Archive for June 11th, 2019

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 4)

June 11, 2019

In a curious way, this nihilism offers a possible justification for an attempt to reestablish the notion of “human rights” on a firmer foundation.[i] The moral theory of human rights, as outlined in such documents as The Geneva Conventions and The International Bill of Rights, is an attempt to establish a universal moral framework for international statements and action on behalf of the rights of all persons. This theory holds that all people are essentially equal, and have equal rights to such things as freedom of conscience and expression, freedom to live without persecution due to religion, ethnicity or other relevantly similar condition, and so on. As a universal ethic, it is not dependant on any religious or philosophical creed, but simply on a set of moral principles or axioms that are, to coin a phrase, held to be self-evident. However, writer Michael Perry (and some other philosophers) question whether this ethic is in fact as purely secular as it claims. Nietzsche proclaimed the “death of God,” the demise of a universally-accepted morality and foundation of value; but Perry argues that we have by and large simply ignored his critique and proceeded as if in fact we all were on the same page. In this view, “human rights” is founded on a concept of human equality drawn from religion, or perhaps from several religions, and includes such ideas as “we are all equal before God,” “we are all children of God,” the Golden Rule, and other moral principles that seem to be (or at least are taken to be) found in all major religions. But what if this equality is, despite the generations of secular usage, still implicitly a religious notion, with no rational secular foundation? In that case, human rights morality itself has no foundation. This does not mean we have to stop using it; we could simply declare that human equality is an axiom like “straight lines do not intersect,” and go from there. But at least one possible response to the death of God is to deny the claims of self-evidence, and to insist that human equality and human rights be established on other, more rational grounds. The creation of a panel of ethicists to find such grounds, with the idea of basing national policy on human rights upon their conclusions regarding the rational grounding and nature of those rights, would seem to be a reasonable action.

However, Perry’s questions about the ethics of human rights rest on a premise which most American social conservatives would find unacceptable: the death of God. If God is not dead, then there is no reason to believe human rights are dead, either. Nor, in fact, is there any great need to rethink the notion of human rights morality. If our conception of human rights is in fact rooted in beliefs about God, human nature and the relationship between them (that God created all people as essentially good and equal, that God loves everyone and wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, etc.) then we don’t need to fundamentally redefine human rights at all. We might run into problems with those who simply reject the entire religious framework and with it reject human equality, in which case we might run into the problem Wittgenstein is said to have faced when asked how you can rationally argue that a Nazi is morally wrong. He supposedly responded, “You don’t argue with Nazis. You shoot them.”[ii] But with anyone who is willing to accept the moral axioms of equality, dignity and such, we can viably carry out moral conversations.   We could even say that human rights ethics IS a form of natural law morality, and natural law legal theory: a moral system deriving moral principles and guidance from human nature and nature in general, and a legal theory that our national and international law should be based on such moral principles.

It seems that by saying that we need to rethink and reestablish the entire conception of human rights, the Trump administration is saying that God is dead, therefore belief in human equality is dead, and thus we need to establish our notion of human rights on some other grounds. More traditional American conservatives (like Paul Ryan or Rand Paul) might have chosen to start with Ayn Rand, and the Objectivist definition of humans as innately selfish and rational, so that the richest people are the most rational and since to be rational is also to be just and not to seek unfair advantage for oneself we should just let the rich and powerful do what they want with no government interference. The failure of such ethics when attempted proves, or at least strongly suggests that this view is based on a faulty anthropology; so we can be grateful if Trump relies on Robert George, who seems more inclined than Rand to listen to Kant and other reasonable philosophers.[iii] It seems more likely, for reasons I shall argue later, that Objectivism was passed over not because it was a flawed philosophy, but because it was too consistent. Rand in fact rejected religion, and the Christian ethic of love; she denied the personhood of the fetus and therefore allowed abortion; she was doubtful about the death penalty; and in short, while she opposed “socialism” and consistently conflated democratic socialism with Stalinism, she also stuck to her principles and in doing so took a knife to many conservative sacred cows. If you want to make sure your “independent panel of moral experts” comes out in favor of Republican ideology, you need to stock it with people other than honest Objectivists.

(It may seem strange that Ayn Rand has for decades been such a darling with conservatives, given her expressed contempt for Christianity, Ronald Reagan, and other idols of American conservatism.  After examining comments from politicians and others who express deep love both for Jesus and for Rand, I have concluded that in fact many who love Ayn Rand have never really read her, or at least have selectively read snippets out of her fiction without regard either for the overall message of her novels, or the explicit statements in her philosophical essays.  This has led to absurd statements such as the one from the congressman who required all his staff to read Atlas Shrugged but who was surprised to learn that Rand was an atheist.)

To be continued….

[i] Michael J. Perry, “Morality and Normativity;” in Morality and Moral Controversies, ninth edition, ed. by John Arthur and Steven Scalet (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc. 2014) pp. 56-64. Originally published in Legal Theory 13(3-4) 2007; pp. 211-55;

[ii] I can’t find the source for this story. I was told it was a BBC interview with Wittgenstein. But it makes sense to me; on Wittgenstein’s terms, his game theory of language would imply that there is no way to communicate with someone like a Nazi who simply refuses to join in any shared project or values with you; furthermore, you are making a conceptual mistake to try. The proper language-game to play with Nazis is not “Rational Debate,” but “War for Survival.”

[iii] Denise Cummins, “This is What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously;” PBS Newshour Feb. 16, 2016 (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/column-this-is-what-happens-when-you-take-ayn-rand-seriously)

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 3)

June 11, 2019

We may seek to anticipate the likely conclusions of Pompeo’s human rights panel by looking at the experts who will be on it. One prominent name that has been mentioned is Robert George. As mentioned above, he has in the past used Kantian logic to explain himself; however, he is a conservative Catholic who has used the term “natural law” in a more Thomistic way to attack homosexuality and abortion, for examples.[i] But I think it is likely misleading to look to the commission itself for predictions as to how our nation’s international policies will develop. In general, President Trump and his supporters, including Administration and Republican leadership, have expressed contempt for “experts” and have pointed to their policy of bringing in people “who were not ‘qualified’ in the conventional sense.”[ii] And when their own experts, hired by them to determine the truth of some matter, have presented facts that were distasteful to them, they simply reject those findings.[iii] The real question therefore does not seem to be what “natural law” means or how it is defined, but how the term is used in an environment where facts, words and values are not fixed realities.

The true philosophy of the Trump Administration, and functionally of the Republican Party as a whole, is not “natural law” of any sort; it is empirical relativism leading to moral nihilism (or perhaps they would prefer the term “realism”). Even this may be too imprecise. In the last two years, the “leader of the free world” has denied mocking a disabled reporter, when literally thousands witnessed the act and millions saw the recording; he has claimed that more people attended his inauguration than attended Obama’s despite clear photographic evidence to the contrary; he has denied calling Tim Cook “Tim Apple” when in a room full of people who heard him do it and wondered why on Earth anyone would lie about something so obvious and so petty; he has asserted that protesters were in fact cheering for him while they gathered around a giant statue of him sitting on a golden toilet; and so on. He has called for the death penalty for five black kids even after they were proven innocent of the crime of which he accused them, and another person was proven guilty. The birtherism, conspiracy theories and so on aren’t just ignorance or racism; they are proven real-time denials of common reality. The Republican party has become the party of “alternative facts:” the denial of objective reality and its replacement with truth-claims that are more convenient. As Harry Frankfurt has argued, this isn’t really even lying. The liar is concerned about truth; he or she wants to avoid a particular truth, to deceive for some purpose. The liar depends on other people accepting that what they see and hear is generally true, just as the counterfeiter depends on the existence of real money in order to pass the fake money he’s made as real. Republicans today operate without any regard for the concept of “truth.” The standard form of verbal communication for this administration is neither honesty nor lying; it is “bullshit.”[iv]  The bullshitter is not engaged in conveying information or communication; it is some other sort of verbal activity, oblivious to the existence of truth. That seems to be the most accurate description of what we see today coming from the highest levels of government and those of the press who serve as its promoters: verbal activity that does not bother to worry whether or not what is said is true, because the point is not to speak truth but to promote the president, to belittle some person, or to attain some other goal. As Frankfurt says, bullshit is more dangerous to truth than lying, because bullshit attacks the entire concept of communication. The liar is still committed to the notion that we communicate with one another to convey information; it’s just that the liar hopes to slip some false information into the mix. The bullshitter denies the relevance or significance of communication, and asserts instead that we talk or shout or tweet or write for other purposes: to emote, to self-promote, to roar, to whine, whatever will best forward the bullshitter’s will-to-power.

In this view, there simply is no such thing as “objective truth” or “reality.” Literally everything you think you know is up for debate, and what will count as “fact” is resolved as nothing more than a contest of wills. From an epistemological perspective, you could call this “relativism;” as Protagoras said, man is the measure of all things, of that which is that it is, and of that which is not that it is not. If I say the Mueller report totally exonerates Donald Trump, and refuse to read it or listen to you tell me what it says, I can hold onto my belief like a Japanese soldier guarding his jungle hideout even as the Americans raise their flag over the island; and as long as I do this, I haven’t surrendered. For many people, it is more important to “stand up for what I believe,” i.e. to assert his or her own version of reality, than to be “lose the argument,” to be defeated and forced to accept objective reality. This view, which is increasingly common among self-proclaimed conservatives, seems to resemble Nietzschean pragmatism more than any other epistemological stance I can think of. What will count as “real” is what promotes my goals, serves my ends, or makes me feel more powerful and more comfortable.

The fact that this sort of aggressive pragmatic relativism, this construal of reality as a battleground for wills, has become the operating epistemology of the Republican party has profound ethical implications. If I can simply declare that I never said someone was “nasty” despite eyewitnesses and recorded evidence, if I can simply create new realities, then I can also create new moral realities. What is “true” is what I want to be true, and my saying it is my attempt to create a new truth; therefore, what is “good” is what I like, and my moral claims are merely my own will-to-power, my attempt to bend others to accept me as the moral center of the universe. If there is no truth, there is no moral truth, and all morality collapses into nihilism.

 

To be continued….

[i] Conor Finnegan, “State Department to Redefine Human Rights Based on ‘Natural Law’ and ‘Natural Rights’”; ABC News 5/31/2019 (https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/state-dept-panel-redefine-human-rights-based-natural/story?id=63400485)

[ii] Chris Cilizza, “The 29 Most Eyebrow-Raising Lines from Jared Kushner’s Axios Interview;” CNN 6/3/2019 (https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/03/politics/jared-kushner-axios/index.html)

[iii] Coral Davenport, “Trump Administration’s Strategy on Climate: Try to Bury Its Own Scientific Report;” New York Times 11/25/2018 (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/25/climate/trump-climate-report.html) As another example, the Republican response to the Special Counsel’s report on Russian interference in U.S. elections has been to reject, bury and ignore the conclusions of all the legal and forensic experts hired to uncover the facts.

[iv] Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005) pp. 19-24, 29-34

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 2)

June 11, 2019

What Pompeo seems to be saying, therefore, is that the Republican government wants to redefine this notion of “human rights” in terms of a particular definition of “human nature.” Is this necessarily “misogynistic” or “homophobic”? I will mention the sophistic argument that if it is based on “human nature” and “natural law” then of course it can’t be, since by definition it can’t be an “irrational” hatred of women or fear of gay people if it is “natural.” This is circular and unlikely to quell any concerns by people who are not already convinced that the particular “nature” on which this “natural law” is based is the true one. The real question, after all, is whether this proposed alteration is likely to be harmful to the interests and desires of women, gays or anyone else. Aristotle’s philosophy stated that all non-Greeks (whether Asiatics, less civilized Europeans or whatever) were inherently “irrational” and thus natural slaves, most fulfilled living lives in slavery to the wiser Greeks. Likewise, he believed women were inherently less intelligent and less rational than men, and would only be truly happy living in households controlled by Greek men. In essence, he looked at his own Athenian culture and judged all others in comparison to it; those that gave greater rights to women or to non-Greeks were said by him to be disordered in some way, and those that were a completely different culture he deemed “barbarian,” a term that literally meant “non-Greek speakers,” fit only for domination. Clearly, a society based on that sort of “natural law” would be bad for women, since women would only fulfill their “nature” by running the household for men who were active in the political and economic life of the society, having and raising children, and managing their slaves. Whether it would be bad for gays is another question; the Greeks accepted and expected male-male sexuality, particularly between older men and teenage boys. But in the Catholic understanding, the fact that there are two genders suggests that sexuality is intended for reproduction, and any expression of sexuality that cannot possibly lead to pregnancy is unnatural and disordered: not only abortion, but homosexuality, contraception, and masturbation.

But the Thomistic view of natural law is not the only possible one. Utilitarians in the 19th Century had a very different view of human nature, one that emphasized pleasure as the motivation for all actions, and thus defined a “good” act as one that brought the most pleasure possible to the most people possible, or aimed to reduce suffering to the least amount to the fewest people possible. Based on this understanding of human nature, and of nature in general, they were politically active supporting laws against animal cruelty (since animals too can suffer), in support of workers and poor people (such as opposing debtors’ prisons), supporting the rights of women, and so on. Kantians by contrast argue that “human nature” is to be guided by pure practical reason, apart from concerns about sensation; therefore, what is moral is what is done out of a sense of duty towards the universal moral law. A prominent example of this sort of moral law reasoning is the philosopher Robert George, who in an interview argued against Peter Singer’s extreme utilitarianism by asserting that we must base our legal understanding of human rights on the principle of always treating others as ends in themselves, never as means towards another end (Kant’s second version of his Categorical Imperative). By this understanding, any law that seems to treat another person as less than infinity valuable would be immoral and unnatural, even if the person wished to be so treated. For example, from a Kantian perspective voluntary suicide to escape a painful terminal illness would be wrong since it would be treating the other in terms of sensation rather than as a rational being whose every moment of existence is valuable regardless of whether it is pleasant. So taking the legal definition of “natural law theory,” we can wind up at radically different legislation based on different moral theories. A full commitment to natural law as both a philosophical and legal principle would most likely argue that moral people reasoning together will be able to discern the moral principles inherent in human nature and base legislation on those principles. Whether this idea should cause alarm to any group would depend entirely on how they expect this administration, and the panel it has created, to define “human nature.”

To be continued…

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 1)

June 11, 2019

“You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving — Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”

—–Kellyanne Conway

 

 

 

Secretary of State Pompeo of the Trump administration recently announced its intention to offer “fresh thinking” on the nation’s commitment to human rights by launching a new panel to investigate how to base our conception of human rights on “natural law.”[i] This has raised concerns with many in the LGBTQ community in particular, who have interpreted it as a weakening of the commitment of the United States to gay and lesbian rights (and possibly others). Are these concerns justified? Just what does these terms mean, anyway? Is this, as its proponents contend, a desirable effort to put the concept of “human rights” on a solid foundation? In this paper, I shall attempt to explore the public claims on behalf of this attempt to redefine our national policy in terms of natural law, “natural law” has historically meant and what it more generally means, and what a claim to commitment to natural law means in an era of alternative facts.

For any non-philosophers who may stumble across this, let’s start with the basics: what is “natural law”? In philosophy, it refers to the idea that morality should be deduced from facts of nature, and specifically human nature. In its most common form, Catholic moral teaching, it has its roots in Aristotle’s ethical thought. Aristotle argued that a human is a rational social animal. That is, the human soul, or Form, or essence has a vegetative part, which is to say it is alive like any plant or animal. Humans are also sensitive, like any other animal; they feel and sense their surroundings, and react to it to gain food or whatever else they desire, and to escape what is harmful. They are social; a single human cannot gain everything he or she wants alone, but needs to live in a community with others. And what makes humans unique is that they are rational; they can guide their actions by reason, and can enjoy simply thinking and understanding philosophy, history, science and other general areas of knowledge. Therefore, a fulfilled human life is one that includes not only the essential bodily needs and some comforts, but also includes a life guided by reason and in community with other likewise rational people. As St. Thomas Aquinas took over Aristotle’s philosophy and sought to reconcile it with Christian theology, he argued that this understanding of human nature revealed a natural law, alongside the divine law revealed by God through Moses and the other prophets, and finally through Jesus. While revealed law is of course only knowable to those to whom it has been revealed, natural law is understood through immanent knowledge, through understanding nature, which is something any rational and observant person can do. Part of the point of distinguishing “natural law” from “divine law” is to say that natural law is accessible to, and thus also binding on all human beings.

Legally, the idea of “natural law” is that legal regulations should not be based on some more or less arbitrary social convention or social contract, but on philosophically and (at least generally understood as) universally knowable moral principles. Laws should not discourage actions that are morally fulfilling for humans to pursue, and should discourage those that are unnatural or harmful in some way. If we want to say, for example, that people should be punished for driving faster than 45 miles on this particular road, it is not enough that a majority of people think it’s a good idea; we need to show that driving faster than that is somehow good for people (such as preserving life) and that it does not unduly restrict their natural freedom (as banning all cars might, since people have a right to own and use property within reason, including cars). Thus this sort of thinking is radically opposed to Hobbesian social contract thought, which says that all laws are ultimately “good” simply because the government says they are good and the rest of society obeys them because living according to the social contract is better than living as an outlaw or solitary exile.

To be continued…

[i] Nahal Toosi, “State Department to Launch New Human Rights Panel Stressing ‘Natural Law;” Politico 5/30/2019 (https://www.politico.com/story/2019/05/30/human-rights-state-department-1348014)