Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Friday, November 30, 2018

An Image of the City, Part III: Jures Hominis

Father D’Arcy will forgive me if I take one example from his book, which exactly illustrates what I mean. He, being a trained philosopher, is naturally trained to put up with philosophers. Also, being a trained priest, he is naturally accustomed, not only to suffer fools gladly, but (what is sometimes even harder) to suffer clever people gladly. The consequence is that he can write calmly and even blandly sentences like these. ‘A certain likeness can be detected between the aim and method of St Thomas and those of Hegel. There are, however, also remarkable differences. For St Thomas it is impossible that contradictories should exist together, and … a thing must first be, to be intelligible.’
Let the man in the street be forgiven, if he adds that the ‘remarkable difference’ seems to him to be that St Thomas was sane and Hegel was mad. The moron refuses to admit that Hegel can both exist and not exist; or that it can be possible to understand Hegel, if there is no Hegel to understand.
—G. K. Chesterton, St Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox
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As I mentioned in my last, I was surprised to learn (years ago) that the notion of a hierarchy of rights is not a standard element of most versions of human rights theory. To me, this seems like a baffling omission, because it’s so obvious that there are cases where one person’s rights clash with another’s. If, for the sake of argument, a severely dehydrated man could only stave off death by stealing a drink from Lady Marchmain’s fountain, which takes precedence: the landowner’s right to property or the dehydrated man’s right to life? If they are equal, there’s literally no right answer.

The common-sense answer is that obviously a man’s right to live outweighs Lady Marchmain’s proprietary use of her fountain. I think the common-sense answer is entirely correct, but it wants to be worked out into a coherent system.

Remember that negative rights are essentially rights against being interfered with, while positive rights incur obligations in others. The right to life is a negative right, and pretty much means the right to not be killed; the right to health care is a positive right, obliging those who can care for others’ health to do so for those who need it (obviously, this is not a thorough explanation). The principles I use to work out the system are these:

1. If exercising right A necessarily requires a person to enjoy right B, then B is the more fundamental of the two—or, to switch metaphors, right B is higher in the hierarchy. Another way of saying this is that B conditions A, i.e. creates the conditions necessary for A’s existence and/or enjoyment.
2. If exercising right A in practice requires some other thing B (which may be another right, a resource, or something else), then this entails a positive right to B. For example, humans need water to live, so if there is a negative right to life, then there is a positive right to adequate water.
3. The more a given right is conditioned by other rights, the lower it will be in the hierarchy; the less conditioned it is, the higher it will be.

So, what are the baseline rights we can plug into this system? What is their hierarchy among themselves? And, with respect to both questions, why?

At first I thought that principle 1 meant the right to life was the most basic of all rights, but as I’ve continued thinking it out, I have revised that belief. The morass of genocides in the twentieth century teach us with crystal clarity that recognition of other human beings as human, tautological though it sounds, is the bulwark upon which the right to life itself depends. It is that mutual recognition that conditions all other rights, including the right to live; for if a given person doesn’t really count as human, then every other right of theirs can be violated; or rather, violating their rights stops being a real thing, because they lack the context of human dignity in which those rights exist. Everything from the three-fifths rule to the Holocaust to ‘eliminating Down Syndrome’ depends on this refusal to deal honestly with the fact that every other human being is, precisely, a human being.

Therefore, I have made bold to classify what I call the right to recognition as elementary. All other rights are related to it, one way or another. If humans are not first of all human, in the long run, nothing else is going to matter.

The more I tried to think about rights in some structured pattern, the more the rights that the Western tradition usually enumerates seemed to coälesce into three groups, one surrounding this right to recognition, and the other two surrounding the right to live and to do things with one’s life; systems or families or rights, as it were. Being a former Classicist and a show-off, I shall give these systems Latin names to distinguish them from the individual rights they imply, and shall use said Latin names both for clarity (kind of) and to avoid having to type the word right over and over and over and over, especially since in some contexts it would be confusing.

The systems of rights are these:

I. Jus Agnitioni, the right to recognition. This means recognizing the fact that a person is a person, and that fact intrinsically means they have the same dignity as every other person. It undergirds the other two rights, and also implies things like a right to equality before the law, a right to autonomy and privacy, and so forth.
II. Jus Vitæ, the right to live. This, since it conditions every right except the jus agnitioni, is the second-nearest to the zenith, and comes from and realizes it.
III. Jus Factioni, the right to activity. This one is easier to express concisely in Latin than in English—though come to think of it, the Jeffersonian phrase ‘pursuit of happiness,’ if you give happiness the Aristotelianized meaning of eudaimonia, isn’t far off. The jus factioni springs from and details the jus agnitioni and jus vitæ; it embraces things like education, work, and marriage, the stuff that we do with the recognition and life at our disposal.

It is not coïncidental that these families of fundamental rights are three in number, nor that the first is rooted in being, the second is ‘the life of men,’ and the third proceeds from the first two. I expected—although I did not foresee this pattern specifically—that the rights proper to humanity would take a trinitarian form, because man is the image of God.

Outlining the further implications of these rights, to the best of my ability, will be the subject of my next.
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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

An Image of the City, Part II: Little Fredegar

Where there is no temple there shall be no homes,
Though you have shelters and institutions,
Precarious lodgings while the rent is paid,
Subsiding basements where the rat breeds
Or sanitary dwellings with numbered doors
Or a house a little better than your neighbor’s;
When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’
What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together
To make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?
And the Stranger will depart and return to the desert.

—T. S. Eliot, Choruses from ‘The Rock’

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Before I examine positive rights further, I must make an important prefatory remark. My original intention had been to turn immediately to human sinfulness, and the effects this has on political theory, but I find I need to deal at more length with something else first. This post came largely out of the discussion I had with some friends (a writers’ group called Pints and Prose) about my previous post. In particular, the fact that I used a rights framework was debated, since several of those present don’t subscribe to an ethical or political theory based in rights. The truth is that I use the language of rights because it’s familiar to me, not out of any special philosophical commitment; it’s worth noting that rights language tends to center on individuals at the expense of every other consideration, and while a reasonable person might do that, I don’t think it’s really compatible with a robustly Christian anthropology. I’ll probably go on writing in terms of rights, because it’s familiar, as I said: but other frameworks are not only possible but, I imagine, profitable. Moreover, I expect (I do not know) that the salient points of any given ethical or political system could be ‘translated’ into the terminology of another such system, so I’m not too fussed about adhering to this system or that. Any system is worth using only insofar as it helps us grasp realities that exist independently of what we choose to call them.


Last time I tried to enunciate the difference between: negative rights, or rights against people interfering with each other; and positive rights, or rights to good things that would involve other people’s coöperation. An example of the first would be the right to life, which is the same thing as the right not to be killed. An example of the second would be the right to health care, which (supposing, as the Church does, that it exists) would imply some kind of obligation on those who have the resources and skills to care for health, to use those resources and skills on the sick as people, rather than the sick as customers, for example. This obligation is something that inheres in the sick and is based on their need for it, rather than something established only by voluntary contract. Can obligations of this kind exist?

Well, a Catholic must certainly answer Yes. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of mankind, past and present, does answer Yes: from Cicero’s maxim that ‘Men were brought into existence for the sake of men, that they might do each other good’ or the ancient Hindu saying that ‘The poor and the sick should regarded as lords of the atmosphere,’ all the way down to the famous line from the Spiderman mythos, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ There are only two traditions that consistently qualify, minimize, or occasionally reject this idea—what C. S. Lewis described as the positive law of general beneficence—that we have as much moral duty to render good things to others as we have moral right to protect our own. One is the Enlightenment-derived tradition of rights, rooted in thinkers like Locke, Rousseau, and Jefferson, and today represented most by the Libertarian Party; the other is the collection of nationalist, fascist, and racist ideologies that began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries [1] and are today largely incarnated in the alt-right. [2] I utterly reject the second of these traditions, and have always had a slightly uneasy relationship with the first, precisely because of its strong tendency to neglect the poor—a deeply anti-Christian sentiment in any ethical or political system.

Even without appealing to ‘the universal opinion of mankind,’ though, we might observe that at least some positive rights are implied, to some extent, by negative rights themselves. If human beings have a right to life, but no right to any of the things by which life exists (such as food and drink, living space, and health care), then what the hell is the point of that right to life? It would be like pointing out that the Second Amendment guarantees us the right to keep and bear arms, but not the right to purchase bullets: yes, the logical distinction is there, but trying to build a moral or political system on that distinction is asinine.

But when trying to articulate positive rights in practice, things get more ticklish. It’s one thing to say that little Fredegar, who suffers from mumps, [3] has a right to health care; it is another to grab a doctor and say, ‘You shall treat little Fredegar’s mumps, because he has a right to health care.’ Aside from the obvious practical issue that this specific doctor may have no expertise in mumps, it does seem like an aggression against personal freedom; in addition, it evokes a particular logical fallacy called superalternation. This fallacy is reasoning from a particular statement to a universal, like: little Fredegar has brown eyes, little Fredegar is a human, therefore all humans have brown eyes. So here, the fact that every given person has a right to health care doesn’t mean that it’s the personal duty of a randomly selected doctor to provide that care to little Fredegar.

Yet doesn’t this land us back in the realm of purely negative rights? If little Fredegar’s right to health care can’t be ‘brought home’ to any particular health care provider, isn’t that open to the same criticism we made a moment ago, that negative rights are no good without some positive rights? Does it follow that positive rights themselves are, in practice, not much good themselves?

Possibly. As I said in my prefatory paragraph, a good deal of the conversation I had with my writers’ group on Monday was about the shortcomings of rights-based theory and language, and alternative approaches were discussed. All the same, rights language is what I’m familiar with, and I think we can express the proper solution to this ethical-political difficulty in that language, if we tweak it a little. [4]

In this rights language, we may affirm the following. When a person has a positive right to something, the duty to provide it impinges on society as a whole, and the duty is graver according to its necessity (health care is more needful than education) and urgency (mumps is more urgent than a cold). Insofar as society can only act through individuals, this duty naturally devolves to the people with (i) the most power to provide it and (ii) the closest relationship to the person in question.

Note, though, that while there are extremely intimate relationships like that between mother and child, and extremely distant ones like that between two complete strangers from opposite sides of the earth, the Christian view of man forbids us from regarding any two human beings as entirely unrelated. We are all, in however remote a degree, linked, and there are times when that impinges on practical decisions; the smaller a society is, the likelier it is that any given individual will have some duty to involve themselves in another person’s welfare. (The hypothetical extreme would be a doctor who specializes in mumps and little Fredegar being the only two people on a deserted island: it would then be the duty of that doctor specifically to treat little Fredegar, since for all intents and purposes the two of them are society in that context.)

Obviously, this would mean we need to have a hierarchy of rights—an idea which I had always found so natural and obvious that I was kind of shocked to discover that it isn’t a standard part of Enlightenment-tradition rights systems. But I think we could sort one out without too much trouble. Assuming I don’t get thrown another curveball, my next post will be about that.

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[1] To do them justice, the libertarians detest the ethnonationalists as a rule, partly for being racist and partly for being prone to tyranny. To do everyone else justice: libertarian ideas and rhetoric seem, judging from history, much more easily perverted into neglecting or preying upon the disadvantaged in a way that’s quite harmonious with ethnonationalism, than they are used to fight ethnonationalism. The non-interference that the libertarian tradition makes central can be made a weapon against a generalized oppression of everybody, but it is not so easily used against persecution, scapegoating, or oppression of the poor—which are precisely the things that usually happen when a government does become tyrannical, for whatever reason. Oppressing everybody at once is a stupid strategy and is accordingly not often tried.
[2] Contrary to widespread belief, while cultural and ethnic snobbery is probably as old as humanity, racism is (as far as we know) a comparative latecomer to the stage of human shittiness. In Europe and the Americas, it’s quite possible that it developed as a post facto justification for slavery and colonialism, rather than a pretext to start doing those things.
[3] It may be reasonably presumed that any child actually named Fredegar is currently suffering from mumps. Similarly, any child called Cholmondeley may be supposed to be a fair-haired bully at Eton, and any Wilfrid to be delicate, poetic, and never the same since young Master Harrington went away, if you’ll pardon my saying so, mum.
[4] One should never be afraid to tweak the language of a philosophical system. No system is exhaustive or flawless. A given tweak might be unhelpful, pointless, or detrimental, which is a good reason to examine proposed tweaks carefully; but that’s different.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

An Image of the City, Part I: Humanity in Trinity

The organic body sang together;
dialects of the world sprang in Byzantium;
back they rang to sing in Byzantium;
the streets repeat the sound of the Throne.
The Acts issue from the Throne.
Under it, translating the Greek minuscula
to minds of the tribes, the identities of creation
phenomenally abating to kinds and kindreds,
the household inscribes the Acts of the Emperor;
the logothetes run down the porphyry stair
bearing the missives through the area of empire.
 —Charles Williams, Taliessin Through Logres, ‘The Vision of the Empire’

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My affectionate rivalry with a friend at my parish came to an interesting pass back in July. We wrangle a good deal partly because, while both of us are anarchists, he is the wrong sort of anarchist: his suspicions of authoritarianism take a capitalist or libertarian cast, where mine run closer to democratic socialism. He posed me a rare challenge during one of our discussions, suggesting that I say in so many words what ideal society I’m advocating. I have decided to take a stab at it. (As Chesterton said, ‘It was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation.’)

Now, politics in general is a branch of philosophical anthropology, i.e., our idea of what human beings fundamentally are. In order to have a coherent theory of politics, we must first have a coherent theory of man.

For a Catholic, our understanding of humanity is rooted in our understanding of God, because the first thing we are told about humanity in Scripture is that we are made in God’s image. This implies the following:
1. We are spiritual beings—using Aristotle’s term, we are rational animals—because God is spirit.
2. We are innately creative; art, inventing, cultivating, building, and the begetting of children are all expressions of basic humanity. The first thing we are told about God before we are created in his image is precisely that he is a, the, Creator.
3. We are simultaneously individual and interrelated: God is Trinity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. Both personal distinctness and intrinsic relationship are essential to a proper idea of man.

This already gives us a limited but important framework for what human societies ought to be. Mere chaos is against human nature. So are societies so rigid as to actively suppress creativity and innovation; those that deny the dignity of the individual in favor of the collective; and those that deny any claim, of others or of society as a whole, upon the individual person. A rationally organized society, one that embraces both creativity and fertility, and that affirms both the dignity of the individual and the essentially relational character of each individual, is a society that accords with human nature. Not only are the totalitarian ideas of Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx, and Francisco Franco incompatible with a fully Catholic vision of humanity: so too are the radically fissiparating philosophies of William Godwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ayn Rand. [1]

Obviously, there are still a lot of different kinds of societies that might fit the bill here. This is as it should be. There’s no reason to think that only one sort of culture or political organization is good, any more than there is to suppose that healthy families can only exhibit the pattern of mom, dad, two-point-five children, and a dogcat. Nonetheless, I think we can define the parameters of a good society further.

One point of dispute between me and my friend lies in the Church’s use of the language of rights: papal and episcopal documents speak regularly of the right to health care, the right to marry, the right to education, and so forth. He posed this reasonable question: if a person has a right to something that they don’t have—a right to marry, for example—then could they (in a justly organized society) go to court and demand redress? If American law were more perfect, could incels sue for a wife?

Now, there are rights where you obviously could do this. Human beings have a right to life, but of course what we mean by that is a right not to be killed; when a person dies of natural causes, we grieve, but we don’t issue warrants for arrest. [2] Human beings have a right to property, [3] but what we principally mean by that is that if somebody steals what belongs to us, we’re justified in calling on authoritative compulsion to get it back. These ‘negative’ rights of not being interfered with are comparatively easy to grasp. But the Church goes further and enunciates ‘positive’ rights, such as those exemplified in the paragraph above. How are we to understand this?

I will begin by approaching the matter from a different angle. C. S. Lewis writes in Reflections on the Psalms:
What do we mean when we say that a picture is ‘admirable’? We certainly don’t mean that it is admired (that’s as may be) for bad work is admired by thousands and good work may be ignored. Nor that … a human being will have suffered injustice if it is not awarded. The sense in which the picture ‘deserves’ or ‘demands’ admiration is rather this: that admiration is the correct, adequate, or appropriate response to it, that if paid admiration will not have been ‘thrown away,’ and that if we do not admire we shall be stupid, insensible, and great losers, we shall have missed something.

Passing from the specifically æsthetic to a broader philosophy in The Abolition of Man, he writes the following:
Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval … that certain responses could be more ‘just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ than others. … And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). … The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into sentiments. The Chest—Magnanimity—Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.
This may be a worthwhile place to begin considering ‘positive’ rights. They are (at minimum) those things which everyone should be able to enjoy; they are proper to human life; if someone lacks them (save by their own choice) it is a probable indicator that something is wrong with society. [4] That may be something which ought to be resolved through legal reforms—or it may not be. Just, effective means will vary depending on problems and circumstances. But that question itself cannot be dealt with adequately unless we recognize the defective relationship of the reality to the ideal. Which in turn means acknowledging the ideal.

Among the Trinity, what is fitting is perfectly rendered by each Person to the others: being, knowledge, and bliss exist in mutual adoration and interanimation. An unfallen humanity, which needed no political governance, would presumably operate the same way, freely responding to the intrinsic dignity of every person in an adequate way. But that is not what we have; man is fallen; politics (even anarchist politics) is very largely a study in when it is appropriate to compel others to do right or to refrain from doing wrong, and when others should be suffered to stray, every one to his own way. We must, therefore, turn from the trinitarian character of humanity to its fallen character, and try to understand their relationship.

EDIT: After writing this post, I discovered that the language of positive and negative rights is used differently in technical discussions of moral theory among academics. I don't understand their terminology or its rationale clearly enough to use it, so I'll stick to my own inventions, but be aware that my language may clash with more standard language.

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[1] This isn’t to say that we cannot learn from these sources. I’ve drawn on Marx in my understanding of the world; but I’ve never done so uncritically, and there are key elements of his philosophy that I reject outright, like the labor theory of value or the idea that religion is nothing but an instrument of control.
[2] Or if we did, we’d have to issue them against God. Which, good luck with that, I guess?
[3] This is admittedly a sticky concept, partly but not only because of the relationship that can exist between life and property. We’ll get to this in more detail later.
[4] I say an indicator, not an infallible sign. Obviously, happenstance and variation will be involved in some cases. But when a trend emerges, that merits investigation.