Political Theory Primer, Part II

Last time, we started — and ended — with the question, “Why is murder wrong?”  We rejected some of the standard student responses, and implied that the answer has something to do with society.  Let’s break it down a bit:

Whatever else “murder” is, we’ll all agree that it ends with one human dead at the hands of another human.  Leave aside intent, etc., and focus on the basics — two humans; one the killer, one the killed.  There seems to be a universal human taboo against murder.  It’s most often honored in the breach, but it’s there — no known human society is ok with people killing each other at whim.

In fact, “at whim” or “for no good reason” appears to be part of the definition of “murder.”  If there’s a good reason for it, it’s not murder.  Killing enemy soldiers in war isn’t murder (though, as we saw yesterday, executing captured enemies without due process is).  That seems to be a human universal, too, but there’s a wide range of possible exceptions, from abortion to dueling to “he just done needed killin’.”  The vast range of the exceptions give us a clue to a big problem with political theory.

Consider abortion.  Specifically, consider the Left’s famous “clump of cells” argument.  This argues that a fetus, being dependent upon its “host,” is really no different than a tumor — in other words, not a human being at all, so calling abortion “murder” would be akin to calling chemotherapy “murder.”  Whether or not this argument holds up (I don’t think it does, obviously), it gets to the heart of the problem:  There’s a lot of latitude even among the fundamental definitions.  We said last time that political theory, being a description of human behavior in groups, requires a definition of both “human” and “group.”  Neither of which, as we can see, is clear-cut.

This stuff matters, because the ancient political theorists — guys like Plato and Aristotle, to whom even university courses still grudgingly nod — talk a lot about “man.”  After 300 or so years of The Enlightenment, we think they’re talking about “humans” in our modern sense — totally free agents; postmodern persyns of gendertude that exist without culture or context.  But they weren’t.  When Aristotle says “man is a political animal,” he doesn’t mean that all humans, everywhere, are political animals.  He means Greeks are political animals, and if you come right down to it, he probably means Athenians are political animals.  And not just any “Athenians,” either, but freeborn males over the age of majority.  States, Aristotle says, are organized around the pursuit of some good.  Only freeborn Athenian males over the age of majority are really able to understand the good at which the state aims, because everyone else — women, slaves, barbarians — lack the basic rationality to see that far ahead.

In other words, there’s a whole bunch of cultural baggage subsumed into the word “man” (“human,” “person,” whatever).  The greater the amount of baggage, the further political theory gets from universal.

This seems obvious, but it’s not, because those universal proclamations about “man” sure sound right.  Aristotle also defined man as “the rational animal,” and that definition is so ingrained in Western culture that it pretty much is Western culture. Every single political theory that doesn’t boil down to “obey God’s laws,” for instance, rests on so-called “natural rights” — that is, the truths of human society which are accessible to all rational men, irrespective of culture.  But as we saw with Aristotle, pretty much the very first thing the natural rights reasoner does is: Exclude huge swathes of people from the category “rational men.”  Even folks who only got five minutes of Aristotle in that one required Humanities course know that he famously proclaimed women, slaves, and children to be so deficient in reason that they’re rightfully ordered around by men.  (That is, in my experience, pretty much the only thing modern college kids know about Aristotle).

The fact is, reason itself carries a huge amount of cultural freight, because once you get above the level of pure mathematics, all reasoning is done in language and language is deeply culture-bound.  Again, consider abortion.  The very same Leftist who advances the “clump of cells” argument no doubt also believes that all kinds of pie-in-the-sky stuff is a “fundamental human right.”  As I hope I’ve shown, this isn’t hypocrisy – she simply doesn’t consider anything still inside the womb to be fully human, in the same way Aristotle considered women and slaves to be not fully human (because not fully rational).  Meanwhile, her notion of “right,” while ludicrous, is at least consistent — she uses it the same way every time, and so does her community.

It remains to be seen if a convincing political theory can be made out of “natural reason,” but here’s a preview: The answer to “Why is murder wrong?” is “hostis humani generis.”

Originally applied to pirates and slavers back in the 16th century, it means individuals whose very existence is so odious that they can be arrested, tried, and executed by the police forces of any nation, at any time, without being caught in the act of breaking any particular law.  In the case of pirates, the crewmen are just as guilty as their captain, so it doesn’t matter if Pirate X actually committed acts Y and Z while aboard ship — the very fact that he sailed on a ship with a known pirate captain made him a pirate, and therefore hostis humani generis.  Murder, like piracy, threatens the very fabric of civilization; that’s why it’s wrong.*

The question for part III is: Just what is “civilization,” anyway?

*Question #1 on the midterm exam: Was the prosecution’s argument against Julius Streicher (see part 1) essentially “hostis humani generis?”  What about the Nuremberg Tribunal’s declaration that the SS in its entirely was a criminal organization?  Why or why not?


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3 thoughts on “Political Theory Primer, Part II

  1. MBlanc46

    It seems to me that you’re leaving something out regarding murder. There’s more to it than simply the killer and the killed. Those occur in many cases that aren’t called murder: a battlefield, an execution, the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin encounter. The missing element is “wrongful”. Murder isn’t just any killing; it’s wrongful killing. That’s why Aristotle says that it doesn’t admit a mean. “Murder is wrong” is analytically* true; true by virtue of the meaning of the words. What killing is considered “wrongful” varies widely across time and place. Autre temps, autre moeurs. “They do these things differently in France”. To jump the gun a bit, I’d say that this is the minor premise in the argument that “natural reason”, in anything like its traditional sense, can never serve as the basis for any axiological theory. But I’ll stay tuned for the next installment.

    * Disregarding Quine’s objections to analyticity.

  2. Pickle Rick

    Yes, that’s right. Boiled down to the essence, historically, murder is a crime when one member of a group (clan, family, tribe, nation) wrongfully kills another member of that group. Killing an outsider isn’t murder. That’s why the Black Cats didn’t consider their extermination program murder- the bagels or the Slavs weren’t members of their tribe. German law applies to Germans.

    1. Severian Post author

      There it is. The Cat Fanciers didn’t consider themselves bound by international law, because to them, “international law” was a non-sequitur. I’m trying to avoid bringing those guys up in this series, but they’re a useful illustration of the problems with “natural rights.” Are there any “human rights” at all? That is, “rights” that all humans everywhere have, by virtue of being human?

      This is what I find most hilarious about the “everything is a social construction” crowd. They have never met a single shiny distraction that they don’t immediately label a “fundamental human right.” Well, Moonbeam, if everything’s a social construction, how can “fundamental human rights” possibly exist? And once you get done chewing that one over, please tell me how you square that with your fucking love of science. Either evolution is true or it isn’t. Do monkeys have “fundamental monkey rights”? Do they know it?

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