Friday, September 23, 2005

Are Rights Universal?

There is a debate within the conservative movement, for some time, about whether rights are universal or even if rights are absolute. Some traditional conservatives view rights as radical abstract ideas that fueled the excesses of the French revolution and today fuel rampant entitlements and the expansion the welfare state. However, rights in Locke’s philosophy and for our founding fathers were well-defined, delimited, and central to the program of protecting individual liberty. Rights are an important part of our heritage as relevant today as they were in Jefferson’s day.

One question that is often asked is: are rights universal? Critics note that not everyone has a passion for liberty or a desire to respect the rights of others. Some note that a constitution protecting individual rights would be ignored in many cultures even if it were imposed by an external force. Furthermore, many people live without rights. What makes rights universal?

The answer is human nature. But even here we have to proceed with caution and clarify what we mean. I’d first separate the factual statement from a moral exhortation. Let me explain this in detail; it is important.

Factually, respecting individual rights respects man’s tool of survival: the individual mind. It is by cultivating the virtue of rationality that one understands, acts, and achieves the values required to sustain one’s life and properly deal with other productive and honest people. If one can’t act upon one’s rational judgment, human thought is superfluous. When liberty is recognized as a universal right of every individual, it makes virtue possible and necessary. And the core virtue, that of cultivating and maintaining one’s rational ability, is a requirement of maintaining cognitive contact with reality. It makes survival possible and possible on the human level, i.e. with the dignity and fulfillment appropriate to a human being.

At this point, I haven’t said anything about a moral imperative. I’ve just stated the relationship of human reason to one’s surviving and flourishing; and the role of rights protecting each individual’s ability to act on his best judgment. It’s as if a physician described the effects of proper medication, exercise, and nutrition on health – i.e. the wherewithal for a robust and long-term survival; it would first and foremost be a factual description. Or a psychologist describing the environment conducive to learning and growth, it would be a factual statement. The exhortation to do those things or create such an environment makes it a moral imperative.

The factual requirements for survival are irrelevant in the mist of a culture or location where human survival isn’t possible. As is trivially noted, in a juggle, being a gentleman is irrelevant. And rights become moot among those that cannot grasp the concept. However, the factual evaluation remains. The relationship between respecting rights and surviving as a human being with the dignity and longevity appropriate to a human being is still a valid relationship. It’s just that neither can be in some locations or cultures. That’s the point of the factual identification: rights are factually important to protect what’s required to survive properly. If you can’t secure them you are in danger.

We can therefore judge a culture by its ability to recognize and sustain individual rights. To the degree that rights can be respected in a given cultural environment, it becomes relevant to issue a moral imperative and exhort others to respect each and every individual’s rights. But a culture, like individual character, evolves slowly. Here is where I have sympathy for the conservative insight that cultivation of character or culture is a process that requires time and tradition. It requires establishing practices, in both thought and in deed, that create a body of knowledge both explicitly articulated and implicitly embedded in tradition.

Urging respect for rights in a culture that has no inkling of the notion is futile or even worse, counter productive. Educating people about the benefits of living in a rights-based society is a worthy investment but it may not come to fruition for some time. The question remains, when to push for change. Here there are no hard-and-fast rules. One has to be cognizant of what is possible in the short-term vs. the long-term in any given situation.

Germany couldn’t keep the democracy it had in the 1920s but it’s been able to keep the democracy established after WWII. Russia lost the democracy it established for a few months in 1917 when the Bolsheviks rose to power and replaced it. Can Russia hold on to democracy today? One certainly hopes so but it is far from certain.

East Germans still find living in a free society challenging or worse, distasteful. The culture shock was great; one hopes there isn’t backsliding. But the virtues of self-reliance, independent thought, and independent initiative weren’t possible or necessary in Communist East Germany. Character can’t change by the “sudden inflow” of liberty. Many still want to be cared for by the state.

Iraq is going to attempt a constitutional democracy but questions remain. Will the Shiites, once securely in power, take revenge on the Sunnis? Will Islam transform the democracy into a repressive state? Will the passive desire to be supported by oil be replaced by a work-ethic? Or will a corrupt socialism destroy the hopes of a thriving capitalist economy?

Even here at home, we ask similar question. Will people ask that the government take care of them or will we return to a culture of self-reliance and self-responsibility? Will people ask for benefits and access to education on the basis of their demographic group or will we treat each individual by “the content of their character?” Much hangs in the balance. The prospects for individual rights depend on cultural attitudes we’ve had in the past and new attitudes that replace them in many cases.

Rights are universal, in the sense that they are requirements for human well-being. But they are only possible, i.e. respected, if the culture allows.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Urging respect for rights in a culture that has no inkling of the notion is futile or even worse, counter productive."

This is why the Iraq war is ultimately doomed to failure. As Yaron Brook of ARI has been arguing, both Iraq and Afghanistan were, in essence, humanitarian missions with the specific goal of spreading "democracy". American soldiers are dying so Iraqis and Afghans can vote. This commits the same type of error which is at the root of libertarianism; namely the primacy of politics.

Before you can have a "democracy" or more accurately a republican form of government, you need the curlural and philosophical preconditions for it, or at the least a culture with some of the neccessary elements in their history. This was the case with the occupations of both Germany and Japan. Both had elements of civilization in their recent history; they had elements of capitalism, advanced legal codes which partially respected private property, and, to some extent, a respect for knowledge. (This is not to excuse how barbaric each became. But they did have a viable civilization at their core.)

None of these things exist in any significant way in the majority of the Moslem Middle East (there are some exceptions: Turkey, Dubai, Bahrain). Islam has devestated whatever civilizaion the Middle East once had. Life hating, mind hating Islam has created the most barbaric, anti-reason culture on the planet. This is not fertile soil to plant the seeds of representative government.

Sadly, it is inevitable that Iraq will fail. And when it does, it will fall under Iranian influence. In the end, I think it could come to pass that Bush has made things worse in the long run. And I say that as someone who knows that the Left represents total, abject, suicidal pascifism.

There is and will not be any viable political alternative until Ayn Rand exerts her influence in a significant way on the culture. It is a race against time to see if her ideas can spread faster than the Kantian legacy can reap its ultimate destruction.

You have a great blog, but you should explicitly name her influence on your thinking more frequently. Her ideas run throughout your writing. This post is a summation of her revolutionary theory on the nature of individual rights. Every time you mention her you increase her influence. And that is the only chance this culture has of saving itself.

9/23/05, 2:21 PM  
Blogger Jason Pappas said...

I haven’t talked about Iraq since the beginning of my blog. The challenge in Iraq is formidable and I express concern here, here, and here. I don’t have a suggested battle plan. Looking at Iraq or Afghanistan requires looking at them in context of a total battle plan and war goals. I haven’t done that mainly because I focus on what I think needs the most attention: the blindness to the threat of Islam on both the right and the left. Understanding the enemy will obviously result in a better understanding the options to deal with the enemy.

Actually, I’m glad you brought up Ayn Rand. Along with Rand, Aristotle is an influence in today's post. I was going to discuss both but the post was getting rather long. I’m not sure Rand would agree with the post as written but I think it is consistent with her principles expressed in her lead essay of The Virtue Of Selfishness: A New Theory Of Egoism. And, of course, Aristotle Ethics and Aquinas’ comments on virtue both influence what I’ve written above. I highly recommend these writings.

Come back, introduce yourself, and let’s continue our discussion.

9/23/05, 2:59 PM  
Blogger Pastorius said...

Great and thought-provoking post, Jason.

Let me start by saying that I assume that everyone would like to own property. Yes, it is true that some feel themselves so inferior that they will sublimate their desire for property and express it by asking the state to "take care of them." (This is really just a way of "owning" the state. However, the state can't be owned, ultimately, because a state will do whatever a state will do, if it is given that much power.)

But anyway, back to the point, if everyone would like to own property, then why would it be near impossible for Iraq to establish a republican government? Iraqis haven't had a state which has take care of them in the past, have they? So, that idea is not part of their cultural baggage, is it?

Therefore, freedom to own property, one of the easiest rights to grasp, is a major step up for all Iraqis, isn't it?

9/24/05, 4:15 PM  
Blogger Charles N. Steele said...

Interesting post. I add a comment:

I don't believe that there is such a thing "a culture that has no inkling of the notion [of rights]" As you point out, rights are inherent in human nature, and no culture can escape this. Cultures differ enormously in the degree to which they acknowledge rights, but none gives zero recognition. Such a culture could not be sustained.

I lived in the former Soviet Union for a few years, and was quite shocked at what I heard from people who had lived under the Soviet system, the positive way they referred to the rights of the citizen in the USSR (e.g., rights of accused regarding prosecution for common crime) ( not counter-revolutionary "crime"). The scope of these rights was far smaller than what we recognize, but even in this collectivist totalitarian state there were certain lines drawn, and (very limited) individual rights generally recognized.

This is an important point, because it suggests to me that there's no society or people that doesn't at least have a few seeds from which libertarian ideas could develop. Some cultures have far more potential than others, but we work with what we get. (This is actually my response to your post on my blog, from way back when.)

9/28/05, 3:21 PM  
Blogger Jason Pappas said...

That’s an interesting point. I think that’s correct. There is usually enough of a functioning society to make it apparent that some notion of rights are legitimate. The problem is bootstrapping that to get the whole.

With rights, I often wonder what encourages one person to focus on “positive rights” (ends) as oppose to negative rights (liberty.) Did you sense any awareness of the difference between the primacy of process (liberty) over product (ends)in you stay abroad?

I actually think this blog entry was my best in months. I’m glad a few people noticed.

9/28/05, 3:53 PM  

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