No one spoke more bitterly against natural rights than Jeremy Bentham, whose "auto-ikon"—built around his skeleton and dressed in his clothes and housed with his mummified head in a little cabin in University College, London—bears stubborn, if not living, witness to the imperishability of nineteenth century utilitarianism. "Rights," Bentham wrote, "is the child of law; from real law come real rights; but from imaginary laws, from 'law of nature,' come imaginary rights. . . . Natural rights is simple nonsense; natural and imprescriptible rights (an American phrase), rhetorical nonsense, nonsense upon stilts."
Bentham was not the only political philosopher of his time to speak in such terms of natural rights. David Hume agreed that natural rights and natural law were unreal metaphysical entities; and even Edmund Burke, who believed in natural law, denied that what were called the rights of man could be derived from it. All three theorists also maintained—and this is perhaps what made their criticisms of natural rights so impassioned—that proclaiming natural rights was a mischievous as well as a mistaken activity. Their agreement on the subject may seem surprising, since Bentham's political opinions were entirely opposed to those of Hume and Burke; he was a radical and they were conservatives. The fact is that they each apprehended different sorts of mischief. Bentham objected to proclamations of natural rights because he thought they took the place of actual and effective legislation: governments that published "Declarations" were simply making grand rhetorical statements that cost them nothing, instead of applying themselves to the arduous work of reform. Hume and Burke, on the other hand, objected to public assertions of the rights of man, because such utterances inflamed people to take revolutionary action and led men to think they could have things that they could not.
(Maurice Cranston, "Are There Any Human Rights?," Daedalus 112 [fall 1983]: 1-17, at 3-4 [ellipsis in original; endnote omitted])
Be it the F.B.I., the C.I.A. or any government agency, how do American citizens know that the agents conduct themselves according to the task’s mission statement? Congressional oversight committees should apply reasonable judgment in determining answers to this question. After all, we want to preserve our freedoms and privacy but also want government protection against criminals and terrorists.
Racial profiling, data collection and National Security Agency sampling of everyone’s communications are fine as long as the agencies do not take excessive liberties within that task. Of course, political motivations have led to abuse of such techniques in the past, so Americans are rightfully wary.
So I have this simple question for employees of our government intelligence agencies: “Would you feel O.K. being observed using your methods?” If not, then they are probably illegitimate.
[A]ll philosophical arguments contain presuppositions which must be taken to be true in order for the argument to stand, but which cannot be shown to be true within the argument itself. It is the task of the critic (a) to show us what those presuppositions are, and (b) how the argument develops from them, but (c) it is not his function to demand proof of the presuppositions, because in doing so he is demanding the impossible, nor (d) is it his right to ask that the philosopher begin with different presuppositions, since he is thus attempting to abrogate the philosopher's right to select the position he wants to defend.
(Robert Charles Marsh, "The Function of Criticism in Philosophy," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, n.s., 53 [1952-53]: 135-50, at 143 [italics in original])
Note from KBJ: This is why it's absurd to criticize Robert Nozick for assuming (in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia ) that individuals have rights. He has no obligation to support the assumption, for his aim is to show what follows from it. Nozick was a far better philosopher than 90% of his critics.
Regarding your editorial "Blacklisted at Mozilla" (April 7): With the resignation of Brendan Eich as CEO of Mozilla, we are witnessing the rebirth of the Salem witch trials disguised as social-media justice. Gay-marriage zealotry makes McCarthyism pale in comparison. What's more, those who wield the electronic pitchforks and torches can do so under total anonymity. Nothing beats the rush of a CEO being frog-marched Facebook-style to the huzzahs of adoring, self-righteous totalitarians.
E. David Barkley
It was alarming that the CEO of Mozilla, with his impressive resume, was forced to resign his position because of pressure from outside influences (who presumably know nothing about his suitability for the CEO position). Perhaps those who pushed his ouster should be reminded that at the time of the California referendum, President Obama also stated he believed marriage should be between a man and a woman, as did a majority of California voters.
Intolerance is intolerance, no matter who it targets.
He transmitted his conviction that philosophy was supremely worth studying, and one of his remarks which has been recorded by a pupil should be understood as a more than half humorous understatement. The pupil was taking leave of his Tutor after distinguishing himself in the schools, and said that in his chosen career he would not be able to keep up his philosophy. Ross replied: 'You will soon forget all you have learnt, but there is one thing Greats will have done for you. You will always know when a man is talking nonsense.'
(G. N. Clark, "Sir David Ross, 1877-1971," Proceedings of the British Academy 57 : 525-43, at 528 [footnote omitted])
David Brooks asks us to look at the bright side of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, which struck down overall limits on donations by individuals to candidates and parties, viewing it as a “rare win for the parties.” But even if he is correct, who will wield the restored power of the political parties?
Surely those who supply the funds to the party coffers. The donor-centric system has simply gained another repository for its patrons’ largess, and donors will continue to extract their quid pro quos in the form of more extreme candidates and more polarized politics.
Despite his best efforts, Mr. Brooks cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
JAY N. FELDMAN Port Washington, N.Y., April 4, 2014
To the Editor:
Yes, it’s probably true that we’ll never get money out of politics. This is a capitalist economy, after all. And yes, if there’s money coming into politics, it may be less pernicious to have that money come in through the national parties than through unaccountable independent committees.
But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the McCutcheon decision will have salutary effects. At its core, McCutcheon allows the rich (and only the rich) to buy more political influence, in a wider range of ways. This can only tip the playing field further away from the other 99 percent of the electorate.
The new influence-buying options may be less pernicious than the old ones, but more influence-buying is still more influence-buying.
If you think (as David Brooks apparently does) that the problem with American politics is too many political action committees and too few party bosses, then McCutcheon may be part of the solution. But if the problem is too much vote-buying and not enough vote-earning, then you’ll just have to wait for another Supreme Court, because this one is too insulated or too intellectually dishonest to recognize the difference between the two.
MARK C. SUCHMAN Providence, R.I., April 4, 2014
The writer is a professor of sociology at Brown University.
To the Editor:
David Brooks tells us that “there will always be money in politics; it’s a pipe dream to think otherwise.”
Thus the cheerleaders of the status quo remind us to be realistic, just as they did when movements began to emerge to challenge racism, sexism and homophobia.
History’s lesson: You never know what is realistic until you engage in sustained struggle for what is desirable and needed.
A movement is emerging, led by the Network of Spiritual Progressives, to get “money out of politics,” and its focus is the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. ESRA would mandate public funding for all state and national elections while banning all private money from individuals, corporations or any other source, require media to give free and equal time to major candidates, and require large corporations to prove a satisfactory history of environmental and social responsibility every five years to retain their corporate charter.
Unrealistic, visionary, badly needed.
(Rabbi) MICHAEL LERNER Berkeley, Calif., April 6, 2014
The writer is the editor of Tikkun: A Quarterly Jewish and Interfaith Critique of Politics, Culture and Society and chairman of theNetwork of Spiritual Progressives.
To the Editor:
While it was reform that ended the influence of the political parties, it was not campaign finance reform. It was the requirement that party candidates be selected by primary elections.
In 1952, for example, powerful political parties paid little heed to primary results. While victories in the Republican primaries were fairly divided between Robert A. Taft and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Eisenhower was chosen as the Republican candidate. Likewise, Estes Kefauver won most of the Democratic primaries, but Adlai E. Stevenson was chosen as the Democratic candidate.
After the disastrous Democratic convention of 1968, the Democrats instituted party reforms that strongly favored primaries, with a result that most states adopted this method of selecting convention delegates. These delegates no longer owed loyalty to the party; rather, they arrived committed to a particular candidate. Anyone with enough money could get into the game. No party dues required.
Today’s candidates are selected at private events by the wealthy with checkbooks. The candidates of yesteryear were picked in smoke-filled back rooms by party leaders—leaders representing broad-based party organizations at the state, county and precinct level. Another instance of the law of unintended consequences?
GAIL L. JOHNSON Ewing, N.J., April 4, 2014
The writer is the author of “Two Years to Democracy: The 2Y2D Plan.”
Note from KBJ: Not one of these writers mentioned the fact that the First Amendment protects political speech. Thank God the Supreme Court protects and respects this right of ours.