Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, December 08, 2015

What Unites Us

In ethical or political theory, can there ever be such a thing as "rights" without corresponding obligations? Not really.  Your right to possess property can only exist if I acknowledge an obligation not to take it from you. Otherwise, the whole idea of "right" becomes devoid of meaning. Likewise, if you have a right to life, then that right cannot exist in a moral vacuum. It must be balanced by an obligation on the part of other people to honor your right to live. So, when a governmental authority uses capital punishment upon a citizen, it is, in effect, taking away his or her "natural" right to life. Clearly, no rights, even the right to life, can be guaranteed forever.

Doesn't the same logic apply to property. If you have a "natural" right to your life, then why shouldn't you have a natural right to the property you own? It seems, if we are going to be consistent with our language, that any "right" is balanced by a corresponding obligation on the part of everyone else.  

That brings up the question of what makes some rights "natural" and others artificial? Clearly, whether a right is "natural" or not depends partly on your definition of what is "natural" -- i.e.,, what rightfully belongs to the realm of nature? The concept of property is not derived from the animal kingdom. It is a man made category into which we put all the objects of value which we deem capable of ownership.  No one owns the air we breathe, or the water which covers most of the earth in the form of oceans.  So the whole category of "natural rights" is a problem that must be evaluated in terms of things belonging to nature (or God) and  things belonging to man.

What about the whole concept of "rights"? Are any rights natural?  If so, why can't animals own things?  Any discussion about rights  must also take into account our ideas about property.  Animals are often territorial, but (as far as we know) they don't have any ideas corresponding to our ideas about property.

Let's consider the categories of "natural" versus "artificial."  Any discussion about morals will always include certain assumptions regarding our feelings about what is natural (pre-political) versus what is social (political).  Where do "rights" come from? Do you have any rights in a state of nature?  Your answer might depend on whether you are religious or not. The concept of natural law is joined closely to a belief in a supernatural deity (God) who has the ultimate authority in defining our ideas of right and wrong.

If we have any natural rights (such as the right to life), can these rights ever be taken away from us? Esau sold his natural birthright to his brother Jacob. Later, he regretted this decision. But his father honored the ritual ceremony and so Jacob profited from Esau's mistake. Likewise, some people, from time to time, have sold themselves into slavery. We call it "indentured servitude".  Traditionally, slaves have had little or no rights. So, the idea of "natural" rights seems to collide with the idea of slavery. How is it possible for anyone to be a slave and also have a natural right to freedom?  The easy solution is to deny that everyone has natural rights.

All rights come with obligations. It seems absurd to think we can claim "rights" from nature without any strings attached. In other words, is it possible to get something for free? The principle of "do unto others as you would have done unto you" is the principle at work behind any idea of natural rights.  Of course, if everyone were civilized and recognized the rights we claim for ourselves, there wouldn't be a problem. But, in the raw state of nature, not everyone behaves honorably. So, human kind bands together to form social networks and communities. We establish laws to govern our behavior (and the behavior of our neighbor) so as to ensure fairness and maintain a semblance of order.

However, the problem with equality is that it raises the bar of social expectations. People start believing that they should have more than they do. Equality breeds discontent and envy. In nature, there is no expectation of equality. Animals compete for scarce resources. The strong survive and the weak perish. That's just the way it is.

But in human civilization, we have certain expectations about what society should provide. Even if our expectations are unreasonable, we, nevertheless, cling to them. The idea of equality is based on a primitive idea of what the first human family was like, and how mankind fell from grace, and was condemned by a vengeful God to a life of pain and sorrow. Thus, an early theological idea of sin unites the family of man as being universally cursed for its bad behavior.  We fall from grace and are punished.  End of story. So the only thing that is universal to mankind is our proclivity to misbehave.  Under this theology, we humans are united by our common fate: an expulsion from the garden of Eden (or our mother's womb), born into sin and a lifetime of sorrow, then old age, followed by misery, sickness and death.

What unites mankind is not a system of values as much as a biological program leading us from the cradle to the grave. We must concede that all ideas about equality are etymologically derived from the Latin word "compati":  meaning "to suffer with." Yet, after 2,000 years, the only ground that truly unites humanity is not the realm of truth or any idea of human decency or equality, but the dark, moist earth which covers our grave. Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.


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