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.


Empedocles said...

Rights have become what Hobbes called laws of nature. Recall that Hobbes thought that the function of government was peace and he introduced all these "laws of nature" to ensure peace. The government was thus free to enforce things like complaisance, distribution of goods, and the like. It was free to intervene in all areas of life in order to maintain peace and order. It is ironic because rights were initially introduced by Locke to counter Hobbes and claim that there were areas where the state could not intervene. They have come full circle. The UK has definitely become the Leviathan with all of its restrictions on individual liberty designed to ensure peace. I have my doubts that it will work, but no doubt that it is unjust.
I don't really have a position on your discussion of sovereignty and pragmatism.

Unknown said...


Thanks for the history and sparking my reflection whether you have a position or not. I do appreciate it.

Thanks, John

Lexcen said...

There is a longtime running debate in Australia on whether there should be a Bill of Rights. Those commentators against it argue that the existence of a Bill of Rights results in a minefield of legalistic arguments. It brings to mind the issue of free speech and how it has been interpreted in the courts in the U.S.

Bloviating Zeppelin said...

Philosophy means nothing.

Application means everything.


Unknown said...


That is so very interesting. You know that the Bill of Rights was foisted upon the Federal government here by States that wanted protection from the Feds. Our 10th amendment gives the States all the power that doesn't specifically go to the Feds. Now, the Feds use the Bill of Rights to tell states they can't have prayer in schools or fund certain groups. I empathize with the detractors.


I think you confuse academic philosophy and philosophy. Multiculturalism is a philosophy. I think it is very destructive. I do agree that we should always look at how philosophy impacts practice. But the philosophy itself is the basis of that practice and important.

Thanks !!!!

Ducky's here said...

Or we can take our cue from China where they learned from the Israelis how to handle the "minority population" problems of Uighurs and Tibetans.

Of course the Uighurs are Muslim so they really don't have any rights and they can be stomped on as if they were Palestinians. Correct, cuturist?

Only the West has rights? Did you really write that?

All you Libertarians mewling about "rights" seem to think you are magicians who have waved away conflicts of interest and just ignored the problem and concept of justice. Libertarians really need to climb out of their sandbox if they want to be taken seriously.

Unknown said...


Your understanding of my take, within bounds, is correct. The west is the only place with rights as we understand them. We are the champion of rights.

Now, in some weird metaphysical sense, the right to protest might exist in China. Perhaps it hides in the endless conscious trajectory towards the universal acceptance of the western form of reason. Do you like that? But in reality, if you march you will get shot. So in a real, mundane level, does the right to protest exist in Iran or China? Well no.

If you think you have the right to protest in Iran or China, make an argument. I'd love to hear about it.

Now you assume that the Uighurs do not count in my book because they are Muslim. The reason said questions are said to concern foreign affairs is because they are foreign. Foreign also means strange.

If you want to champion one side as noble and the other as evil, go ahead. I guess since you consider Israel evil oppressors and compare them to China, they are the bad guys. The Uighurs or weegirs or whatever, are the noble fighters for rights (though they were thrashing Han Chinese). They stand for democracy and individual freedom. They are freedom fighters and Enlightenment figures! Right !!!

Dude, seeing as how we have no vital interest in the Uighurs, I do not feel the need to send them aid or champion their cause. You take a side here. You send our blood and treasure. You are an internationalist imperialist. I prefer less military intervention because there are limits to my knowledge and limits to my money and limits to my nation. The Uighurs are way beyond the borders of the western world.

Lexcen said...

I'm so glad (Ducky's here) doesn't find my blog worthy of his comments;-)

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