Monday, January 28, 2013

Moral Fictions

So I kind of stumbled in to a re-read of Alisdair MacIntyre's After Virtue and am finding it well worth the surprise.  Which is not to say I won't end up in high dudgeon at some point.  After all, much of the work is an attempt to revive a kind of essentialism in moral discourse.  All the same, as a diagnostician of so much of the ridiculousness of our public discourse, I find it difficult to disagree with his basic thesis.

So much of our talk rests in what MacIntyre calls "moral fictions".  Among those are rights, a concept that once upon a time rested upon a metaphysic that imagined a human being apart from any and all social attachments; said imaginary "man" was granted particular things that made him "man" qua "man".  No one accepts the underlying metaphysical anthropology anymore, except perhaps in rarefied circles of philosophy departments here and there.  What we are left with, alas, is a vocabulary detached from any underlying support.  At the end of the day, the screeching back and forth about "rights" is little more than the assertion of the primacy of untrammeled will-to-power (something Nietzsche recognized a long time ago, and of which he approved); it is the entitlement of the spoiled child, not wanting anyone or anything to interfere with his or her declaration of supreme autonomy.

Which, alas, is another fiction about which MacIntyre doesn't elaborate all that much.  For all he understands the way these concepts are socially embedded, he doesn't take the next step (at least in his rather lengthy critique of so much contemporary moral discourse) and make clear that "the individual" or "man" (and here I put quotes around the word with some bit of double irony; maleness was the norm, so those who use the terminology were being unselfconsciously misogynist in their use of the word, and the contemporary drive to replace such terminology hides the basic sense that men are the norm, women an aberration) is as much a fiction as are the rights such a thing possesses.  Of course, it's been years since I read the book, and I have forgotten how sweeping his criticism of the Enlightenment moral project really was; perhaps I've yet to stumble upon such a point.

In any event, especially with all the shrieking about "gun rights", I think it is important to repeat: "Rights" are a fiction, an invention of an age that believed there were these things called "men" who existed outside and prior to any social organization (it's there in our Declaration of Independence, a bit of business we pass over in silence, by and large, embarrassed by its historical falsity).  Any attempt by state power to interfere with these "rights" were ipso facto tyrannical acts precisely because they interfered with the way human beings qua human beings are.  That this entire formulation is fictitious from beginning to end should be clear enough given even a moment's thought.

The assertion by far too many they have a "right" to a firearm is not only a fiction; it is, in fact, morally vicious.  It is little different in kind from a child throwing a tantrum in a store because her parents won't buy her a toy.  Right has made it's final spiral to entitlement, and the assertion of rights is little more than the tantrum thrown by the privileged in the face of those who see such privilege as interfering with their equally legitimate claims to some social good with which that privilege interferes.

It is far too deep in our legal and political and social culture to eliminate the whole notion of "rights"; yet, I think it is important to make clear that even in their heyday, rights were never absolute, whether of life or property.  The idea that owning a gun is on a par with speaking out against government activity with which one disagrees, or practicing one's religion without state interference is really quite vile.  We should at the very least be clear that all the demands that our "rights" not be tampered with is little more than one large pout by people who have no idea how childish they appear.

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