Sez who?

"Nature and Nature's God" was Thomas Jefferson's lovely phrase for the basis of the rights we asserted in the Declaration of Independence. That was his shorthand answer to the question "Sez who?" He didn't have time in that document for a treatise on the basis, source or origin of human rights. His point wasn't to make the case that such rights existed, or to explain why they did or where they came from. His main concern, rather, was the meaning and the implication of those rights in that particular time and place.

For some of Jefferson's readers and hearers, such rights arose mainly from sectarian religious sources. For others, they arose mainly from the secular philosophy of the Enlightenment. Wanting his Declaration to appeal as broadly as possible, Jefferson split the difference with "Nature and Nature's God."

We don't encounter the "Sez who?" problem when discussing civil rights. Civil rights find their basis in civil law and constitutions. When arguing for equal access to the civil right of marriage, for example, David Boies and Ted Olson (!) do not need to appeal to "Nature and Nature's God" because they have the 14th Amendment with its legal guarantees of equal protection as a civil right.

During the American civil rights movement — which reclaimed the legal rights of the 14th Amendment that had been surrendered to a century of domestic terrorism and the lawless laws of Jim Crow — Martin Luther King and the other leaders of the movement were able to appeal to civil law. They had the U.S. Constitution on their side.

The argument was much more difficult for the 19th-century abolitionists. Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison were arguing for human rights that were not yet recognized as civil rights and they were opposed at every step by that same U.S. Constitution. (Garrison called it, "the most bloody and heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villainy ever exhibited on earth," a document to be "held in everlasting infamy by the friends of justice and humanity throughout the world." And there he was just warming up.)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is, in part, an effort to make the struggle for the recognition of human rights more like the struggle for civil rights. By getting all the nations of the world to acknowledge the formal, legal existence of human rights, that document provides the peoples of those nations with a legal basis for claiming them.

In theory, at least. The response to such claims is still often the one given in Tianenmen Square — You have rights? We have tanks.

In recent years a separate challenge to the existence of universal human rights has come from people like Mahathir bin Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia, who argued that human rights are a parochial western construct invented by those seeking to impose American values on the rest of the world. Thousands of indigenous Malaysian voices called bullshit on that claim, but it was a reminder that the simple assertion of human rights also sometimes does need to be supported by the longer, more complicated task of making the case for why such rights exist — the case that such rights do, in fact, exist as truly and undeniably as any line of tanks.

That case won't look or sound exactly the same in every time and place. Some will arrive at the conclusion due to sectarian religious reasoning. When speaking to or writing for an exclusively Christian audience, I have made the case for human rights based solely on sectarian Christian grounds. The Jewish religious case for human rights is well established. The Islamic case, while less established in law and practice, is likewise solid, and if it has not been universally adopted, it has also not been successfully refuted. I do not know enough of Hinduism to follow the argument in that tradition, but from what I understand the Ghandians and the Dalit movement are able to present a forceful case for human rights in both secular and sectarian terms.

Purely secular arguments for the existence of human rights also vary. Reason gives us many reasons and many paths of reasoning that all lead to this same conclusion.

And it is that conclusion that concerns me most. Nature and Nature's God, Nature or Nature's God — the point is these rights do exist and when we have the need to claim them it is more expedient simply to assert or reassert their existence, to point to the fact of their existence, and to move on from there.

I would put the criteria and the conclusions of the just war tradition in the same category. They too can be grounded in a variety of different secular and sectarian arguments. They too exist independent of those arguments, as things that are, in Jefferson's righteously impatient language, "self-evident." They too exist as a necessary response to the logic of tanks.

And just as with human rights, it is often necessary and expedient to assert them with little more than a cursory reference to "Nature and Nature's God." Our brief lifespan won't allow for us on every occasion to go back to square one and rehearse yet again the reasons for the validity of these principles every time we have the need to refer to them.

So instead we simple state them and cite them. "These are the rules." Shorter, but still true.

(All of which is just to say that if anyone reading the prior post was uncomfortable with its aggressively deontological tone — "rules, rules, rules," "categorical" even — well, so was I.)

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  • Dorothy

    There’s a nice bit in Milton, where Pre-Fall Adam is talking to Gabriel…
    Oh, there must be some discussions out there. *googles, clicks, skims quickly* This will do nicely… Mind, I’ve only given it a cursory glance, so I’m not endorsing it…
    It’s like straight white males occupying 100% of the wall-to-wall metaphorical space of personal expression going down to 99% is the world’s biggest calamity. – Pius Thicknesse
    But, but…that means that their non-MSofPE has increased infinitely. And even if their MSofPE started out as only 99%, a decrease to 98% means a 100% increase in their non-MSofPE. The horror!

  • MercuryBlue

    *grin* I should actually read Milton, shouldn’t I.

  • renniejoy

    Is there some way that being unable to find the TV remotes for a day and a half is NOT a giant fucking metaphor?

  • Kish

    Just out of curiosity, would that be “giant (punctuating expletive) metaphor,” or “giant metaphor for fucking”?

  • renniejoy

    I’ve heard it both ways.
    Actually, I meant punctuating expletive. :)

  • Winter

    I tried reading Paradise Lost some years ago, but I couldn’t get past the part where God just spends half a very long time jabbering about how great He is.

  • no, really, I’m up to a GG cup now
    Wow. Are you teasing me? I think I’m barely an A. LOLOL
    Renniejoy– that is *very* cool that your parents were so open-minded. I wish that more people were like that; I’d probably be less worried about meeting new people.

  • Wow. Are you teasing me? I think I’m barely an A. LOLOL
    If I could give you some, I would. They’re ungainly, heavy, regularly painful, and difficult to buy clothes as well as bras for. I’m thinking of having a reduction.

  • Dorothy

    Ever heard of the NA size? For us eggs-over-easy gals.
    At least, that’s what I was 20 years, 20 pounds, and two children ago…

  • Dorothy

    Hmmm, maybe I should rephrase that as “what I wore.” I am not my bra size.

  • Okay, I think I got my brain put back together after Alan broke it in the other thread, and–
    Will Wildman: (try to imagine Jim Kirk saying it): what does God need with testicles?
    Dammit! *sighs, fetches more duct tape**

  • If I could give you some, I would. They’re ungainly, heavy, regularly painful, and difficult to buy clothes as well as bras for. I’m thinking of having a reduction.
    A friend of mine had that done several years ago. From what I understand, it’s well worth it, but there are issues with sensation and scarring. I imagine some of it depends on the surgeon.

  • It’s interesting that you say that– I’m sort of going through an interesting phase right now vis a vis some soul searching– am I a real woman?, … do I pass?, does it matter?

    Wasn’t it you who posted that corset photo a while ago ? What I mean is, why settle for passing when you can skip straight through to hotness ? … Hm that sounded somewhat less smarmy in my head :-(
    Anyway, male, female, who cares, these are the Internets. You might be rogue AI from Tessier-Ashpool S.A., for all we know. It’s what you say that matters (as much as anything does, that is), not what plumbing you’ve got.
    That said, I think that one decision you do need to make (unless you’ve made it already, in which case, ignore everything below) is whether you want the intimate details of your biology publicly known. Given the pervasiveness of modern online communities, plus the “connectedness” of human networks in general, you might as well assume that everything you post here is being read by your boss, your coworkers, your college professor, and your cat — because eventually, it will be. Pseudonyms will give some token measure of protection, but it isn’t much; and every personal detail you post here makes identifying you exponentially easier.
    Just to give you an idea, it is possible to recover a person’s SSN with something like 90% accuracy based solely on his/her/etc. age, gender, and zipcode. It is also possible to reliably tell whether a person is gay or straight solely by looking at his (*) Facebook social graph. Now, granted, Slacktivist isn’t Facebook, but still…
    I don’t mean to be a downer, and you’ve probably already heard all of this a million times, but still…
    (*) In this case, “his” is literally true; the experiment I read about focused on males.