HYPATIA: Hello, Simplicia, where are you going
in such a hurry so early in the morning?
SIMPLICIA: Hello, my friend! I am to join a demonstration
in favor of our fundamental rights we hold as
H: Oh, and what rights could anybody possibly
have that are so indisputable?
S: Surely you are jesting. Have you not heard
of the Declaration of Independence? Do you not
recall that We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal, that they are
endowed with certain inalienable Rights, that
among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit
H: I also recall that the man who uttered those
words made plenty of exceptions for women and
men of colors other than his own when it was most
convenient for him.
S: Fair enough, but the purity of the principle
is more important than the faulty actuation of
H: Let me concede that for a moment. Nevertheless,
just because somebody said it, or because it appeals
to our sense of poetry, it does not follow that
it is true. What arguments can you possibly adduce
for the existence of natural rights?
S: As I mentioned a minute ago, are they not
H: Not to me, they are not. On the contrary,
it is self-evident that people have to struggle
everywhere to even approach what you consider
obvious. Would it not be the case that if rights
were universal and incontestable facts of life,
few if any human beings would contest them, in
principle, if not in practice? Doesnt everybody
agree on the fact that people have to feed themselves
in order to survive? That is because it indeed
is a fact of life.
S: Ah, my dear Hypatia, but you know very well
of people who allow others to starve, either through
inaction or by pernicious withdrawal of the necessary
H: True enough, Simplicia, but not even those
people would deny the fact that people have to
eat. They will only deny that it is their right
to do so, if you see the difference.
S: I do indeed. So, you are saying that universal
rights cannot be justified by appeal to agreement
among human beings, because such agreement is
H: My point exactly.
S: But what about other sources of natural rights?
Is it not conceivable that they could come from
things other than human societies? After all,
humans did not invent the necessity of food; it
is a thing that comes from nature herself.
H: That is indeed a possibility. However, it
seems logical that if one wants to derive rights
from nature one should dispassionately observe
what happens in nature and then use such observations
as guidance to establish an independent foundation
for rights, is it not so?
S: That does seem like the logical course of
H: And yet, if we were to do so in practice,
we would probably come up with a set of principles
that do not reflect at all the kinds of rights
you seem to have in mind!
S: How so, Hypatia?
H: Because if one looks at nature one can see
that animals and plants are certainly not created
equal. On the contrary, it is precisely their
differences that make it possible for natural
selection to shape the face of the organic world,
as Mr. Darwin has shown long ago. The negation
of the so-called right to life is at the very
basis of the struggle for existence that makes
evolution possible; as for liberty, it is guaranteed
only insofar one animal can defend it against
intrusion from competitors or predators; and happiness
is too vague of a word to even consider as the
proper object of a serious philosophical discussion.
S: Shall I then conclude that you subscribe to
the simple notion that nature is red in tooth
and claws or that, as Mr. Hobbes put it, life
in nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish,
H: I am much too much of an optimist to agree
to that, my dear Simplicia. However, I would conclude
from even a cursory observation of nature that
she is neither moral nor immoral, neither good
nor bad, but simply is. I believe it was David
Hume who warned against the logical jump from
what is to what ought to be, and it seems to me
that therefore one cannot defend natural rights
by appealing to nature; a rather uncomfortable
situation for the promoters of such rights.
S: Even if I grant you that neither humans nor
nature can be the sources of universal rights,
most people would not be faced in the least by
these difficulties, and would simply retort that
there are higher authorities than both.
H: Ah, you mean some gods or goddesses!
S: Precisely: wouldnt a divinity be the
ultimate source and guarantor of universal rights?
H: It surely would, if not for any other reason
than such divinity would presumably have the power
to impose her will on us mere mortals.
S: There, then, do I see your skepticism about
the possibility of natural rights beginning to
H: No so fast, my dear friend. Your latest answer
to our conundrum begs the question in two ways:
how do you know there is such a divinity and,
even if we should accept her existence as a matter
of hypothesis, how do you know what kinds of rights
does she endorse?
S: My dear Hypatia, you know very well that such
a line of inquiry would bring us far into an altogether
new direction of conversation, and that would
definitely mean that I would be late to my protest
H: Indeed it would. But it is no matter to brush
aside. You might agree at least to the observation
that there are many people who have spent a great
deal of time thinking about the existence of god
and the nature of gods will, without reaching
even a minimal form of agreement. Furthermore,
you know that many cogent doubts have been raised
and objections construed against all the major
arguments in favor of the existence of a deity.
S: Alas, this is all very true.
H: Then you cannot rest your defense of natural
rights on the assumption of the existence of a
god, because that would be the substitution of
one mystery with an even greater mystery.
S: But, Hypatia, surely you see that by rejecting
all possible sources of universal rights you are
forced in the position that anything goes and
that we have no rational motive to fight for anything
that is dear to us.
H: Not at all. You seem to assume, Simplicia,
that there are only two options: either rights
are universal, or they dont exist.
S: Is there a compromise somewhere that I have
H: Most definitely! Let me explain my position
with an example. I know you love the work of the
painter Picasso. Surely you will agree that a
painting by him cannot last forever, no matter
how carefully preserved.
S: Yes, but I dont see where you could
possibly be going with this.
H: Even though you know that one day the painting
will be gone forever, you still love to look at
it now, to go to the museum every time you can,
and even to contribute to its preservation by
donating funds to the museum.
S: Yes, and
H: Well, Simplicia, is not this an example of
something that is not universal, and yet is very
precious? If you were to apply your nihilism to
art, you wouldnt care a bit about what happens
to Picassos work for the simple reason that
it is not a universal thing, it wont last
S: So you are saying that even though there may
be no guarantor of universal rights, we are nevertheless
justified in defending and caring for them with
all our energies because they matter to us!
H: Precisely. It matters not that you cannot
justify, for example, your right to freedom by
universal laws. Freedom is still something that
most human beings want, and we are bound to fight
for a society that grants such right simply because
we think it is a better society than any other
S: Thanks, Hypatia. I am not sure that I agree
with all your points, but this conversation did
throw some interesting light on what I am doing
and why. I have to run to the demonstration, now!
H: Until the next time, then, my friend.
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