[Vision2020] Unalienable Rights: Historic Precedence
Art Deco aka W. Fox
deco at moscow.com
Sat Nov 20 15:41:34 PST 2004
Ted, et al,
The anguish you express in your post below is that which philosophers, thinkers,
etc. have felt for centuries: The problem of establishing the truth of "First
[Non-proven, assumed, etc.] Principles" in ethics, politics, etc.
So far as I know, no one has successfully done so.
Some "First Principles" must be assumed in order to operate in daily life: For
example: "The future will resemble the past in some predictable way." The
attempt to prove this principle results in what is called "The Problem of
Induction." When dealing with ethical "First Principles", the problem is
becomes much more complex.
I am unlikely to solve the "First Principle" problem. I can only show that the
other solutions offered so far fail.
The point of my response in the post below is that the terms "right", "life",
"liberty", "pursuit of happiness", etc. are not well defined. They sound nice
and seem to mean something, but as it turns out, at best this something is
different for almost everyone. When you ask most people to define these terms
precisely, you will not receive a generally coherent, consistent answer but only
an untestable restatement in other words. Unless a precise meaning of a
statement can be agreed upon, no tests/observations/etc. for its truth can be
agreed upon and executed. My hope expressed in the previous post is that in the
future some more precise meaning of these terms can raise to the level of some
general agreement, thus allowing at least a heuristic measure of the truth of
statements using such terms.
I once took a graduate course/seminar at the U. of Minnesota where we spent the
entire quarter discussing/debating and attempting to define "right" as in
ethical "rights." We learned a lot, but of course we were not successful in
agreeing upon a universally acceptable definition nor a method of testing the
truth of statements that use that term except within various ethical systems
such as Utilitarianism which rely upon other unproven "First Principles."
Sad, but so far, true. Most of us operate with some vague, unproven "First
Principles" as a bases for our ethical reasonings and actions. Such principles
cannot, so far, be proven; however, they can be disproved or made improbable by
the application of logic and observation.
To see just one of the pitfalls of using a religious set of first ethical
principles, think about the dilemma first described by Socrates (or Plato
writing in the voice of Socrates):
"Is X good because God says so, or does God say 'X is good' because X (in fact)
When you take time to carefully think this dilemma out, neither alternative is
very satisfactory, especially to the religious.
I leave it as an exercise to you and others interested. This dilemma has been
debated and discussed for centuries. It is also used a test to see if a person
has the intellectual apparatus to understand some basic
philosophical/epistemological concepts. As a hint of the difficulties involved,
a discussion of "rights", "good", etc. generally takes place in meta-language,
not in ordinary everyday, object language.
Wayne A. Fox
waf at moscow.com
PO Box 9421
Moscow, ID 83843
----- Original Message -----
From: Tbertruss at aol.com
To: deco at moscow.com ; vision2020 at moscow.com
Sent: Saturday, November 20, 2004 12:33 PM
Subject: [Vision2020] Unalienable Rights: Historic Precedence
Wayne et. al.
Thanks for your friendly reply.
"...life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness:" fundamental "unalienable
Rights!" I grew up with these words echoing passionately in my mind! How many
Americans, and that means nearly every American, with almost all of us speaking
these words at one time or another, deeply consider what these words mean?
Without wishing to sound like a traitor, I think the statement at issue is
neither true nor false, like its sometimes cited corollary: "That which governs
least, governs best.
Both statements are like the following statement:
"The square root of a minus tush abdicates salt."
All three statements are syntactically correct and sound like possibly true or
false English statements. But because their meaning is so vague and ambiguous,
it is not possible to determine their truth except by deducing them from other
equally vague, ambiguous statements.
But what happened to the fundamental concept of "unalienable Rights?" A
statement containing this concept is not the same as "that which governs least
governs best" nor "the square root of a minus tush abdicates salt." These
statements do not attempt to confer upon all human beings fundamental universal
rights. One merely expresses a theory about how much government is best, the
other is nonsense, of course. A statement asserting unalienable Rights, like
the famous quote from the Declaration of Independence I used to illustrate my
point, does! I do not think this is a trivial difference. The statement quoted
from the Declaration of Independence may be vague and ambiguous in some
respects, but it certainly attempts to introduce "unalienable Rights."
And furthermore, you also write:
I think it is possible to recast "Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty
and the pursuit of Happiness"into a less dogmatic, more flexible series of
statements which may be found to be heuristically true (or false) by
observations in certain contexts.
So if you think the statement from the Declaration of Independence I quoted
can be recast into other statements that are true "in certain contexts," are you
denying that there are "unalienable Rights" that apply to all human beings all
It would seem from your statement that this is indeed your conclusion, though
you do not quite come out and say it plainly.
I trust you realize the consequences of taking such a position?
If slavery is not wrong all the time for all people, how are we to argue
against those who make relativistic arguments supporting slavery in some
contexts, like Doug "Don't you progressives realize relativism means
relativism?!" Wilson, who though trashing progressives for introducing moral
chaos, himself introduces moral relativism regarding what some view as the
"absolute" wrong of slavery, in his views on the Biblical ethical approach to
the American South and the Confederacy.
I do not believe that observation and testing alone will get us to any
principles of Ethics with "unalienable Rights." Some kind of universal logical
statements must be inserted somewhere into an Ethical system if it is to have
any claim to "unalienable Rights." Introducing "God" into an Ethical system can
solve the problem, which no doubt is part of the appeal of religion for many.
It offers what appears to be a solid ground for "unalienable Rights." Of course
this really does not solve the problems, because as you have pointed out over
and over, and every fair observer perceives, there are countless "Gods"
asserting a variety of conflicting moral rules, and the concept of "God" itself
requires some sort of basis in observation and logical evaluation, unless you
take the total "faith" approach to justify belief in God, the later approach
introducing chaos into the system, because anything goes if you just rely ONLY
on "faith." "I had "faith" the family dog was speaking in "God's" voice and
told me to give all my money to the Moonies!"
I think though that there are some commonalties among many spiritual
traditions that do offer a starting point for attempting to develop a more
universal Ethics based on these commonalties: ethical rules against murder,
theft, lying, and an emphasis on "peace" as a value, etc., that many spiritual
traditions emphasize. The devil is in the details though, so this approach has
I am inclined to disagree, if what I am asserting does disagree with your
position, that there is no valid basis using facts and logical principles to
develop an ethics that introduces "unalienable Rights" into an ethical system,
rights which we apply all the time to all human beings in all contexts, not just
"certain contexts," as you so cleverly put it.
Consider the "hot" moral topic of torture. This debate is ongoing in public
right now, because of the so called "War On Terror." Some side with use of
torture to gain information to save the thousands of lives at stake in a
terrorist attack, others say we become just as bad as the terrorists if we use
their tactics, that the means in this case do not justify the ends, and that
torture is an "absolute" moral wrong. Applying the ethical approach I assume
you are taking, we could justify torture: no "unalienable Right" to happiness
for all, which I think torture destroys, there.
Indeed there are serious problems with using fact and reason to establish
"unalienable Rights." And also with how we can include in Ethics spiritual
issues that are fundamental for billions of human beings, without ending up at
each others throats over conflicting "absolute" ethical "God given" rules, that
end up justifying war against the nonbelievers, with war being a very
undesirable result from many ethical viewpoints!
I do think the concept of "unalienable Rights" very important. And I do not
think it should be tossed aside without pausing for a long time to consider the
consequences of what this means, pausing for a few thousand years, at least.
This is wandering a bit off topic, but isn't it a joke that Bush with his
grand moral convictions that never waver based on his religious faith, is
heading a system of government that is using "morally relativistic" arguments to
justify horrific torture of other human beings in prosecuting the "War On
Terror," some of whom are certainly innocents caught in the wrong place at the
wrong time, to fight "evil?"
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