Last fall in my house we had some serious bad news: my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. (There have been a number of ways in which I have hoped to emulate Ken Wilber, but this sure wasn’t one of them.) The good news is it was not a particularly severe variety as cancers go; with proper treatment it would not be life-threatening. But those treatments have been rough, with an extended recovery period.
It has, as you may imagine, been a difficult time for both of us. I am happy to say that things are much better than they were, but the hard times are not yet over. My wife’s story is hers to tell, and she has told it magnificently. On my side, something major has happened that I did not expect: for the first time, I have come to consider myself a Buddhist. (continue reading…)
The always interesting skholiast, whose ideas have figured strongly in quite a few of my posts here over the years, took what I consider the enormously flattering step of interviewing me about my philosophy, in both oral and written form. He is posting the interview on his blog in two parts; the first of these is up now. I think the dialogue form is helpful for philosophical thought, and if you’re interested in my ideas I would highly encourage you to read it.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two excellent books on very different topics, both of which I’ve written about at Love of All Wisdom before: Andrew Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism, and Brian Tierney’s The Idea of Natural Rights.
The idea of human or natural rights has often been taken as something nearly eternal, dating back into antiquity. More careful scholarship, most notably that of Michel Villey, shows us it is not that. Villey takes the work of William of Ockham as a breaking point, a sharp rupture from the previous world that had no concept of rights, which brings in a very different metaphysics where rights now play an important role. The brilliance of Tierney’s work is to qualify this point, showing a gradual transition from the world before Ockham to the world after him. It preserves Villey’s basic point that rights do not go back to antiquity, but shows that the boundary between premodern and modern is much blurrier than previous scholarship had imagined.
The idea of Hinduism has often been taken as something nearly eternal, dating back into antiquity. More careful scholarship, most notably that of Wilhelm Halbfass and Heinrich von Stietencron, shows us it is not that. Halbfass takes the work of Rammohun Roy as a breaking point, a sharp rupture from the previous world that had no concept of Hinduism, which brings in a very different metaphysics where Hinduism now plays an important role. The brilliance of Nicholson’s work is to qualify this point, showing a gradual transition from the world before Roy to the world after him. It preserves Halbfass’s basic point that rights do not go back to antiquity, but shows that the boundary between premodern and modern is much blurrier than previous scholarship had imagined. (continue reading…)
We have seen over the past few posts that while the idea of individual rights is not just a modern invention, it also is far from a universal one. Rights are not obvious or commonsensical. Contra the American Declaration of Independence, they are not self-evident.
Rather, rights need reasons. If one wants to get to the truth of the matter (and not merely to achieve an expedient political deal), it is never good enough to say something should be done for, or not done to, a person “because he has a right to it”. The right itself requires a justification. Sometimes one’s interlocutor already agrees that the person has this right, but in many cases – the most important cases – they do not in fact agree.
This point is easy to lose sight of, perhaps especially in the contemporary United States where the opposing political sides rarely speak to each other. Each side insists it is defending rights: the employee’s right to contraception, Hobby Lobby‘s right to refuse to provide contraception on religious grounds, the fetus’s right to life, the woman’s right to an abortion. But what is in question here – assuming we acknowledge the existence of rights in the first place – is who has which rights. And then we need to provide reasons.
On Leif Wenar’s modern definition, a right is an entitlement. Historically, when William of Ockham articulated a concept of rights that would get increasingly taken up in the years following, it was a potesta licitas: a legal power, a power of licence. Key to a right is an entitlement or licence that implies an obligation of others to respect it.
But who grants the licence, the entitlement, the permission? (continue reading…)
Last time I began exploring the history of the concept of rights (as in human or civil rights), through the works of Michel Villey and Brian Tierney. I noted that the concept as we now understand it has its roots in Latin ius, which had a meaning more like law and one’s proper share than like rights. How did this concept become the concept of individual rights that we now have today?
Villey lays the blame (and for him it is blame) on one key thinker, William of Ockham (or Occam). (continue reading…)
Is the concept of (human) rights a modern conceit, as Alasdair MacIntyre thinks? To answer that question, it helps to look at the premodern roots of the concept of rights in some detail. The French legal historian Michel Villey has probably done more than any other to help us understand the historicity of the concept of rights – to recognize that the idea of a right as we understand it today is not a human universal, but has a specific history. (Unfortunately, few if any of Villey’s works have been translated into English; even the Wikipedia link above is French only.) Something like Villey’s work probably underlies MacIntyre’s understanding of the history of rights. Still, if we examine the similarly pioneering work of Cornell historian Brian Tierney, we will see that Villey’s claims are at least somewhat overstated, and MacIntyre’s even more so.
The etymology of the English word “right(s)” goes back very far – it is shared not only with German and Dutch Recht but with the word ṛta from the Sanskrit Vedas, denoting the cosmic order underlying the world. But what’s most important in the history of “rights” and related words is not the words themselves but the underlying concept, the one that comes to be expressed in modern European languages as droit, derecho, Recht, rights. That concept begins as a word which is not etymologically related to the modern European words, but which those words all translate and which is the root of modern European thinking about them: (continue reading…)
Few concepts are more ubiquitous in our political vocabulary today than rights – human rights, civil rights, equal rights. It is a widespread concept even in non-Western thought about politics, let alone Western. We could try to reject the concept, but that would require great effort, intellectual as well as political – for it would necessarily be reactionary, an innovation through conservatism. A literal conservatism would have to accept the idea of rights, given how intricately woven it is into the fabric of our political discourse. We cannot do without it lightly.
Yet few concepts are also so difficult to defend. Rights-based arguments often get nowhere, because the rights asserted are typically in obvious diametrical contrast: the fetus has a right to life, the pregnant woman has a right to control her body, now what? Rights are typically supposed to be something different from utility; they are not the sort of thing one can trade off and weigh. (That is the role they play in the thought of John Rawls, for example, where protecting individual rights takes “lexicographic” priority – that is, always comes first – over maximizing the welfare of the worst off.) So when competing rights are asserted, too often it leads not to reasoning but to combat. Sometimes the combat is judicial, as over the rights declared in the American Constitution; but those only happen to be the rights articulated by one country’s laws at one point in time. The force of the concepts of civil rights or human rights can only derive from them being something higher, truer, than what happens to be one existing state’s law. (continue reading…)
On the Indian Philosophy Blog, commenter Anthony S asked an important and difficult question: what are good resources for thinking through Indian political philosophy?
. I’m interested not so much in comparative philosophy as comparative political thought/theory, specifically in terms of Indian and “Western” thought regarding the international/global. While I am happy comparative philosophy seems to be taking off in recent years, I wish the intensity was the same in political science/theory. If anyone has some good thoughts/resources regarding any of this, I’d be very appreciative.
A while ago I referred to Śāntideva’s thought as “ethics without morality” – a deliberately provocative formulation based on Shyam Ranganathan’s eccentric definition of morality as that which conduces to anger. (I don’t agree with Shyam’s definition myself, but putting matters in those terms for the sake of argument helps us to make an interesting and important point.) The idea for Śāntideva is that because everything has a cause, no one is truly to blame for their actions, and therefore we should not get angry at them.
Mark Siderits, in a 2008 article in Sophia, has called this view “Buddhist paleo-compatibilism”: “compatibilism” meaning roughly that while Śāntideva thinks it morally significant that everything has a cause, he still thinks it appropriate to blame people for bad actions.
I don’t think that that is what Śāntideva means, based on a reading of the Sanskrit text of Bodhicaryāvatāra chapter six. I think Siderits reads a great deal into verse 32 that is not actually there, and that is at odds with Śāntideva’s explicit argument in verses 22-33. But I won’t expand on that particular point here, because overall I find the detailed textual argument less interesting than the more general constructive argument. (continue reading…)