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Lost in all of the squid ink Michael Anton has been emitting over this post, is the fact that his argument in favor of natural rights contains logical flaws and irreconcilable contradictions that he does not understand. That last part is not obvious, as he surrounds his argument with so much extraneous text that the reader is naturally distracted from the defects. Maybe the wordiness is deliberate or maybe he simply does not understand his own argument very well.
His argument in the original exchange with Paul Gottfried is that natural rights are a timeless universal concept rooted in nature. Because they are rooted in nature, they are the best basis for the politics of the New Right and society. My post pointing out the obvious flaws with this argument elicited a long ad hominin attack, pock marked with nonsense clams about human nature. His original argument did not get any better, it simply got longer and more vituperative.
The place to start in order to see the problems with Anton’s argument is something called non-contextual reality. This is the claim that objects exist in space-time regardless of whether we observe them. You walk into a field and see a giant boulder. You accept that even though you just saw the boulder for the first time, it existed as an object in space-time before you happened upon it. When you turn your back and no longer see the boulder, the boulder is still there in the field.
In fact, the existence of space-time is assumed to be non-contextual. At least that is what much of our science claims to be true. The starting assumption of the human sciences, and all science for that matter, is that human senses evolved to gain a more accurate perception of reality over time. The reason humans sit atop the food chain is we have superior perception of non-contextual reality. Reality exists and we humans get better at understanding it over time.
This may come up a bit later, but the case for non-contextual reality is coming under increasing pressure within theoretical physics. Quantum mechanics seems to contradict local realism, which is shorthand for two principles. The principle of locality says the cause of a physical change must be local. The principle of realism states that objects exist independent of our minds. Experimental results indicate we do not live in a universe controlled by local realism.
For the purpose of this topic, we will assume non-contextual reality. Now, going back to that boulder in a field, you come upon it and you see it, but you also have the ability to remember it. That is because your senses process the inputs from the physical world to create the image of the boulder. Your eyes process light waves. Your ears process the movement of the air as sound. Your sense of smell may process the chemicals in the air to add more context to the image.
This is how your brain perceives reality. Your sense organs process inputs to create the image of the boulder, the sound of the birds, maybe the smell of the grass and other things that help your brain complete the picture. It is also possible that your brain will make a mistake and imagine you see birds, because you hear birds chirping and your brain takes a shortcut and places a bird in the picture. It is why two people can see slightly different things. No two brains are the same.
These small differences in perception are the basis for optical illusions. Two people are shown the same image, but they see different things. Maybe one person sees vertical stripes while the other person sees horizontal stripes. There used to be a form of dormitory art that played this sort of trick. You looked at the poster and it was one image, but if you kept staring at it you saw a different image. Some people would not see the second image at all, even with help.
It is also why one man can create an image of Middle Earth while another man cannot conceive of such a thing. The former read the books or saw the movies, so his brain has the material to create the imaginary land. That last bit is the important bit. The world Tolkien created does not and cannot exist. The latter person did not read the books or see the movies, so this concept does not exist in his brain. This figment of Tolkien’s imagination was not transmitted to him.
The same tools the human brain uses to perceive objects in space-time are used to conceive of things that do not and cannot exist as objects in space-time. Our brains can create contextual reality because we can perceive non-contextual reality. In fact, damaged brains can create things that will appear to be more real to the user than the things that actually exist as objects in space-time. Our lunatic asylums and grievance studies programs are full of such people.
The reason you will not bump into an elf with an armful of natural rights on your walk to see the giant boulder is the elf and natural rights are not objects in space-time, so they do not exist in non-contextual reality. They exist in contextual reality, which means they are figments of our imagination. From the perspective of the universe, the elf and natural right are equally fictional. If humanity is wiped out, the concept of the elf and his natural rights are wiped out too.
This is Anton’s first error. He seems to think natural rights are objects in space-time, when they exist only in the imagination of man. He confuses what we observe about human behavior, what we often call human nature, with the concept of natural rights and then claims natural rights are as real as a rose bush. This is false. What we observe about living creatures, including man, exists in non-contextual reality while the opinions we draw from those observations do not.
This brings us to the second fatal error in Anton’s world view. He assumes subjective observations about nature can be an objective moral authority. In his initial response, he takes issue with my statement that natural rights are no more real than lust. He writes, “Does Z-Man think the sex drive itself is a ‘figment of the imagination’? Or is he rather saying that there is no difference between lust and the sex drive, that the sex drive is lust and vice versa?”
Most people would have read that part of his post as a deliberate lie in service to a straw man argument. The word “lust” has two meanings. One is the intense desire for something. A lust for life, for example. In normal usage, and clearly the way I used it in my post, lust is an inappropriate desire, usually for sex. The former is descriptive, while the latter is prescriptive. If someone respected Anton’s intellect more than most, he would assume this error was deliberate.
This confusion is not deliberate. Anton writes, “These questions go directly to the heart of the issue under consideration. The denial of lust and of human rights stems from a denial of human nature, the ground of justice and of all human good.” Right there we see that Anton thinks that what he imagines to be human nature, can be the foundation for normative claims about “justice” and ‘human good”. He thinks what we observe in nature can be a moral authority.
In order to fully grasp the staggering ignorance of this assertion, we have to first clarify our terms. Moral philosophy has imbued the word “right” with magical properties, but a right is simply an entitlement. If your health club says that gold members have a right to park near the building, you know they are entitled to park near the building. If they say that gold members are entitled to park near the building, you know they have a right to park near the building.
Who decided this? What is the authority for this claim? The answer is the people who run the health club. No sane person would argue that nature entitles you to park next to the building of your health club. Even if you are the sort who argues that all societies are hierarchical, you are not going to claim that nature or nature’s god dictates that gold level members get to park next to the building. That entitlement is man made, a creation of the people who run the health club.
This is true of all entitlements. They are decided upon by an appropriate authority, which is always the creation of man. Your right to park near the building is the creation of your health club owner. Your right to a jury of your peers is created by society. Nature is descriptive, moral claims are prescriptive. This is why Locke had to rely upon God as the authority for his natural rights argument. Nature alone was not enough, he needed nature’s God to be the ultimate authority.
Now, Anton tries to cross the tines of Hume’s fork by arguing that natural rights are inspired by observations about human nature. This is logically invalid, because nature does not come with entitlements. Just because you, as a living thing, seek to preserve your life, the universe is not obligated to respect the moral right of self-defense. All that matters to the universe is if you pass copies of your genes to the next generation. The universe cares about one thing and that is fitness.
This explains why this concept of natural rights does not appear in other cultures around the world. They exist in contextual reality, which means they only exist when we observe them. There is no oral tradition of natural rights among the Bantu, because this concept does not exist in their brains. China lacks the language for natural rights, because in the reality of the Han, this concept does not exist. Natural rights are culture specific, because culture is people specific.
Interestingly, Anton tries to explain the localism of the natural rights concept with the claim that not all people have discovered them. You see, the Bantu would pile into the Straus buggy if someone explained natural rights to them. No doubt the ancient culture of the Chinese would be overturned in a minute if someone just translated Locke into Mandarin for them. Once that elf and his arm load of natural rights makes his way to Bangalore, India will be the new Athens.
Even though natural rights theory is invalid as a matter of logic and science, this is not the biggest problem with Anton’s argument. Let us pretend that natural rights are a naturally occurring phenomenon as Anton insists. That means they are subject to the laws of nature, like everything else. That would also mean that nature can tell us something about his claim that natural rights theory is the best foundation for right-wing politics and the politics of a human society.
Consider this statement. “Natural rights are the best foundation for society.” Now consider this statement. “Invisible leprechauns farting pixie dust are the best foundation for society.” Without addressing the issue of whether natural rights or invisible leprechauns exist in non-contextual reality, there is only one thing we can say about these two statements. Both cannot be true. If natural rights are best, then leprechauns cannot be best and vice-versa.
Now, it is tempting to start by asking which one is more likely to be true? Surely nature will be more friendly to the more accurate statement. Most people would be tempted to pick the first statement, solely on the grounds that they think natural rights are more likely to exist than leprechauns. Most people would be wrong. It turns out that nature, in fact the universe, is not concerned with accuracy. What drives the whole of the universe is fitness and fitness beats truth.
For those who enjoy a technical explanation, here is the paper using evolutionary game theory to support the claim that fitness beats truth. Just as important, fitness is the universal principle of the universe. It applies not just to living creatures, but to the things we conjure with our minds. It applies to language, culture, religion, medicine, politics and the sciences. A solution to a problem, for example, evolves over time as new variants come along to compete with the current solutions
The reason that we no longer see human societies ruled by men who claim to be gods is that form of government died out. It died out for the same reason that the saber-toothed tiger died out. It failed the fitness test. Better ideas came along and out-competed the god-king concept. The reason doctors no longer follow Aristotle’s advice on medicine is those ideas failed the fitness test. Current medicine has passed the fitness test but in time will be replaced as well.
If you are going to make appeals to nature, as Michael Anton does in defense of natural rights, you better be prepared to address the fitness question. So what does the fitness test tell us about those two statements? Unless someone can find a society that based its moral code on invisible leprechauns farting pixie dust, the only thing we can say is nature has not rendered a conclusion. To paraphrase the libertarians, real invisible leprechauns have never been tried.
That is not true for basing a society on natural rights. Athens had a short run of success, but was eventually conquered. Their love of debate also brought them to the brink of extermination in the Peloponnesian wars. Comparatively speaking, the first example of a society based on something close to natural rights did not make it long. The concept did not make a return for over a thousand of years when it suddenly popped up again among the English speaking people of the West.
The framers tried to found their political order on natural rights and the mostly did it after some trial and error. In less than a single generation the northern states wanted out of the scheme. The Hartford Conventions would most likely led to secession if not for the War of 1812. Then we get the Civil War and the end of the Republic as conceived by the framers. Anton would no doubt claim this was not the end of the natural rights experiment, but the completion of it.
Even if one accept the claims of the Straus cult on this point, no one can deny that the whole natural right regime melted away in the 20th century. Exactly no one in the ruling class respects the rights of the citizens. In fact, it is integral to their identity now to oppose the very idea of rights in any form. This is true across the West. This very Western concept of natural rights, which was the basis for our moral order, has lost the fitness test and is now extinct.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but nature has not been kind to natural rights. Like the giant panda, natural rights exist now only as an exhibit. Michael Anton is the zoo keeper tending to this concept that has failed the fitness test. Like the panda, natural rights should have died out a long time ago, but people are sentimental, so keeping the idea alive has become a profession. It turns out that the invisible leprechauns farting pixie dust are the better choice, as they have yet to fail the fitness test.
When you put it all together, Anton’s natural rights argument is illogical and in direct contradiction with its claimed authority. He keeps insisting nature is the authority for his moral claims, but nature can never be the authority for moral claims. What nature tells us is that this bit of contextual reality has failed the fitness test. If you want some inspiration from nature, that is the place to start. Avoid embracing contextual reality that has failed the fitness test.
In the end, Michael Anton’s antiquarianism is just escapism. He loves to rant against tradition and historicism, but he and the other natural rights proponents are the ones trapped in the past. He thinks we can pull long dead ideas out of the museum storage closet and apply them to a people who find these ideas as alien as the leprechauns farting pixie dust. Like everyone in that scene, he simply cannot accept that the solutions of tomorrow are not in the past.
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