« "Eternity is in love with the creations of time" | Main | Three Theories of Rights »

January 24, 2008



For some reason I can't imagine, Kat's mother forwarded this along:

George Carlin's Solution to Save Gasoline. Bush wants us to cut the amount of gas we use..... The best way to stop using so much gas is to deport 11 million illegal immigrants! That would be 11 million less people using our gas. The price of gas would come down..... Bring our troops home from Iraq to guard the Border.... When they catch an illegal immigrant crossing the
border, hand him a canteen, rifle and some ammo and ship him to Iraq .. Tell him if he wants to come to America then he must serve a tour in the military..... Give him a soldier's pay while he's there and tax him on it..... After his tour, he will be allowed to become a citizen since he defended this country...... He will also be registered to be taxed and be a
legal patriot...... This option will probably deter illegal immigration and provide a solution for the troops in Iraq and the aliens trying to make a better life for themselves...... If they refuse to serve, ship them to Iraq anyway, without the canteen, rifle or ammo..... Problem solved.....""

I tried to keep my response as light as I could, since I like the sender and usually we aren't that different politically. But my shock and outrage at the vapid yet vicious scapegoating hardened my tone a lot toward the end:

"It's worthy of note that a great many soldiers are indeed non-citizens who join the military despite some of the more desirable jobs being difficult for a non-citizen to get. Their citizenship applications are expedited, but not automatically approved, and if they fail to complete their term for any reason (such as an injury in Iraq!) the application process often becomes impossible to complete. I thank them for their service, especially in light of the fact that some don't live to enjoy their new nation.

Another thing for which I think we should be thankful is all the immigrants, legal and not, who pay social security, medicaid and medicare taxes on their wages - this is the large majority. Despite the fact that those who are using false social security numbers pay into the system (there are no exemptions to such withholding), they have no hope of ever getting credit for those taxes, which amount to about 6.3% of their earnings. Considering that most of them don't make enough to pay any income taxes anyway, it's basically free money for retirees. And since they don't want to be deported, they almost never use any other community services. Their natural-born children do, of course, but I don't see how deporting the parents of our fellow Americans helps them.

lastly, if we were to abandon Iraq to chaos of our own making so that we could prevent the poor, the tired, the huddled masses, yearning to be free from pursuing their quintessentially American dreams, I would be convinced that there was no dream left to defend.


P.S. George Carlin didn't say that"

I didn't even touch on how ridiculous it was to essentially blame high gas prices on undocumented immigrants, or how disgusting it is to make a joke of essentially dooming captured immigrants to death via jihadi for the crime of wanting to have a chance to work. It would have turned into a long screed.

Whatever else the case may be, it would seem to shrink our humanity to exclude these immigrants, so typical of most of our ancestors, from moral consideration. If that is the only moral system available, then existence really is an ugly joke.

Fortunately it's not.

Steve Smith

Well, I think the point was simply that there are plenty of potential sources of normative criteria (Guroian mentions just one), and thus plenty of ways of arguing about whether something government might do is right or just, other than "natural rights." So those of us who find natural rights talk unpersuasive or nonsensical aren't thereby relegated to the camp of Hobbes. That's all, or at least all I meant to say.

I suppose someone could concede this and still insist on using the vocabulary of natural rights to express conclusions. I.e., if a persuasive argument can be made, on whatever normative grounds or criteria (utilitarian, religious, Kantian, or whatever), that government should not do X to persons a, b, c, we could then say that persons a, b, and c have a "right" not to have X done to them. The language of "rights" would simply express that conclusion; it would not serve as a premise. Okay, but then if the language of "natural rights" is understood to be simply a way of conveying conclusions in this way, that language would be unavailable to do any actual work with respect to disputed questions (such as the permissibility of immigration restrictions). And then if we see someone trying to do actual argumentative work in such cases with "natural rights" reasoning (e.g., by inferring a "natural right" in one situation, often simplified and artificial, and then transferring the "right" to some quite different and disputed situation), we would know that it's time to grab our wallets.


Good point, though I take Nathan's final paragraph as fully salient however the technical arguments fall out. Instead of asking "what theory of ethics prevents us from discriminating against immigrants?" we should ask, "under what theory of ethics can we justify discriminating against immigrants?"

At least, that's my position. In this form it's mere asseveration, but if anyone wants to dispute it, it might be interesting to see how easy it is to defend.

Nathan Smith

I'll keep thinking about this. I still don't get it. Maybe if I believe government shouldn't do X to people on purely pragmatic grounds, to speak of natural rights would be misplaced. On the other hand, if I believe on religious grounds that it is always morally wrong to kill, it doesn't seem misleading to summarize this situation as saying that people have a "natural right" to life. And if rights language is shorthand for longer arguments, how does that make it "unavailable to do any actual work with respect to disputed questions?" Can't rights be the conclusion of one argument and the premise of the next? First I argue that the circumstances under which we can justly use violence to constrain people's freedom of motion are comparatively narrow, and I summarize this by saying there is a right to migrate. Then I use this as a premise in an argument condemning the US's current immigration regime. What's wrong with that?

Nor does it seem true to me that the arguments for rights are chiefly drawn from "simplified and artificial" situations. It seems like respecting the rights of others is the most mundane thing in the world, it is just perfectly ordinary decent behavior. One doesn't do violence to people, or typically even touch them for that matter, at least not on purpose, without some indication of their consent. One doesn't take their property, or damage it. The artificial and extreme scenarios come in, it seems to me, as challenges in applying rights theory, not as the motivation for it. Isn't it the critics of rights who present the ticking time-bomb/torture scenarios?

Steve Smith

The short answer, in my opinion, is that if you believe on religious or other grounds that there is a categorical prohibition against doing X, no exceptions, then I suppose you could I say that there's something like a "right not to be Xed," but you wouldn't need to say this. When questions about Xing arise, you could just cite the prohibition itself. That would be the more helpful way to talk. And it would be misleading to say that "government shouldn't X people BECAUSE they have a right to not be be Xed"; rather, they have a right not to be Xed because government shouldn't X people. The "right" is here understood to be merely a way of expressing the implication of the prohibition (justified on the religious or other ground) with reference to the beneficiaries of the prohibition; the "right" doesn't do any argumentative work.

But now suppose some other situation arises in which people doubt or dispute whether government may permissibly do something-- Xa, maybe. Maybe the disagreement merely reflects uncertainty over whether the act in question is really a case of X, and once this is settled the disagreement will go away. But suppose it doesn't: the fact of continuing disagreement shows, it seems, that there is disagreement over whether the supposed prohibition is in fact categorical, or perhaps over what the prohibition really is. Whatever the nature of the disagreement, it doesn't seem that invoking a "right not to be Xed" will really address the disagreement, though. Not, at least, if we understand this "right" to be merely a way of conveying the prohibition in terms of its implications for its beneficiaries. So I don't see how on this understanding, invoking "rights" can be anything other than a distraction.

Of course, on some more robust conception of "natural rights," invoking the right might seem helpful. But it's the more robust conception that I find unpersuasive and metaphysically mysterious.

Joyless Moralist

"The Hobbesian argument is people's realization of their normative human nature is the supreme earthly good, and the state should do whatever it takes to bring that about."

I don't have time just now to write much, but I just wanted to briefly point out that this was not at all Hobbes' position. Hobbes certainly did not believe in a "normative human nature" so realizing such a thing could not have been the purpose of the Hobbsean state.

Nathan Smith

Hobbes doesn't say too much about the purpose of the state from the sovereign's point of view, as far as I recall. What is Hobbesian about this is the concession of boundless powers to the sovereign. The exhortation to the sovereign to use those powers to realize normative human nature is then added.

Joyless Moralist

Well, but the difference is enormous; in fact, it makes *all* the difference. In Hobbes' view, there is no normative human nature and life is just a continual quest to satisfy an endless string of personal desires. As far as he's concerned, they can be for anything, so all we can ask from the sovereign is that he keep basic order so that we can try to fulfill those desires without getting killed. What else could that sovereign be for? There's no "ultimate fulfillment" of human nature for him to worry about, and no reason why endless-desire-machines would be entitled to anything else.

If there *is* a normative human nature, that changes everything; presumably that nature is somewhat complex, and the exhortation to do whatever best fulfills it will itself entail numerous restrictions on what powers governments should exercise. It may well include some absolute prohibitions, since some governmental actions might always be inimical to the fulfillment of the normative human nature. It certainly seems likely that tyrannical dictatorships would be ruled out.

It seems rather strange to call any philosophy "Hobbesean" unless it entails prohibitions on governmental power that come from some source *other than* consideration of human good. I think you should choose a new term for it, since many of the views that you're labeling as "Hobbesean" are very distant from anything that Thomas Hobbes would have advocated.

Nathan Smith

re: "If there *is* a normative human nature... the exhortation to do whatever best fulfills it will itself entail numerous restrictions on what powers governments should exercise. It may well include some absolute prohibitions..."

Well, if facilitating the realization of a normative human nature involves the recognition of rights, as JM seems to be saying here, then that certainly isn't a Hobbesian state. This discussion has given me a glimmer of an idea of what a neither-natural-rights-nor-Hobbes political theory might look like... but it's still not at all clear. (Not to clear enough to be a basis for studying the immigration question, for example.)

I have a feeling JM might refer me to the Aristotelian tradition, and I'm ashamed to mention my opinion that the Aristotelian tradition on this is too muddle-headed to compete with Locke and Hobbes, because JM may think, with reason, that I am underqualified to hold any opinion on the Aristotelian tradition at all. I remember being unimpressed by the *Nichomachean Ethics* in college: the exhortation to find the mean, the mean being neither too much nor too little, seemed to achieve the odd feat of being at once tautological and vacuous, and yet at the same time quite wrong since it missed the key point: that moral virtue in its most paradigmatic manifestations is precisely *im*moderate, the Christian martyr being fed to the lions rather than deny Christ. I was amazed, a few years later, to read Alasdair MacIntyre, who, unlike Aristotle, struck me as brilliant, praising the *Nichomachean Ethics* to the skies in *After Virtue.* I've never read Aristotle (or Aquinas) on politics; I only remember the six-way classification of regimes: monarchy/tyranny; aristocracy/oligarchy; and polity/democracy, if I remember the terms rightly, which, in open-minded but question-begging fashion, allows for rule by the one, or the few, or the many, to be good, or bad, and helpfully or perhaps tendentiously provides different words for the good and bad varieties of each. Also I remember that Aristotle justifies slavery by saying that some are natural slaves, thereby, as Bertrand Russell points out, making him an apologist for every conqueror in history. But given Aristotle's reputation, I suppose it won't do to dismiss him as a muddle-headed and moderately iniquitous old reactionary. Someday I guess I'll have to try to figure out what so many people see in him.

Steve Smith

As I recall, a couple of weeks ago Nathan had some things to say about why it would be so wrong to try to mass-deport 12 million illegal aliens. His observations struck me at the time as cogent and persuasive; they had to do with the dubious or destructive means and methods that would be needed in such an effort, and the pernicious effects that such actions would have, both on the persons being deported and on the deporters. All of this seemed pertinent and powerful, and engaged with real world conditions and concerns rather than hypothetical scenarios or "states of nature" and the like; and so far as I recall none of it needed to or did invoke anything like a "natural right to migrate." So I'm not sure why it is so difficult to imagine discussing normative limits on state action without bringing "natural rights" into the discussion. As with baptism by immersion, we've seen it done.

Nathan Smith

Well, thanks for the kind words about my previous immigration post. But we would be much more secure from the catastrophic evil of mass deportations if there was a widespread belief among the American people that there exists a right to migrate. It is because there is a widespread belief in a right to worship freely that I do not fear the Baptists will shut down my church, and it is because there is a widespread belief in the right to free speech that people denounce-- or applaud!-- the president without fear, giving rise to healthy democratic discourse. Strong consequentialist arguments for respecting freedom of religion and leaving dissenters unpunished could be made, but they are a bit cumbersome. Rights are an efficient shorthand, and can be embedded in consciousness.

If rights are fictitious entities, using them to manipulate people into avoiding certain destructive policies that the mass of voters will not understand the practical evils of might be immoral, even if advantageous. Which raises the question: are rights real? Is it legitimate to spread a belief in them?

I think rights probably are real-- though I'm not sure exactly what they are or how they relate to moral laws, practical concerns and other entities-- and even that it is fundamentally *because* it is a violation of rights that deporting illegal immigrants, or jailing dissidents, is so destructive. Not that one should take this on faith, at least not always or exclusively; but considering questions of rights gives you a clue as to where to look for potential government policies that would be ruinously destructive. No doubt I haven't made the case for this well enough to expect general assent to these propositions.

Joyless Moralist

Hobbesian. Sorry, I couldn't spell last night, evidently.

A right need not be an entirely fictitious entity if we think of it as post-institutional. We might say, "I have a right to worship, because it has long been agreed by the government of my country that such a right will be recognized." On some level it's just an empirical claim, though presumably the thing was established in this way because it was thought that the law would reflect something about the normative human nature. In that way rights might still serve as covenient shorthand, without being deceptive or immoral. I won't speculate on whether or not that's a good idea. (And besides, it seems like we always build a lot of exceptions and nuances into the formula anyway when we assert a legal right. Speech is protected... except for this kind and that kind and the other kind. Worship is free, so long as the things you want to *do* to worship aren't otherwise illegal; if they are you may or may not be granted exemptions allowing you to continue. Surely we *could* achieve the same effect with laws that made no mention of "rights".)

What's really troublesome is when an assertion of "rights" is used as a kind of trump card in an effort to blunt or ignore a host of other relevant considerations. What starts as a convenient shorthand can then become a mess. As an example, let me just throw out a cause to which I'm sympathetic, the "Right to Life" movement. (Mathew and I have participated in some events with the Tennessee Right to Life organization, and we obviously support their general aims.) Though they campaign under slogans like "Every child has a right to a birthday," I think a closer examination would show that "rights" don't have much to do with it. They really just think that it's immoral for us to take various active measures to kill unborn children. They know, of course, that a substantial percentage will naturally miscarry, and this is sad, but we don't normally think of it as an "injustice" per se. Now, someone who took the "Right to Life" rhetoric very seriously might decide that we had an obligation to save as many unborn children as we possibly could, and might lobby to use expensive and difficult procedures to try to do this. Most "Right to Life" people wouldn't actually want that. There are times when it's appropriate to let nature take its course. There are even times when it's appropriate to take active measures that will obviously kill the embryo/fetus (as in an ectopic pregnancy.) Talking about abortion in terms of a "right to life" captures some important intuitions, and helps the pro-lifers express their belief that the *child's* interests, and not just the parents', should be taken into account from the beginning. In the end, though, you could describe their position more accurately by talking about duties or prohibitions, and not about entitlements.

Similarly in your case, I can see how there might be real restrictions on what a government could ethically do to control the movement of others. I agree that you make some persuasive arguments concerning the ramifications of forcing mass migration. But I get somewhat confused when you start talking about a "right to migrate." That part of your position has never made much sense to me.

Nathan Smith

re: "Though they campaign under slogans like 'Every child has a right to a birthday,' I think a closer examination would show that 'rights' don't have much to do with it. They really just think that it's immoral for us to take various active measures to kill unborn children."

I don't think there's a real distinction there. To say, "unborn children have a right to live," and to say, "it's wrong to take active measures to kill unborn children," are, as far as I understand it, two ways of saying the same thing. A rights-claim *per se* shouldn't be taken to mean that some extraordinary positive measures to guarantee the enjoyment of the right by its possessor, though in some cases that might be a good idea. It means it's wrong to actively interfere with the rightholder's enjoyment of the right.


Your attitude with respect to immigration seems more emotional than rational. It also indicates an extreme left-wing bias, if that's not a redundancy.

The purpose of Americas immigration policy is do what is best for Americans, that "privileged class" you speak of.

In reality most Americans are dead set against open borders. It is only the wealthy elite, the real "privileged class", who are big fans of it.


Yes, James, Nathan is soooo left-wing.

Nathan Smith

re: "The purpose of Americas immigration policy is do what is best for Americans, that "privileged class" you speak of."

If Americans were to use coercion in support of a border policy in a fashion which is in their interests, but against the interests of the rest of mankind, that would be wrong. The funny thing is, though, that they don't do that. The existing immigration policy is certainly NOT in native-born Americans' best interests, though it's less detrimental to them than some other policies, e.g., totally closed borders, or perhaps totally open borders, would be. The most advantageous immigration policy would be to let all immigrants in, then subject them to discriminatory taxation and exploitation, etc.-- which is more or less what I advocate. Americans don't want to do this because it would make them feel guilty. They know in their bones that it's wrong to reserve to the American-born a life of privilege while dooming millions of foreign-born to a life of deprivation by denying them their best opportunity for advancement. But when the victims of this policy are far away it's easy not to think about it. The real significance of America's border policy is that Americans are willing to pay a substantial opportunity cost in order to blindfold themselves to the poverty in the world.

It seems meaningless to say that "Americans are dead set against open borders" when the term open borders has no clear meaning. Does it mean that we won't shut out peaceful workers, or that we won't shut out invading armies? The deliberate ambiguity is a good way to word a poll question if you want to slant the results your way. I think most Americans think that it's not all that hard to get here, and wish vaguely that there were fewer immigrants who don't speak English. They really have no idea what our immigration policy is like. Why should they, it doesn't affect them? It's because immigration laws are utterly undemocratic-- the people who are subject to them is the inverse set of the people who make them-- that they are so bad.

florida merchant accounts

Lefties has always a different perspective.

Tory Burch Outlet

I have truely enjoyed getting to know you and I pray for you! I hope you get feeling better!

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

Only use a payday cash advance as a last resort.


Blog powered by Typepad