What is a Person?
October 7, 2010

That’s the question I set out to answer in my latest Salon column, which plays off of Adam’s piece in this month’s American Prospect on the civil liberties battles of our dystopian future. Helping me puzzle out the nature of personhood: Neil Sinhababu, philosophy professor and blogger at Donkeylicious, and Joshua Knobe, a leading figure in the young field of experimental philosophy.

Read the whole thing.


Substantive Constructivism and Rights
May 26, 2010

John Rawls
Image via Wikipedia

Clearly I didn’t do an adequate job of explaining my position on rights in this post, leading one commenter to suggest that my view came down to suggesting that rights and laws regarding rights are basically identical. Nothing could be further from the truth. I do think that the way governments respect human rights can be evaluated by an independent standard; I just think that evaluation needs to be done without reference to supposed natural laws of which we have no evidence.

In that post I referred to constructivism as “the metaethical view that certain ethical claims can be true or false, but that they’re true or false on terms constructed by human society.” What I left unsaid is what those terms are. And while there are a lot of different forms of constructivism, the one I tend to favor when it comes to political philosophy is the Rawlsian concept of the original position.

This is the view that John Rawls (pictured)—the founder of modern political liberalism (which is to say philosophical political liberalism, which is not the same thing as what we normally understand to be liberalism)—outlines in his landmark work A Theory of Justice. He writes that the ideally fair society is one in which all the laws and structure of government are decided and mutually agreed upon by its citizenry while this citizenry is in the original position. To be in the original position is to be behind something called the veil of ignorance; it means that while you are capable of rational reflection, you have no idea where you will fit into this society. You have no idea what your race, social class, income, religion, gender, sexual orientation (which I don’t think Rawls mentions, but I’m going to throw it in there anyway), etc. will be. Any rational individual in this position, Rawls argues, will advocate for laws and policies that are fair to even the worst off in the society, because they know that could be them.

I’m not completely onboard with everything Rawls writes in A Theory of Justice, but I think the concept of the original position is a good starting point for thinking about what an ideally fair society, one that respects human rights, would look like.

Incidentally, Rawls’ original position is what Sharon Street—an NYU professor, and, I think, one of the leading explicators of constructivism—would call restricted substantive constructivism. In other words, it is a theory of ethics that applies to a restricted field (politics), and is substantive in that you can’t rationally try to construct ethics within this system without (or at least Rawls would argue) ultimately deciding that universal fairness and respect for everyone’s rights are good things.

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May 25, 2010

Penguin English Library 0 14 043.195 0
Image by scatterkeir via Flickr

Reader lulwa asks:

Where does freedom of speach starts and where does it ends ?

Like with every question in philosophy, there’s no single question to this. A lot of philosophers would even reject the premise—when we talk about freedom of speech, we’re talking about a right, and there’s by no means anything approaching universal agreement that rights even exist.

The very notion of rights is actually a fairly recent innovation, one that has its roots in Enlightenment-era thought. I think the first mention of rights as a concept was made in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (first published in 1651), in which Hobbes suggests that we have natural rights which we forfeit to a supreme leader in exchange for protection and various other benefits.

Personally, I’m a fan of the concept of rights, largely because I don’t think you can have a functional democracy without them. But the argument for natural rights is pretty dubious. Very few proponents of rights would dispute the existence of a universal right to a fair trial, but I don’t think it’s coherent to argue that this is a right that exists outside of human law and society, or somehow prior to the existence of courts that can provide for a fair trial.

So my own view on rights is a form of constructivism, which is the metaethical view that certain ethical claims can be true or false, but that they’re true or false on terms constructed by human society. Rights exist because there is a framework for them to exist in, and they expand along with society’s capacity to accommodate for them.

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