Elevated Opinion

— There’s quite an interesting debate going on in the comments to the Carelessness and Inattention post. I thought I may as well drag some of the action out the shadows of the comments box and into the bright light of the front page.

The prodigious Robert Light continues to treat us at length to Jaffaite gospel. Rob writes:

Will claims that he believes (belief?*) value judgments can be legitimated — but if that’s the case why does he persist in referring to these as “_values_”? I’d be most satisfied with a compelling answer to this — but, again, I doubt one is there because, “rationalized” though they may claim to be, at the end of the day, when it all boils down, at root, at bottom, when the fat lady sings, etc., THESE ARE STILL OPINIONS. The “norms” we have endorsed we have done so through opinion. Yes, even perhaps through elevated opinion, but opinion (um, er, _prejudices_) they still are, opinion about what constitutes “the good,” what the right way of life is. And absent an understanding of natural rights, the political order — and everyone else’s rights — are meaningless.

Rob keeps plucking on the same string, and it sounds the note of a false alternative. Let me put on my old Objectivist hat for a second. You’re giving a classic example of the (in Rand’s language) forced choice between intrinsicism and subjectivism.

That is, either normativity is inscribed into the deep structure of reality, or it’s just a free-for-all of whims. But that’s not the choice. The third way, objectivity, is the path between the Scylla of the Absolute and the Charybdis of the relative. Proper norms are based in, yes, human nature–what we are like, what the mind is like, what we need to survive and flourish–, but also in choice–in our embrace of life, and the things that make our lives worth having.

When we embrace life, our choice entails our acceptance of the way our nature as humans limits and enables the kind of lives we might lead. Ethical and political norms grounded in human nature are necessary. But the FACT that we are human by itself entails nothing. We have no duty to live, or to desire to live, or to want something particular out of life. If we want to live, and if we want to live lives of a certain quality, then we have to be bound by principles of cause effect. If we’re humans, then we can’t expect to live good lives by fighting against our natures, by trying to get impossible effects, or by trying to get possible effects by the wrong causes. The principles of causation are the source of the objectivity of ethical principles.

Your brand of natural rights theorizing makes us lazy. First, by replacing nature with an ideology or dogma. Second, by thinking that nature itself, independently of our goals, frames the good. So when the issue of homosexuality comes up, you already have an answer; nature has spoken. But, setting aside your mythological conception of nature, we have to regard it as an open question. We have to find out. Are same sex relationships in fact compatible with a good human life? Is a society that recognizes same sex marriages compatible with the kind of society in which everyone, or almost everyone, can successfully pursue a goof human life.

I think the evidence points to “yes” for both questions. It will not do for you to continue simply citing your philosophical ideology. You need to join the actual debate. I understand that your metaphysical illusions will prevent you. But unless you get over them, your contributions will not be regarded as useful.

So let’s see if we can get over your bad conditional: If no intrinsic natural rights, then a struggle of unconstrained will.

In fact, this reminds me of the argument David Stove called “the Gem,” and crowned as the worst argument in the history of philosophy: If the mind has a nature, then we cannot know reality as it is.

Of course the mind has a nature, and that’s HOW we know reality. Similarly, our nature as humans places causal constraints on what we may achieve in life and society, and principles that relate our nature to our individual and shared goals are neither written in the stars, nor subject to our mere wishes.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center