Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Stone and Boylan on Rights.

the New York Times has a segment written by (mostly anyway) contemporary philosophers about philosophical topics called The Stone.

Michael Boylan has this article about the nature of rights. He mentions Confucian and Islamic conceptions of moral obligation and contrasts them with a (Classical Liberal) rights approach. he is skeptical of non rights based approaches due to their non universality (their "relativism").

I have responded in the comments section that Boylan is wrong at least about Confucius. I also argued that the particular type of rights approach as practiced in modern legal procedures and other formal conventions in the west are the result of a reaction to protect against the what had distinctive occurred in western history of oppressing those very rights. I argued that China did not develop such an explicitly procedural approach because they never had, until very recently, a history of religious, speech and thought oppression by the state as seen in western history which needed that kind of formal protection. But that doesn't mean that Confucius was not concerned with those rights (or with associated cognates of those rights within an ancient Chinese value framework). Surface practices as embodied in laws, explicit discourse, and other conventions may be misleading. Their existence may depend on historical accidents (such as reactions to specific past events) as opposed to differences in actual values.

This is kind of like a genealogy of morals values (or actually in my case, genealogy of explicit and conspicuous moral practices) much as that given my Nietzsche though I argue ultimately for a kind of underlying moral universalism despite superficial differences in practice whereas Nietzsche ultimately uses his genealogy to argue for a moral Nihilism.

Here's my response:

I disagree profoundly with the premise that Confucius thought the community and its conventions were the standard by which all right and wrong conduct is to be judged [and not natural rights which are inalienable and fundamental to every person]. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is not a single passage [AFAIK] in the Analects to suggest this while there are several suggesting or even explicitly saying that some obligations the majority owe to the individual or minority group are universal, owed to those in every community.

Confucius believed in objective human nature and that persons have natural functions and roles and that when these functions and roles are retarded or go unrequited due to oppressive actions by the state or some other powerful force, there is a wrong that is committed against that oppressed person or group.

It's interesting that Boylan contrasted Confucius's "relativist" approach to the universalist one of the Golden Rule. That is ironic because Confucius espoused both the positive and negative (or 'Silver Rule') Golden Rules hundreds of years before anyone known to have done so in the west (see Analects 15:23, e.g.). It's right there in the Analects along with passages that praised past "Cultural Heroes" who overthrew oppressive social conventions and the ruling elites enforcing them.

It's also an interesting historical note that China has never had a history of brutal religious oppression until the 20th century when it accepted Marxism, a decidedly western "universalist" moral framework. There has never been a pogrom in China's history nor any laws forbidding the practice of certain religions, nor forbidding unsanctioned thoughts or behaviors.

While Europe's history until modern times is almost completely stained with religious and political intolerance (such as the Spanish Inquisition among countless other monstrous examples) where people were literally burned alive, decapitated, tortured or drowned for having thoughts or speaking outside of the official state-sanctioned lines. Millions have died because of religious wars where one side tried to prevent the other side from practicing their right to pray to whoever they wanted. With a history like that it is no wonder that modern western society would seek to put in place formal processes trying to protect people's right to think and speak.

It is wholly fallacious to believe that this modern system of formal legal protections embodying a rights approach is somehow unique to the west or superior to other less formal or procedural approaches to protect human rights (such as cultivating Confucian ren). That blinds one to the historical reality that the more explicitly formal/procedural approaches in affect today in the west were put in place because of the need arising for their existence due to all the wanton conspicuous blood shed from Europe's far more oppressive history where basic human rights such as the freedom to worship whatever one wanted or to say what one wanted were *not* respected, indeed were commonly punishable by torture, death and warfare.

Analects 17:2 suggests that human nature is universal and Analects 2:23 saying that the conventions of the community though important are also contingent and can be oppressive thus are not beyond reform. These passages and many others clearly indicate that Confucius did not think that human beings should always conform to the conventions of their society and conform to their values but that societies' conventions and values should always conform to human nature to be natural and correct.


  1. The objection against ren is that rights are only going to be protected when there are ren people in authority.

    The counter-argument is that having a "right" written down on a sheet of paper does one no good. (Ask, eg., Native Americans, slaves, women, Jim Crow-era blacks, interned Japanese, Jose Padilla, etc., etc.) Formally enumerated rights are only going to be protected when there are people who care about these rights in authority.

  2. Yes, ren is likely not enough in modern societies to ensure basic minimum dignity of persons. I think we need both a formal system of rights protection such as a legal system and a culture that cultivates respect for people's rights (as well as other virtues) as well. There is some worry that the development of formal rights protections and even talk of rights together with cultivation of ren may have some tensions but I don't see those tensions (if there be any) as seriously problematic.

  3. Yeah, I guess I would just like to emphasize the flipside: that formal rights have repeatedly proven that they are not sufficient to ensure basic minimum dignity absent people in authority having the desire to implement them.