Nobody’s Saying Muslims Don’t Have the Right to Build a Mosque Near Ground Zero
August 19, 2010

Except, that is, for half of everybody.

There’s a lot to pick apart in this poll—for example, you could point out that whether or not Muslims have the legal right to build a Mosque near Ground Zero has nothing to do with current plans to build an Islamic Cultural Center. But I think the more salient point is regarding what this says about how a lot of Americans view constitutional issues.

There is no debate to be had over whether or not Imam Rauf and co. have a constitutional right to build Park51. They do. It is empirically, demonstrably true that they do.

It is not empirically true that they have a right in the moral or metaphysical sense to build Park51, because that is not the sort of thing that can be empirically verified. (Metaethical naturalists might argue that it can be empirically proven, to which I verified: Then do so.) That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily wrong to say that they have the right. I believe they do, and I would hope that the vast majority of people who live in a liberal democratic society and also believe that rights exist in the first place would agree with me. But giving a proof of that gets into some thorny, potentially unanswerable ethical questions, whereas a proof answering the constitutional question would be irrefutable and consist of one step, which reads: “Read the goddamn document.”

My point being that if you think that Park51 doesn’t have a constitutional right to exist, then you really have no idea what the constitutional angle is on this. In which case, the only way you can give an answer besides “I don’t know” is by substituting your own moral intuitions for the actual letter of the law.

This is the sort of widespread backwards thinking on legal issues that the Onion lampooned brilliantly awhile back. And if you want another example from today’s news, check out Laura Schlessinger complaining that private individuals and companies violate her first amendment rights when they aren’t sufficiently indulgent of her racist tirades.

(Aside: I know it’s way too easy to pick on Sarah Palin, but compare her full-throated defense of Schlessinger to her previous well-documented condemnations of the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Evidently when brown people construct benign outreach centers too close to the sites of national tragedies it shows an unfortunate lack of sensitivity, but when a white person spouts racial epithets on a popular radio program she’s just exercising her rights and anyone who takes issue with that needs to man up.)

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Our Founding Fathers’ Fathers
July 4, 2010

U.S. Declaration of Independence ratified by t...
Image via Wikipedia

Happy Independence Day, everyone!

Today is, of course, the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence—a remarkable document in many ways, but of particular interest to me because it confirms, in its most famous line, one of the central theses I keep hammering on this blog: that philosophy is alive, vital, and very much a concern for each and every one of us.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

As most of you who have taken a high school civics course likely already know, that bolded section is a paraphrase of the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, who argued for a natural right to “life, liberty and property.” It’s a crucial, high-profile nod in the direction of the towering philosophers who laid the groundwork for the framers’ grand project.

This isn’t to downplay the genius of the founding fathers; their ranks included some of the greatest thinkers in American history. But all brilliant men are scholars first and foremost, and if Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and others had not been political philosophy students of the first order, then whatever form the government of the post-revolution states took would be but a shadow of the vibrant, resilient American Republic.

They were giants, yes—but they stood on the shoulders of other giants. I refer not just to Locke, but also Hobbes, Voltaire, and even the ancients. The evidence lies not just in the shout-out I cited above, but in the collected writings of our greatest founders. The Federalist Papers, to name one particularly good example, were a relatively sophisticated work of political philosophy in their own right.

We’re living the result.

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Rights
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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