West's Founding IV

The next section includes a lot of inside baseball, where West is working out disputes with other scholars (especially but not only Harvey Mansfield). There are three 'clarifications' West wants to lay out before he proceeds with positive arguments from the Founders on natural rights.

1) "Self Evident Truths." West makes the plausible claim that what is meant in the Declaration by "self-evident" is really "we all agree about this." The claims about human equality are not, in fact, self-evident. In fact, the evidence of your eyes will tend to argue against the notion that we are all equal. We have games like the ongoing Olympics to sort out questions about inequalities even among the very most unequally talented. People are smarter, stronger, wiser, and also weaker, slower, more foolish. It's the most obvious thing in the world. 

This is a topic I've written quite a bit about, and my sense is that 'equality' among humans is generally only possible given a third party. Let's say that I'm a father, to illustrate, who has three sons. These sons are not equal: one is the oldest and another is the youngest, one is the strongest and another is the weakest, etc. But they are all equals in that they are all equally blessed, by me, in bestowing upon them an equality of inheritance. In that sense they are in fact exactly equal. 

It happens that this is the kind of equality the Declaration posits, i.e., 'they are endowed by their Creator' with equal natural rights. But this isn't "self-evident" -- I had to give an argument for it. 

West points out that scholars have sometimes treated the arguments for natural rights given by the Founders as dispensable because of this claim that the natural rights are "self-evident." They aren't, in fact, except perhaps in the sense he means. You do have to prove that they exist.

2) "Why should nature be a standard for right?" This is a crucial question. I'm not sure from reading West's account if he understands the depth of the opposition. Hume raised an objection to the whole idea that 'ought' can be derived from 'is.' Why should it be true, as Aristotle says, that an eye 'should' see because it ordinarily can see? Why isn't a blind eye just as good, in its own way, or perhaps even better in that it can enable different approaches to understanding and grappling with reality? 

West gives this about two pages, which isn't enough. It's one of the most fundamental questions in philosophy. My own answer, summarized, is that you can only ever get an ought from an is. If it is possible to get an ought at all -- another fundamental and difficult question -- it has to be from the things that exist. Whether you get them from natural organs and functions ('an eye should see because that's what eyes evolved to do') or reason as Kant does (reason exists, after all), from virtue (what makes a virtue is that it excels, i.e., it has practically valid results), all these things reason from what is. There is no access to a discussion of 'ought' outside of reality; and thus, reasoning from nature, i.e. what is, is not only a reasonable thing to do it is the only thing to do.

But that is also too brief, much too brief. West quotes Hamilton: "The sacred rights of mankind are... written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal powers. (81) Would that it were so!

3) "The God of Nature." West rejects the idea that Deism was very important among the Founders, imputing to them a more ordinary form of Christianity. However, he does allow them the Enlightenment conceit that human access to reason is sufficient to deduce laws in (and of, which is not quite the same thing) Nature. 

Here he claims to be interested in refuting those scholars who want to say that the Founding is hopelessly religious, rather than rational, and rooted in divine revelation. His (again very brief) discussion of natural religion is weak and limited to my ear, but I am accustomed to the Medievals who were very interested in this question and pursued it with great discipline. The point is that if you want to know about God, you can know him through his works; and nature, writ large, is one of his works. There are significant limits to this approach, which Aquinas and Avicenna explore in ways that West does not. 

He is not that interested in the question, however, which may explain his brevity and inattention. He is interested in clearing the Founders of having relied upon revelation in the ordinary sense of 'God told me.' That's fair; they mean that they deduced ideas about God's will from God's work, not from the whisperings of angelic messengers audible only to themselves. (Muhammed is thereby supposed to have learned the divine law about what to do if a mouse fell into the butter you had churned this morning: to whit, God says to cut out the contaminated part and keep the rest.) 

I'm leaving out all the internecine feuds with the other scholars. These are the key ideas from this section. 


Joel Leggett said...

I find M. E. Bradford’s argument that what Jefferson meant, and what most colonists understood, by the Phase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” was the common law doctrine that all citizens were equal before the law. Obviously, Jefferson, a slaveholding member of his state’s ruling class, did not believe that all men were equal in all respects. Some men are smarter than others, some exercise more virtuous discipline than others, some more responsible.

Jefferson was referring to the Anglo-American understanding that the same law applied to governors and governed alike. He was not making some metaphysical claim to universal equality.

Grim said...

That’s another plausible argument about what the phrase meant.