Letters to The Ethical Spectacle

At Brooklyn College I had a professor named Beth Singer. She loaned me a book she had written on a philosophic topic and when she finally asked for it back I hadn't read it. I could see the disappointment in her face, which I have remembered for twenty-eight years.

I relied very heavily on Beth's Pragmatism, Rights and Democracy for the Natural Rights essay last issue.

Thank you, Beth, and I hope I made it up to you for not having read the other book.

I never can predict which of my essays will inspire the most mail and which will get none. I'm proudest of some of the pieces which haven't had a single response, like Beckett... Entropy...Hawking...Time. I would never have thought that the Natural Rights piece would inspire such energetic and intellectual reactions as the ones I've printed below.

I love getting your email....I can be reached as always at jw@bway.net.

Jonathan Wallace

Natural Rights

Regarding your essay on Natural Rights, it is interesting to contemplate Jefferson's reaction if he was alive today and could read it. I suspect that he would reply, "If Natural Rights did not exist, then it would be necessary to invent them!" Probably, he would say so with a wink.

In reply to grumbling by Adams about the lack of originality in the Declaratio n, Jefferson himself freely admitted that in it he did nothing more or less than attempt to reflect current feelings of the American people. Note that he did not begin the Declaration with the simpler tautology, "These truths are self evident." In short, Jefferson was not only asserting the existence of Lockean natural rights. He was at least tacitly arguing that what "We hold" (the signers AND the people in general) was that acknowledgement by government of at least a minimal number of rights retained by individuals was a necessary condition for that government legitimately to claim allegiance from those individuals and for that government even to function well. One could almost argue that Jefferson was a closet proto-utilitarian, and that his argument was based partially on that of good versus evil consequences flowing from certain sorts of governmental actions and premises.

Whether or not such rights actually existed in a moral sense, either "engraved in the fabric of the universe" or as ordained by a higher being, was irrelevant to Jefferson, I suspect, and it is irrelevant to most Natural Rights advocates today. However, acknowledgement of at least some fundamental individual rights is a necessary condition (and a sufficient one, minimal state supporters would add) for the establishment of a reasonable formal social order. Theoretically, one could envision a government of unamimous consent, wherein everyone forgoes claims to all individual rights, but such an arrangement would be unstable, in that a single individual could topple the structure by withdrawing consent.

Omitted from your essay was what arguably was the strongest influence on American thought in the Revolutionary Era, Locke as interpreted (or misinterpreted) by Thomas Paine. While he may be remembered today primarily as a talented rabble-rouser, Paine's influence was almost incalculable. Commo n Sense alone had an estimated printing of 100,000 copies, in a geographic area with a population of about three million. What Paine drove home most strongly was that there was a third alternative to the state of nature absolute individual freedom of Locke (or of the brutal anarchy of Hobbes) on the one hand, and the almost universal historical governmental plunder of persons and property on the other. A social order could and would arise from the state of nature, as individuals interacted. Spontaneously and voluntarily they would restrain as necessary some of their previously absolute rights or "abilities" without a formal governmental structure explicating such. Undoubtedly, Paine felt vindicated in this belief, when upon expulsion of the British colonial governments at the start of the revolution, the colonies did not revert to anarchy.

I cannot resist a personal digression concerning your citation of Hume's "Is/Ought" complaint, as related to one of the more challenging teachers that I ever had the privilege of knowing, then a newly appointed Assistant Professor with a recently defended Ph.D. She carried Hume's argument to its logical conclusion in this manner. Philosophy properly should be divided into only two branches, Logic (specifically deductive/mathematical, as she had reservations concerning inductive reasoning) and Aesthetics. To her, ALL arguments in Ethics, Politics, Metaphysics, and Epistemology ultimately were of personal tastes and desires, or were refutations of such.

In the United States today, the term "Natural Rights" may be used somewhat improperly, but for most, it is used as shorthand for referring to those individual rights which are guaranteed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights and which are not subject to violation either by the government or by popular opinion, save by the ammendment process. In short, it is used to describe fundamental individual rights, as opposed to mere desires or values that some groups or individuals attempt to elevate to the status of "rights."

Without rehashing the gun control debate, I would like to offer the following observation concerning your complaint of the use of the Second Ammendment as a "club" or a "credit/trump card." While I agree with you that use of a club is an illogical manner in which to argue, I object to your complaint about "credit cards." Is not the play as a trump of a constitutionally guaranteed right precisely what ALL civil libertarians do, when they detect an attempted abrogation of it? How is your request for a calm "sit down" discussion for reconciling your personal desires concerning firearms with those of others any different, for example, than similar requests by various groups for "reasonable" restrictions of First Ammendment speech/press rights on the Internet?


Joseph Oliver

PS: I think your site is excellent, keep up the good work.

Dear Mr. Wallace,

I happened upon your article while searching for something else and would like to commend you for a very thought provoking piece. It is not my custom to reply to something like an article, since I did not find it on a discussion group, but I couldn't let this opportunity go by without commenting on some of the interesting points you raise and the apparent contradictions of your own accusations.

You wrote:

How can there be "self evident" rights? Jefferson was writing under a British system which did not recognize the rights that he described, and which was the legal government of the colonies until they succeeded in separating themselves and forming a new one. Had Jefferson written, "We want the following rights," he would have been making a simple, clear statement easy to understand. Language allows us to construct phrases which are grammatically correct but which do not mean anything (or do not mean what they appear to). Does the statement "We hold these rights to be self-evident" in fact mean anything more profound than "we want them?"

Yes it does. The statements, 'We hold these rights to be self-evident' means something entirely different than 'we want them'.

Had Jefferson said, 'We want the following rights' he would have been renouncing every principle and value that he believed in and presumably many of the colonists as well. Firstly, he would, by the very request, acknowledge that the British did indeed have such power over all the individuals in the colonies to be able to grant them those rights. When you are forming an independent nation, it seems rather awkward to then ask permission of your oppressors and demand certain rights. The Declaration of Independence was entirely a document explaining why we would no longer be bound by British law and custom, and expressed the ideal that was later on carried forth in other founding documents, the ideal of each man being his own sovereign being, and not subject to the whim of another.

The entire premise of what Jefferson believed was that each man had a right to his own life, he was fully responsible for it, and could not demand that any man sacrifice his life, property or happiness for another. This was certainly not the British way of doing business, which is why the Declaration was being written.

The difference between saying 'we hold these truths to be self-evident' as opposed to 'we want them' indicates that a measure of cognition exists, that we have formed concepts and ideas based on our own cognition and perceptions of our environment and that we have then moved to the next step by creating new concepts that build upon the previous body of knowledge obtained by experience in the world, both physical and intellectual.

You quoted Hume:

In every system of morality which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a god, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find that instead of the usual copulation of propositions is and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or an ought not. This change is imperceptible, but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought or ought not expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason ought to be given for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others which are entirely different from it.

(As an aside, having read your entie article, how do you see what you have written as free of the same complaint you have of other writings in this regard?)

I believe this has to do with concept formation. The Declaration of Independence was not created to establish or explain a particular system of morality, though it did indeed reflect one. It was not in the scope of that particular document to explain the entire process of human thought that lead to the conclusions the document represented.

Now note what Locke did: In the state of nature, "all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal" and therefore all men "should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection...."

And he does it again: "The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it" which teaches that "no one ought to harm another".

Man holds his knowledge in conceptual form. Concepts are abstracts, while what every man actually perceives are concretes. He must, in some way, fashion his perceptions of the concretes into concepts. The validity of mans knowledge depends on the validity of the concepts, which in turn depend how he processes the perceptions. There are various schools of thought on this and it is certainly beyond the scope of my writing to delve into this aspect more deeply.

You can certainly accuse Jefferson of being lazy in this regard, he did not in fact fully define the entire process, nor did many other writers of the time. They depended on the fact that man appeared to know how to think, understood what words stood for and could then string the words (and the accompanying concepts) into further abstractions based on the accepted ways of thinking at that time.

Perhaps the real issue is not with Locke or Jefferson, but the lack of philosophers to fully describe the human process of formulating ideas and concepts. Philosophy is a huge undertaking and has not been taken seriously for centuries. Jefferson was a philosopher, but a political philosopher. Before you can realistically tackle the politics of a particular brand of philosophy, you have to define its roots, define the nature and source of abstractions, define the metaphysics, the epistemology.

In the absence of such guidance, men tend to do the practical based on the knowledge of their times and the body of experiences as it has been handed down to us. In the absence of such guidance, reams and reams of useless arguments are presented as worthwhile. Practically does have it's downside.

"Rights" language, as these two philosophers illustrate, is among the trickiest of human concepts: it is an area in which we all think we know what we are talking about when in reality we have no idea.


You hear in such debates not only that it is "natural" for us to defend ourselves but that animals are equipped with claws, horns and teeth to do so. Somehow this fact, that people and other animals defend themselves when endangered, is extrapolated into a "right."

Isnt it? In this world, you have two options. To live or to die. If you value life, you defend. If you do not value life, you dont bother. You certainly have a right to either of those two choices and the consequence of that choice. Why then does it seem that having a right to die (ie., not defend your life) is more valid than having a right to live (ie., defend your life).

Of course, defining an actual right in any context would indeed be a job for a philosopher. Humans have to make volitional choices in order to physically and intellectually survive in the world. Are these certain actions to be called rights? It depends on the philosophical base you are working from.

It is a by-product of the human mess that we wish to project both our desires and our prohibitions (read "human rulebook") outside ourselves. We justify our desires by viewing them as universal mandates, but we are also frightened by the idea that the things we are drawn to, but which feel wrong or otherwise terrify us, are prohibited only by fragile human rules.

They arent prohibited strictly by fragile human rules. There is always reality to take into account. Our rules dont prevent anyone from really doing what they want to, or our prisons wouldnt be filled to record levels. It is the consequence of our actions, via by human law or reality that eventually puts a damper on things. The reality of law enforcement discovering some misdeed, the reality of angered victims come to take revenge, the reality of life.

The theme of three thousand years of human moral discourse has been the attempt to plant moral rules on some firmer foundation than our own freedom. God, Jesus, Platonic forms, pure reason, categorical imperatives, genetic rewards for altruism, all come to the same thing: the fear and loneliness inspired by human freedom.

Indeed? And how was that arrived at so suddenly?

I prefer this freedom, which seems to me simple and clear: we are all at a table together, deciding which rules to adopt, free from any vague constraints, half-remembered myths, anonymous patriarchal texts and murky concepts of nature.

Based on what? For every rule, there will be a detractor because we all have beliefs based in the very areas you wish to flee from. Rules need a foundation in reality and in reason, not whim, not consensus. Someone can always get more friends on his side than someone else.

If I propose something you do not like, tell me why it is not practical, or harms somebody, or is counter to some other useful rule; but don't tell me it offends the universe.

Well, it might offend reality, but there are checks and balances for reality, aren't there.

I wish you luck.

Joy Bushnell pooka@vnet.net

I love Jonathan Wallace's writing! He raises fundamental questions. I don't always agree with his conclusions. "Natural Rights Don't Exist" is a case in point. In essence, he concludes: Since natural rights are projections of our "wants," we "ought" deny their existence and make up rules that suit the needs and situations we encounter. There are several points where I would question Mr. Wallace.

I. If "natural rights" are not to be the starting point of human society, what is the basis and the goal of the rules we "should make?"

Mr. Wallace begins by focusing on the self declared "self evident" assertion of Thomas Jefferson "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Evidence exists that if this statement is true, it is no more than philosophic principle. Looking at the world and human history, there is little evidence to indicate that this philosophy is acted out in history. While the truth of this statement might have been self evident to the signers of "The Declaration of Independence," it was certainly not self evident to George III, his court or his military. The war which followed the Declaration is evidence that this proposition was not self evident to all.

What does "self evident" mean? It means that a person either sees and accepts a proposition as fundamental truth, or they do not. The declaration of "self evident truths" is a statement of fundamental premise. Those who accept such "truths" use them as a foundation for further thought and action.

Logic can only be applied within a system of thought. Logic is never the basis of a philosophic system. Other assumptions must be made before logic or even common sense is applied. Mr. Wallace apparently accepts the existence of some sort of natural order (with no reference to its source). While he denies "natural rights," would he also deny "natural law" as in the "law of gravity," "the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics," "Newton's Laws of Motion," or Einstein's mass/energy conversion formula? I will readily admit that all of these are at best approximations of the reality we see and subject to limits and change. (There are others who simply deny the natural order and propose that what we experience as reality is by a holographic construct in which we share. Who and what "we" are is yet to be discovered or defined. See the work of Karl Pribram of Stanford University and David Bohm in "Consciousness and the Brain.") The point is that before we can assert anything, we have to assume something. Even logic is not always "common sense. Does "1+1= 2"? or does "1+1=10"? In a binary system, the answer is "10."

As Mr. Wallace challenges the fundamental assumptions of the founders of this nation, it would benefit the reader if he revealed the fundamental assumptions he adopts.

Mr. Wallace declares: "The energy spent in arguing which rules 'exist' should better be spent deciding which rules 'we should make.'... I prefer this freedom, which seems to me simple and clear: we are all at a table together, deciding which rules to adopt, free from any vague constraints, half-remembered myths, anonymous patriarchal texts and murky concepts of nature. If I propose something you do not like, tell me why it is not practical, or harms somebody, or is counter to some other useful rule, but do not tell me it offends the universe."

It would seem that Mr. Wallace is not against "self evident truth." As he declares it "seems to me" he is doing exactly the same thing as Mr. Jefferson-- declaring something to be "self evident" without using the language.

Would Mr. Wallace suggest this as a model for all human decision making? I wonder where he will find a table large enough for six billion souls. It seems to me that the debate and discussion might take quite a while before we arrive at a workable set of rules.

Does Mr. Wallace really wish to do away with precedent? The "half-remembered myths" and "anonymous patriarchal texts" which bind us are declarations of the wisdom of previous generations. Some things that they say and suggest are patently false. I believe that there are reasons for revising and refining some of them on the basis of new wisdom, knowledge and insight. However, to lump them together and assume that they have no validity is to enter into an unordered nebulous of existence. To reject the codes and assumptions of the past is to begin each generation, or perhaps each moment, with a clean and blank slate. The question is what do we change and what do we keep and how do we decide?

The radical notion of the founders of this nation was the assertion that individuals were the fundamental building blocks of society-- That governments exist to protect and support individuals, not the other way around. It accepted the notion that governments and communities were "constructs" not eternal and pre-existing systems into which people were born, by which they were naturally bound. The founders asserted that people have the "right" to rebel, change and modify systems which do not fit their needs and wants. This appears to be the very same thing that Mr. Wallace advocates. What the founders attempted to do was to lay down a set of fundamental assumptions which would allow future generations to do the same. They couched these presumptions in the language of "natural rights." This approach attempted to preserve freedoms of speech, assembly, press, movement, trial by jury and the maintainence of power outside the structures of governments so that if need be, people could overturn repressive governments in future generations.

Mr. Wallace declares that Mr. Jefferson was writing under a British system "which did not recognize the rights that he described and which was the legal government of the colonies until they succeeded in separating themselves and forming a new one." Exactly so! Or at least, sort of.

I am certain that Mr. Wallace, an attorney, knows of the Magna Carta, in which King John of England bound himself and his heirs to recognize the rights of English "freemen." In part it reads, "No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, . . . or in any other way destroyed . . . except by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to none will we deny or delay, right or justice." Furthermore, I am certain that he is familiar with the "rights of Englishmen" recognized in the British Bill of Rights of 1688/9 when the monarchy was reestablished following the Long Parliament and Cromwell's protectorship.

The fact is that Englishmen and English law assumed that certain "rights" existed-- rights which were reaffirmed in the American Bill of Rights. It is also factual that the Crown denied the existence (or free exercise) of these "rights" in the colonies. The King denied what was assumed to be "rights" of English citizens. The founders believe in law and demanded that it be recognized by the King and his minions. In designing their system of government, they articulated particular "rights" in the Bill of Rights and alluded to other "rights"-- not enumerated (see the 9th Amendment)-- in order that future generations might be equipped to rebel if the government made rules contrary to the benefit of its people.

The bottom line question is whether the individual exists for society or society exists for the individual. If natural rights don't exist, then why should people have the "right" to self determination (as Mr. Wallace suggests)? Just what these "rights" are may be open to debate. If they do not exist-- if "rights" are simply privileges bestowed by government-- from whence comes the just authority of government or groups of people sitting around a table, no matter how large? If you surrender the illusion of "rights," what is left besides pure, raw power? The side with the largest numbers and the most muscle tell the rest of us what to do. As soon as the numbers shift, all precedents are forsaken and we reorganize ourselves, unless of course, those in power at a particular time, use the resources of the society to arm and organized themselves in a way that allows them to project power disproportionate to their numbers. Then, the status quo, whatever it is at a given time, is perpetuated until some force internally or externally prevails to dislodge it.

If the individual with individual "rights" is not recognized, what is the basis for government and society? Even the idea of the "common good" is pointless unless there is a "common man (person)" to share in this "good." Is this common man made of flesh and blood or merely the projection of the ones who holds the reins of power in his name?

These are real questions. Mr. Wallace has opened a can of worms and I would be grateful if he would sort them out.

Walter Lee walt@crcom.net

Dear Jonathan:

My theory of natural rights comes from Descartes more than anyone else. (I tend to put Descartes before the horse.) I begin with this:I own myself. All other rights, from speech to property, derives from this.

As to guns: If you claim I have no right to have a gun, I then claim YOU have no right to take it away from me. If I have threatened no one, then you become the aggressor -- and, of course, to GET the gun from me, you must first get your own people armed. By what right do you arm yourself to disarm me, when I have never attempted to harm you, take your property, or otherwise interfere in your life?

Lizard lizard@mrlizard.com

Lightner on Guns
Dear Mr. Wallace:

If you read what the founding fathers were writing at the time, it was about liberty not militias. If you think that people trading crack for guns will remember to use trigger locks, I think you're mistaken. If you think that the criminal elements that successfully smuggle TONS of drugs into this country won't be able to continue to remain armed, you're sadly mistaken. If you think that the rest of us want to be sheep to the criminals wolves, you are mistaken.

I don't believe the U.S. is the most violent nation on earth, oh yeah I forgot about that one village that just hacked another group of villagers to death in IL the other day. The NRA doesn't ride herd over America, people like me pay them because even if they are a bit conciliatory for our tastes, they attempt to protect our freedoms. Actually I consider the NRA to be somewhat in the lapdog class lately. I wish they were more vocal and yes I believe it is true that there is a good chance the government allows an "acceptable level of violence" in order to attempt to justify more gun control measures.

If you think I'm interested in registration and I don't believe it will only be a prelude to confiscation, you're mistaken. You want to live in a totalitarian dictatorship, it's your business. I'm not going with you. I had relatives made into lamp shades in the old world, the hell if I'm going to set up any society where that could happen again. Do some reading, do some research. If the government doesn't wish to trust law abiding citizens with effective arms, why again should I trust government indoctrinated, specially privileged troops with arms? It worked so well for the SS and the NKVD after all. Go talk to a Serb in Kosovo or a Moslem in Serbia and ask them what not being armed does for them.

The firearms genie's not going back in the bottle and signing over the right to defend oneself is equivalent to signing one's own death sentence. There are many of us who are not willing to do that. Give up your arms if you wish, you are not getting mine. Even if you do, I can make more, unless you wish to outlaw the ownership of hand tools and steel also.

Read your history, study the effects gun control really has had, look at the explosion of violent crime in many places where private firearms ownership was rescinded. Australia in teh recent past would be a good example. And for gods sake, Wake up. Just because you really, really, want something to be a certain way does not make it that way.

"The man who trades freedom for security usually ends up with neither." Ben Franklin

Thomas Harris spiny_norman@piranhabrothers.org

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Bruce Lightner repeats the platitude, "Hand guns and semiautomatic weapons serve no useful or amiable purpose other than to kill people." A moment's thought shows this to be false.

Handguns are far more often used to threaten than to kill -- to say, "If your behavior displeases me enough, I can kill you." The purpose in doing this is not anyone's death, but a change in the other's behavior. Guns are very often used to say "Leave me alone!", hurting nobody in the process.

To make the threat effective, the tool must have the ability to kill, but ability is not the same thing as purpose. In terms of games of the Prisoners Dilemma type, one might as well say that defection is the purpose of any strategy other than "always cooperate."

If killing were the sole purpose of deadly weapons, wouldn't all well-meaning people be calling for disarmament of their agents, the government?

Repeal of drug laws, racist in their origins and corrupt in their application, will do more than any other single change to reduce American rates of violence.

-- Anton Sherwood br0nt0@p0b0x.com

Dear Bruce:

I read your article about Guns with great interest. You speak up against the NRA - which I think is good. I'm not an american, but I try to follow some of the US politics - as its interesting to see how things are 'over there'.

You mention mandatory trigger locks. You mention semi-automatic weapons. I agree with you that there should be trigger locks, and that semi-automatic weapons is a bad thing. When it comes to handguns - I do disagree with you. Yes - they are used to kill people with. They are also used for target practise and sportsmanship. I for one think that people need to get a more natural relationship with weapons and potential weapons. I recently heard about parrents afraid of buying a knife to their child. In my eyes - its better to learn kids how to handle knives and other potentially dangerous objects at an early age.

The problem with ad-hoc solutions like banning guns, banning this thing and banning that thing - is that you don't do anything with the real problem. The real problem is that people don't care about their kids. Children don't learn to respect other people, or to respect tools like knives, guns, and so forth. I don't want the ad-hoc solutions (banning). I do want the safety measures (trigger locks).

You mention the police and the military. That you don't need militias. Well, what you surely don't need is laws that bans all sort of things.

What it all comes down to - in my eyes - is wheter you want even more government regulations. In my eyes, lesser regulation means more freedom. And more freedom is a Good Thing.

-- "Rune Kristian Viken" runevi@student.matnat.uio.no

An Auschwitz Alphabet
Dear Jonathan,

I'm appalled. I agree that you read too much about the Holocaust and you can get clinically depressed.

I'm an Australian journalist and I recently interviewed an Auschwitz survivor living in Melbourne. He went to Switzerland in January this year and sued the Swiss Government for his treatment in 1943 (Swiss border guards turned him and his two cousins over to the Germans and identified them as Jews). They were sent to Auschwitz and Joe survived, but his two cousins perished.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to place the story with a newspaper or journal anywhere, either here in Australia, in Israel, in the US or in the UK.

If you are interested in looking at it and possibly loading it onto your web site, you can have it gratis. I think it's a story that needs to be retold.

I'm currently working on a new version for a journal based in the UK, and I want to use a few of the quotes you have o-n the web site - credited of course.


Andrew McKenna amckenna@netconnect.com.au

Dear Mr. Wallace:

We would be grateful if you could add our URL which is official site of the Auschwitz Memorial to your "Auschwitz Alphabet". Our address is www.auschwitz.org.pl and we are available in English and Polish Thank you in advance,

Jarek Mensfelt jar__men@auschwitz-muzeum.oswiecim.pl
Information Department

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Hello, my name is Jennifer. I am currently taking a Holocaust Literature Course in my sophomore year in college. My final research paper is on Josef Mengele and the experiments done on twins at Auschwitz. I just wanted to thank you for being a very helpful resource for this horrific topic. I, of course cited you in my paper. Thanks again.


Thanks for the good word....

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Hey I linked to your page, something like your page deserves links at every damn site on the internet. Opinions are power, and to those who help us voice our opinons, a big hell yeah!

Wendell L. Inkarnata@apexmail.com