Friday, July 04, 2008

Liberty, God and the Constitution

An email exchange with Right Wing Prof. He wrote::

Its being July 3, the web is starting to fill up on Independence Day posts, but there's one on Real Clear Politics today that brings up something I've toyed with discussing with you, if only because you seem to be a foaming at the mouth atheist.


I think she misses the boat, however good her article is. No, that's an overstatement. She implies it, but let me state it more clearly. I maintain that the great central idea upon which the US is founded is that the state, the Constitution, the government has no power to create, grant, or deny rights, because our rights come from our Creator. And that leads me to this topic I've thought about kicking around with you.

Leaving all theological discussions aside, it seems to me that the greatest problem from the perspective of liberty with atheism is that liberty cannot be inherent. The source of rights may be God, Nature, or the state. Nature really becomes the same as the state, because nature is subject to the realm of science, and science can be maniuplated to deny rights. The problem with the idea that the state grants rights is that any body that can grant rights can deny them.

Certainly, you might argue that God is subject to religious injunction and religion may be used to do the same. Without the First Amendment, you would have a valid point. But with no officially recognized state church, whose religious injunction could wield the necessary power to do so?

The Vatican was long suspicious of the First Amendment, or its effects. Pope Benedict has recognized that the freedom of religion protected by the Constitution has resulted in what is perhaps the most religious civilized nation on earth, where it is still the norm when you marry and have children to take them to church every Sunday. A state with no established church is not the same as an atheist nation (and in every one of those "Would you vote for x?" polls, atheists rank at the very bottom, even below Muslims in the post-9/11 polls).

I'm not trying to convert you. I'm Catholic. I'll leave conversion to my evangelical brethren. I believe, however, that atheism presents a paradoxical problem for libertarians. How can rights be inalieanble if they come from the state?
My reply:
First, Happy Independence Day, for tomorrow. As always, my good wishes are tempered with envy of your freedoms and Constitutional protections. I wish Paine had had his way, the French hadn't screwed up the whole revolution thing, and the torch that was lit in Philly had travelled here too.

I am a foaming at the mouth atheist, but I'll try to keep a napkin handy while we talk about this. I'm an atheist because I don't believe in God. I'm not picking on God here - there are so many things I disbelieve in it would be laborious to try to recite them. I expect you disbelieve in most of them as well. But that means that an argument that it would be convenient, for my libertarianism, to believe in God can't make a difference. God and liberty, for me, are separate arguments.

You're right, though, to say that an absence of divine justification for natural rights leaves a problem. I think of this in two ways.

First, we are naturally autonomous. If you want to determine the properties of something, you isolate it and see what you have. If you isolate a person, on a desert island, perhaps, you have a completely free creature, but one that has to bear the consequences of their actions, or inaction. If Crusoe builds a hut, he has somewhere to keep dry when it rains. If not, he gets wet - and there's nobody to whinge to. He can say and do what he likes, but has to take the consequences of his actions - there are no consequences for his words. That's our natural state.

But we don't live on desert islands. So we accept, most of us, that society brings with it some responsibilities. On the whole we should be free to decide for ourselves what those responsibilities are: if we feel the homeless deserve some help, we can help them ourselves. Some things do need state intervention - keeping us all free from the brutalities of some others, for example. That means the state should enforce a minimal legal code - protection of the person and of property - and maintain national defence. That's about it.

Second, the absence of divine support for freedom brings the realisation that it's something we have to win for ourselves, and that's a useful realisation because it's true. It's a never ending struggle. Milton Friedman talked about this - I'll try to find the YouTube clip. I doubt he was an atheist, but he said that the sort of free society he advocated wasn't the normal state of man. This has almost always been tyranny. With the exception, he said, of 19th century Britain and America, and 4th century BC Athens (leaving the slaves to one side), man has always lived under tyrannies. The advocacy of liberty isn't a call for a return to a golden age, it's a fight for a new condition of freedom, and the abolition of tyrannies.

Rights cannot be inalienable if they come from the state. They have to come from individuals, won from the tyranny of the state by individuals acting in concert, and that condition of freedom would have to jealously, and zealously, guarded.

The degredation of the idea of constitutions is one of the horrors* of our time. Constitutions limit the state, but marxists try to turn that on its head and argue they define the responsibilities of the individual to the state. This deserves to be treated with contempt and the true meaning of constitutional democracy - free citizens electing a government with severley limited powers to perform a limited role - needs to be advocated and maintained against this inversion of the truth. But Marxists have turned the idea of freedom on its head, arguing that "positive" freedom means a world of unlimited state intervention. That's what Marxists do - they are entryists, even into ideas and language.
There might be more later.

(I left the typos in, these were quick emails).

*And the ridiculous hyperbole. Still, it's a bad thing.


B8ovin said...

Nature is equivalent to science, and since science can be manipulated the natural state can be manipulated.

Science has yet to explain where consciousness comes from or when it begins or what other animals have self-consciousness, but it can't be denied. And it is this that gives rise to the recognition of rights. The question of god becomes circular: we have consciousness because god gave it to us, and we understand this because we have consciousness. If the argument is, that as an atheist, I don't understand why I want human rights for myself and thereby recognize that those rights are conferred upon every one, than the poster is delusional. The belief in god does not bequeath human rights any more than the belief in god insures moral behavior. The understanding of humanity, the non-deity of man, inspires such rights, while the need for an exemplar gives rise to the analogy of perfection that is the common mythology of god.

Unknown said...

"The belief in god does not bequeath human rights"

Nobody said it did. The Founding Fathers said that God bestowed rights on us, and the state can only recognize and protect those rights, not add to them, or take them away. Now, address the topic. You did not. You did a few verbal back flips and danced around the question.

Either God or the state grants rights. No "understanding of humanity" grants rights; an understanding of humanity is a long history of tyrannies -- unless by "understanding of humanity" you mean your personal idea of humanity, and you're back to theology -- humanistic theology, but theology, nonetheless.

Either God or the state grants rights. Which is it?

Peter Risdon said...

"Either God or the state grants rights. Which is it?"

I say we have to win them, as individuals acting in concert, from the state. But I understand you're not addressing my argument in this comment. Have a great holiday, and respond at leisure when you're ready.

Peter Risdon said...

"Nature is equivalent to science"

I don't think that's true. Science is one form of the study of nature - theology is another but my atheism makes me a non-participant in that. The study of something is not the same as the thing being studied.

B8ovin said...

"Either god or the state grants rights, which is it?"

Well, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt for taking my quote out of a complete context. In answer to your question, it is neither.

If you say "god" grants rights you are compelled to say which god. So, out of the thousands of gods throughout history, which one granted human rights. For that matter, why are they human rights and not godly rights? This is more than mere semantics, for the "human" here not only refers to those upon whom said rights are conferred, but also on those who recognize them. If you insist that God confers them I would ask you how you know? The only recognition of these rights is within non-godly texts. While some ancient texts hint atthe understanding of individual rights, certainly none spell them out and none grant them to ALL people. The Bible says nothing about such rights, and the old testament describes a god nowhere near interested in human rights.
The second part of your question is specious at best. The state cannot grant something that is a birthright. It can recognize that birthright and vow to protect that birthright from itself and criminals, but it can't grant it. This is why the treatment of prisoners at Gitmo is wrong. The Bush administration, that is, the state, mistakes the constitutional recognition of human rights to be inclusive in the constitution only, rather than an encompassing human condition, reserving, in a rhetorical capacity only, that said rights are described only for citizens protected by the Constitution. They are wrong whichever side you choose. If god grants said rights then he grants them universally, if they are the birthright of all humans, country of origin doesn't matter.
Human rights are nothing without consciousness, that is, the knowledge that denying them belittles the protection of all. The ephemeral nature of "human rights" is demonstrated in the cultural tenacity to exalt them or ignore them. This does not deny their importance, it only shows that neither innate nature nor religious belief insures their recognition.
I might also point out that the original linked essay made quite a big deal out of the United States being a young nation with an ancient idea of rights. One is not exclusive of the other, as the framers of this country had centuries of ideas and examples, good and bad, to choose from. While France did not approach the sophistication of such rights that this country did, many of these ideas began there during the decades preceding our revolution.