Archive for August, 2010

Column on Principles vs. Pragmatism vz. the Mosque

Column on Principles vs. Pragmatism viz. the Mosque

Tibor R. Machan

It’s not my preference to beat a dead horse but this topic goes to the heart of certain features of our current political and legal climate.

When one is in some doubt about what to do–and there can be many situations that one isn’t well prepared for–a way to act is to consider one’s basic principles. Take someone married who is suddenly strongly attracted to someone other than a spouse. It happens but if those marriage vows matter at all, such a situation would be when they would come in most clearly. One is pulled toward breaching an oath but since it is an oath, presumably taken in earnest, one will refuse to yield to the temptation. Or if one is tempted to do a bit of shoplifting or prevaricating. This is when one’s principles come into play, however strongly one may feel like circumventing them.

If it is true that men and women in human communities ought not to intrude on their fellow citizens’ liberties, then that idea would come in full strength just when it is most tempting to butt in. So, given how strongly millions of Americans feel that those planning to build a Mosque near Ground Zero are misguided, the upright thing for them to do is to refuse to yield to such a feeling and go with the principle that everyone has a right to freedom of religion even when that religion leads one astray. Yes, it is difficult and very tempting to toss such a principle and ban the plan but so are numerous other principles very difficult to abide by. That’s just what makes them principles–they must not be treated lightly, they must apply even when one is really tempted to ignore them.

Now all this applies when one sees human beings guided by moral and political principles but not if one sees them as pragmatists for whom principles do not apply. As the joke goes with traffic lights, if they are only suggestions, not firm rules of the road, then by all means dodge them as you wish, if you can get away with doing so.

The famous American pragmatist philosopher and psychologist William James argued once that if breaching the truth gives one serious satisfaction, then one should breach it. As he put it in his famous essay, “The Meaning of Truth,” “The suspicion is in the air nowadays that the superiority of one of our formulas to another may not consist so much in its literal ‘objectivity,’ as in subjective qualities like its usefulness, its ‘elegance,’ or its congruity with our residual beliefs” (p. 41). So it isn’t what’s objectively true that counts for us but what is subjectively useful. When it comes to dealing with such matters as whether to incarcerate Japanese Americans, regardless of whether they have been proven guilty of anything, or to ban a mosque near Ground Zero, never mind that no one has shown that anyone’s rights are being violated, the pragmatist can always go around the principle and say, but do it if it feels good.

I am not here going to attempt to show the superiority of the principled as distinct from the pragmatic approach to human conduct or public policies in a human community. What I want to call attention to is how addressing issues pragmatically differs from how someone with principles would address them. Pragmatists distrust principles, thinking them to be a result of loose, ideological, and dogmatic thinking, while those who stress principles insist that what they rely upon for guidance has gone through centuries of trial and error and by now deserve to be heeded even when they appear to be inconvenient.

Most of the American founders were convinced that certain well considered principles apply to how a human community must be governed, how citizens ought to deal with one another, no matter what. Many today seem to scoff at such an attitude. Of course they usually make exceptions, for example, when they oppose torture or rape or child molestation, and it is unclear how can they square these exceptions with their avowed pragmatism in other areas. But they do try. We are witnessing how this drama plays out about something many Americans feel strongly about.

Essay on Revisiting Natural Rights

Revisiting Natural Rights

Tibor R. Machan

In response to an essay in which I discuss the difference between Amartya Sen’s and the late Peter Bauer’s recommendation for how countries can achieve economic development, one in which I touch on the topic of natural rights, someone sent the magazine where my essay had appeared the following communication. I believe that it will serve as a good beginning for some further considerations of natural rights.

The author of the letter, Stephen E. Silver (to Free Inquiry Magazine [August-September 2010]), wrote as follows:

I think the simple answer to Tibor Machan’s question (“Sen v. Bauer: On What Do Rights Stand?” Fl, June/July 2010) is that human rights do not stand on anything. These rights, when first promulgated several hundred years ago, were called “natural rights” or the “Rights of Man.” They were believed to be God-given; if there was no God, then there was no basis for these rights.

As deism gradually gave way to outright secularism, so “natural rights” (based on “natural religion”) gave way to “human rights.” But if they did not emanate from God, what was their origin?

Machan would like us to believe that such rights are based on an objective knowledge of human nature. There is, of course no such knowledge. Different cultures have different concepts of human living. There are many societies that, as Captain Cook learned, have little or no concept of private property or in which the personal ownership of land is inconceivable. Even within the same culture, there are many different concepts of human nature—should we accept that of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, or Nietzsche?

Additionally, he posits that such rights rest in the human capacity to reason about reality. In fact, as anyone watching Fox News will confirm, the human capacity to reason about reality is extremely limited and cannot be used to establish that we have or deserve to have human rights. This is a complete non sequitor.

In either case, Machan believes that certain rights actually exist. He calls them “pre-legal principles,” but this is simply a euphemism for “natural rights,” i.e., natural rights without God but which are nevertheless inviolable and not open to discussion.

There is absolutely no evidence that such abstract rights or pre-legal principles exist. And certainly, in practice, these so called inalienable rights may be abrogated or withdrawn. If we have a natural right to life, then why is there a death penalty? If there is a right to liberty, why is there incarceration? Our “freedom of speech” is limited by laws against libel, slander, and “hate speech.” Obviously these “inalienable” rights are, in fact, provisional.

Perhaps we should treat others as if they had human rights, and we should ourselves be treated as if we had human rights, but these rights do not really exist. We have made them up for ourselves. We have put them to good use, but we should admit that they are simply a figment of society’s imagination. Indeed, they may represent our best aspirations.

Let me start with the first point Mr. Silver raises, namely, that human rights used to be dubbed natural rights and were as such thought to be God-given. Yet, as the term “natural” clearly suggests, these rights were believed–for example by John Locke–to be based on an understanding of human nature. Human beings may have been regarded by some natural rights theorists as God-created but their basic rights were alleged to be derivable from their nature as free and independent moral agents. That is how John Locke saw it, rightly or wrongly. So what matters here is whether there are human beings as a class of living entities in the world and whether they have attributes that imply that they have certain rights once they find themselves in human communities. Locke and the American Founders held that they do. God had nothing much to do with this part of the theory.

Next, the reason for the switch to human rights from natural ones was not due to any theological considerations either but because the idea of “the nature of X” fell into disrepute at the hands of skeptics, like David Hume, who disputed that things had a firm, stable nature. Yet this is still a very open issue in philosophy, so it is widely argued that human nature exists and that certain rights may be derived from it. Even if widely disputed, it could well be right, which is what really matters.

As to whether there are many different conceptions of human nature throughout history and the globe, that’s irrelevant. There are many different conceptions of justice, fairness, equality, virtue, vice, etc., but that’s due to the simple fact that people don’t see things eye to eye. It does not imply for a moment that no human nature can be identified, only that they dispute about the matter just as they do about most other serious human concerns (even in the natural sciences). In my view, which is by no means idiosyncratic, human nature exists–it consist of those aspects of what human beings are that they share, in virtue of which we are classified as human beings rather than, say, bears or zebras (which also have a nature).

Also, the fact that a principle can be violated doesn’t disprove its existence–woman have the right to their sexual liberty yet rapists violate this principles all the time. Moral and political principles are of that sort.

Another point on which the letter’s author is mistaken is the defining capacity of human beings to reason. They are rational animals, as most thinkers have found since ancient times. This means they have the capacity to be rational, to reason carefully about the world. It does not mean that they do so all the time–on Fox TV or MS NBC, for that matter–or that all of them choose to do so.

The idea of natural rights is pretty well grounded–I wrote about this in my Individuals and Their Rights (1989)–and the existence of disagreement does not undermine it. There are thousands of racists who disagree about the moral equality of blacks and whites and they are entirely irrelevant when it comes to the truth of the issue.

As a side issue, this author’s case against natural rights, is exactly the same as that presented by the philosopher Kai Nielsen in his paper from 1965, “Skepticism and Human Rights,” in The Monist. The debate goes on but that doesn’t mean there is no truth about the matter. Today it is the president’s favorite attorney, Cass Sunstein, who voices the skepticism about natural rights, to morrow it will be someone else. That’s why eternal vigilance is needed.

Column on Revisiting Obama’s Pragmatism

Revisiting Obama’s Selective Pragmatism

Tibor R. Machan

Some may remember that during the debate about federal government bailouts and stimuli the Obama regime made it very clear that no ideology will be allowed to sway the administration and that what is important is that the government stick to a pragmatic policy, meaning a policy of expediency, one concerned with what works not with what conforms to principles, such as the right to private property or limited governmental powers. As he is quoted to have said, “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them,” Mr. Obama told Americans with what he regards as old-fashioned ideological beliefs, “that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works….” That is indeed the calling card of the pragmatist–do whatever works! (In a recent movie by Woody Allen. Whatever Works, the protagonist follows this advice but it isn’t clear how well he comes off doing so!)

Ironically, pragmatism, the quintessentially unprincipled philosophical movement, was born in America, the one country in human history and around the globe most explicitly tied to certain basic principles of community life–e.g., the existence of unalienable, natural human rights, a tradition now widely mimicked (more or less, around the world, not least by many members of the United Nations). Such American thinkers as William James, C. I. Lewis, John Dewey, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Willard Van Orman Quine, Richard Rorty and, right near the current White House, Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, all professed to be pragmatists. Although their specific positions are not identical, what they share most of all is that they reject the idea of foundations to human thought and action. Anti-foundationalism is a prominent stance they all share, meaning that what people think and do cannot be given some kind of basic grounding in reality or thought or God or anything. Whatever works is all that can be produced in support of what one thinks, does, supports as law and public policy. No principled support for–or opposition to–what we think and do is possible to find, so we need to abandon the myth of foundationalism! Let’s just settle for what pans out in practice.

As many critics of this position have pointed out, it is a non-starter; it cannot be practiced at all since what works is always related to some objective or goal that one aims to achieve and if there are no principles on which to rest such goals, they remain simply a wish list of powerful, influential people, quite arbitrary in the last analysis; most importantly, pragmatism is the foe of a society that aims to establish and maintain justice among its citizens since principles of justice are plainly unknowable so far as pragmatism goes. It is also blatantly offensive–no basic reason can be given for opposition to torture or rape or murder? Give me a break!

In the recent dispute over the building of a Muslim mosque near Ground Zero in New York City, however, President Obama elected to try to take a principled, totally anti-pragmatic, stand when he said that everyone has a right to practice his or her religion, never mind whether it is done wisely or not. As the president said, the right to religious liberty “includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.” He went on to say, “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”

So, suddenly Mr. Obama is one of those old fashioned principled Americans, right? Forgive me if I am skeptical. Pragmatists do not change their colors so easily. Once a pragmatist, pretty much always a pragmatist, so that whether in matters of economic policy, torture, or the right to religious liberty no pragmatist would cite an alleged basic principle in support of what he or she supports. No, what would matter is whether the policy being promoted works.

Accordingly, Mr. Obama must believe that insisting on the rights of Muslims to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City and not commenting on the wisdom or propriety of their doing so is indeed what works! But what does it work for?

Well, that is the 64 thousand dollar question. My suggestion is that it works to keep Mr. Obama’s image reasonably respectable by way of its ultimate obscurity. Nothing like rolling out one’s credentials as a sophist, an obfuscator of ideas, so as to make one seem erudite and cool.

Column on Infanticide & Instincts

Column on Infanticide & Instincts

Tibor R. Machan

As life rolls on for me, with many pluses and some minuses along the way, an issue that keeps propping up in my more academic studies is whether people have instincts like non-human animals supposedly do. Or are we born with what some refer to as a blank slate, tabula rasa? That is to say, is the human mind, before it receives the impressions gained from experience, totally or at least mostly uninformed or does it contain some information and guidance for action, various beliefs and so forth, from birth or even before?

Among many of my colleagues and associates, indeed quite a few of my good friends, this is a live topic and we tend to watch for events around us, as well as for books, papers, essays and so on, wherein it figures prominently. One of the major thinkers of the modern era, Immanuel Kant (22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804), even believed that the human mind contains some very vital information as a matter of a birthright, as it were, so that, for example, we all arrive in the world already believing in such notions as causality or time or space, we do not need to be exposed to the facts of reality first in order to acquire them. They are innate.

Another very famous and influential thinker, the philosopher John Locke (1632 – 1704) who is credited with developing some of the most crucial principles the American founders held to be constitutive of justice itself–the idea of basic, natural, human individual rights (remember the Declaration of Independence where Thomas Jefferson and his fellow founders made prominent use of it)–held the view that the human mind is indeed a blank slate, lacking all knowledge and in need of acquiring it as people commence and continue living. Others, such as the French philosopher Rene Descartes–often dubbed the founder of modern philosophy and an influential mathematician as well–also advocated a view sort of like Kant’s, holding as he did that human beings had a few but vital innate ideas, such as the awareness of their own reality! (Such contemporary thinkers as Noam Chomsky and Steve Pinker continue debating the issue.)

One point often stressed by supporters of the innate idea or instinctive knowledge position in defense of their view is that mothers, clearly, have an instinctive love for their children and know, innately, what they need to do for them so they would grow up flourishing rather than being neglected or even perishing. Yet this is just the evidence that I find highly dubious and just the other day it was seriously called into question once again, when a mother was found to have murdered two of her little sons. As CNN reported the story, “The mother of two boys,” the CNN report stated, “says she smothered them with her hands, strapped their bodies in car seats and submerged the car in a South Carolina river.” Purportedly she had experienced some serious setbacks in her life, including being unemployed, which may help account for what she did.

Now the matter that stood out for me, aside from the horror of it–anyone who knows a thing or two about being a parent would have to experience some such feeling upon running across this type of news, of which, sadly, there is aplenty–namely, where on earth were those alleged instincts in this mother, the innate knowledge of the wrongness of such a deed and therefore the instinctual disinclination to commit it, that people talk about when they defend the idea of instincts. And, of course, this instance of infanticide is but one among hundreds and thousands of others well known from history and around the globe.

It seems to me that the notion that we have instincts has some credibility only vis-a-vis very few kinds of human conduct, such as babies suckling instinctively. Clearly they would not have had any time to learn that that’s how they must sustain their lives so they must have something built in, as it were, that gets them to feed from their mothers’ breasts. And maybe there are some very few other (early) human behaviors that are instinctive but they are quickly extinguished and thereafter we indeed need to learn how to proceed unprepared apart from certain capacities, with the great variety of tasks in our lives. Unlike other animals, we need to set out to learn, often with deliberation and discipline–it doesn’t just happen. (Boy, is that driven home to anyone who is a professional teacher!).

This is a topic with a great deal of ink spent on it, in and out of the academy, and here I am barely touching the surface. But it does seem to me that the anti-instinct side of the debate is more credible. Lacking instincts may well be one of those features of human life that serves to distinguished us from other animals.

Column on The Mosque Fiasco

The Mosque Fiasco

Tibor R. Machan

For once I agree with something that President Obama said, if I understood him right: Muslims do have the basic right, one that is legally protected in a free country, to build a mosque anywhere they choose if they own the land (or are leasing it with permission from the owner) to build there even though it is very possible that they should not build the mosque, that it is morally offensive, unwise, and imprudent for them to do so. That is indeed part of the meaning of freedom of religion.

If only Mr. Obama and his supporters had the integrity to apply this doctrine in other areas of social life, such as education, science, the arts, and economics. In all those spheres human beings have the right to do as they choose, provided they are not violating anyone’s rights; yet in these areas they do not enjoy the protection of the law in America and most other places around the globe (places, by the way, where the right to religious liberty enjoys no protection, such as in most countries where the official, government supported religion is Islam).

Interestingly, Mr. Obama never mentioned this last point, thus missing a fine opportunity to do a bit of peaceful proselytizing to the rest of the world. As if freedom of worship were some kind of culturally specific right just of American citizens, not a basic, universal human right at all! But it is just that, a basic human right and where it lacks protection, there is serious injustice afoot. And there is serious injustice afoot in America where only religion and journalism (and some adjacent activities) enjoy legal protection from those who would regulate and regiment other people’s peaceful–albeit possibly risky or offensive–conduct.

This is kind of like that famous modern liberal crusade in support of choice, the choice to get an abortion (at least up to when a human being emerges during pregnancy). OK, so arguably pregnant women have the right to choose–I will not explore this topic here any further. But why stop there? It is utterly perverse to believe that while pregnant women ought to be free to kill their fetuses, they should not be free to, say, smoke marijuana or open a hair salon without the “permission” of politicians and bureaucrats. How come the former but not the latter? What kind of a free country is it where such contradictions are rampant and upheld by the legal authorities (including the president)? Or where one is free to publish porn galore but must bow to local, state and/or federal authorities who want to regulate nearly everything else they might choose to? Why is one’s freedom to choose as one wants with one’s resources, one’s wealth (which also means one’s skills, time, property, etc.) not protected with the determination that one’s freedom to publish whatever one wants to publish is and to worship whatever one elects to worship?

Not only on the domestic front but around the globe America would have a far better reputation, for political integrity to start with, if it went on record, via, for example, its chief executive officer, declaring–once again–that individual human beings have fundamental rights, simply for being human, to do as they want to do provided what they elect to do is peaceful, non-invasive or non-aggressive.

There is a time to be righteous, yes, and when some truly despised organization such as those who have made the vile choice to built a mosque near ground zero of all places, then speaking up for their rights is arguably honorable and righteous. But it isn’t if those doing such speaking up forget about all the other rights human beings have that go neglected, unprotected, abused and violated throughout the land, not to mention the globe. It is fine for our president to defend the rights of misguided Muslims but not while he fails to mention that millions of others do not have their rights properly protected, in innumerable spheres of peaceful human activity. It may even suggest a bias on his part, one no official of a free country ought to harbor.