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The Philosopher is In
Might & Right

durerwildmen

Albrecht Dürer, wild men from the side panels of the Portrait of Oswald Krell, 1499

524 words

Spanish translation here

A reader has asked me for my thoughts on the relationship between might and rights. (By the way, I am happy to entertain philosophical questions.)

What are rights? Rights are principles defining political freedoms and obligations. If rights are political, what makes rights “natural” as opposed to conventional? What makes rights natural is an argument deriving them from human nature. Thus natural rights are socially instituted, protected, and enforced freedoms and obligations that are rationally grounded in nature, not just arbitrarily created like the rules of football or hopscotch.

The standard straw man argument against natural rights is to assert that they are some sort of occult power that in and of themselves protect us against violence. I call this the “Ghost Shirt” view of rights, after the magical shirts of the Sioux Indians that were supposed to render them bulletproof, but didn’t.

Of course rights can protect us even if we lack the power to force others to respect them, but only if we are dealing with people who share common values and are open to moral suasion. But natural rights advocates all recognize that when dealing with criminals and barbarians, we need to use force to put them down.

Tough guys like to set up the Ghost Shirt straw man, which they then “refute” with a punch in the nose. Then they claim that if rights are conventional, not natural, the man with the biggest muscles will tell us what our rights are, indeed what is right in general. This is the view that “might makes right.”

The best argument against this position is offered by Socrates in Plato’s Republic, book I. If might makes right, then right is determined not by strong individuals but by the masses of weak men, who, by banding together, become stronger than the strongest man on his own.

As my favorite undergraduate teacher once said in a political philosophy class, illustrating Hobbes’ idea that men are naturally equal simply insofar as no man is so superior to his fellow men that he can’t be killed by them: “You may be big and tough, but you have to sleep some time. And when you do, some of us skinny guys will band together and stick a knife in you.”

In short, natural rights might not render us bulletproof, but neither does physical strength.

Now, some advocates of the might is right position are willing to accept this conclusion because they implicitly accept a fundamentally egalitarian view of man and politics. Most, however, reject this argument indignantly because the intuition that underlies their position is implicitly aristocratic. They believe that the best men should rule, and when they articulate what is best, they claim it is strength. But if might really makes right, then many average men united together are better entitled to rule than the superlatively strong individual. This implies that they should reject the idea that might makes right and search for a better account of the qualities that entitle the best men to rule.

 

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16 Comments

  1. Jaego
    Posted January 22, 2015 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    In understand what is right, it might help by listing what is wrong. Until “rights” are put in a moral context, they will remain the meal of adolescent and even infantile Libertarians. Every Libertarian tends to be a red face two year old screaming, “No, do it myself!” In the next America (if any), a Bill of Responsibilities must be added to alongside the Bill of Rights. I don’t blame the Founding Fathers so much: they never envisioned a Cultural Revolution lasting decades that would obliterate the old culture.

    Right makes Might. And the Mighty then enforce their laws against any who would dare to threaten the People and their State. The Pen comes before the Sword – but the Sword enforces the Will of the Pen.

  2. JJJ
    Posted January 22, 2015 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    “The best argument against this position is offered by Socrates in Plato’s Republic, book I. If might makes right, then right is determined not by strong individuals but by the masses of weak men, who, by banding together, become stronger than the strongest man on his own.”

    Well, this is true and actually compatible with your position. Every government that has not yielded to the well-being of its people (yes, our government included, keeps people “happy”), has failed. The interests of the mass is the great guider of every serious ideology and notion of “right” in history. The “sovereign” ruler enforcing “his” will on the people is somewhat illusory. Might DOES make right and necessarily makes right and all concepts of the societal good.

    One may say that “might” is a “natural right” of the mass, in the sense that it is grounded in human nature, and when that power is denied (or not provided the illusion of affirmation), governments fail. And the only reason that masses don’t take straight up control of government is the because the might of the masses is directed solely towards passive “happiness” (hence why the mass is always categorized as feminine), whereas the might of rulers is directed towards the fulfillment of Thymos. These two powers must necessarily be in equilibrium, and yes, in the end, the former does take precedence over the latter.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted January 22, 2015 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      You are actually distinguishing between might and right here: the masses have “well-being” and the power to force the state to respect it. That is different from saying that well-being is defined by the most powerful.

      • JJJ
        Posted January 22, 2015 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

        What I’m saying is that while sovereign rulers do ultimately decide “right”, they must take the force of the mass into consideration in their conception. So the weight of the mass, as pure force, must make right, at least in a functional, societal context. So any notion of well being is heavily defined by the most powerful, masses of weak men (in the context mentioned).

        • Greg Johnson
          Posted January 22, 2015 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

          No, just because the masses can riot and break things does not mean that their opinions are right.

          • JJJ
            Posted January 22, 2015 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

            It doesn’t have to do about the thoughts of the mass at all. I don’t mean well being in the sense of the mass’s conception of their own well being.

            The ruler’s conception of right must satiate the mass in some way. It does not matter whether the mass thinks that they have the right to do heroin, if a sovereign ruler disapproves, his conception of right must replace heroin with something else, say fresh fruit. The “right to eat fresh fruit” is a right that addresses the mass as a force that needs to be sated. So my point: The ruler makes right, but a conception of right can never be “to hell with the masses!” from a functional point of view. Therefore, the mass as pure force must heavily define right for a functioning society.

        • Marc
          Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:37 am | Permalink

          JJJ: You’ve gone all in with modernist conventionalism. That there is a human nature — a truth of being who we are — including basic innate dignities that even the strong recognize in the weak, is something that has been hopelessly covered over by the illusions and confusions of modern conventionalism, and yet it remains there. If you need more convincing than old philosophers, there is a blog called Darwinian Conservative in which the author defends the concept of natural rights even within a Darwinian evolutionary view of human nature.

          • JJJ
            Posted January 23, 2015 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

            Marc: I strongly believe in innate nature, dignities, and truths of human nature. But I tend to see rights as conventional because they rely on “ought” statements. We ought to base our rights on what is, but just because something is does not make it, objectively, how it should be. When one makes right “x”, he is implying an ought statement, and ought statements always hold in high regard a preference and end goal of human nature. So, for example, if we prefer to live in harmony and truth, we ought to base right “x” on what is, but where is the justification that man ought to base his rights on the truths of human nature, besides the preference for the greater good?

            As explained in the fall myth, man is born free. He can choose either to prosper or suffer. If he lives in accordance with God, or truth, then he will prosper. But if not, the desire for sin can equally justify his rights. There are rights that should be made as a means to an end, but there is nothing besides the preference of man for the greater good to justify these rights.

  3. Arno Hansen
    Posted January 20, 2015 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    @Greg Johnson: A short and effective argument. I like your definition that natural rights are socially instituted, protected, and enforced principles defining political freedoms and obligations, which are rationally derived from human nature. I would add that we need to do more than observe and agree upon a description of human nature in order to propose rights. We must also add the prescriptive reality of Will.

    So a more explicit definition would be:
    “Natural rights are socially instituted, protected, and enforced principles defining political freedoms and obligations, which are rationally derived from human nature and the Will of society.”

    I would like to say the Will of God, but I don’t think we could agree to that in a secular society. And human nature being what it is, along with my preference for freedom of thought and growth, I think freedom of religion is a natural freedom. Perhaps we might also say that separation of church and state is a natural obligation of the government. Come to think of it, gay marriage sounds more appealing as a “right” than as “an obligation for the government to recognize.” The word “right” often gets used that way, to confuse confuse things like “freedom of association” and “obligation to desegregate” as both “civil rights.”

    Unfortunately, that term, “civil right,” has had a connotation vastly different from your simple definition. Take the example of the right to pursue happiness. As you argued in your recent article on trans-bodyism, there are consequences to the unfettered pursuit of happiness, if one conceives of happiness as including the fulfillment of selfish and self-actualizing narratives. This is a more recent development that might be brushed off, but I think the connections between the term “natural rights” and the destructive ideologies of John Locke or Thomas Paine are deeply disturbing.

    “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.”

    There’s no need for me to explain why this is flawed here at counter-currents, but this is the connotation that natural rights have taken on. When natural rights are divorced from rational connection with human nature and the Will of society, it becomes impossible to argue against the Jew Emma Lazarus, who proclaimed in 1883 that America was the land where immigrants had a “right” to come.

    All she was really saying is that she understood the threat of immigrants to American society and that she therefore desired more immigrants. And when we speak of natural rights such as freedom of religion, the right to property, or the right to freedom of speech, what we are really saying is that we understand the benefit of these rights to our society, and that we desire what benefits our society.

    Natural rights aren’t wrong, but they can’t be mentioned without making sure the audience understands the rationale and Will of society behind the rights. Otherwise, natural rights become, in the minds of the masses, a kind of laundry list of “Sabbath Law” type morality. The white majority believe that 3rd worlders have a natural right to immigrate into white countries (though they might quibble over quantity), but they do not believe that white countries have a natural right to exist. They have no philosophy behind this, only Pavlovian training.

    Until we make it clear that natural rights cannot be universal in the absence of a one-world culture, the term “natural rights” will be a tool of the anti-whites. Then we can define whose life, liberty, and happiness we value, and who has a right to live in our countries.

    Whether or not we can reclaim the term “natural right” is up for debate. But certainly, we should not give into the nihilism and materialism that “might is right” out of blind reactionism. The horseshoe crab has existed for longer than us, and certain creatures have a higher biomass. According to one definition of might or power, they might be “mightier” than us. Certainly we have no hope of eliminating all forms of viruses and bacteria from the Earth (some of them live inside us, and would be harder to eliminate than cancer cells), but some viruses have threatened to eliminate our race. That sounds like might to me!

    But we prefer our own race because of it’s potential for excellence. And if we don’t value excellence above power (if we don’t choose power as a means to excellence, and instead choose excellence only as a means to power) the Soviet Unions of the world will continue to defeat the Western nations of the world. Let’s rally to make those past defeats a Battle of Thermopylae, in which a great sacrifice inspires a larger movement — not to engage in a selfish, hateful war of all against all in which “might is right”!

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted January 21, 2015 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      The “will of society” gives an air of conventionalism, and it is not necessary, given that I describe natural rights as socially instituted.

      • Marc
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:25 am | Permalink

        Indeed, “socially instituted” implies everything Arno would like to add by “Will of society”.

  4. K.K.
    Posted January 20, 2015 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Might IS right. This is simply a fact; like the fact that the snow is white. One has only as much ‘rights’ as one can enforce in a given situation.

    I’m obviously speaking from the broadest possible perspective.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted January 20, 2015 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

      I disagree, for reasons stated above.

      • Marc
        Posted January 23, 2015 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        Greg is right.

  5. Posted January 20, 2015 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Most of the revulsion at ‘natural rights’ comes from prolonged exposure to the Constitutionalist coterie. The ones that declare their rights are never alienated, only infringed upon, even if America vanished and they languished in a Turkish prison. Even if they cloak it in quasi-Christian language (God given rjghts) it belies a certain Will To Power. Holding the world to a code held only by a select few and wishing to impose it smacks of writing your own tablets.

  6. Peter Quint
    Posted January 20, 2015 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I highly recommend “Might Is Right” by Ragnar Redbeard, it will change the way you view the world. I also recommend “The Antichrist” by Friedrich Nietzsche for a thorough analysis of the degeneracy of Christianity.

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