By C.J Donoso
Modern politics is dominated by the struggle over defining rights. On the conservative side of politics is practically defined by a slavish devotion to the individual’s rights to use his property without interference from the state. What receives less attention however is the left’s use of rights discourse to push their causes. “My body my choice” goes the constant refrain that passes for an argument in defense of social liberalism: no one has the right to make an ethical claim about the actions of another person.
Even more interestingly, in recent years the left and the libertarian right have united in defending the right of giant corporations to censor right-wing people. The argument being that a privately owned corporation can refuse to work with or serve whoever they want (unless that person is part of a protected class as defined by the state, in which case everyone agrees the corporation must not only not censor, but also promote their views).
So it seems that in the current year, conservatives have been checkmated. We cannot put forward ideas or policies to support Christian family values because it infringes on the right of people to do whatever they want. We cannot put forwards nationalist economic policies to help workers as that infringes on the rights of corporations to act without concern for the common good. We cannot even ensure that we receive an equal ability to engage in the political process because that infringes on the rights of corporations to censor us. How did we end up here? And what are we to do?
In this article I would like to answer both questions in a general sense to at least provide us a framework for understanding these issues. To me, the central issue seems to be the liberal theory of rights. We always seek to judge things according to the standard set by liberalism. Liberalism in our national political discourse is treated as a synonym for what is good and true. Is Christianity liberal enough? Is conservatism liberal enough? Are we liberal enough? Always and everywhere we must seek to justify ourselves. We are told to be tolerant, libertine and egalitarian. But does anyone think to question liberalism itself? Can it justify itself before some higher principle?
“Liberalism in our national political discourse is treated as a synonym for what is good and true. Is Christianity liberal enough? Is conservatism liberal enough? Are we liberal enough? Always and everywhere we must seek to justify ourselves.”
Our modern understanding of rights goes back to the beginnings of liberalism in the enlightenment. Canada, like all of the Anglosphere, can trace the liberal theory of rights that dominate its politics to the theories of English philosopher John Locke. In his Second Treatise of Government, John Locke proposes a theory of history and politics that became the basis for liberalism. The proposal goes as follows. John Locke says that long before there were governments and countries Men lived in the “state of nature”. He argues that they were put in this state of nature by God who also made them all by nature free and equal. This meant that every man had the ability and right to understand, interpret and apply the “natural law”.
“Natural law” describes the fundamental laws that God built into the very fabric of the universe, and Locke argues that any man who thinks rationally about the world will be able to know and understand these laws without having to refer to anything except his own reasoning. These laws are much more basic and fundamental than the laws of any government which did not exist in the state of nature and were created by Men and not God. These laws essentially declare and define all the different rights people have: property rights, the right to life, etc. And in the state of nature if anyone breaches these rights any other man has the right and duty of exacting justice.
Nevertheless, Locke goes on to argue that Men will eventually establish governments to secure their rights because in the state of nature there is not enough enforcement to prevent injustices. And so all the governments and countries on earth are created by individuals coming together negotiating rules and constitutions and giving their consent to the government. However, Locke warns that if the government infringes too much on people’s rights then they have the right and duty to rebel and overthrow the government to make a new one that is more liberal. To pre-empt his critics Locke argues that this won’t lead to constant uprisings and violence because people are “long-suffering” which means they’ll bear many injustices and infamies before they ever take up arms to defend themselves from a tyrannical state.
One of the best explanations of Locke’s theories is written in the introduction of the American Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
It should be noted that in his Second Treatise of Government, Locke does not directly claim that life, liberty and property are self-evident. Instead he tries to derive them from what he considers to be self-evident axioms. Firstly he claims that the equality of all men is totally self-evident and obvious. Secondly, he claims that natural reason teaches anyone who takes the trouble to consult it that since all men are the creation and property of God we are all created free and equal, and we are obliged to not harm ourselves and to do our utmost to protect the rest of mankind from harm.
Locke in his own words gives a more Christian argument for liberalism than the founding fathers. Although this makes sense considering the American founders did not want to ground their new country directly in Christianity. Nevertheless both the original argument, and the more secular American version are based on a conception of self-evident propositions and natural reason.
But Locke’s theories were revolutionary not just in America, where they inspired a revolution, but also in all of England and her colonies where liberalism became dominant in their political discourse. So what’s the problem? The aforementioned liberal theories do not stand up to a logical critique. An ideology which makes the kind of grand moral and political claims liberalism does must be able to stand up to philosophical scrutiny. Otherwise people would have no reason to accept the transformation of their lives according to liberal dictates.
The central issue with Locke’s liberalism is that his justification for natural rights rests on his belief in their self-evidence. This is the idea that there is a set of propositions which reason itself makes obvious and clear to any person who thinks logically. In Locke’s case he considers natural rights to be self-evident. This means that if a Chinese bureaucrat from the Song dynasty, the builder of John Locke’s home, and an amateur Canadian writer in the 21st century were to consider politics rationally, with intellectual honesty, for a long enough period of time, all would have to admit that John Locke’s theories about rights are obviously true. This is evidently wrong; people from different places and time periods don’t think the same way. They have totally different and in many ways irreconcilable worldviews. A sumerian peasant and John Locke are starting their thinking about politics from totally different places and will naturally end up with totally different conclusions.
Remember that Locke is arguing that natural rights are self-evident. So it’s not just a question of agreeing or disagreeing, it’s that reason itself demands that any honest person would have to come to the same conclusions as Locke. This is why he doesn’t provide any justification in the Second Treatise of Government for why he believes God created all men equal. No argument is needed, because it's supposed to be self-evident.
The Lockean might also contend that the difference between all other ideologies is that liberalism is universal. It’s not tied to any time or place, it has always been true, and it always will be true (so much for keeping religion out of politics). So in response to a universal argument I would like to put forward a universal counter-argument. It is not rationally possible for any proposition to be self-evident, ever, in any place. To elaborate on this point, we will look at the work of American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine.
“It is not rationally possible for any proposition to be self-evident, ever, in any place.”
In his Two Dogmas of Empiricism, Quine critiques two ideas that he argues serve as dogma for modern empiricists. The particular aspect of his work which is relevant to us is his investigation of how we understand the meanings of words. The simple answer would be to look in the dictionary, but as Quine puts it, the writers of dictionaries are merely researchers who search out and then write down the words people use along with their generally accepted meanings. The writers of dictionaries don’t actually establish the meanings of words; language evolves faster than they can study it, which is why new words are constantly getting added to the dictionary.
Our understanding of words and their meaning is premised on a continually changing social understanding of language that is established by people within a culture group. Moreover, one’s understanding of the meaning of a word is dependent on one’s understanding of a host of other words. In his essay Things and their Place in Theories, Quine explains that from our early childhood, we learn to speak in phrases before we learn the definitions of particular words. The significance of this is that the way we grasp the meaning of words and ideas is by learning them in the context of bigger linguistic structures. This might sound strange considering many children first learn to speak by saying one or two words. But when a child first begins to speak, he is using single words as phrases.
Consider a child whose first word is “Mama”. The child does not understand this word to mean “the female parent of a human child” in the way most of us understand the word mother. He does not yet have a sufficiently developed theory of the world to understand definitions that use concepts such as “the human species”. The child first learns to say “Mama” simply as a conditioned reaction to the presence of his mother. The meaning of “Mama” at this point is the short phrase “it’s Mama”. Here the proposition is either true or false, either his mother is present or she is not. The child might start using “Mama” to communicate. He might use “Mama” to get his mother’s attention or to signal that he needs something,though at this point his communication will just be the expression of basic instincts.
As he develops, the child will eventually learn to talk about objects like cats and spoons. But even in this case the child’s ability to distinguish a particular cat as one object in the larger set of all cats is not demonstrated until he is able to predicate about objects. A predication would be a sentence like “the cat is brown”. The difference between this new type of phrase and the utterance “Mama” is that saying “Mama” is simply a matter of seeing and pointing. Pointing at a cat is different because it requires a more developed concept of objects. When we point at a cat’s head we are pointing at the cat, but the cat’s head is not a cat. To understand this the child requires a more developed concept of the part and the whole. Throughout his development the child’s ability to speak is relying on a growing capacity to connect ideas and think abstract terms.
As he forms the beliefs about the world that undergird his capacity to use language, each of his beliefs relies on his other beliefs to maintain its coherence. Ideas like truth and falsehood are implicit but necessary elements in even mundane things like recognizing other people. But the reverse is also true because the abstract categories of truth and falsehood lose their meaning if they are not anchored in a real world of things that we can make true or false statements about.
All this comes before a child is able to understand the abstract definitions you find in the dictionary. As a consequence of all this it is clear that all our beliefs and concepts are theory-laden, and none of them are self-evident. The words and ideas we use are totally inseparable from our overall worldview, and taken out of that context they lose their meaning. This does not make them false, but it means that none of them can be so fundamental that they function independently from all our other beliefs. Quine used the metaphor of a “web of beliefs” to describe the way all our beliefs necessarily rely on each other to maintain their coherence.
The impossibility of self-evidence is clear enough when looking at ordinary objects. However it is even more apparent when considering metaphysical concepts like equality. Consider what it means to say “all men are equal”. Equal how? Do we all act the same? Think the same? Have the same abilities and proclivities? One possible interpretation is that John Locke was saying we’re all born the same and our life experiences shape us differently. This would line up with his idea of people being born as a “blank slate”. By this he means that our minds are completely free of any ideas prior to experience and it is experience which impresses itself upon us and creates ideas in our minds.
But this metaphor is deeply flawed. It is categorically false that all people are born with the same blank slate for a mind. For one thing later philosophers like Immanuel Kant showed that the human mind already comes structured to perceive and interpret the world in specific ways. There are certain basic concepts that structure our reasoning and perception which must come prior to experience. Modern studies have given support to this by showing that from the moment of birth children already have the ability to differentiate between themselves and their surrounding environments. This is not quite a concept of the self, but it is the rudiments of one. Of course this is fairly intuitive, how could one interpret one’s experience without already possessing the basic mental categories to begin the process of interpretation. Moreover, there is variation in the basic structures of people’s brains even before they’re born. For example with men and women, and these variations in brain structure manifest themselves as different cognitive patterns. Moreover, amongst children from different parts of the world we see different developmental patterns with things as basic as recognizing oneself in a mirror. In light of all the developments in philosophy and science that occured after the life of John Locke we must conclude that his belief in blank slate equality simply does not fit the available evidence.
But perhaps this is not what is meant by the self-evident equality of all men. Maybe what John Locke meant was that all men have equal value. Do they? What is meant by value? Are we all of equal moral worth? This is a suspect claim. It would seem unlikely that anyone would agree to the notion that a criminal is of equal moral worth to a saint.
Probably a more charitable interpretation of what Locke meant is something like “God made us all in his image, so we’re all equally his creation; he loves us all equally, so we should treat each other with equal love”. This statement can be understood in different ways, and in some ways it is true. But a liberal-egalitarian interpretation of this is highly problematic. It's totally contingent on the doctrine of creation and the Christian doctrine of the Imago Dei (that man is created in the image of God). This notion of equality has no leg to stand on in the modern darwinian evolutionary paradigm, especially given that most liberals reject God. But even for Christians this notion does not really work. In this sense St. Paul gives a good explanation of what it means for people to be one in Christ:
For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many.
If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. And if they were all one member, where would the body be?
But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
This section warns against a levelling tendency which has appeared on occasion in the history of the Christian church. If not held in check, people tend to give themselves over to exaggeration. And throughout the centuries different heretical interpretations of Christianity have taken the message of Christ to mean that we believe in some kind of universal equality of all people where all differences are flattened. John Locke’s liberalism is founded on one of these heretical interpretations. But St. Paul in this section warns against exactly this.
The fact that Christianity is a universal religion in which all people can participate does not mean somehow that there are no differences among different people, just as the fact that your eye and ear are of the same body does not mean that there are no differences between them.. We see this understanding in the history of the rise of Christian Europe. Men remained men, women remained women, Greeks did not suddenly become French, and different social classes remained distinct. The particularities and differences of different groups of people remained. The project of creating unity amongst Christians was directed not at eliminating difference, but rather at creating a harmony in between different groups of Christians, while still giving all the space to express their own particular way of being. The ideas of John Locke can seem appealing to Christians because it is nice to find a flavour of liberalism that claims to accept God as opposed to modern liberalism which rejects Him. But this is a temptation Christians must reject because John Locke, just like any other liberal thinker, teaches doctrines which contain within them the seeds of the destruction of the church.
In any case, it is apparent that not only is John Locke’s doctrine of equality not self-evident, it is not even clear what equality means. Moreover, something I have not yet addressed is that it is not clear how this abstract metaphysical concept would translate into a political reality. In fact it is so unclear that people have fought wars over it. Consider that one of the main points of contention between liberals and communists is whether equality means equality of opportunity or equality of outcome.
The lack of clarity around equality goes all the way back through western political theory. During the Enlightenment, philosophers were quite enamored with the Greek and Roman political discourse surrounding liberty and equality. Athenian democracy and the Roman republic are to this day models for western liberal democracies. Yet many in the enlightenment totally misinterpreted what the Greeks and Romans actually meant by liberty and equality. For example, the constitution of Sparta, which was greatly admired by Plato, was firmly grounded in the idea of equality. But it was equality for the male citizens of Sparta known as the homoioi. The word homoioi translates to something like “those who are alike”. To the Spartans therefore, talking about equality was synonymous with talking about homogeneity. But if there was equality for the ethnically Spartan men who served in the army, the non ethnically Spartan peoples such as the helots were labelled as hoi poloi (the masses) and denied political rights.
This understanding of equality, while particularly extreme in Sparta, was pretty much universal in the ancient world. Citizenship and political rights in Athens were tied to being a male member of the original ethnic group of Athens and the same applied to Rome before they extended citizenship to all of Italy after the social war. The point here is that not only is the idea of self-evidence in itself philosophically untenable, but claiming that John Locke’s particular interpretation of equality is self-evident is probably one of the worst examples one could choose to defend self-evidence. The concept of equality has been used throughout history, to this day to mean quite literally opposite things even amongst people who all believe in equality as one of their foundational principles.
In addition to the lack of justification for the theory of natural rights, there are also contradictions between Locke’s system of rights and his own empiricist philosophy. Firstly, how exactly do we come to know a “right” empirically? Do we find it at the top of a mountain? Does it only come out at night? Locke clearly argues that rights are part of a system of natural reason that exists in the world and is not just a construct of the human mind. So where are natural rights? How do we come to know them?
Locke describes rights akin to a sort of platonic object: immaterial, intangible, universal, etc. Necessarily this means that one cannot access them through empirical experience; our senses have no way of bringing us into contact with this kind of entity. If one were to claim that these were a priori analytic truths (deduced logically from concepts in your mind) as opposed to synthetic a posteriori truths (knowledge gained from our sense experiencing the world) it wouldn’t solve anything because analytical truths within the empiricist schema are not meaningful statements about things found in the world, they are tautological (circular logic) statements that simply define some concept. This totally undermines their ability to hold moral weight. It seems unclear why we would care about natural rights if they are simply arbitrary definitions created by some philosopher.
So why am I saying all this? Certainly we can all agree that an innocent person’s right to life is a good thing. My intention in showing the irreconcilable contradictions of Locke’s liberalism is to arrive at an understanding of what a right is. And indeed after Locke, empiricist philosophers critiqued and eventually abandoned Locke’s theory of natural rights. David Hume, who was noted for being a philosophical sceptic, argued that natural rights don’t exist and that our ideas of rights and laws were the result of hundreds of years of development as people tried to work out better ways of organizing politics.
Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill built on critiques like that of Hume and developed Utilitarianism, which essentially states that people are only concerned with maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Rights in the Utilitarian view are created by humans in order to achieve these aims. In the second half of the 20th century John Rawls, seeing the contradictions inherent in utilitarianism, rejected it. Rawls developed a new theory of justice, saying that an egalitarian, liberal democracy is the best way to run a society. The next part of this series will cover the attempts of the post-classical-liberals who sought to resolve the contradictions in liberalism.