Saturday, February 02, 2019

Are human rights fictions?

I wonder if people are clear on the idea of what human rights are. The idea of human rights is that I am entitled to something in virtue of being human independent of what the people with the biggest guns decide. What this means isn't as easy as it seems to get clear on. It seems to imply the existence of a moral fact.

If it's a human construct, then it seems to be a purely fictional concept. Unless there is some reality that makes it true that I have certain rights, then it is false that I "really" have them even though people with the biggest guns are denying it to me?

What was the UN declaring when it made the human rights declaration. Was it saying we wish countries would treat their citizens this way?

71 comments:

Starhopper said...

Minus God, there are no such things as "human rights". This is why even a borderline atheist like Thomas Jefferson was compelled to write of such rights as being "endowed by their Creator".

Seriously, what else could he have written? "Endowed by the King"? "Endowed by the (as yet nonexistent) American government"? "Endowed by public opinion"?

Legion of Logic said...
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Legion of Logic said...

""We the authors want these things and you won't give it so we're leaving!"

bmiller said...

It appears the UN is the source of human rights. According to the UN.

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Starhopper said...

The only way such immaterial things such as "rights" can have any actual reality is if there is a being who, in and of Himself, is those very immaterial things. That is why the Johannan "I am" lines are so important. (I am the way, the truth, the life, the resurrection, etc.. all summed up in "I am He.")

Minus this firm anchor, all is adrift in the Sea of Relevancy.

Joe Hinman said...



https://metacrock.blogspot.com/2019/02/atheists-claim-of-no-evidence.html

The atheists have been fired up repeating their mantra "there's not a shred of evidence for God." There are times when I find that annoying and times when I find it amusing. The reason for either reaction is because all believers know they have reasons for believing and a lot of those reasons are based upon good evidence. Even those who don't have evidence sometimes have sophisticated reasons why they don't need it. The atheist world is simplistic it defies anything sophistocated. This is a true example of what Tillich meant when he said "if you know that being has depth you can't be an atheist." The atheist is assuming that the so called "default" amounts to the basis for a tennable world view, assuming (fallacious) that the alleged default is based upon a true appraisal of the world as it is, which is reflected accurately by a surface view of things proved to exist (or thought to be proved to exist) and no need to delve any more deeply into the matter of being.

One Brow said...

Starhopper said...
Minus God, there are no such things as "human rights". This is why even a borderline atheist like Thomas Jefferson was compelled to write of such rights as being "endowed by their Creator".

To my understanding, Jefferson was a deist, which is much closer to being a Christian or Muslim than being an atheist.

Seriously, what else could he have written? "Endowed by the King"? "Endowed by the (as yet nonexistent) American government"? "Endowed by public opinion"?

Endowed by their fundamental equality to all other humans.

The only way such immaterial things such as "rights" can have any actual reality is if there is a being who, in and of Himself, is those very immaterial things. That is why the Johannan "I am" lines are so important. (I am the way, the truth, the life, the resurrection, etc.. all summed up in "I am He.")

Minus this firm anchor, all is adrift in the Sea of Relevancy.


Funny how, despite this firm anchor, there are many disagreements of the nature and extent of the fundamental rights.

One Brow said...

bmiller said...
It appears the UN is the source of human rights. According to the UN.

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard ...


Are you unfamiliar with what "proclaims" means? Hint: the apostles proclaimed the gospel. Were they claiming to be the source of the gospel?

John Moore said...

When you proclaim a right, it just means you intend to fight for it. The reality of human rights is the intention of people who affirm those rights.

Sure, people can change their minds. Sometimes people are just bluffing when they proclaim a right to something, so when that right is challenged, they don't actually fight.

On the other hand, the reason for writing down the rights on a prominent document is to make it more likely that people will rally around those rights and actually take them seriously and actually fight when the right is violated.

Writing down your rights publicly is also a great way to avoid fighting, because it lets your potential enemy know where the line is that they shouldn't step across. If they step across the line, it's because they're planning to fight. They're less likely to start a fight unintentionally.

bmiller said...

The Apostles serve God.
THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY serve ???

After all you Gotta Serve Somebody

David Brightly said...

Fictions? Yes and No. They are rather like the laws of cricket and the other denizens of Popper's World 3 of objective products of the human mind. As long as there are institutions and individuals that uphold them and take them to their hearts they exist and can have an impact on our lives. But if they are abandoned and forgotten they cease to be.

One Brow said...

bmiller said...
The Apostles serve God.
THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY serve ???


The nations of the world and the populations therein. What does this have to do with claiming or not claiming to be the source of rights?

bmiller said...

David,

They are rather like the laws of cricket and the other denizens of Popper's World 3 of objective products of the human mind.

This may be true for those who hold Popper's view of there actually being 3 worlds.
Essentialists think Popper's worlds are themselves fictions to begin with.

David Brightly said...

We would do well to abandon the 18th century metaphysical language in which this subject is discussed. Victor says, Unless there is some reality that makes it true that I have certain rights, then it is false that I "really" have them..., and that seems a good starting point. In the case of 'ordinary' rights that reality is the system of institutions like police, courts, and prisons that uphold those rights. With effective social institutions, rights exist, and conversely. Is it any different with 'human' rights? A right, say, to clean water is embodied in sanctions against those who would pollute the common water supply. In this light the UN declaration, with its 'common standard', 'promote respect', 'progressive measures', 'effective recognition', is an urging of institutional creation where institutions are lacking. But maybe there is another understanding of 'human right' which might be elaborated. Can it avoid the paradox of claiming there is something where and when there isn't?

bmiller said...

David,

It seems you are saying that you only have rights that social institutions enforce on you and others. Is that a correct understanding?

And why do you say this:
"We would do well to abandon the 18th century metaphysical language in which this subject is discussed."

Why wouldn't you want to discuss all available philosophical views on this question?

David Brightly said...

Yes, though speaking of a right being enforced on oneself is rather awkward. Better to say that my right may impose a duty on you.

Because the language leads to the contradiction of having something and not having it at the same time. But I'm open to persuasion on this, if someone can clarify what's being claimed.

Legion of Logic said...

Better to say that my right may impose a duty on you

I also find that to be odd wording, unless you mean that if I have a right, everyone else has a duty to not violate it - for example, the government cannot punish me for criticizing a president because of the right to free speech, so others have a duty to not violate my right. But if instead you mean that I have some right that forces you to perform an action on my behalf, then that's another thing entirely.

bmiller said...

I agree that it is jarring to hear that society enforces rights upon people, but if people don't naturally possess a right and society decrees that they do, they really have no choice in the matter.

For instance, one could say society bestows the right of life upon a citizen like a gift, but it is a gift the citizen cannot refuse. Murder is prosecuted by the state without inquiring if the victim refused the gift.

Now if people naturally possess the right to life then again they have no choice in the matter whether they want that right or not, but it is God or nature that has made it an essential part of their being rather than a society that is merely inventing a rule.

David,

What exact language leads to the contradiction you are referring to?

David Brightly said...

Legion, I think you are trying to draw a line that can't be drawn. My right to safe travel on the highway and compensation in the event of an accident places a duty on you to have your car tested for safety each year, to fix any faults, and to insure it. In doing these things are you merely not violating my right or are you being forced to act on my behalf? How can anyone say?

BM, Well, look at what Victor says regarding human rights. The idea of human rights is that I am entitled to something in virtue of being human... Unless there is some reality that makes it true that I have certain rights, then it is false that I "really" have them... So I can have some human right but there is some circumstance in which I don't 'really' have it?

Or your own metaphor of right as gift. There is no gift that cannot be refused. So if some right is something that cannot be refused, it cannot be a gift, surely?

Campaigners sometimes claim they have a natural or God-given right to X. Well, good for them. What are they campaigning about then? Why not go home and enjoy their right? The answer is that they are asking that the political institutions that would sustain that right be created. In my language they are asking that the right be brought into existence.

bmiller said...

David,

So I can have some human right but there is some circumstance in which I don't 'really' have it?

I don't read Victor's statement that way. I understand his point to be that we have human rights because it is an essential part of human nature. If one denies those rights are part of human nature, then they don't really exist (at least to the proponent of that view). The proponent may say that society invented those rights, but tomorrow society can say those are no longer rights. This makes it a fictional "right".

Campaigners sometimes claim they have a natural or God-given right to X. Well, good for them. What are they campaigning about then? Why not go home and enjoy their right?

Maybe because others are to infringing on that right?

The answer is that they are asking that the political institutions that would sustain that right be created.

They are demanding that political institutions recognize and protect that right.

In my language they are asking that the right be brought into existence.

That is odd, since if they believed that they have a "God-given right to X" it would already be in existence. Why would they want to bring into existence something they already believe exists?

Legion of Logic said...

My right to safe travel on the highway and compensation in the event of an accident places a duty on you to have your car tested for safety each year, to fix any faults, and to insure it

I would not call that a right. The ability to drive on a road can be infringed all the live-long day and your rights are not being infringed so long as the government isn't preventing you from having basic needs met.

It is, however, in society's best interest to have roads as safe as possible, which is why there are speed limits, stop lights, traffic police, car insurance, and so on. But you don't have a right to any of those things, even if society places the duty on me to conform to those requirements in order to continue driving.

Driving is a privilege, not a right. It's like the fire department - society has a vested interest in controlling fires, but I do not have a right for other people to come put my house out if it is on fire. No one has a duty to me beyond respecting the fact that I have rights.

Legion of Logic said...
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Legion of Logic said...

bmiller, have you seen Article 29 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

"rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations"

That does rather sound like these rights are in fact privileges bestowed by the UN and enforced upon us. Unless there is additional context that I didn't catch that changes the meaning of what I read there, it's a good example of why I'm glad the UN is impotent.

David Brightly said...

Legion, suppose you are an exemplary citizen: you pay your taxes, comply with all highway regulations, drive carefully, etc. Then the city sends you a letter: Dear Mr Logic, as part of our program to reduce congestion and pollution we have randomly chosen ten percent of the city residents who will no longer be allowed to use the roads. Congratulations, your registration number has come up. Would you feel that you had lost a mere privilege or that you had been denied a right?

bmiller said...

Thanks for the UN quote Legion. That is a rather ominous phrase.

I actually haven't paid much attention to the UN. My attitude has been that the UN is probably a good thing in that it is better to have a forum where nations can talk to each other rather than war with each other. But I do agree that they're impotent and that's a good thing.

They have plenty of scandals where the "peace keepers" were as bad or worse than the combatants.

David Brightly said...

BM, I may be wrong but I don't think that in this piece Victor is taking any particular view on human rights. He is saying that the idea is hard to pin down: The idea of human rights is that I am entitled to something in virtue of being human... What this means isn't as easy as it seems to get clear on. I agree.

In other words, campaigners want to turn something so meagre and nebulous that it affords them no protection at all, but that they still want to call a 'right', into a real right that has teeth----or as Victor might say, has some big guns behind it.

bmiller said...

David,

You quoted this:

: The idea of human rights is that I am entitled to something in virtue of being human... What this means isn't as easy as it seems to get clear on.

But I think this part (where your ellipsis is): It seems to imply the existence of a moral fact. is what he is driving at.

That for a "right" to be real and not fictional it must not be a human construct. The "big guns" are wielded by the institutions regardless of whether they enforce "real" or "fictional" rights.

That's my take, but of course Victor has the final word.

Legion of Logic said...

Would you feel that you had lost a mere privilege or that you had been denied a right?

Equal protection under the law is a right. It would not be the lack of driving I objected to, but rather the unequal treatment.

One Brow said...

Article 29: Duties and limitations
1. Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
2. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
3. These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

3. needs to be interpreted in the light of 1. and 2., as opposed to out of context.

Legion of Logic said...

Can you explain how that changes the meaning?

One Brow said...

Legion of Logic said...
Can you explain how that changes the meaning?

I would say it clarifies the meaning (that is, reduces the number of ways it can be interpreted). In particular, it means the purposes and principles referred to are supporting the requirements of morality, public order, and general welfare in a democratic society.

David Brightly said...

Legion, I don't think you have been treated unequally. Everyone had the same chance of getting banned. You lost out in the lottery of life. Maybe you'll do better in next year's congestion stakes.

BM, I think it's clear that we have diametrically opposed notions of 'right'. My view: rights and duties are central to the Anglosphere common law. They are arrangements we have invented, backed up by the power of a justice system, to enable our lives to rub along together. Less formally ordered rights and duties operate between couples, parents and children, among friends, bosses and workers, and so on. All human constructs. All real. Many fought for in their establishment and in their defence. None is part of human nature---there is too much cultural and historical variability for that---but much flows from it. And if something fails to fit into this picture then it's not a right or duty.

Legion of Logic said...

Legion, I don't think you have been treated unequally.

So you would have no problem with the government imposing restrictions on random people as a matter of policy, so long as it was truly random? Is that what you are claiming as your actual position?

Because if you don't actually think that, then welcome to my side of the issue.

bmiller said...

David,

I was under the impression that we were discussing Victor's intentions regarding the OP. But regardless I do agree with him that we have natural rights apart from what a particular society says. But the fact of the matter is that there are certain morals that all human societies have held at all times and places across history. For instance, that it is wrong to kill an innocent human. C.S. Lewis called this the Tao in The Abolition of Man.

Of course societies also make laws "to enable our lives to rub along together" as you say, but I don't consider things like traffic laws part of the natural law. Although those types of laws are good for the functioning of society, they can change along with technology, location, time etc. I think it muddles the dialog to confound the 2 types of laws.

David Brightly said...

Legion, No, I would most definitely have a problem with such a governmental action. But not because it's unfair. The city wants to be rid of ten percent of traffic and it's chosen a perfectly fair way of achieving that. It's not as if only Republican voters were to be banned. What I'm trying to nudge you into allowing is that it makes sense to say that our problem is that the city has denied us a right. You will go so far as to say that it has rescinded a privilege or imposed a restriction but you baulk at using the word 'right'. It seems to me that once we have satisfied all the relevant regulations we have a right to drive on the public roads. And that's a perfectly ordinary everyday even paradigmatic use of the word 'right'.

BM, Well, I guess we will have to agree to disagree. I'm afraid I find the terms 'natural right' and 'natural law' almost oxymoronic. That's why I'm uncomfortable with the UNDHR, though as a political act it may have done some good in drawing other jurisdictions closer to those in the West. I'm pretty sure I get my concepts of 'right' and 'law' from the social arrangements I find around me. I find it very hard to understand what a right or law could be that doesn't supervene, as it were, on such arrangements

Legion of Logic said...

It seems to me that once we have satisfied all the relevant regulations we have a right to drive on the public roads

Similarly you said to bmiller:

I find it very hard to understand what a right or law could be that doesn't supervene, as it were, on such arrangements

A great example of the difference in what I am talking about would be the right to life, or the right to worship. As you say, once I meet the requirements as dictated by law, I have the "right" to drive on public roads. But that "right" is granted by the government, since the roadways are maintained by said government, thus it is not actually a right as it is dictated by geographic and cultural conditions.

It does not matter where I am physically on the planet, no one has the right to kill me unless I am actively endangering others. Whether I'm in Arkansas or China or Iran, if I am deprived of the right to life without just cause then those who do so have committed an evil. They have violated my rights, because my right to live is not at all dependent upon location. It is not a privilege granted by government or society. Same with worship, no one has the right to tell me what I have to believe.

Of course, this is predicated on the foundation of objective moral truths such as murder being wrong. If the value of a human life is believed to also be contextual then obviously there is no such thing as a right in the natural sense.

grislybairn said...

As is inevitably the case with questions regarding the reality of things, the answer depends not only on the nature of the things but just as much on the nature of reality. And, more to the point, our subjective understandings thereof.

Are colours real? Scientifically speaking, it's simple to argue that they're fictions: Wavelength is a continuous variable, colour perception depends on biological quirks, language shapes our perception, et cetera. Conceptually speaking, though, such an argument becomes quite problematic, because generally denying reality to a fairly fundamental type of sensory input is the sort of thing that quickly leaves one stranded in "cogito ergo sum - and that's all folks" territory.

How to resolve that comes at least in part down to personal choice. One option is to abandon the notion of reality as a strictly binary proposition and instead allow for something more nuanced, such as a hierarchy or a sliding scale.

In the case at hand, that gives one the option of ascribing limited reality to human rights. Which seems helpful to me. On the one hand, I'm thinking that the reality of human rights is ab initio too contingent to be entire: It makes no sense to think of human rights in the hypothetical absence of humans. Therefore, their existence is somehow relative rather than absolute, and therefore somehow lesser. On the other hand, it seems both desirable and justified to imbue human rights with reality beyond that of "mere" fiction.

A further utility of this approach is that we can ascribe differential realities under different circumstances. For instance, in a place and time in which human rights are protected and exercised, they can be thought of as having more reality than they do in one in which they are trampled and violated, which is intuitive, and without being forced to give up on their reality altogether in the latter case. In a hierarchical understanding, one might refer to those as "practical reality" and "aspirational reality" respectively, say.

Thoughts?

Starhopper said...

Not sure whether this is exactly relevant, but I am currently reading Memory and Identity by Pope John Paul II, and in it he identifies Decartes' cogito, ergo sum as the great dividing line between objective and subjective philosophy. Prior to Decartes (according to JPII), reality (esse) preceded thought (cognosco) in philosophical reasoning, but afterward the order was reversed. That is, all external reality (presumably, to include any idea of "rights") depended on human thought, and became entirely subjective.

This, he wrote, was THE monumental mistake of the past few centuries, leading inexorably to the evils of bolshevism and nazism. Rather than operating within an objective framework of reality, mankind attempted (with horrifyingly disastrous results) to bend reality to his subjective thought processes.

grislybairn said...

I genuinely cannot decide whether to agree or disagree with that stance.

On the theoretical front, my view is much the same, in that attempts to impose ideology on reality tend to lead to disastrous outcomes far more often than not, and must be regarded as fundamentally flawed for that reason alone. The suggestion that ideology gained prominence as a driving force in the wake of said philosophical watershed sounds highly plausible.

Where the historical evidence is concerned, though, I fail to see that it bears this out. We do tend to think of Nazis as more "quintessentially evil" than any number of earlier groups, but I believe that that may ultimately have more to do with incidental factors like our historical perspective and the unprecedented scope, afforded them by technological progress, at which they were able to operate, and less with underlying motivation.

Moreover, rulers have always wanted to impose their will on reality, of course. Would it be fair to say that that's what being a ruler is all about, even? That does not have to be a bad thing, per se, but that is how it typically turns out, for fairly transparent reasons. Then, the question becomes whether an ideological ruler is automatically more dangerous than one driven by "meaner" forces, such as unbridled personal ambition. I currently have no opinion on that.

Hmmm, I was hoping that I'd be able to persuade myself one way or the other in the process of composing this reply... no such luck, though. :)

David Brightly said...

Legion, Let's call a right that's independent of culture, geography, (and time?) a universal right or u-right for short. What follows from my having the u-right to life? One thing it seems we can infer is that to kill me without just cause is to commit an evil. Another, if we follow BM and think of a u-right as an essential part of being human then it seems we can't be deprived of such a u-right. What other conclusions follow?

bmiller said...

That is, all external reality (presumably, to include any idea of "rights") depended on human thought, and became entirely subjective.

And I think we can trace the germ of Decartes's idea back to William on Ockham and his position that God's will is prior to his intellect. This made God essentially unknowable by way of the inspection of creation since it would not necessarily follow that the regularities that we think we observe in nature are real things in the first place (since God could change them tomorrow). This casts doubt on what reality is.

As a result, Descartes came to his foundational principle of cogito, ergo sum from a place of deep scepticism regarding the nature of reality. He wanted to know if all of reality could be a false reality, how could he establish what was real. He ended up with the fact that he was thinking as a starting point.

Starhopper,

In the book does John Paul II explain that "I am, therefore I think" is the proper order? I thought it was Benedict XVI who put it that way but I can't find the quote. In any case, it's quite powerful, especially wrt to God.

bmiller said...

David,

BM, Well, I guess we will have to agree to disagree.

Ha! Not the first time Yanks and Brits disagreed on rights.
Here's to being peaceful this time around :-)

Starhopper said...

bmiller,

JPII did not use that precise phraseology. Allow me to copy out part of the relevant chapter:

"In the pre-Cartesian period, philosophy, that is to say the cogito, or rather the cognosco, was subordinate to esse which was considered prior. To Descarte, however, the esse seemed secondary, and he judged the cogito to be prior."

JPII goes on to explain how this was a complete overturning of Thomism, and concludes with "Philosophy now concerned itself with beings qua content of consciousness and not qua existing independently of it.

bmiller said...

Starhopper,

Thanks for the quote. It's an accurate account of the trajectory of philosophy (unfortunately).

Honestly, how could anyone other than an academic swallow that consciousness could exist before and apart from existence. Thomism is compelling because it appeals to what everyone already knows to some extent.

Thomism is after all the philosophy of common sense

Starhopper said...

bmiller,

I became a Thomist back in the 1970s thanks to G.K. Chesterton, and specifically to the place in The Dumb Ox where he demonstrated (using Thomistic logic) that grass was truly green, and not just because our eyes saw it as such.

C.S. Lewis reinforced this outlook for me in his The Abolition of Man, and I've never strayed from it since.

bmiller said...

Starhopper,

Chesterton has a compelling way of putting things. I think this is the passage you referred to:


Without pretending to span within such limits the essential Thomist idea, I may be allowed to throw out a sort of rough version of the fundamental question, which I think I have known myself, consciously or unconsciously since my childhood. When a child looks out of the nursery window and sees anything, say the green lawn of the garden, what does he
actually know; or does he know anything? There are all sorts of nursery games of negative philosophy played round this question. A brilliant Victorian scientist delighted in declaring that the child does not see any grass at all; but only a sort of green mist reflected in a tiny mirror of the human eye. This piece of rationalism has always struck me as almost insanely irrational. If he is not sure of the existence of the grass, which he sees through the glass of a window, how on earth can he be sure of the existence of the retina, which he sees through the glass of a microscope? If sight deceives, why can it not go on deceiving? Men of another school answer that grass is a mere green impression on the mind; and that he can be sure of nothing except the mind. They declare that he can only be conscious of his own consciousness; which happens to be the one thing that we know the child is not conscious of at all. In that sense, it would be far truer to say that there is grass and no child, than to say that there is a conscious child but no grass. St. Thomas Aquinas, suddenly intervening in this nursery quarrel, says emphatically that the child is aware of Ens. Long before he knows that grass is grass, or self is self, he knows that something is something. Perhaps it would be best to say very emphatically (with a blow on the table), "There is an Is". That is as much monkish credulity as St. Thomas asks of us at the start. Very few unbelievers start by asking us to believe so little. And yet, upon this sharp pin-point of reality, he rears by long logical processes that have never really been successfully overthrown, the whole cosmic system of Christendom.

Starhopper said...

Yup, that was the passage. I apparently misremembered it a bit, but got the gist of it right. Chesterton inoculated me for life against any and all philosophies that questioned the existence of an objective reality, independent of our mind.

bmiller said...

If he is not sure of the existence of the grass, which he sees through the glass of a window, how on earth can he be sure of the existence of the retina, which he sees through the glass of a microscope? If sight deceives, why can it not go on deceiving?

I think this is the key point. The advocates that question objective reality already presuppose objective reality as a basis while arguing their point.

One Brow said...

bmiller said...
As a result, Descartes came to his foundational principle of cogito, ergo sum from a place of deep scepticism regarding the nature of reality. He wanted to know if all of reality could be a false reality, how could he establish what was real. He ended up with the fact that he was thinking as a starting point.

Do you understand the difference between a demonstration and a foundation? "I think, therefore I am" was a method of proving his own existence, not setting a foundation for reality.

In the book does John Paul II explain that "I am, therefore I think" is the proper order?

It's untrue. Many things exist that do not think.

Starhopper said...

"Many things exist that do not think."

That is arguable. Panpsychism has had a long and venerable history in philosophy. I myself, although not an adherent, have not ruled it out.

I definitely disagree with C.S. Lewis (this is, after all, a blog about Lewis) that animals are without consciousness, a position he spelled out in his The Problem of Pain and fictionalized in his novel That Hideous Strength. Even plants know where the sun is, and can respond to the presence of other organisms in their vicinity.

As to inanimate objects, I have spent no little time wondering how one subatomic particle (say, an electron) "knows" that another particle is approaching and "knows" how to respond (by being either attracted or repelled). Where is this information kept? An electron has no substructure, no place to store such. Yet it somehow processes the information and acts accordingly.

bmiller said...

Starhopper,

As to inanimate objects, I have spent no little time wondering how one subatomic particle (say, an electron) "knows" that another particle is approaching and "knows" how to respond (by being either attracted or repelled).

This phenomenon used to be called teleology. But teleology fell out of fashion during the enlightenment, even though it is common sense.

I was unaware that Lewis thought that animals were without a soul. Since a soul is just the animating principle on an animate being and animals sometimes move and sometimes sleep, it seems obvious that they are sometimes conscious and sometimes not.

Starhopper said...

In his novel That Hideous Strength, Lewis dedicates several longish passages to basically say that Mr. Bultitude (a bear who plays a significant role in the plot) had no self awareness. In the non-fiction The Problem of Pain Lewis devotes an entire chapter to the subject. But I don't recall him saying that animals had no soul, just no consciousness.

I found his arguments on the subject most unconvincing. Anyone who has lived with a dog (as I have) knows that they can think.

bmiller said...

I've read The Problem of Pain but I don't recall the chapter you're referring to. I'll have to look it up.

Maybe you and he have different definitions of what consciousness entails. Classically, there were 3 types of souls, the vegetative, the animal and the rational (which only humans have). Maybe he is defining consciousness as "rational" consciousness, because according to the normal definition animals are consciousness of their environment at times and unconsciousness at others.

Starhopper said...

I consider consciousness to be synonymous with self-awareness. I know that I exist. For an electron to be conscious, it would have to be aware of that fact.

Some months ago on NPR I heard a discussion/debate about "the hard problem" of consciousness. (I cannot recall who was on the program - I had never heard of either of them, so their names didn't "stick".) One of the speakers suggested that information processing, in and of itself, did not equate to consciousness. In his opinion, it was necessary to be able to respond to that information. Under his definition, a thermostat was conscious (that was actually the example he used), because it reacted to heat. The second speaker was more restrictive. He said one must be able to choose between alternative courses of action in order to be self aware. So consciousness (for him) was synonymous with free will. (Under that understanding, an electron would not have consciousness, because it can react in only one way to the approach of another particle.)

Interesting stuff.

bmiller said...

Under his definition, a thermostat was conscious (that was actually the example he used), because it reacted to heat.

Since Descartes' dualism caught on philosophers have been flummoxed on how animals are different from humans are different from machines.

Here's a look at how that mistake got us here. It's interesting that Aristotelian-Thomistic ideas are being rediscovered to address the confusion.

David Brightly said...

Disagreeing about rights

There are two senses to the word 'right'. The first sense is of a social arrangement a bit like a contract. If I have fulfilled certain conditions I have the right to drive on the public highway. The second or universal sense is a way of making a moral claim, or stating a moral fact, perhaps. I have a right to life means that it's wrong for you to kill me. That these senses are rather different can be seen by asking what follows from possession of a right of each type. In the case of a contractual right much of practical value follows: I can commute more easily to a more distant job maybe, or I can visit my mother more often, and so on. From a universal right only conclusions of a moral character can be reached. The problem is that we slide all too easily between these senses. And there may be intermediate cases where both senses apply, which may explain why we have one word covering both senses. Bill Vallicella has a recent reposting Is There a Right to Health Care?. He is mostly thinking in terms of universal right. But at one point he says, If we meet in the desert and you are out of water and food, I will give you some of mine, ceteris paribus. But I am under no moral obligation to help you; you have no right to my supplies. My helping you will be supererogatory and reflective of my compassion and Christian upbringing. Well, the man Bill meets certainly has no contractual right over Bill's supplies. But should Bill help him? Does he have a moral right to some of Bill's food and water? I'd have thought that the Good Samaritan would have said, Yes.

bmiller said...

The point of Bill Vallicella's article is to establish that the "right to life" entails that one is prohibited from killing others, not that one is obligated to ensure the health of all other humans.

It is a matter of prudence for one person to assist another, because everyone has a priority of obligations. For instance one is primarily obligated, normally, to supply for oneself and one's family and one should not endanger their family by their actions. It is a matter of love for one's neighbor to assist those in need to the best of one's ability. The act of charity is beneficially to both the giver and receiver spiritually. The giver because it allows them to express their charity personally and the receiver because it allows them to express their gratitude personally. When we leave it to the "government" to supply the needs of the poor we lose that spiritual benefit.

Before the monasteries were closed in England the Church was in charge of supplying for the needs of the poor thus fulfilling the Christian mission both materially and spiritually. After they were closed, the government eventually took over separating charity from that mission. Thus we hear Scrooge ask of charity collectors "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"

David Brightly said...

I'm not taking a position on socialised medical care. Rather I'm interested in why it has come about that we make what I take to be moral claims using the language of 'rights', which I take to be a legal term. I have the sense that this is back-to-front or upside-down. I quoted BV because I thought I saw a confusion there between the two senses. I may be wrong on all counts, of course. On natural rights I'm rather a Benthamite, I'm afraid, which makes it hard to make sense of (non-legal) rights talk. The question, What on Earth do people think they are talking about?, keeps intruding. So why not drop the talk of rights and stick to straightforward moral claims? Isn't that simpler and less confusing?

bmiller said...

OK, you invoked the parable of the Good Samaritan, so I responded to that.

But you're right (heh!) that there are multiple uses for the word depending on the context.

Rights are legal, social, or ethical principles of freedom or entitlement; that is, rights are the fundamental normative rules about what is allowed of people or owed to people, according to some legal system, social convention, or ethical theory.[1] Rights are of essential importance in such disciplines as law and ethics, especially theories of justice and deontology.

David Brightly said...

Sure, but this can't be the whole story, else why would we speak of having, possessing, or being deprived of a right? We can't possess a principle or rule. It's as if rights were correlated with explicit badges or emblems of status intended to regulate social interaction. Thus, Look, I have the green badge. I can walk on the lawn. Out of my way, churl!

bmiller said...

The green badge sounds more like a privilege:


a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.
"education is a right, not a privilege"


Not everyone has this the same privileges. But everyone tries to pursue their naturally good ends during their lifetime (even if not perfectly) and others should assist or at least not interfere with them. Deontologists recognize this distinction.

bmiller said...

"churl" Haven't heard that in a looong time :-)

Starhopper said...

"Deontologists recognize this distinction."

Hah! I was reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading this comment, and it still made no sense whatsoever to me. Then I realized that my dyslexic brain was reading the sentence as "Dermatologists recognize this distinction." So of course I kept wondering, "What did skin disease have to do with the subject at hand?"

bmiller said...

Dermatologists deserve rights too ya know. :-)

Starhopper said...

Dermatologists deserve rights too.

bmiller said...

Ha!

Have you ever watched Dr Pimple Popper?

David Brightly said...

Just to summarise this line of thought. If rights are legal, conventional, local human inventions backed up by equally contrived social arrangements then it amounts to a category error to formulate what we take to be universal moral principles in terms of the language of rights. We have the moral language of should and must, etc, which pre-dates the language of rights. At any rate we learn this language as children before, thank God, we learn the language of rights. Indeed, if we are concerned to uphold universal moral principles it's a tactical mistake to frame them in terms of human invention, which potentially opens the door to the more vicious types of relativism.

bmiller said...

David,

which pre-dates the language of rights.

When did the language of right begin?

bmiller said...

"rights" that is.

David Brightly said...

At a guess, at the time of the Neolithic Revolution when people became settled and division of labour and accumulation of wealth became possible.

bmiller said...

Ah, OK. So you mean as far back as anyone can tell. I thought you were going to place it a the Enlightenment philosophical period.

It's interesting how prevalent relativism has become in the zeitgeist. We no longer argue about what is right or wrong, but instead talk in terms of "values" which presuppose relativism.