Rights as a Human Construct

Are rights a human construct? Yes, obviously. As are ethics and empathy and many other things humans value to some degree. You might see those constructs expressed in similar ways in some other animals, especially among the Great Apes, but they only truly reach their human form in humans.

Rights are a human construct in that they only matter between humans, or between humans and something humans want to treat in a human-like way.

Rights don’t exist apart from sentient beings. They only exist within the brain, while still having consequences, with regard to interactions between those bearing the brains, in the physical world. The Universe doesn’t have rights or respect rights otherwise.

A rock will never respect anything’s “rights”, nor will a mosquito. The rock has no consciousness or will (free or otherwise) and a mosquito just does what it must to survive long enough to reproduce– it doesn’t concern itself with anyone else.

Being a construct doesn’t mean rights are imaginary. They are real– at least when you are speaking of human interactions. Life doesn’t turn out well if you don’t respect the rights of others at least a little bit. If you didn’t, you’d be worse than the worst psychopath, and you wouldn’t survive long. You’d be everyone’s enemy and everyone would be doing all they could to end you.

So, rights are a useful construct. And as long as I’m dealing with other humans (or creatures I want to treat humanely) I will respect rights and will expect mine to be respected by other humans as well.

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Why Culture Matters

What is Culture?

As individuals, people experience consciousness (identity, intelligence, soul, conscience), develop character (will, agency, behavioral patterns, habits), and demonstrate preferences of style (taste). Biological traits and tendencies both enable and limit perceptions and abilities, but all people have the ability (and unavoidable responsibility) to shape their character and develop to their potential.

By natural extension, groups of people also experience a sort of shared consciousness (shared identity, values, perceptions, language, epistemological orientation), develop a shared character (ethics, norms/rules, priorities, organizations, obligations, expectations, group dynamics, reputation), and express shared style preferences (aesthetics, dress and grooming, design, cuisine, music, humor, communication patterns, leisure activities, rhythm of life). Culture is an umbrella term for the shared identity, values, perceptions, perspectives, knowledge, beliefs, organizations, practices, and preferences of a group.

Culture is Fundamental

Culture is about much more than just style. Style is a very visible part of culture, but it is also comparably superficial and inconsequential. Style differences rarely cause significant conflict (except, perhaps between significantly shallow people). On the other hand, differences in things like ethics, rules, and behavioral patterns are at the heart of very serious conflicts, indeed. In fact, many conflicts that on the surface appear to be motivated by ethnic identity, political ideology, or religious affiliation are fundamentally cultural.

But understanding culture is not just about conflict; it’s also about the progress of civilizations and quality of life for people everywhere. Key adjustments in culture can have profound effects on group dynamics and future generations.

Cultural Advancement and Decline

The word “culture” comes from the latin cultura referring to the care, development, and protection required to develop something, as in “cultivation” and “agriculture”. The weeds and rocks have to go and the soil has to be prepared in order for precious seeds to be carefully planted and become a beautiful garden that bears fruit and is worth preserving.

In other words, a culture must be both conservative and progressive in order to develop. That is, its members must conserve positive elements while also abandoning negative ones and adopting additional positive ones. All cultures should embrace the best practices of other cultures while conserving and promoting their own.

Here are some examples of elements of high-performing cultures that have proven their value and are worth adopting: coherent philosophy, individual self-determination, reciprocity ethics and natural law, clear and noble grand narrative, private property norms, freedom of association, monogamy, incest avoidance, courtesy, hygiene, industriousness, low time preference, precise and high-minded language, appreciation of / participation in / contribution to sophisticated pursuits.

Cultural decline is marked by the abandonment of such elements and their replacement with corrupt and perverse ones.

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Ethical Consistency, Does it Really Matter?

We see or hear it all the time. Whether we’re on social media or having a conversation with a friend or family member, you may hear or read something like this, your redneck coworker may say, “We just need to turn the middle east into a sheet of glass!” Meanwhile, your progressive, career college student cousin may say something like, “We need someone like Bernie in the white house so we can finally get universal health care!”

More often than not these examples are due to the lack of something I consider invaluable as a Voluntaryist… ethical consistently.

To the best of my understanding, the lack of ethical consistency in today’s culture has led, and continues to lead people toward further social, economic, and foreign policy disasters. For this reason, I wanted to go over the concept of ethical consistency as I see it, the definition of the term, and some examples of how it’s applied in real world scenarios.

Consistency—the absence of contradictions—has sometimes been called the hallmark of ethics. Ethics is supposed to provide us with a guide for moral living, and to do so it must be rational, and to be rational it must be free of contradictions. If a person said, “Open the window but don’t open the window,” we would be at a loss as to what to do; the command is contradictory and thus irrational. In the same way, if our ethical principles and practices lack consistency, we, as rational people, will find ourselves at a loss as to what we ought to do and divided about how we ought to live. Ethics require consistency in the sense that our moral standards, actions, and values should not be contradictory. Examining our lives to uncover inconsistencies and then modifying our moral standards and behaviors so that they are consistent is an important part of moral development.

Consistency and Ethics, from the center of applied ethics at Santa Clara University.

I’ve observed that, especially in the realm of political opinion, being ethically consistent seems to be a real challenge. And as I wrote earlier, this leads to a lot of confusion, controversy, and conflict.

In order to further explain, I’ve provided five scenarios along with an explanation of how ethical consistency applies.

Scenario #1
-Murder is considered illegal or unethical.
-Accidentally killing civilians with drone strikes is collateral damage and therefore justified.

In this example, it should be fairly obvious that killing is inherently unethical, whether intentionally or by accident, however some people believe there is an exception to this universally accepted rule when it comes to war…or so they’ve convinced themselves. In a way, I can’t blame them. They’ve spent a lifetime inundated with nationalism, from reciting the pledge of allegiance in public school every morning to social media and network news filling them with pride for country and military worship.

And that’s the problem. The programming has been incredibly successful, so successful some people have lost their ability to discern between murder and accidentally killing innocent people.

Scenario #2
-Robbing someone of the cash in their wallet is considered illegal or unethical.
-Taking money from someone through the act of taxation is justified.

Think back to when were a child, do you remember when one of your siblings or playmates took your favorite toy from you? I’m not sure I can remember that far back either, but if you have children, nieces or nephews, you’ve witnessed this drama firsthand.

The recognition of personal property is innate in human beings, we know what is ours.

As we mature, we begin to understand the benefits of sharing, whether it’s the desire to connect with others or more selfish reasons. For example, some may share their candy with classmates in order to be seen as likeable and some may do so in order to garner social status and the benefits involved with being popular.

Although we’ve come to find sharing as a virtuous thing to do, we choose so voluntarily. We choose to donate money, our time, or make charitable donations of items because we receive some type of psychological reward.

In the case of the mugger stealing the cash in your wallet, we know this is inherently unethical. In the case of taking someone’s money via taxes, we know that this act is also inherently unethical. Why? Because, unlike charitable donations, the money is being taken from you. Some may say that they’re happy to pay taxes and that’s great! You make your charitable donations to the state and I’ll spend my money supporting alternatives to such coercive systems.

Scenario #3
-A group of neighbors come to your house and forcefully abducted you for smoking a plant in your living room is considered illegal or unethical.
-The police come to your house and forcefully abducting you for smoking a plant in your living room is justified.

Do you own yourself? Is your body, your self considered personal property? Are you responsible for actions taken? Do you have a sense of personal agency?

I would answer ‘yes’ to each of those questions, therefore my body and my actions are mine. If I were to eat a fatty steak and wash it down with a double Old Fashioned, does that affect anyone else? Of course not, but if I were to get in my car intoxicated and hit someone else, that would be violating their person, their self.

Whether it’s eating a steak while drinking bourbon, smoking weed, or doing meth, it’s my body. As long as I do so without affecting anyone, it’s my decision alone.

The act of being abducted by your neighbors simply because they made a “No Weed” rule between them is inherently immoral. The same thing applies to being abducted by the police. In addition to your neighbors, strangers helped make the rules restricting the rights of others to do what they choose with their bodies. The police enforce these rules, although they call them laws instead. Whether rule or law, a person’s self ownership precedes both.

Scenario #4
-A group of people mandating your children attend church is considered unethical.
-The state mandating your children attend school is justified.

My explanation of scenario number three applies here as well. However, in this case it’s not your person, it’s your child’s person.

What separates adults from children is the adults sense of personal agency and responsibility. Since children lack this understanding, their parents, other immediate family members, or other types of surrogate caregivers have the responsibility of taking care of them.

Now this part is going to sound insensitive and simplistic, but hear me out. Your child is your possession. Until they also have a sense of personal agency and responsibility, you are as responsible for them as you are for yourself. Therefore, you have the final say when it comes to their person.

By mandate or law, forcing a child to attend anything without the consent of the parent is inherently unethical.

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Homeschooling, Ideology, and The “Culture War”

Homeschooling, as characterized by someone who prefers “public” [sic] schools: “it’s all about ideology first; creating soldiers for the culture war“.

Sure. In some tragic cases, that is what is going on.

And how exactly is that different from government schools? What does he think government schools are doing?

Yes, some people use home education to teach their kids harmful lies while insulating them from competing ideas (truth, reality, and ethics). That’s bad. They should not do this to vulnerable children.

Yet, government schools do the exact same thing— even teaching some of the same harmful lies the worst of the homeschoolers are teaching.

If you are teaching your kids to pledge allegiance to a flag, to honor political “authority“, that government is good or necessary, you are teaching a toxic ideology to kids too young to know any better– whether they are being taught at home or in a theft-funded kinderprison.

If you expect these kids to go out and become “good citizens” while promoting your favorite flavor of statism, you’ve done nothing but indoctrinate these trusting children into your death cult religion. The religion of Statism. You are training them to be soldiers in the culture war, fighting for the side of statism.

It’s kind of pathetic to criticize someone for doing the same thing your preferred cult is doing– even if the details differ a little.

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Against Tu Quoque

War crimes trials often weigh on the consciences of the conscientious.  Aren’t such proceedings mere “victor’s justice”?  The hypocrisy is usually palpable; after all, how often does either side in a violent conflict walk away with clean hands?  Unsurprisingly, then, one of defendants’ favorite legal strategies is to tell their prosecutors, “Well, you guys did the same.”  It’s called the tu quoque defense:

An argument from fairness, the tu quoque argument has an enduring appeal to the human conscience. Simply put, tu quoque is the Latin rendition of “you too”, with the argument built-in, though often unstated: “Since you have committed the same crime, why are you prosecuting me?” Cast in more affirmative terms, the argument is that if one side in a conflict has committed certain crimes, it has no authority to prosecute or punish nationals of the other side for the same or closely similar crimes. Whatever effect a decision-maker may choose to give it, the argument troubles the human soul, when it is presented in a fitting situation.

To be honest, though, I have trouble seeing why this argument has any appeal, much less “enduring appeal.”

Consider: If a law is unjust, the less you enforce it, the better.  This remains true even if 99% of violators get punished, because sparing 1% is less unjust than sparing 0%.  To quote one of the best things Murray Rothbard ever said about ethics:

[T]he justice of equality of treatment depends first of all on the justice of the treatment itself. Suppose, for example, that Jones, with his retinue, proposes to enslave a group of people. Are we to maintain that “justice”  requires that each be enslaved equally? And suppose that someone has the good fortune to escape. Are we to condemn him for evading the equality of justice meted out to his fellows? It is obvious that equality of treatment is no canon of justice whatever. If a measure is unjust, then it is just that it have as little general effect as possible. Equality of unjust treatment can never be upheld as an ideal of justice.

By the same logic, if a law is just, the more you enforce it, the better.  This remains true even if 99% of violators are never punished.  Giving 1% of monsters what they deserve is less unjust than giving 0% of monsters what they deserve.  If you have the chance to inflict retribution on 1% of the camp guards at Auschwitz, why not go for it?  Sure, if you’re a war criminal yourself, we should urge you to submit to punishment as well.  If that’s not going to happen, though, why not take whatever justice you’re willing to dole out?

Justice aside, the consequentialist case against the tu quoque defense is also solid.  Since victory is never assured, it’s good for people on all sides to know, “I will be harshly punished for my war crimes… if my side loses.”  While it would be better if people knew they would be punished regardless of the outcome of the war, conditional deterrence is better than no deterrence at all.

Isn’t it possible, though, that people will commit additional war crimes to avoid prosecution for earlier war crimes?  The answer, of course, is: “Sure, it’s possible.”  Most obviously, fear of war crimes trials provides an incentive to murder witnesses ASAP.  Yet the same goes for any law.  Laws against murder create an incentive to murder people who witness your murders.  Yet this is a flimsy objection to laws against murder, because shrewd consequentialists focus on overall net effects, not worst-case scenarios.

What’s the best case against war crimes trials?  Simple: War crimes trials might delay peace – or reignite a war – and war is hell.  Indeed, war is often hellish enough to overcome the intuitive moral presumption in favor of making violent criminals suffer for their misdeeds.  When countries adopt amnesties to prevent future bloodshed, I keep my mind open.

When you firmly have the upper-hand, though, I say retribution dulce et decorum est.  Letting Soviet war criminals off the hook in 1991 was defensible, though it would have been safe and wise to permanently bar former Communist Party members from holding public office.  In 1945, though, defeated Axis war criminals were sitting ducks.  Making tens of thousands of them pay in full for their offenses would have been easy, just, and instructive.  Punishing all the war criminals on both sides would naturally have been even more just and instructive, but anything but easy.

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Gary Chartier: Taking a Stand for Peace (1h6m)

This episode features a talk by legal scholar, philosopher, and professor of law and business ethics Gary Chartier from 2013. He takes a stand against war and the state. Purchase books by Gary Chartier on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (1h6m, mp3, 64kbps)

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