Have you ever asked yourself why?
Why you have rights? Why you have justice? Why you need rights? Why you need justice?
Do you need these? Are these necessary? Two modern philosophers argued strongly for
rights and justice, each one taking a position Robert Nozick argued for rights. John Rawls argued for justice. Both of these guys were Harvard professors,
and both wrote popular books In 1974, Nozick wrote Anarchy, State, and
Utopia. You can tell he was a smart guy because of his use of the Oxford comma. His opening line in Anarchy, State, and Utopia is: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them
(without violating their rights)”. The book is presented in 3 sections. In each, Nozick comments respectively on, well, obviously, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and he concludes,
that, in his world, small government is the best form of government.
Since his days of prominence, Libertarians have been fanboys.
Rawls has a different idea. Published 3 years earlier, in 1971, he published A Theory of
Justice. Much more influential on the policy front, Rawls’ ideas were incorporated into
much US policy (and beyond) based on social justice.
The first line of A Theory of Justice is: “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions,
as truth is of systems of thought”. His work became the foundation for social justice warriors everywhere. Enter Raymond Geuss: He’s a Cambridge philosopher, and he also writes books. In particular, he wrote Philosophy and Real Politics in 2008. Having read both Nozick and Rawls, he similarly critiqued both. Responding to Nozick’s claim that an individual’s
rights are inviolable, Geuss retorts (quote) “He [Nozick] then allows that bald statement
to lie flapping and gasping for breath like a large, moribund fish on the deck of a trawler, with no further analysis or discussion, and proceeds to draw consequences from it.”
(end quote) As for Rawls’ claim of justice being the
first virtue, Geuss says. “The often-noted absence in Rawls of any theory about how his ideal demands are to be implemented is not a tiny mole that serves as a beauty spot to set off the radiance of the rest of the face, but the epidermal sign of a lethal tumour…
This is not a criticism of some individual aspect of Rawls’ theory, but a basic repudiation of his whole way of approaching the subject of political philosophy.”
And so… What’s the point? Geuss is saying that although Rawls and Nozick offer compelling rationale as to why, based on their favoured approach, society should be run this way or that, neither explains how one would conclude that rights or justice should be a foundation. These emotional concepts are just conjured wholesale. And justice for all, in Rawls’ case. The self-evidence of rights, for Nozick.
Whenever something is claimed to be ‘self-evident’, it’s intellectual laziness to find a foundation, if one even exists, instead relying on supporters not to evaluate the claim critically.
In fact, one could choose one or more of many possible so-called moral foundations for society or governance: Rights, Justice, Freedom, Duty, Beauty, Integrity, Honour, Diet, Allegiance, and so on and on ad infinitum, ad absurdum
In the end, these are just opinions, and these opinions are subject to change across place and time. As for rights, this is a recent invention
of history, without an established and agreed-upon scope of reference. Even today, different
cultures have different rights. As for justice, this term has always been
vague; it continues to evolve. Those who support the status quo hide behind its ‘flexibility’,
but, in fact, this just obfuscates the amorphic and chimeric essence of the term. It’s mostly smoke and mirrors, but that’s a topic for another day.
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