Thursday, January 31, 2013

Regarding absolutes

Serious philosophers hold that there are absolutes - perhaps, indeed, that everything (every existent, every fact, every event, every sound mental integration of such things) is an absolute, i.e., not subject to alteration or revision.  The question then arises, what does that mean?  I'll respond first with a concrete instance: It's an absolute that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776; it is a fact and as such it isn't alterable.  But from what I've seen, many people have difficulties with the concept of absolutes (or absolutism), and so an example such as this might not really hit home in the face of their objection to, or rejection of, the idea that there are absolutes.

Miss Rand dismisses the doubters thusly:
“There are no absolutes,” they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are uttering an absolute.
That sounds like a familiar stock response to skeptics who utter something to the effect that there are no absolutes.  It works, but maybe it doesn't address the non-skeptics, the "ordinary folks out there" who are suspicious of those who speak in terms of absolutes.  What I want to suggest is that  there isn't true confusion (among intellectually serious people) over there being absolutes or not, but rather the issue is what the rejection of something put forward as an absolute means in people's minds.  Are they really rejecting the idea of an absolute, or are they misunderstanding what "absolute" means to the serious philosopher, or are they, perhaps, simply rejecting something proposed as an absolute because either (a) they don't think the that something being proposed as an absolute (often a controversial moral, political, or religious ideal or principle) should be regard as an absolute, or (b) because the absolute being offered is ill-formed?

The case-in-point that brought me to thinking about this appeared in philosopher Edward Feser's blog, under the blog entry titled "The road from libertarianism," which chronicles his move away from ("right-wing" or capitalist) libertarianism to the politically conservative position he holds today.  What stuck in my mind was this paragraph in particular:
That the “ownership” aspect of the thesis is no less indeterminate than the “self” aspect also became more evident to me as I thought more carefully about John Locke, who was a defender of the thesis of self-ownership but also someone who denied that our rights were so absolute that we could have a right to commit suicide or to sell ourselves into slavery.  And after all, in everyday life we can rightly be said to own all sorts of things to which we don’t have absolute property rights.  For example, you might own the land your house sits on without thereby having the right to store nuclear waste on it.  But then, how absolute should we take property rights to be, and why?  That depends on your theory of rights.  And that reinforces the point that the thesis of self-ownership by itselfdoesn’t tell us nearly as much as many libertarians think it does.  Ifthe theory of rights that underlies the thesis entails an absolute right of self-ownership, then our rights over ourselves are exactly what libertarians think they are.  But if the theory that underlies the thesis does not entail such an absolute right -- as it didn’t for Locke -- then we might in some sense own ourselves, but withouttherefore having the right to take heroin, or unilaterally to divorce a spouse, or whatever.  Again, the idea of self-ownership by itselfwon’t tell you either way.  You have to look to the underlying theory of rights to find out -- in which case the thesis of self-ownership isn’t doing a whole lot of work.
The word "absolute" shows up five times in this paragraph, and as a means of dispensing with the idea of "self-ownership" as an absolute right or principle.  Feser's framing of the issue isn't so much about the absoluteness of a purported right of self-ownership, but about having to appeal to some other moral principles to make the principle determinate.  Do we have the right to sell ourselves into slavery?  That question can lead us in one of (at least) two directions: We can ask whether understanding the principle of self-ownership as an absolute leads us to accept the legal propriety of selling oneself into slavery; or, we can ask whether we need to appeal to other moral principles to determine whether a usefully determinate right of self-ownership entails the right to sell oneself into slavery.  Feser treats both of these in perhaps a significantly-related way.  My focus here, though, is on the way in which the term "absolute" is being used.  This need not even concern specifically the right of self-ownership under question, for early in the paragraph he discusses the idea of absolute property rights (over non-bodily resources) in conjunction with whether or not we have the right to store nuclear waste on our property, which raises intuitive concerns not altogether different than those raised by questions about a right to sell oneself into slavery.

That being clarified, let us now ask: Does your having an absolute right with respect to your duly-acquired property entail that you have the right to store nuclear waste there, right in the middle of a neighborhood, say?

This ties in with recent public debate over the Second Amendment individual right to bear arms.  Some people in the debate claim that the individual right to bear arms isn't absolute because we aren't rightfully permitted as individuals to bear nuclear arms.  This claim must be distinguished from a similar-sounding familiar claim, which says that the Second Amendment individual right to bear arms doesn't extend in scope to an individual right to bear nuclear arms - that such a restriction bearing on one's legal rights does not run afoul of the Second Amendment.  If someone makes this latter claim, they may or may not also mean to say that the Second Amendment isn't an absolute.  And that's the crux of the matter.

What I would advocate is the view that the Second Amendment, viewed as an absolute, doesn't extend in scope to an individual right to bear nuclear arms.  This, in short, as an example, illustrates the (absolute!) principle that there are absolutes, when those absolutes are properly formulated.  A not-so-serious "philosopher" might infer that the "when those absolutes..." qualification, by virtue of being a qualification or a condition, rules out the principle understood as an absolute.  In this person's mind, the concept of a conditional or qualified absolute doesn't compute.  The problem is, I think many folks out there suffer from this very problem when considering the subject of absolutes (assuming they ever actually consider them beyond brief dismissals of the very idea).  Now, Feser by all appearances is a serious philosopher but he engages in a not-so-serious approach to discussing absolutes in the way he does as quoted above.  It is pernicious to clear and cogent understanding of what is meant by "absolute," and as pernicious things go, "the least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold." (Aristotle)

So in analogy to the Second Amendment example, I return to Feser's commentary about absolute property rights and storing nuclear waste.  The whole issue concerns not whether the rights in question are absolutes - they are - but what the correctly specified contours and scope of those rights are.  We have an abstract principle of what I and Locke and Jefferson would term natural rights, which has a number of formulations all of which amount more or less to the same idea: that individuals are rightly the sovereigns over their personal domain - over their physical person and their duly acquired property - and that their personal domains must be capable of peacefully coexisting with the personal domains of others.  And what does that mean, in practice?  Here we need to be careful, in our transition from the abstract formulation to the practical implementation, not to erect a pernicious dichotomy between the two.  If in practical implementation, we end up with (say) a prohibition on storing nuclear waste in a neighborhood setting, we don't get to then say, "Oh, that abstract statement isn't so absolute after all," or, more perniciously, "That abstract statement of an absolute isn't helpful for practical application."  After all, storing nuclear waste in a neighborhood setting imposes an unreasonable risk or threat to the personal domains of one's neighbors.

But there is something to be said for not rationalistically dabbling in abstractions without the ability to formulate good, workable, concretely-detailed laws governing people's domain-regarding interactions.

(And to circumvent pernicious "cultural conservative" mischief, we distinguish domain-regarding interactions from interactions regarding all the other areas of life; we are concerned here only with how boundaries ought to be set.  Within those boundaries, people have every natural right to do things the "cultural conservatives" find so horribly objectionable that boundary-invading force needs to be employed - you know, to keep teh gayz from doing gay stuff, for instance.  Let us dismiss without serious consideration the question of whether "natural right of personal domain" doesn't extend to or encompass the right to engage in "victimless crimes."  Calling Lysander Spooner for the knock-down, drag-out, no-brainer argument-stopper on that one...)

So how do we figure out what is domain-respecting and what is domain-disrespecting?  Well, through practice.  That institution known as the common law wasn't deduced from abstractions in a vacuum or in a philosopher's armchair; the laws pertaining to personal domains had to evolve - or, arguably, better yet - be discovered (through trial-and-error) over a long period of time.  This would be a sort of "natural rights/natural law" variant upon a familiar Hayekian theme, stressing said discovery as the "telos" of the legal process while giving neither constructivist rationalism nor slavish adherence to tradition any respect.

(Hayek's formulation of the spontaneously evolved legal order is in terms of being "between instinct and reason," which I think eventually approaches in concept that which we usually refer to as "tradition." Someone of such Randian sensibilities as yours truly cannot accept that formulation; the evolution of common law happens in the correctly-defined "middle ground" between tradition and rationalism, which is a general cognitive malady of which Hayek's diagnosis of constructivist rationalism is a variety, and rationalism is not, ever, in any way, to be confused with reason.  The sense of the term "reason" that Rand endorses (the appropriate aforementioned "middle ground") involves experience, trial-and-error, historical data, and so on, which makes legal evolution not so much "spontaneous" as a process of experience-based reasoning in progressive/perfective discovery of the correct implementation of correct abstract principle (i.e., natural rights).  Indeed, the idea of natural rights itself wasn't always around, and had to be discovered through that very same sort of process.  For the extended Objectivist treatment of the cognitive malady that is rationalism (which is treating reason in effect as a process of deduction with floating abstractions), there is the indispensable Understanding Objectivism.  For an(other) extensive study of the Objectivist opposition to all kinds of false dichotomies, including the theoretical and the practical, there's Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.)

I make mention of Hayek in large part because that's where Feser's non-Randian, conservative political sensibilities are (keeping in mind that Hayek wrote this).  That might help to explain the pernicious language regarding absolute rights.  (Feser's more primary/fundamental philosophical sensibilities are closer to the Randian track, so that's good.  Being that he is of the theistic persuasion, one would very much expect a high regard for absolutes from him, but that doesn't mean that his paragraph quoted above isn't a slip into perniciousness.)  Hayek's approach to defending (classical) liberalism is a "pragmatic" one, and I'm not clear on whether this version of pragmatism isn't vulnerable to the standard objections to the pernicious sorts of pragmatism that eschew absolutism, or that it isn't at the very core of what Rand found so bad about Hayek qua defender of capitalism upon reading The Road to Serfdom.  It helps to keep in mind that the approach to defending classical liberal (and especially individualist) ideals among American theorists (Jefferson, Thoreau, Spooner, Tucker, Mencken, Rand, Rothbard, Nozick, Mack) tends to have a more extreme or robust flavor than that of the English ones (Hume, Smith, Bentham, Mill . . . hell, Mill ended up a socialist, and have the Brits ever really recovered since?); Hayek's approach coincides much more with the latter, and it's even reflected in his rather dull prose.

(EDIT: This parenthetical become something of a diversion, but it all integrates in the end, of course.  Herbert Spencer, a Brit, was more of a radical, and boy has he paid the price in the form of vicious smears as a "social Darwinist."  And such a familiar-sounding vicious smear, innit? . . . and wouldn't you know it, Sully the Fool strikes again!  Why is it that when I keep integrating, Sully keeps showing up as a useless fool?  Why, I ask, why?  Let me guess, he's probably totally bogged down these days in cabinet-nominee discussions, the sort of thing no serious, long-term-focused intellectuals get bogged down in.  And OMG, wouldn't you know it, I'm right.  That's his most recent posting.  Integration/induction works yet again.  Checkmate, dickweed.   Here, how 'bout you do this (assuming you're keeping up on what's of real importance, i.e., blogs like this one, and this one's just getting warmed up): direct your readers to reddit for all the "useful" articles you post to the Dish, condense every twenty "opinion" postings into one unit apiece instead, use the rest of your time to study philosophy, and you might actually end up a historically-influential public intellectual.  Note that Hitchens won't be remembered all that much in the long run (except perhaps as a well-spoken leading figure of the intellectually-juvenile and hence short-lived New Atheist movement of the very early 21st century), and you're headed right in the same direction.  I just have a sense for these sorts of things - for example, like how P.T. Anderson's non-Oscar-nominated The Master will far outlast many of the films that got Oscar nominations this year.  Clearly PTA has a higher similarity-score with Kubrick qua filmmaker than do Bigelow, Russell, Spielberg, and even Tarantino, and that pretty much tells the story, does it not.  Ayn Rand: now there's someone with lasting influence, for reasons all too obvious to folks like me.  Get a fucking clue, Sully!  Also, for those who don't know: Sully, of Brit origins, is much more in line with the Brits in his reverence for the boring, "reason"-downplaying and overly-conciliatory-sounding Hayek in preference to the robust, reason-celebrating and uncompromising Rand.  It all integrates and makes sense just as I said, dunnit?)

So I think that about does 'er.  Wraps 'er all up.  Was it a meticulously lengthy proving of the obvious, old wine in new bottles, or a genuinely valuable insight unfamiliar to many?  It gets harder and harder for me to tell these days.  And does it even meet my river-of-gold standards of late?  Shouldn't I be, like, abstractly theorizing about the Singularity of singularities - you know, the coming Big Integration, whatever (awesome thing) that turns out to be?  (How do we make it past this problem though?  Urgency, do you feel it?)  Aw heck, I'm rambling again.