Rescuing our Rights

As previously noted, theories of “systemic racism” currently in fashion constitute the latest leftist ruse to rob citizens of our most cherished rights.

Once we concede that anyone can be treated as guilty, or awarded the equivalent of damages, and all without a trial, then the rule of law is abolished, and we have the makings of what may go down as the (initially) wealthiest and least explicable despotism in the history of mankind.

If we are to defend our rights from today’s sophisticated band of brigands, however, we need to understand the true nature and basis of those rights.

Such an understanding is obstructed, not only by a general failure in recent decades to provide civic education, but also by certain philosophic challenges that must be addressed if we wish to put our rights on a firm foundation for the future.

In his brilliant book, Human Rights: Fact or Fancy?, Henry Veatch explains why individual rights are poorly grounded in modern philosophy, thereby exposing them to rejection or manipulation by those who would abuse them.

In brief, modern philosophy has tended to ground rights in one of two ways: either as necessary means of fulfilling purely subjective desires; or as dictates of a “categorical” moral law.

In the first case, there is no way of preventing rights from dissolving into merely selfish, and therefore amoral (if not immoral) calculations. No matter how you spin it, if my reason for respecting others is that it brings me pleasure or profit, then it follows that it is reasonable to cease respecting them when doing so seems more pleasant or lucrative.

In the second strategy, rights become a sort of ethical bluff, huffing and puffing their imperious demands, only to collapse when we ask the simple question: why should I care whether my actions are moral? To answer that not caring about morality is immoral fatally begs the question.

Happily, Veatch demonstrates that there is a way of rescuing rights, but it involves a move that may seem puzzling to many, and humiliating to others: returning to the Socratic account of ethics as the pursuit of human virtue or excellence.

It may sound odd that a tradition that rarely mentioned “rights” as such would provide a better account of them than one that spoke of little else. It makes much more sense, however, when we reflect that that purpose of classical philosophy is to understand nature, whereas modern philosophy is too obsessed with conquering nature to learn from it.

In a nutshell, classical ethics sees subjective desire in light of its objective goal: the perfection of our nature by the deliberate cultivation of habits fulfilling our natural potential.

Though the particulars are rich and complex, the upshot is simple. Since man is a rational, familial, and political animal, he cannot perfect himself, or fulfill his deepest desires, without striving to live in accordance with reason, exercising responsibility not only for his own personal welfare, but also for that of his relatives, friends, and surrounding community.

To injure another is, as Socrates proved, to injure oneself in the place where it hurts the most: one’s very soul. To see this reality is to cease wondering why one should be moral, because one recognizes injustice as the disease it is.

To know oneself in this crucial way is to hunger and thirst for justice as the only means of achieving genuine happiness.

Armed with this understanding of the basis of rights, how ought we to confront the systemic insanity of our times? Stay tuned for further ramblings on that vital point.

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