Monday, May 21, 2007

Against monism: the language of rights and its limitations

Rights are the language of justice and are, therefore, not only appropriate for political discourse but perhaps its highest form.

However, it's a mistake to believe that rights can form the basis of all morality, that all matters of human conduct can be collapsed into this way of thinking and explained in this way.

Let me give you a couple of examples, and I hope you don't think they're too weird.

1) Bestiality. I never do this and I really hope nobody reading this does. Now the point is, does the language of rights explain to us what is wrong with this? I can't see how. What is wrong with this can't be expressed in terms of animal rights, in terms of the rights others might have against us, or even in terms of our obligations to them. But it's still pretty fucked-up, I hope you'll agree.

I'm not even sure the religious have a satisfactory way of dealing with it. Catholics, for example, proscribe all sex that doesn't have the possibility of procreation. It is, I grant you, consistent. But it doesn't explain why they don't take the same attitude towards heterosexual sex with a condom and bestiality, which I assume they do. Or which I hope they do.

2) Jealousy. Which is, even to this day, spoken of in terms of property rights. The jealous are possessive. And possession is a Bad Thing, being as it is all about property, which with regards human beings isn't good. This analysis is, I think, largely hippy bullshit - but I say this without having to mount any defence of ownership with regards to personal relationships.

Rather it has to do with this: "What is jealousy", said Howard Jacobson, "but the discovery of your own insignificance?" It is possible to feel so captivated by another human being that you feel no desire for another - or at least you wouldn't risk satisfying your desire for another for fear you would lose what you presently have.

If you believe, or fear, the person you're with doesn't share this, then you'll feel jealous. If you've never experienced this, well, pity for you - but understand that jealousy is the dark side of love. Property rights, and the rationality these imply, have very little to do with it. It has, instead, to do with equality; the jealous feel they are in an unequal relationship - one that can be rationally comprehended but nevertheless can't be understood in terms of 'rights' because the aggressive defence of such supposed rights would destroy the very foundation of the relationship.

Which is why I worry from time to time that I'm a conservative. For what sensible thing do liberals or libertarians have to say on these subjects? And what reflex of the economic base makes people want to shag horses? Marxists, as far as I am aware, are silent on the subject.

Update: Norm's so polite:
"[Shuggy's] right, but I think there are more straightforward examples than the ones he chooses."
'Straightforward' as in 'less mental'. Note to self: go to bed earlier; drink less.

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