a champion who kills in his stead). And, most of all, it is most difficult to do so when it places yourself and your loved ones at risk. In short, we are dealing with an intertwining of philosohpical dissonance, misplaced mercy, and above all else a deep, pervasive fear.
Rusticus at Solarvoid illustrates that the Left is exercising a philosophy other than Locke's:
The prevailing philosophy of the left has many names and ideas: collectivism, identity politics, minority rights, the Nanny State, but what it all boils down to is that group rights always trump individual rights. The individual is always subsumed into the group.Our rights are not as important as their rights, in short.
This is at complete odds with Lockean philosophy. And the United States is Lockean at the core. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights are written contracts implementing John Locke’s philosophies on government and self-rule.
To some extent the political Right suffers from a similar cognitive dissonance. Critical Mastiff suggests that we have a philosophy that reconciles "the sanctity of life with the need to kill people in its defense," but in point of fact we do not, at least not one that goes beyond Rand's one fundamental right - the right to ones own life. We have the right to kill others because our own lives are of value. We extend that value to others, and justify the killing of those who do not respect that value as defensive, as protective, and not as aggression. We kill some so that others can be free. It's a rationalisation that pacifists disagree with:
Your enemy is never a villain in his own eyes. Keep this in mind; it may offer a way to make him your friend. If not, you can kill him without hate–and quickly.This piece is written from an atheist perspective in which the concept of God-given rights is plainly rejected. Reverend Donald Sensing wrote a recent piece entitled Can Atheism be Justified? in which he asserts:
Let me say that again so you know I am intentional: If atheists are to take their own beliefs to their logical end, they mist(sic) agree that they have no right to promulgate their belief. They have no right to challenge me about my religion. They have no right to speak up in my community, no right to live in my community, indeed, no right even to life itself. They have no rights at all, in fact.I think that I just spent 5,000+ words saying pretty much that rights aren't objectively real - with the one glaring exception of Rand's "one fundamental right" - the right to ones own life. He continues:
If atheists are true to their own creed, they must admit that the entire concept of human rights crumbles to dust according to that same creed.
If persons are not “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” (in the words of a famous Enlightenment rationalist), then “rights” is nothing but a flatus vocis. The concept of rights then really means nothing but “who wins.” So by their lights, atheists are able to speak out (in America, anyway, not in Saudi Arabia) and attempt to persuade others only because the rest of us let them. But why should we let them? Why don't we religious people simply persecute atheists out of existence?Because most current Christian and Judaic philosophy prohibits it, just as some current Christian and Judaic philosophy rejects warfare. It was not always so. It does not logically follow that it will forever remain so. (See: Phelps, Fred.)
So, regarding rationality for any system of beliefs, how does atheism have a superior claim, except in the minds of its adherents? Any “rational”system of law or morals that atheists may devise may be rebutted by an equally rational system that countermands it.Well, I as an atheist, don't claim that atheism is "superior," merely different. But I would also point out that there is no single Christian, Judaic, or Islamic philosophy, either. Every faith-based system of law or morals that has been devised has been rebutted by equally faithful adherents to a different sect. Atheism is just another one, albeit with one less God. Thus, his argument seems moot. I am curious however. If everyone is indeed endowed by their creator with unalienable rights, how does Rev. Sensing reconcile the universal sanctity of life with the need to kill in its defense? Some Christian sects other than his reject the idea and embrace pacifism. (I assume he does not.) Why are they wrong?
I titled this (extremely long) essay The United Federation of Planets. Why? Because until all of humanity (as one of Rev. Sensing's commenters put it) comes "together at the table as a family," we will have conflict between societies. Those conflicts will illuminate the flaws in our particular philosophies, and cause those societies to change. Joe Huffman recently quoted Samuel P. Huntington from his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order:
The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.I don't think that the West is all that evangelical, it's just that freedom and prosperity are damned attractive to those without it. However, freedom and prosperity are destructive to organized religion in general, and fundamentalist religion in particular - Islam perhaps more than most. But the ideas of Western civilization in general, and the American philosophy in specific have proven themselves superior. Dinesh D'Souza expounded on the superiority of the American philosophy in his essay What's So Great About America?:
The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the US Department of Defense. It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them that obligation to extend that culture throughout the world.
In America your destiny is not prescribed; it is constructed. Your life is like a blank sheet of paper and you are the artist. This notion of being the architect of your own destiny is the incredibly powerful idea that is behind the worldwide appeal of America. Young people especially find the prospect of authoring their own lives irresistible. The immigrant discovers that America permits him to break free of the constraints that have held him captive, so that the future becomes a landscape of his own choosing.In an old post over at Knowledge is Power contributor Claire wrote something appropriate to this post:
If there is a single phrase that captures this, it is "the pursuit of happiness." As writer V. S. Naipaul notes, "much is contained" in that simple phrase: “the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation, perfectibility, and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known [around the world] to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away."
We need to reacquaint ourselves with what is good and right and pure and unique about The Great Experiment that is America. We need to return to the roots of belief in the basic goodness of Man from which our approach to governance sprang. We need to give ourselves permission to be proud of all that we have accomplished in our mere 228 years and believe that we, indeed, still have the Right Stuff to continue to do credit to our forefathers, and to ourselves. We need to give ourselves permission to protect ourselves because what we have created and what we have done is worth protecting. And what we will do will be principled, and decent and right.If we do that, then perhaps the rest of Western civilization might reacquaint itself with it, too:
When soldiers from any other army, even our allies, entered a town, the people hid in the cellars. When Americans came in, even into German towns, it meant smiles, chocolate bars and C-rations. -- Stephen AmbroseBill Whittle discusses in the first chapter to his next book the need for philosophers to be able to tell the difference between the map (theory) and shoreline (reality). And he's right. Philosophers have had that particular problem since they asked the first question "Who am I?", and the second, "Why am I here?"
However, human beings do not function on reality alone. It's crucial that the maps be accurate; running aground where the map says "deep channels" can be fatal to any society. It's also crucial that the people aboard any particular philosophy also be able to look at a dusty little fishing village and see the potential for a shining city upon a hill - because if they can't see it, not even its foundations will ever get built.
Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love, true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn't matter if it's true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.UPDATE: There have been some blogposts associated with this essay. Publicola still disagrees with me, but I think we're much closer in worldview than he imagines. Perhaps even after 6719 words I still wasn't clear enough. Otter of Scaggsville may have been convinced by my argument, but he's struggling with the idea. I struggled with it, too. That's why it took me the better part of five months to hammer it out. And, of course, someone had to comment on the length of the essay. (Still no word from Alger, though. ;-)
UPDATE II: Joe Huffman comments. I respond.
UPDATE III: Critical Mastiff comments from the perspective of Judaic Law.
UPDATE IV: Added the video clip.