[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) 
is good."

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.

Happy contemplating.


Wayne A. Fox
waf at moscow.com
PO Box 9421
Moscow, ID 83843
208 882-7975

  ----- 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?

  Wayne wrote:

  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.

  Ted replies:

  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.

  Ted replies:

  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 
the time?

  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 
many pitfalls.

  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?"

  Ted Moffett

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