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…)
Last time, I observed Peter Singer’s proposed radical revision of our moral views – the claim that, when we keep money that we could give to help the starving or diseased without major sacrifice, we are doing something as bad as if we let a drowning child drown. Is Singer right?
At the heart of Singer’s argument, by his own reckoning, is this principle: “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” He explicitly states that the implication of this “ought” is duty and obligation, not merely charity and generosity. It is not just that sacrificing one’s own comfort and pleasure to help those in need is good, but that any refusal to do so is bad, something deserving of one’s own guilt and shame and others’ condemnation.
Now on what grounds should we accept this principle, if indeed we should? (continue reading…)
The image of a drowning child is a vivid one – enough to make it a key example in two very different traditions of moral philosophy. In ancient China, Mencius used the image to illustrate humans’ natural inborn moral benevolence: we would all “have a feeling of alarm and compassion” at such a sight, and not out of any form of self-interest. Thousands of years later, in the early 1970s – when Chinese philosophy was known to the West but it would rarely have occurred to a Western philosopher that he should study it – the Australian utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer used the same image. In his famous article “Famine, affluence and morality”, written in 1971 and published 1972, Singer says this:
if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.
But Singer puts the image to a very different use than Mencius. (continue reading…)
It seems to me that the concepts of ascent and descent allow relatively easily for intermediate positions between them, compromises that attempt at a synthesis. I suspect that in this respect they are different from the related binary of intimacy and integrity. Thomas Kasulis tries to argue that intimacy and integrity are incommensurable – one may experience elements of each at once, but it is difficult to take a moderate position between them, let alone to establish a synthesis. I am not convinced that Kasulis is right about this, but I do think that at least middle grounds on intimacy and integrity are harder to establish than on ascent and descent.
For relatively few seek the pure transcendence of the Yoga Sūtras, abiding in a pure universality outside the changing world. It is an uncompromising and drastic ascent that demands we act and be with a higher universal, leaving the particulars of the world behind us. Jain monks, following a similar path, deliberately renounce dependence to all particulars up to and including food – they often end their lives through sallekhanā or santhara, intentional slow starvation. (continue reading…)
This week’s post follows the previous one and should be taken in the same light: namely, that while my views expressed in it have developed in response to a thoughtful and valuable exchange between me and Chris Fraser, it should not be taken to imply any views on Fraser’s part that are not already expressed in his published works.
I have long noted how for a philosopher, the most productive way to examine a text from another time is to examine the mind behind that text – so that one can follow Thomas Kuhn’s advice to “ask yourself how a sensible person could have written” that text with all of its apparent absurdities. This approach runs into trouble with composite texts, which are not the work of a single author. In thinking about the composite work attributed to Śāntideva, I had found it quite satisfactory to instead identify a single redactor. Last time, however, I noted how such an approach may be problematic for a text like the Zhuangzi, where the redactor of the edition known to us, namely the commentator Guo Xiang, has a Confucian agenda that appears to be at odds with some of the statements in the text itself.