Monday, April 03, 2006

X-post facto

Ed B. has a post about Newt Gingrich's new book, The Creator's Gifts: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, and since I was thinking of addressing this topic anyway, I'll crosspost my comment here, to wit:

Alan Keyes likes to say that what liberals forget is that our rights are "given to us by God," (as if he'll take them away, or as if we're being ungrateful, or something, if we don't let theocrats run things) and it's disappointing to see Gingrich, who is not a total jackass, buying into it too. The Declaration reads:

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.

This sentence rejects the then prevalent idea that our having rights is contingent on their being bestowed by some agent external to us (like a king, say), rather than their being ours by nature (and thus necessarily). The point of referring to the Creator here is to endorse the latter idea: we have rights simply in being human beings at all. This being the 18th century, the chosen wording is about what we should expect. It's a good choice – forceful, poetic, and yet doctrinally non-committal (between deism and traditional theism). And of course that's why it says "endowed" (which means "provided with some quality," i.e., by nature) rather than "bestowed" (although another meaning for "endowed" is "bequeathed," as in a university endowment, which may be causing some of the confusion here).

But Keyes (and now Newt) misses the point entirely, as if the founders were accepting the original idea (rights bestowed by external agent) and simply changing the agent from king to deity. But that can't be right. For one thing, they would hardly hold such a metaphysically contentious idea to be "self-evident." Indeed, that idea is barely coherent, assuming as it does that making us human and bestowing rights upon us are conceptually distinct things, as if it were possible to be fully human, but without the right to liberty until it was subsequently bestowed upon us (by a wave of His mighty hand – which did what, exactly?). But this is just what the Declaration denies. To be human just is to have the rights in question. They depend on nothing external to us, natural or supernatural. That's what the part about it being "self-evident" is meant to emphasize: that having rights is (metaphysically) necessary for being human. It doesn't say that they couldn't give an argument for that claim, but indicates the kind of argument that it would be if they did give one (if the DoI were a philosophical treatise, which it is not). That argument would not be an appeal to Scripture (which is the very opposite of self-evident, concerned as most of it is with contingent matters of fact), but one concerned with (as Kant would say a few years later, in a different context) "necessity and universality," the marks of the a priori.

Not that I agree with that exactly (that sharp necessary/contingent dualism looks funny nowadays, for starters) but that's what the founders thought.

Also see SharonB's comment, a point which Ed makes in the post as well: "Nowhere [in the Bible] is a statement to the effect that the power of government derives from the consent of the governed" (her words). Quite right.

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