Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Rights and reasons

Excellent post up at Love of All Wisdom, where Amod Lele writes about the problem with the notion of human rights -- to wit, that although many people agree broadly on what human rights are, no one can really say what makes a right a right.

Lele's example is the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and he quotes Jacques Maritain's remark that in the absence of deep philosophical concord, no agreement about the principles that give rise to rights can be reached; only "agreement on a joint declaration is possible, given an approach pragmatic rather than theoretical..."

This point fits into a broader critique often made by thinkers like Leo Strauss, James Doull, Carl Schmitt, Alasdair MacIntyre, and so on (MacIntyre being one one of Lele's star witnesses later on in his post)-- to wit, that the modern, liberal consensus (such as it is) can offer no rationale for its own intuitions, but only a pragmatic shrug of "seems-to-work-OK-so-far." Many of these figures are seen as conservative, and the critique is not infrequently suspected of being a move in a crypto-reactionary campaign. (This is of course question-begging, since even if some nostalgic course were recommended -- and it almost never is -- it would still be an open question whether it had motivated the argument, or vice-versa.)

Doull noted this wryly:
To ask about the origin and foundation of what has been, one may say, for a century and a half an ever more fixed and settle dogma is not without difficulty. It may appear to be only an antiquarian inquiry, curious but without practical interest, or else, what is thought intolerable, to recommend a return to the institutions and beliefs of an unliberated age. But the necessity can no longer be disregarded: it becomes always more deeply felt that this contemporary society can give no account of its principle assumption, of the confidence which once animated the democratic and social revolutions.*
But the criticism can be launched from the left as well; a large part of the urgency of Badiou's thought comes from his addressing the bankruptcy of the left-liberal consensus. It is evident that this consensus typically slides towards relativism (which is why conservatives frequently get some traction out of alleging that it can offer no coherent case against stoning heretics, female gential mutilation, foot-binding, and so on); also that it winds up unable to mount any significant resistance to capitalism -- which is what made plausible the infamous mantra "There is No Alternative." This impotence in the face of "market forces" is precisely why ostensibly "socially liberal" values are currently ascendant even as the rapaciousness of business and industry run unchecked: in both cases, the driving forces are advertising and profit. This is the cynical, shadow-side of pragmatism. I do not believe in cheap gotcha's, but I am struck by the fact that when William James offered a rough-and-ready pragmatist account of truth, his succinct phrase for it was an idea's "cash value."

It is instructive to compare the inability to say "Why" about rights to Euthyphro's stammering about piety. In each instance, a set of cultural mores that seemed OK-so-far suddenly reveals itself as having run its course in a way. Philosophy is the wresting of insight, beyond articulation, from the ruins of this stammering; but it must needs first make the inarticulation more, not less, obvious -- and so, painful. Rorty, with whom one strain of pragmatism culminates, advocated being pragmatically satisfied with not having answers. Since talk about rights seems to "work," hankering after a reason why is a pointless maneuver, he thought; a form of nostalgia for privilege, every bit as as suspect as longing for the bad old days when "everyone knew their place." This ploy of Rorty's amounts to a sort of changing the subject. I actually think is an interesting move, but what prevents it from being definitive is that the subject can always change back. Rorty wanted the question of why to become boring. I don't think that will happen.

*Doull, "The Christian Origin of Contemporary Institutions." Part II. In Dionysius vol VIII, Dec 1984. p53


  1. Thanks, Skholiast. I do think MacIntyre tends to recommend something of a nostalgic course – his remarks in AV about a "very different St. Benedict" are often read that way, and probably rightly – but I agree that that is not a necessary consequence. MacIntyre became a conservative Catholic but began as a Marxist, and never forgot the relevance of that Marxism to his thought. (And I do of course mean "conservative", not "right-wing" – there is nothing conservative in the literal sense about Rand Paul or Ted Cruz.)

    I agree wholeheartedly with the account of pragmatism here. (I find the direction taken by the modern university to be an ever more pragmatic one, and that fact in turn makes me ever more hostile to pragmatism.) Rorty frustrates me in more ways than one. On the one hand he speaks as if philosophy's only objective is to create more interesting conversations, and on the other, so you say here, he wants certain conversations to become more boring. Does he theorize the interesting and the boring in any detailed way? Or does he just think that it makes his own philosophy more interesting to be blatantly inconsistent so he doesn't have to explain that to anyone?

  2. Despite my frustration with Rorty, I admire much in him -- e.g., his admonition (even if he doesn't live up to it) to really countenance "the permanent possibility of somebody having a better idea." Or, perhaps to put it better -- let us say, I find him non-boring! But I agree that he question-begs and tries to turn it into a virtue. I have read only a portion of his work, so I don't know if he theorizes his categories the way you ask, but my guess is No, and moreover that he would see this as a self-defeating prospect.

    As to nostalgia -- I would want to underline the difference between the re-opening of questions that have seemingly been closed, and proposing a return to old answers. I agree that MacIntyre reads in places as nostalgic -- and indeed, I think that turning nostalgia into a dirty word is a dirty trick -- but his call,as you point out, is for a different Saint Benedict.

  3. This essay, and the remarkable book in which it is featured describes the the heart-based universal origin of human rights: http://www.dabase.org/p9rightness.htm
    This remarkable essay on quantum Reality is very much related to this topic too:
    Plus this iconoclastic essay on the nature and purpose of the much vaunted, death haunted Western mind in both its secular and "religious" forms too: