Thursday, August 17, 2006


Continued Political Debate

Per Travis' request, I thought we would continue the political debate with a new post. We will begin with Travis' last statement:

We know by reason. The question is not the same as "Is there a God?" and it does not require a leap of faith to believe in natural laws. As you said, gravity is a natural law that we did not begin to understand well until fairly recently. Natural rights are similarly a subset of the natural law, one that we could bear to understand better.

The evidence we have, in this case, is inseparable from the human fabric itself, but that doesn't make it any less revealing. In contrast, there is nothing in the human fabric to prove or disprove the existence of God.

You are right Travis that we discovered the existence of gravity rather late in our development. However, upon its discovery and the time that has passed, there have been the creation of numerous scientific tests to determine its strength, power, and relative "pull" on spatial objects. I am not sure that the same thing could be said for Natural Rights. Natural laws can be tested in some way. Can natural rights also be tested in a similar fashion?

I'll restate Travis' earlier suggestion that we read Rothbard's "The Ethics of Liberty." I just started it last night, so I can't really comment yet. Seems to be a good start, though.

Just as in Austrian economics, we can use reason to deduce natural laws (including natural rights) from a few true and self-evident axioms. If the reasoning is valid, then it would be pointless to "test" the laws derived from it.

But what if the reasoning is wrong? I don't know.
So, how does the reasoning work? What are these true and self-evident axioms?

I'll suggest one: Cogito ergo sum (Descartes).
Quoting Rothbard on pages 32-33 of "Ethics of Liberty":

"...we may note that a proposition rises to the status of an axiom when he who denies it may be shown to be using it in the very course of the supposed refutation. Now, any person participating in any sort of discussion, including one on values, is, by virtue of so participating, alive and affirming life. For if he were really opposed to life, he would have no business in such a discussion, indeed he would have no business continuing to be alive. Hence, the supposed opponent of life is really affirming it in the very process of his discussion, and hence the preservation and furtherance of one's life takes on the stature of an incontestable axiom."
A few redundant points:
"Cogito ergo sum" was used by Descartes to prove the existence of God. (Inconclusively, to most readers.)

"Incontestable axiom" = "Mystery"

The laboratory for discovering natural law - the courts - has been closed for a long time, and in varying degrees.

Reason has its limits.

Many say the fabric of humanity is the proof that god exists.

Is it necessary to deny the possibility of revelation in order to maintain rational integrity?
Juris, all this talk about God is counter-productive. It's not difficult to convince religious people of the moral superiority of natural law and natural rights.

What we're trying to do here is figure out how to convince people of the existence of natural rights, with reason alone. It's a much harder sell that way, but very important nonetheless.

We can deduce the existence of gravity, but not its force or pull on varying spatial bodies without specific testing.

Does that mean that we are potentially able to deduce the existence of Natural Rights, but should ignore its application, practice, and usage?

We can know it exists, but in what capacity, when, and with what force or magnitude?

Do you propose to measure morality? According to natural rights or "realistic" ethics, something is good if it is in harmony with man's nature and bad if it is not. I'm not sure how you go about measuring that, finding degrees of immorality, etc., and I wish I had finished Rothbard's book before I got hit with all these good questions. As far as applications are concerned, I haven't made it that far yet. It would be way easier for me if everyone just read the book and then we could discuss this.

Either that or just wait a week or two and I'll be back with more Rothbardian axiomatic-deductive goodness after I finish.
"Incontestable axiom" = "Mystery"


Why? Is 2+2=4 a mystery? I am content to move on and not wonder why exactly it is true once it has been raised to the level of self-evidence; the fact that it is true allows us to use reason to discover more universal truths.

And your comment about Natural Law makes me think you're focusing just on the "common law" and not on the broader picture of Natural Laws in general, of which practical legal issues are one relatively small application or subset.

I recognize the desire to convince by reason alone, but I don't think it is possible. Student has done a very good job of whittling down our arguements and exposing them as ultimately utilitarian or otherwise lacking. Also, I believe there are significant dangers to following the "by reason alone" path.
To be sure there are dangers to the "revelatory" argument as well. Which is worse? I'm not sure.

Natural Rights are categorical. They are named, not quantified. Therefore we do not measure them. Any attempt to measure them is an attempt to limit them as well.
Why do governments institute a census? To tax us more accurately, or to discover the number of able-bodied men they can send to war. The measuring leads to "economizing" which is something government should never do with life, liberty, or property. It should protect these rights categorically, absolutely.

Travis, I wasn't trying to get at the fact that something is true so much as how do we know that it is true? What is the discovery process, and is it always necessarily rational?

Yes, I was using the term natural law in that limited sense, but if the common law is discovered legal natural law shouldn't it receive the same respect as discovered physical natural law? Why make the distinction?

I throw the god stuff in there because I believe in it, and it helps me. Please feel free to ignore it. I'll tone it down for a while.
Also, I believe there are significant dangers to following the "by reason alone" path.

Please explain...
Juris, sorry to snap at you for the "God stuff." I believe it too, but if I am to convince others of the existence of Natural Law, I cannot simply fall back on religious arguments.

Therefore, I'm trying to pursue the argument logically, rather than just saying "Natural rights come from God."
Another piece of Rothbard's book:

"The late realist philosopher John Wild, in his important article, "Natural Law and Modern Ethical Theory," Ethics (October 1952), states:

Realistic [natural law] ethics is now often dismissed as theological and authoritarian in character. But this is a misunderstanding. Its ablest representatives, from Plato and Aristotle to Grotius, have defended it on the basis of empirical evidence alone without any appeal to supernatural authority (p. 2, and pp. 1-13)."
So how does the argument work? (I'm still on the very early chapters where Rothbard is cataloging all the Scholastics' assertions that God and Natural Law are not inseparable.)
I'm not sure yet, but I have a question before we get into this too deeply:

Should an ethical code be universal? This just means that it would apply to all human beings anywhere, at any time.
Going with my gut here, I think morality and ethics are universal. The idea that certain actions are "right" in some cultures and "wrong" seems off. I can't really explain it any better than that.
Should an ethical code be universal?

I'm with Hayek that the common ethical code should only consist of those categorical rules that everyone can agree to.

In my experience these are limited to:
1) Do all you have agreed to do.
2) Do not encroach on others or their property.
(Richard Maybury)

As a member of a smaller more peculiar community I can accept other rules to my ethic.
eg: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemies, etc. These are voluntary.

I cannot impose ANY of my rules onto anyone else.

Differing ethics are related to different eschatologies.

"By reason alone," denies the miraculous and excuses mysteries, leaving us with a more shallow human experience. It also presumes the possibility of perfect rationality, which I have trouble exercising the faith towards. Also, differing rational systems have arrived at unique internal consistencies in conflict with one another, so which one is right?


Which rational systems and which conflicts are you talking about?

Also, should we avoid following reason simply because it is "shallow," even though it reveals the truth of reality? What if reality is shallow? Should we then start making things up?

I don't think Rothbard's argument for why life should be an objective value holds water.

Rothbard basically says that one can't argue that life has no value because doing so would require one to be alive. Therefore, one would have to have already chosen life had value.

But so what? This "gotcha" type argument doesn't tell us WHY one should value life; it only tells us that one can't argue that life has no value without being intellectually inconsistant. But what does the intellectual consistancy of the arguer have to do with the objective truth of whether life has value? Nothing.

Think of it this way. I am faced with a choice between living and dying, which should I choose? It doesn't matter that I wouldn't be able to consistantly argue with someone else that life has no value. I would kill myself if I believed that. So how does Rothbard's argument inform us which to choose? So far as I can see, it doesn't.

Maybe you can help me out, Travis. I really don't see how Rothbard's argument tells us that life has object moral value.

That post was made quickly and early in the morning.

I think my argument is clear, but I’ll see if I can restate it more articulately.


Rothbard's reasoning in support of the "axiom" of life can best be described as a gotcha-type argument.

If someone comes up to Rothbard and says "well, I don't think life really has value", he can reply "well, you obviously do value your life because you are here arguing with me." GOTCHA!

But does Rothbard tell us WHY people SHOULD value life? No. Does Rothbard tell us why life has OBJECTIVE value? No.

Rothbard's argument concerns the intellectual consistency of the arguer, not the fundamental questions we are actually interested in.

But maybe I am missing something. Can someone help me out with this one
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