Monday, July 6, 2009

Empedocles, rights talk and culturism

The following are thoughts from an important debate I am having with Empedocles. He runs the "a pox on both your houses" blog. Please read and respond to our crucial discussion. And please visit his wonderful philosophical blog by clicking the title of this blog post!


I very much agree with your anti-metaphysical stance on rights. I also agree with your statement "I do not think that right claims need to be acquiesced to if they are harmful to a people." And the switch from negative rights (what the government can't do) to positive rights (the constant government intrusion in the name of equality and fairness you mention) is very significant.

My favorite book on rights is Mary Glendon's short "Rights Talk". It would answer your question about limits to rights by saying that under current situations, where positive rights are asserted on metaphysical basis of justice, there are no limits to them and they are not negotiable. Group rights, economic rights etc. cannot be challenged. She would ask us to accept that rights are a construct gained by power and not eternal truths, so that we can have discussions like the ones we are having about the limits and use of rights.

If we accept the Neitzschiean premise, and take rights to be situational, does that weaken them in any sense? I say no. We can then adopt pure pragmatism. So I can say rights here in America are valid and we will verbally push for them as being international, but we will not legally recognize international rights such as the right to build mosques here. We use that language against others while protecting ourselves from others use of them against us. This would be a pragmatic approach to rights.

Accepting pragmatism, the only question left is then, pragmatically, which is the best strategy. Thanks to our discussions I am leaning towards the above strategy. And if people say it is hypocritical that you want to push rights as an idea internationally via sanctions etc, but do not recognize international rights that hurt your sovereignty, I would respond by explaining the pragmatic, real politik view of rights. This is the strongest position to come from.

The problem is that, in the current world debate, whenever you use the phrase "human rights" people hear "weak sovereignty" and use your own language against you. And yet, if we do not go with human rights language we cannot vocally back the Iranian dissenters. The sword of "human rights" language cuts both ways. The second best idea is to say we back "Western rights" as an international idea. But this will not make a satisfactory substitute for human rights language because explaining the distinction is too difficult. Furthermore, Iranians will likely not rally for anything designated as 'western rights.'

Finally, my first impulse is to just say screw the international scene and assume rights only apply in the West. However, if we could weaken Iran and make them more amenable to rationality, it would greatly enhance our security. I have never believed in that possibility before, but now I have some hope. The potential of a moderate Iran is a hard carrot to give up. If that is an impossible carrot, then I would adopt my original stance of saying screw the international scene, rights are purely western. So again, unknown variables determine what is the best strategy.
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