Yesterday I linked to this Kevin Baker post and enjoyed the referred to movie again last night.
Today I wish to take a pass at what I perceive to be Kevin's underlying issue.
There is a technique that most people associate with formal verbal debate commonly known as "re-framing the question". The tactic of altering the context within which your opponent has referenced his most telling points against your position can frequently be achieved by modifying the context within which they are refuted. I think Kevin's quandary regarding "rights" is largely the result of the effect of this linguistic ploy arising from the accumulation of historical debate of the issue.
To exist at all, a frame must first be constructed; herewith, my attempt at such.
The bing fa, from the document which was introduced to the non-chinese speaking world as The Art of War, is a self-referential system having applicability to virtually any form of human political or social structure, but which relies upon it's own internal ethos to achieve consistency and avoid contradiction. It can be applied successfully by virtually anyone in almost any circumstance within which a human being can survive and function with some degree of individuality and independence. I am not prepared to argue that it can be successfully applied entirely independent of any other form of human social construct, but I do assert that the inherent ethos I mentioned earlier resolves the logical inconsistency that so troubles Kevin:
"The core of the discussion to date has involved three primary questions:
A) Are there "absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, ultimate rights" that exist regardless of whether a society recognizes (much less protects) them;
B) do those rights belong to all people, everywhere, at all times, simply because they are human - and;
C) are those rights "self-evident?"
My answer is: A) Yes; B) No; and C) Self evident to whom?
Yes, I realize that position A) contradicts my initial "what a society believes it is" statement, but bear with me. I believe in Rand's "one fundamental right," and have so stated in earlier posts. The source of that right I have stated before:
Or Nature. Yaweh. Christ. Vishnu, Mother Gaia, Barney the Dinosaur. I don't know, nor do I care overly much, but reason works for me.
I believe that right is "real" because I believe that - given the chance - average specimens of humanity will conclude through reason that they are of value (to themselves if no one else), and that their physical selves and the product of their labor belongs to them and not another.
It's in what comes after that "one fundamental right" that we begin to run into problems. Let's proceed backwards. Are the "Rights of Man" self-evident? Then:
1. List them. All.
2. Illustrate which are axioms and which are corollaries of those axioms.
3. Explain why every society in history has violated all or at least the overwhelming majority of these rights, if they're absolute, positive, unquestionable, fundamental, ultimate, and self-evident.
4. Explain what a society that honored and protected these rights would look like. And, finally,
5. Explain why such a society does not now exist and never has."
My contribution to the discussion has to do with the source issue, the question regarding from whence "rights" emanate, as I believe most of the succeeding quandaries are so because of the traditional assertion(s).
The Bing Fa assumes that the act of individual birth presents each and every human with an inheritance of opportunity; Stephen Hawking, myself and Kevin are each, equally and independently, the inheritors of exactly the same opportunity simply as a result of our successful live birth. No deity figure required (though such is certainly not necessarily excluded either; intervention by a Deity is simply not required for whatever follows the unique act of cellular procreation our parents contrived between themselves). Thus it can be safely asserted that all humans are born equally opportune, I think. What we subsequently make of all that is a separate matter, and therein lies the "right" of it, I suggest.
Our individual opportunity from birth doesn't guarantee anything, of course; catastrophic natural event, violent invaders or simple poor hygiene can abruptly curtail our individual development of opportunity, as can the social context (there's that Ayn Rand influence again :)) within which we seek to do so. It is far more likely that it is this last that will influence us than anything else other than a predatory family member. That last being notoriously hard to control for by any measure not involving the most direct of individual means, let's look at that social context proposition in a bit more detail.
Sun Tzu observed that the best General was the one who achieved the objective by the least damaging means, and worded the concept variously throughout his treatise to emphasize it's importance. Extended to the extreme of a social context, this could be taken to mean that the "best" citizen is that one who achieves both personal and societal success at the least cost or damage to both him/her self and to the society within which s/he happens to live (at the most extreme, the entire planetary or even galactic or universal social context within which both exist). The obverse of that definition being that the "best" free person - the one most fully exercising rights at least damage to all else - might very well prove to be a very bad "citizen" indeed.
In any final analysis of action or deliberation, we are all each our own "General" in that we all possess the ultimate authority to decide every question to the degree to which we are a party. That being true, it follows that we are each fully responsible for all that results from our decision - by way of extreme example, if we agree that the equivalent of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were again to become necessary at some point, then we would be fully responsible for every radiated body that resulted from that decision. Own it. Accept also that a refusal to actively decide an issue is a form of decision itself and doesn't entail any obviation of the subsequent responsibility.
So, in a social context, we are each born into opportunity and we each assert our individual right to develop our opportunity over the course of our lives; in an immortal phrase, "the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" that fulfills our opportunity of birth. From which it can be seen that, indeed, "rights" are self-evident if only because we each assert them for ourselves. It is in the nature of a "social context" that a process be mutually agreed to whereby some constraint upon exercise of our individual rights be accepted by all to achieve said context in the first place. Self-evident is no more a logical inconsistency that is the concept of implicit responsibility when stated within a given context. As I observed in comments in this recent post "Like alliance, definition can be conditional as well." Words do indeed mean things, but that meaning becomes distorted with even a minor change of context. As with words, so too with society and even ethics and morality.
Stephen Hawking, arguably the greatest mathematical intellect extant on planet Earth today, was born to the identical opportunity as was I who can only rudimentarily grasp the mysteries of algebra (with Kevin alighting somewhere between, thus completing the triumvirate :)). To what extent, and from among which means, we select to advance our development of our intrinsic opportunity is massively influenced by the social context within which we find ourselves born, but ultimate responsibility for that development rests to a large degree on the means and resoluteness we apply to asserting our right to do so.
Almost without fail, the first word a baby learns of its own volition is "No". It is only through long years of personal education and often painful trial and error attempts that we learn to exercise the same degree of consensual right by saying "Yes". In my experience, mostly we just call this "growing up", but like the child, so too the civilisation. Kevin laments that our founding Constitution is lost to us and likely not retrievable. To which I respond, "Yes", and implore him not to charge resolutely into the ravening mob, but be a better general instead.
When the battle seems lost, re-frame the question.
Addendum: Richard Fernandez offers a classic example of the way in which definitions change as a result of differences in context in his most recent Belmont Club post We The Chosen. Wretchard will be a very successful general come the day ...