November 2009
Top of This issue Current issue

Letters to The Ethical Spectacle

Spectacle Letters Column Guidelines. If you write to me about something you read in the Spectacle, I will assume the letter is for publication. If it is not, please tell me, and I will respect that. If you want the letter published, but without your name attached, I will do so. I will not include your email address unless you ask me to. This is in response to many of you who have expressed concern that spammers are finding your email address here. Flames are an exception. T hey will be published in full, with name and email address. I have actually had people follow up on a published flame by complaining that they thought they were insulting my ancestry privately. Nope, sorry.

Dear Mr Wallace,

Having recently read your essay on Natural Rights, I have had some problems with your reasoning which I was hoping you might clear up. I assume that by posting your email address at the top you are willing to receive correspondences such as this, but if not then please ignore this email.

To start with your first point and my first qualm, you seem to incorrectly apply the American Declaration of Independence to your argument. You are of course correct that "We hold these truths to be self-evident" is an unsatisfactory argument for showing the validity of natural rights. The context of this statement by Jefferson however, is not an academic essay, or a persuasive pamphlet, but simply a statement of intent, to separate from the British empire *because* the undersigned find the truths self-evident for a variety of other reasons. There is a number of ideological statements in this declaration, but its intentions are for display, official record and constitutional framework for the future rather than persuasion of the British or others; by this point the much more persuasive methods of violence and warfare had proved adequate..

Moving on to your criticism of Hobbes' state of nature, I also feel that you have made false conclusions. You seem to ridicule his idea that limitless ability is equal to limitless rights, when in fact your analogy doesn't hold firm. It is true that your cockatiel does not have a 'right to seeds' in general, and cannot make demands upon them. The idea of rights however, is one of entitlement in the face of denial (e.g. the right to freedom of speech, and to not have this speech suppressed), the 'state of nature' man is entitled to everything he wishes to do, seeing as there is nothing denying him this. When a denial is introduced by the social contract, he has suddenly lost some of these rights since his entitlement to act is reacted against in some cases. Put simply, a right is the ability to act in the absence of legitimate prevention. Your cockatiel no longer has the ability to take the seeds if they are removed from him, and it cannot claim a 'right' to seeds simply because it alone could not acquire them (buying them from the shop, opening the wrapper etc.), so its ability is not infringed upon. Were this cockatiel denied his right to breathe however, this would be an infringement since his breathing requires no human charity.

With thanks,


Dear Mr. Wallace:

You might be interested in reading about what happened to the lawyer who brought that frivolous web libel suit against you:

Matter of Gramer:


As we say in Brooklyn: What goes around, comes around.