David Stove — who, if we get to canonize people around here, I’d like to nominate as one of Rotten Chestnuts’ patron saints — diagnosed a common trick among his fellow philosophers. He called it “the Meaning Argument.” I can’t begin to do justice to his prose (or, unfortunately, quote him; The Plato Cult isn’t on Google Books) but it goes something like this:
Berkeley once said “there was a sound; that is, it was heard.” Which we all know is false; trees do make a sound if they fall in the forest. But if you want to get people on board with your philosophy, a little bit of this kind of anthropocentricity goes a long way — you can say “by X, we mean Y,” and as long as the Y is sufficiently anthropocentric, people will cast around for reasons to believe what you say, no matter how ridiculous your claim is. Nobody ever does the only sensible thing, which is to say, “that is not what X means!”
The left does a lot of this kind of thing. Have you noticed?
Take “rights,” a topic much in the news of late. Have you ever heard anyone ask a leftist, “so just what is a right, anyway?”
Of course, if you did ask one, she’d immediately launch into the typical laundry list: “Well, abortion is a right, and so is health care. And contraception. And a living wage. And gay marriage, of course. And…” But if you asked her what rights actually are — where do they come from? how do we get them? and how do we know? — it’s a million to one the question never even occurred to her.
Near as I can tell, the left believes “rights” emanate somehow from the ether, achieve some kind of jelly-like consistency by passing somewhere in the neighborhood of the media, and are finally made solid via Supreme Court rulings. They’re essentially procedural — our rights are what the New York Times editorial board tells us they are, as soon as Anthony Kennedy agrees.
This is not to say that your typical conservative could slug it out in Latin with John Locke in a steel cage death match, either. But the answer pretty much every conservative has ready to hand — “they come from the Constitution”– easily passes the “good enough for government work” standard, since the key feature of the American social contract is that the Constitution serves as our country’s operations manual.
Liberals want to claim this too, of course, but they run into PR problems almost immediately — it takes a subtler mind than I, the average American, possess to figure out how things that clearly are in there really aren’t in there, and how things that can’t be found anywhere near the document itself are in fact the cornerstone of the republic. More importantly, they run into a philosophical problem: The problem of origins.
The guys who wrote the Constitution were, to a man, believers in some sort of Higher Power (yes, inevitable angry atheist commenter, even Thomas Jefferson). They traced their conception of natural rights back through Montesquieu and Locke, who attributed them, ultimately, to Nature, which to them derived directly from God, specifically the Christian God. Which puts your average liberal in quite the dilemma: If they don’t come from there, then the “rights” enshrined in the Constitution are either:
- arbitrary (they’re what George Washington and James Madison decided they are);
- irrelevant (they’re products of the society of our times; the right to free speech is no more relevant than the right to bear arms, since as modern guns aren’t muskets, modern speech isn’t via goose quill and town crier); or
- entirely procedural (they’re whatever you can slip past the Supreme Court, whose authority is also — uh oh — either arbitrary, irrelevant, or entirely procedural, based as it is on the self-same Constitution)
Just once I’d like to see somebody press a liberal of consequence on some of these points.
Alas, I fear it’ll never happen. But I also fear I’ll be asking these kinds of questions here a lot, so I’ve invented a new category / acronym for them, QUILTS (QUestions I’d Like To See). It’s ugly, but so’s the topic….