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Unalienable Rights

2024-06-16

Thinking recently about brotherhood and pluralism in an American context spurred me to reflect on the American creed expressed so succinctly in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

But what makes a certain right unalienable? And are other rights alienable?

Apparently the distinction between alienable and unalienable rights was first drawn by Francis Hutcheson in his Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725), where he asserted that a right is alienable (literally, "otherable") only if it meets two conditions: (1) "If the Alienation be within our natural Power, so that it be possible for us in Fact to transfer our Right." (2) "It must appear, that to transfer such Rights may serve some valuable Purpose."

For example, your right to a legitimately acquired piece of property is alienable, since if you sell the property to me then by that very act you transfer the right over to me.

By contrast, consider the rights proclaimed by the Declaration:

  1. Your right to your own life is unalienable because you can't sell yourself into slavery, nor would there ever be a "valuable purpose" in doing so.
  2. On some construals, your right to liberty (e.g., liberty of thought, judgment, feeling, opinion, belief) is also unalienable because it's impossible for someone else to think or judge or feel or form opinions or beliefs for you - these are inherently capacities and activities of individuals.
  3. Similarly, you are the only person who can pursue your own happiness and fulfillment in life - it's not within anyone else's power to do that even though we are social beings, for happiness and fulfillment are in large measure constituted by the pursuit itself. Thus this right is unalienable, too.

To my mind, it's significant that all three of these unalienable rights are broadly grounded in a conception of human personhood and human action. Although that conception is not uniquely American (since its sources include British law, Christian religion, Enlightenment thinking, ancient history, and classical philosophy), it was uniquely expressed in the ideals of the American founding and thus perhaps can still strengthen the ties that bind Americans together, both today and in the future.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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Persuasion vs. Power

2024-06-14

In my post about pluralism the other day, I mentioned in passing a crucial proviso: those who wish to force their positions on the rest of us have thereby placed themselves outside what Michael Oakeshott called the human conversation.

I don't mean to idealize human relations. Every society lies somewhere on a continuum from pure power to pure persuasion, with thoroughgoing totalitarianism on one end and perhaps small-scale hunter-gatherer bands on the other end. Yet when it comes to matters of conscience and belief, I see no place for power; this is the realm of persuasion plain and simple.

It's true that persuasion requires both time and patience. That's why most revolutionaries have no time for time and no patience for patience: society must be overhauled from the ground up, and right now!

Power and persuasion are polar opposites, which is why it's so dangerous to equate the two. As we've seen with the recent college protests (starting at my alma mater Columbia University), when silence is violence then violence becomes speech. It's especially troubling and telling that this transformation has happened at institutions which for centuries were bastions of free inquiry. In the face of this deep moral and intellectual disintegration, the best we can do as individuals is to rededicate ourselves to persuasion in our own lives.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics III.1-5

2024-06-11

As mentioned last time, toward the end of Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle states that character traits are things that we choose. In the first half of Book III, he provides a deeper analysis of related issues: the extent to which actions are willing or unwilling, the nature of deliberation and choice, etc. Although the discussion is somewhat technical in spots and has given scholars much to chew on, in the end it has a number of practical implications.

The basic question is this: are you the ultimate source (ἀρχή) of your actions and character traits? Aristotle is not impressed by arguments to the effect that you're not to blame if you do bad things while in a highly emotional state such as rage (because you could have controlled your anger) or while in ignorance of the right way to act (because it's your responsibility as an adult human being to understand the good). At root, you have a choice about how to live: it's not enough to merely wish for virtue and happiness and fulfillment; instead you need to make beautifully right commitments in life and actively deliberate about how to realize those commitments. This requires discernment and reflection to close the gap between the ideal and the real - or, as he puts it, to make your goal or completion (τέλος) of finding fulfillment (εὐδαιμονία) actually determinate in particular actions. The worthy person who takes life seriously finds a way to do this, whereas the unworthy person who tolerates injustice or wallows in decadence finds excuses for doing the wrong thing. One such excuse is the misguided belief that repeated action of a certain kind, whether good or bad, won't lead to the formation of a character trait; by contrast, Aristotle says, you'd need to be utterly lacking in awareness to not understand that people complete themselves (διατελοῦσι) through their activities (1114a9).

Yet he observes that actions and traits are willing in different ways: an action is up to us and under our control from start (ἀρχή) to finish (τέλος), whereas a trait is willingly begun (presumably through said actions) even though it's not easy to trace exactly how we add to it over time. However, whether and how we use or apply a trait in our actions is always up to us, so a trait still ends up being something willing.

At this point, Aristotle has finished his consideration of the preliminaries and is ready to dig into the thrivings of character, starting with courage. We'll pick up there next time.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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E Pluribus Unum

2024-06-10

Following up on my post about brotherhood, I've continued to think about ways to cultivate a more magnanimous attitude toward other people and groups. One idea I'm trying on for size is seeing different viewpoints as contributing to the overall evolution of society. This is especially challenging in the political realm, which is mired in binary thinking, polarization, and demonization of The Other; yet, for that very reason, perhaps here such a mindshift could be especially valuable.

Consider a few examples:

As usual, the best path forward likely lies somewhere in between and can be found only through a process that the civilizational historian Carroll Quigley called "the gradual and communal search for truth". Unfortunately, that search is too often impeded by those who think they have all the answers and who won't even consider the insights that folks with other viewpoints might bring to the table - or, worse, who wish to force their positions on the rest of us. Yes, there are many reasons for pessimism these days; yet pessimism is no way to live, and I'm optimistic that time, tolerance, moderation, and a commitment to the human conversation can overcome these obstacles.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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Brotherhood

2024-05-28

A few months ago, Eric Hoel published a fascinating post about the nature of 21st-century society (read the whole thing, linked below, as background to what I write here). Hoel used Hegel (by way of Francis Fukuyama) and Nietzsche (by way of James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg) as the jumping-off points for an analysis of what ails us. His dialectical thesis is the centrality of mob psychology in our current moment, and his antithesis is the sovereign individual who can rise above the mob.

But where can we find a synthesis that will enable us to move beyond these unpalatable alternatives?

One clue is that today's superstar sovereign individuals (think Elon Musk or Taylor Swift) can rise above only through the adulation of a large percentage of the very mob they putatively oppose. Incurring a fundamental dependence on the mob is neither a realistic nor a sustainable path to wholeness.

Instead, we need to identify a beautifully right mid-range that does justice to human sociality without sacrificing personal dignity and intellectual independence. If you ask me, we don't have far to look: Aristotle's concept of civic friendship, or in old-fashioned terminology the ideal of brotherhood.

Interestingly, Aristotle observes that true political leaders value friendship even above justice, because it binds people together into a more cohesive (yet still loosely organized) community. Granted, this was all much easier in ancient Greece, where city-states typically contained less than 10,000 people (Athens was exceptionally large for its time, since it was home to ~30,000 men with rights of citizenship plus another ~200,000 women, children, foreigners, and slaves). Scaling up brotherhood to even a small modern nation (say, Lithuania, which has less than 3 million people) is less straightforward, although ethnic solidarity usually plays a major role. It's even more difficult to build bonds in a large, multi-ethnic society like the USA, which is why it's no surprise that America is such a fractious place.

Yet there are countless opportunities for strengthening ties closer to home, such as in your neighborhood, town, county, or metropolitan area. Another worthy challenge is cultivating an attitude of civic friendship, brotherhood, and benevolence toward people in your community, state, or nation - even or especially the foks you disagree with politically, because deeper than the surface politics of parties and factions is what Aristotle called the shared work (koinon ergon) underlying the multifarious activities that citizens engage in to fulfill the way of life they pursue together. This isn't easy and I can't claim to excel at it, but it's an area in which I'm trying to improve...

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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Virtue and Happiness

2024-05-18

One of Aristotle's signature claims in ethics is that virtue and happiness go hand in hand. To our ears this sounds questionable at best, because we think of virtue as a matter of following rules and doing your duty, whereas we think of happiness as a matter of having fun and experiencing pleasure. "Do your duty and you'll have lots of fun?" Um, no!

Because Aristotle was one of the most brilliant people who ever lived, it's doubtful that he would have adopted and passionately defended such a ridiculous position. This prods us to dig beneath the surface and understand what he really meant.

If we render ἀρετή as "excellence" or "thriving" of character and εὐδαιμονία as "flourishing" or "fulfillment" across a person's lifetime, then we can begin to see that true fulfillment depends on completely developing your capacities, fully maturing as a person, and guiding your life based on real self-knowledge and a deep understanding of human nature. Suddenly the gap doesn't seem so wide, does it?

Naturally, this is the merest sketch - fleshing it out in detail is a lot of work. I'll devote quite a few pages to delivering on this promissory note in my forthcoming book on Aristotle's conception of human fulfillment.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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