Posts Tagged ‘equality’

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 (


Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 3

February 2, 2017

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 3


Whensoever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society; and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.


—– John Locke



We can see at least three points where Locke provides us with an answer to the question of whether stupid people should be allowed to vote. The first is the description of the state of Nature, and the common point he shares with the totalitarian Hobbes: equality. The wise and the foolish, the sage and the ignoramus are all essentially equal. For Hobbes, this contention was based on his utter pessimism; believing all people are basically irrational and nasty, he thought the clever no better than the brute. In the war of each against all, the differences between the smart and the stupid matter little; each can kill the other in the right circumstances. Thus each has as much to gain by belonging to a commonwealth, and as much to give up by accepting its restrictions. For Locke, his belief in equality rests on more optimistic grounds: a faith in the rule of reason even in the state of nature. Locke believed all people were essentially free to choose good or evil, and free to choose to employ their reason to determine the right course of action. All may not be identically capable or informed, but all are essentially educable and reasonable. Therefore, no one would enter a social contract that sacrificed that inalienable equality; each gives up only those rights that all the others give up as well.

Second, each has an inalienable right to the property that is the fruit of one’s labors. Whether one is a renowned philosopher or a simple farmer, whoever does the work has joined his or her efforts to the world and made that part of it to be private property. The government I choose to live under must agree to protect my property, regardless of how informed I am about world affairs or how inclined I am to reason passionately rather than logically. That is one of the functions of civil government: to protect private property.

Third, all proper civil government is by the will of the majority. A supporter once called out, “Governor Stevenson, all thinking people are for you!” And Adlai Stevenson answered, “That’s not enough. I need a majority.”[1] That story is often treated as an indictment of democracy, but it needn’t be. Every person has a right to have his or her needs addressed and concerns heard. Maybe I don’t know all the economics of free trade; but I do know if I am losing my job because the factory is relocating overseas. I have a right to demand that society do something to help me. My fundamental equality is expressed in each person being equal before the law. My right to my own work is guaranteed in society’s protection of my property. The inalienable right to liberty is lived out in the principle of government by the will of the majority: of the people, by the people and for the people. When we can all have our say, all make our case, and all freely agree to take a vote and work together on whatever we jointly decide, my fundamental freedom is actualized through the action of the government, which is responding not to the whims of a king or even an elite, but to the total pressure of each one of us pushing upon the levers of power.

It seems then that there are ample reasons for civil government to arise and maintain itself. It fulfills the needs of the individual members better than living in a governmentless state of nature could, and it coordinates group actions so that we can live together in peace and together achieve goals we could not on our own. Why, then, would any government ever collapse into tyranny? Plato pointed to the corrupting power of wealth, but Locke’s view of political power particularly rules this out; since civil government exists largely to protect the private property of every citizen, it can hardly be that owning property in itself should disqualify anyone from participation in government. Nor can Locke agree with Plato’s contention that only a small group should be allowed any political power; for Locke, political power flows up from the people, who explicitly or implicitly choose a government which is then obligated to act according to their collective will. Instead, Locke points to the weakness of human nature, and the tendency of some individuals to violate the laws of reason and to grasp for more than they ought. He writes:



… tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which no body can have a right to. And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage. When the governor, however intitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.[2]



So tyranny is not only the assumption of power by someone who is not entitled; the tyrant might be an elected official. The tyrant might not be particularly oppressive, if it suits him or her not to be. The tyrant might not even be a single person, but could in fact be a group.[3] But the tyrant is motivated not by the will and good of the people, but by personal interests and whim. The tyrant is, after all, only human, and subject to ambition, covetousness, and all the other common “irregular” passions. The tyrant may see the job of government as a chance for personal advancement, or simply believe that he/she/they know better than the majority what is “good” and thus refuse to act according to their will or needs.

Locke had a stark warning of what can happen if these inalienable rights are ignored. He writes:



The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property; and the end why they chuse and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society, to limit the power, and moderate the dominion, of every part and member of the society: for since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society, that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which every one designs to secure, by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making; whenever the legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God hath provided for all men, against force and violence.[4]



In case that last line isn’t clear to today’s readers, the “common refuge” is to fight back. If the government ceases to represent the majority, and instead caters only to the ruler or to a small group of supporters, it puts itself at war with its own citizens, and they in turn have the right to rise up and defend themselves and ultimately to overthrow their tyrannical masters, if necessary and possible. This is literally revolutionary stuff, both when it was published and 315 years later. This is what the Founding Fathers relied on when they explained, to themselves and to the ages, why they were declaring independence from their sovereign lord and king in England. The reasons Jefferson gives in the Declaration of Independence matches exactly the behavior of a tyrant as described by John Locke eighty-five years before: “(King George III) …has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people….He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices,…For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury…” Denying the right of elected officials to meet, or depriving them of their independence, or refusing to enforce the laws they passed, are all things Locke singles out as reasons for the dissolution of government. Add to that the seizure of property without consent, and without due process of law as passed by representatives elected by the people themselves, and the actual acts of violent repression cited by the Declaration, and this matches Locke’s description of a government that has declared war on its own people. And in that case, Locke says, the people have every right to band together, grab whatever weapons they can find, and fight for their freedom. The government that overreaches and turns oppressor does not just risk angering the people; it loses its entire justification for being considered a “government” at all, and becomes nothing more than an alien, enemy occupation. In this circumstance, rebellion is not just possible; it is the only just and reasonable option. It is not even really a “rebellion” at all, but rather self-defense against the tyrannical power that has declared war on the citizens.

It may seem like this is a prescription for anarchy. If anyone may decide at any time to rebel, what is to stop rebellions from breaking out at any time? What stops anyone who doesn’t want to pay taxes or follow the laws the majority follow from declaring their own personal independence, gathering up an armed mob or paid militia, and going to war against society? Locke is aware of this criticism and has responses. In his discussion of this, we see him trying to walk a path between two extremes. On the one hand, he says it is clearly absurd to say that one must wait until all hope is lost before one can begin to resist tyranny.[5] On the other hand, there must be limits, and there are. First, there this the simple fact of human nature: “People are not so easily got out of their old forms, as some are apt to suggest.”[6] By and large, people will put up with a lot before they resort to the risky and uncertain path of violence. “Better the devil you know,” as they say. It is only when the government has been seriously mismanaged, or the authorities have so trampled upon the inalienable rights of the people that they have already declared war upon them, that people are likely to resort to force to defend themselves.[7] Locke is not saying that anyone has the right to take up arms simply because he (or she) happens to not like the current government’s policy on some matter. By joining together in a community, we all agreed to live by the community’s rules and to respect the will of the majority.[8] As long as there are functioning mechanisms for the people to voice their opinions and elect representatives who will make the laws all will live by, there is no need or justification for rebellion. But when the government ceases to respect those mechanisms, and the people are left with no peaceful way to resolve their grievances and the will of the majority is not the guiding principle of the state, then the people may take up arms, overthrow the tyranny and establish a new and free government.

So, should stupid people be allowed to vote? We are all created equal, whether one is a bit smarter or stronger or better-looking. We all have the same inalienable rights. Those rights are only protected and expressed in a civil society, which means a society with the rule of law and where the will of the people is the ultimate foundation of that law. Each individual’s inalienable liberty is enacted when he or she is votes for the representatives to the legislative body. To deny someone the right to vote because he or she might vote “wrong” is to deny that person’s personhood. It is tyranny and slavery. And one always has the right, by the laws of God and reason, to resist with force anyone who tries to oppress another.

[1] “Music Cues: Adlai Stevenson,” Feb. 5, 2000

[2] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter XVIII, sect. 199

[3] Second Treatise sect. 201

[4] Second Treatise of Government, chapter XIX, sec. 222

[5] Second Treatise, Chapter XIX, sec. 230-33

[6] Second Treatise, Chapter XIX, sec. 223

[7] sec. 224-230

[8] sec. 243