Saturday, February 26, 2011

No theory of rights

The other day I had a discussion over a cup of coffee which helped me clarify my ideas on human rights (and perhaps on philosophy also). I am coming to the view that rights are a way of speaking rather than something one can have a theory about. [I am not talking of legal rights* here, but rather about what might be called moral or natural rights (sometimes seen as the basis or justification for legal rights).]

My interlocutor was particularly interested in whether or not children have rights. We agreed that animals do not, because they could never comprehend the reciprocal notion of obligation. But nor can very young children. I suggested that maybe children could be granted rights on the basis that they would grow in the future to understand reciprocal obligations.

My friend noted that respect for children was built into the moral convention that (women and) children are given priority in the sinking ship scenario, but I suggested that it was not useful to talk about this in terms of rights. He said that adults giving themselves priority over (weaker) children in life-or-death situations - pushing children aside in the rush for the lifeboats - was considered morally despicable. True. But I don't think 'rights' are necessarily involved here - certainly the situation can be fully described without using the word.

When I imagined a pregnant woman with a terminal brain tumor on the sinking ship (to highlight the question of the status of the unborn child in this situation), I began to recognize the absurdity into which these sorts of discussion all too often descend.

All this strengthened my conviction that rights (and similar concepts) cannot be treated scientifically, as it were. They cannot be quantified or dealt with in a scientifically precise way. As with many other issues of semantics and communication, there are prototypical cases, where a concept is fairly clear, and more marginal cases, where there is scope for disagreement.

To take a trivial but instructive case, if I am queueing in a supermarket and somebody tries to push in ahead of me, I can justly tell him that he has no right to do so. (Either he has failed to understand the queueing convention or he is flouting it.)

Too often, though, the concept of rights is used in contexts far removed from these semantically clear cases, and far removed also from any spontaneous and plausible natural language usage. Such tendentious and problematic use of the term only serves to sow confusion.

'Right' and 'rights' are just words, but words which, used sparingly and appropriately, evoke an aspect of the multifaceted moral environment in which we all move.

*Explicit laws (or rules or regulations) can of course unambiguously assign legal (or other formal) rights to individuals or groups.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Lost world

Early-to-mid 20th century Europe and America (to the extent that America reflected aspects of European culture) is my spiritual home. The world of the new physics and the Vienna Circle. A world of artistic and literary ferment. Even much of the popular culture was not ephemeral (the Gershwin brothers for example).

And yet I know this world only by the traces it has left - books, paintings, films, songs; but, more importantly, by overlapping generations and manners of thought, speech and action that survived long enough for me to learn to love and respect them.

I don't know that book-learning is ever really enough to know a culture. One has to grow up in it - or at least to mix with those who did or, more doubtfully, to mix with those who mixed with those who did! That song comes to mind: I've danced with a man, who's danced with a girl, who's danced with the Prince of Wales...

When I was an undergraduate, many of the older academics spoke English with German or Hungarian accents and epitomized for me the archetypal European scholar. There were stories of encounters with famous names. An old colleague (and friend) was taught logic at Harvard by Willard Van Orman Quine and this mattered to me.

I recognize of course that much of this is idealized and even illusory and based on the same rather childish tendencies which drive teenagers to emulate pop-culture icons, or hang around hotel exits.

The difference is that my idols all checked out some time ago.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The social self and the severely mentally disabled

In a comment on my post 'The social self and human rights', it was suggested that seeing selfhood and rights as deriving from social interactions left certain kinds of severely disabled people potentially vulnerable. Commenting on the comment, I agreed that some severely disabled people would on my account not have rights, but nonetheless they should be treated humanely and with due respect.

The reference to 'due respect' was a classic instance of begging the question, I must admit. If they are owed respect then they have a right to that respect - but my account of the social self seems to fail to explain that right.

Could one find within my framework a basis for respecting a child who was incapable of all higher cognitive functions and incapable also of learning even basic skills like self-feeding? I think one needs to take account of the social and emotional context - i.e. the mother, father, other carers, etc. Perhaps one could assign respect to the child on the basis of respect for these people.

What of the advanced Alzheimer's sufferer? His or her social connections with the world have been effectively erased. However, such people can be respected for what they were and for the traces which remain.

In general I think it would be appropriate if procedures for terminating such hopeless lives were available for those families who felt that the dignity of the sufferer would be better enhanced by death than by a continuation of life.

The topic of euthanasia is one which cannot be avoided in any proper discussion of the social self. I have given a preliminary view, and I would welcome comments.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Physics, metaphysics, religion and social thought

Are sciences like physics relevant to social and political thinking? Arguably they are, not directly, but as they influence one's general view of the world - one's metaphysics, if you like.

Consider relatively recent developments in physics - particularly those relating to our clearer understanding of the notion of quantum entanglement, and the realization that information is physical and a more basic physical concept than matter or energy.

These discoveries and new ways of thinking allow us to reassess various older traditions of thought. Personally, I am led to look again with increased respect at philosophers like F.H. Bradley (a 19th century philosophical idealist) who, entirely innocent of mathematics and formal logic, articulated a view of the world in which everything was related to everything else, everything was ultimately inseparable from the whole. Schopenhauer (drawing on Indian philosophy) had a similar view. Spinoza was an important source for Bradley's thought - indeed there is a rich tradition of thinkers in this vein. Some were religious, others less so or not at all. The wholesale rejection of idealism by philosophers in the early 20th century occurred just when physics was beginning a revolution which would vindicate important elements of philosophical idealism.

I am not suggesting a return to philosophical idealism, however. Any metaphysics of the future needs, in my opinion, to be firmly based in physics and quantum information theory.

Issues of politics and society can of course be dealt with without reference to physics or information theory; but they cannot be dealt with in any comprehensive way without reference to religion. This is because so many Western institutions and ideas and modes of thinking are influenced so profoundly by Christian and classical (especially Platonic and Stoic) thought. Even people who don't think of themselves as religious continue to hold beliefs which derive directly from religious traditions. This applies to value systems (humanism could be seen to be a Christian value system) and also to more general ways of thinking about oneself. Religious ways of thinking (e.g. the mind as something different from the body) come naturally to us, whereas scientific truths are often counter-intuitive.

My views on science and my (very limited) scientific knowledge form the basis of my secular view of the world; and this secular view clearly affects my political and social views. Physics and information theory may not have direct applications to social philosophy, but indirectly - by helping to form a secular view of reality - they influence profoundly my social thinking.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Even the most unpleasant

Some authors of crime fiction have a plausibly bleak view of the world. A few of them are also gifted writers capable of achieving high levels of stylistic elegance. Here is the one-sentence, almost conventional Author's Note from Death of an expert witness by P.D. James, a mystery based around a murder in an East Anglian forensic science laboratory:

"There is no official forensic science laboratory in East Anglia and, even if there were, it is in the highest degree improbable that it would have anything in common with Hoggatt's Laboratory, whose staff, like all other characters in this story - even the most unpleasant - are purely imaginary and bear no resemblance to any person living or dead."

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The social self and human rights

All is one. Everything is connected to everything else. For centuries philosophers and mystics have said so. And maybe they were right.

Their convictions were based on feeling (oneness with Nature, etc.) but also on thinking about reality. Recent scientific and social thought based on some seminal 20th century ideas is very much in line with these basic insights.

Mutual information is the formal term used to describe the situation when two or more things or events share information with one another. Two things have mutual information if by looking at just one of them you can infer something about the properties of the other. This notion has applications in physics (quantum entanglement is a super-correlation of particles which may be separated by great distances, and a dramatic illustration of mutual information), but it also has applications in the social sciences. Mutual information has recently been used to help explain the origin of societal structures. (See, for example, Vlatko Vedral's Decoding reality (OUP 2010), pp. 93-108.)

In the middle years of the 20th century, structuralist thought developed in linguistics and other social sciences which encouraged this general line of thinking. In language, for example, it is not the actual speech sounds which matter so much as the relationship between the sounds. More radically, people could be seen not as atomistic individuals but as nodes in a network. In other words, we exist only to the extent to which we relate to others, and we are defined by the sum of those relations. Solitary confinement, then, could be seen as eating away at a person's very core.

But a prisoner in solitary confinement has already been formed by countless social interactions. Think of a new-born baby. What happens if the baby is isolated from all social contact (but continues to be fed and exercised etc.)? This is an experiment which would be unlikely to get ethics committee approval. The sad and fragmentary accounts of children raised by wolves or other wild animals suggest that they never adapt to human society. But at least these children raised in the wild had a society of sorts, albeit not human. A laboratory-raised child without social contact would arguably not be a person at all. Those who believe in the religious notion of the soul might beg to differ, but even religious people would accept that an infant raised without social and linguistic input could not function as a person.

This notion of personhood being essentially derived from the culture and community may be seen to pose problems for liberal (and classical liberal) ideals of human rights and individual freedom. If rights are seen to be somehow innate or objectively real (whether God-given or not), they may form the basis of a political or social philosophy.

But if the very existence of the person is not only dependent on, but in a profound sense derives from, the broader community, then any notion of individual rights will be contingent and circumscribed. What society gives, society can take away.

The view that I am putting seems to necessitate a drastic revision of the current notion of human rights. A strong case could be made that many supposed rights are mere fictions and others are inappropriately applied. Issues such as euthanasia may also have to be reconsidered.

Historically, liberal principles and notions of imprescriptible rights developed when virtually everyone believed in a spirit or soul which not only animated the body but encapsulated the individual's essence. How can they be reconciled with a purely secular view of the social self?

In addition to these problems of metaphysical baggage, the proliferation of human rights (or rights inflation) is further eroding the credibility of the concept. Behind this tendency to invent and assign new rights is the antagonism many on the left feel towards the idea of charity: if what the underprivileged receive is their 'right', they are (supposedly) not beholden to the generosity of others.

Despite these problems and confusions, I think it is still possible to be committed to classical liberal ideals (like individual freedom). What is valuable in this tradition of thought can still be defended - but on pragmatic rather than on religious or metaphysical grounds.

The rights which survive will not be static and innate but rather dynamic and, for the most part, contingent, arising out of a person's interactions and relations with others. Those who cannot - or who choose not to - embrace reciprocal responsibilities will not be accorded the freedoms enjoyed by those who can and do, but they too should be treated with justice and humanity.

For, arguably, not all rights are contingent. Justice (or due process) is fundamental to the view I am putting. Whereas most (all?) other rights are contingent on acceptable behavior, justice should apply equally to all.

Impartiality or 'equality before the law' is a centrally important idea, and it is only undermined by attempts by the left to implement other - more problematic - forms of equality.