Can you champion human rights while at the same time denying natural rights?
This is a core question of political philosophy. It was raised anew for me while re-reading Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, a dialogue with one of the 20th century’s leading political theorists and historian of ideas.
Professor Berlin, a man deeply committed to liberty and pluralism, resisted the idea one could apprehend “non-empirical, universal truths.” When asked by Ramin Jahanbegloo, the interviewer, how one can ground norms and values if one doesn’t believe in the rational method of justifying them, Berlin answered, “You don’t justify them. The norms don’t need justification, it is they which justify the rest, because they are basic.”
When pressed, Berlin admitted he doesn’t deny human rights. “I deny a priori lists of natural rights,” he said. “Of course, I don’t deny that there are general principles of behavior and human activity without which there cannot be a minimally decent society. But … I don’t think there is such a thing as direct non-empirical knowledge, intuition, inspection of eternal principles. Only universal human beliefs.”
When asked about Leo Strauss, Berlin said, “He could not get me to believe in eternal, immutable, absolute values, true for all men everywhere at all times, God-given Natural Law and the like. I cannot claim omniscience. Perhaps there is a world of eternal truths, values, which the magic eye of the true thinker can perceive – surely this can only belong to an elite to which I fear I have never been admitted.”
This conversation goes to the heart of an ancient question: In what is morality grounded? For Berlin, it was grounded in general principles of behavior and human activity, in norms, in a consensus of what constitutes decency and right and wrong. That can work for a time, as people act on an existing moral accordance and intuition. But in the end that is never enough. Norms need to be grounded in permanent rather than provisional truths. Otherwise, we have only our own cultural consensus on what constitutes human rights, which makes it next to impossible to define a universal set of such rights. It also means we have no good justification for telling other societies, or for that matter even our own children, why they should hold to our particular consensus.
As Michael Gerson and I argue in City of Man, philosophers have tried for centuries to formulate a firm, secular theory of human rights. None has gained broad, much less universal assent, and none seems equal to the challenge of Nietzsche: if God is really dead, what is to stop the radical, destructive human will?
Berlin’s theory – liberalism without natural rights – is hung on a peg in midair. To care for and to sacrifice for the rights of other human beings, merely because they are human beings, requires an immutable moral and even metaphysical basis.
So why do human beings possess inherent value? People of the Jewish and Christian faith have an answer: Men and women are created equal in worth, in the image of God. They believe in a human nature, which demands human rights.
Without some transcendent basis, human rights as a doctrine cannot defend itself from attack. Strauss understood the fallacy of historicism – the belief that all standards are determined by cultural circumstances and each society should be judged in its own terms rather than measured against a universal standard – was both self-contradictory and relativistic. For historicists there is no ground on which one could prefer a liberal regime over a totalitarian one. Everything, including justice, is arbitrary. “If all values are relative,” Strauss famously said, “then cannibalism is a matter of taste.” For Strauss, a refugee from Nazi Germany, this debate was not simply an abstract one.
In his interview with Jahanbegloo, Professor Berlin says of Hannah Arendt, “I am not ready to swallow her idea about the banality of the evil. It is false. The Nazis were not ‘banal.’ Eichmann deeply believed in what he did. I was, he admitted, at the center of his being.” Berlin admits to having been “hopelessly secular.” The values of the Enlightenment, what people like Voltaire, Helvetius, Holbach, and Condorcet preached, are “deeply sympathetic to me,” he said. “Maybe they were too narrow, and often wrong about the facts of human experience, but they were great liberators. They liberated people from horrors, obscurantism, fanaticism, monstrous views. They were against cruelty, they were against oppression.”
So was Isaiah Berlin, a man of great intellect and learning. He just couldn’t tell you why.
Rights Must Be Grounded In Eternal Truths
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The State Department on Tuesday released its annual International Religious Freedom Report, and the grim upshot was that people of faith face persecution around the globe. This year’s report, the first under President Trump, called out usual suspects such as China, Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia. It also notably used the “G” word–genocide–to describe Islamic State’s crimes against Christians, Yezidis, and other religious minorities in Syria and Iraq.
Authoritarian regimes and jihadists aren’t the only ones who mete out anti-religious repression these days. Nominally free societies, particularly in Europe, are increasingly guilty of it as well. Yet because it is less visible, carried out by governments with impeccable liberal credentials, such persecution receives far less attention, including in the State report.
Consider tiny Belgium, which has been roiling with controversy this month over whether Catholic hospitals can be required to permit euthanasia on their premises. Belgium’s pro-euthanasia lobby and its political and media allies seek to bring to heel the country’s last bastion of opposition, the Roman Church.
Belgium legalized the practice in 2002. Proponents had vowed that it would only be applied in very few terminal cases. But since then, the number of patients who have been euthanized has steadily grown (some 13,000 so far). So has the list of conditions that qualify. Now dementia, chronic depression, and various other forms of mental or behavioral anguish can get you an appointment with the country’s busy and prosperous Dr. Deaths. In the 2014-15 reporting period, 15 percent of cases were nonterminal.
Typical of today’s aggressive liberalism, it wasn’t enough to have legalized euthanasia and expanded it to once-unimaginable situations, such as a patient who was dissatisfied with the results of a sex change. No, even euthanasia’s most ardent opponents must love euthanasia.
Proponents set their sights on the Brothers of Charity. The Catholic medical order runs psychiatric hospitals worldwide, 15 of them in Belgium, where it was founded in the early 19th Century.
When euthanasia was first legalized, the Brothers assumed their consciences would be safe. As Brother René Stockman, the order’s superior-general in Rome, told me in a phone interview last week: “We had always maintained that the Brothers of Charity, as part of our charism and calling, would accompany the mentally ill and seek to heal them, but never perform euthanasia, because we also want our services to be in line with Catholic teaching. And when euthanasia got going in Belgium, there was at first no talk of euthanatizing the mentally ill.”
But pro-euthanasia pressure mounted. It began with a civil ruling last year against a Catholic nursing home that had refused to permit doctors to euthanize a 74-year-old resident. The woman’s adult children sued, and a court in Louvain ordered the home to pay €6,000 in fines and damages.
Then, early this year, the board of the Belgian Brothers issued a statement authorizing physicians to euthanize non-terminal, mentally ill patients on the order’s premises. The statement asserted that euthanasia is a routine medical procedure, and that patient autonomy and the protection of life are equally important values–in direct violation of the Catholic view, which is that the protection of life at all stages is absolute.
Shamefully, three religious on the board apparently went along with the majority-lay trustees. Br. Stockman told me he suspects the three religious “are overwhelmed by the lay members as well as the professional staff.” The Belgian Brothers declined to comment.
Br. Stockman in the spring appealed to the Belgian bishops and to some of the Church’s highest authorities in Rome. Last week, Pope Francis intervened, ordering the Belgian chapter to stop offering euthanasia. The Belgian Brothers have until the end of August to comply.
The response from the political class so far has been to blow a Belgian raspberry at the supreme pontiff. One of the lay trustees, former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, on Monday tweeted that “the time of Roma locuta causa finita is long past.” The Latin phrase, attributed to St. Augustine, means: “Rome has spoken; the cause is finished.”
If Van Rompuy is right, it would call into question the ability of any global religious organization to set policy for its various national chapters–a grave setback for international religious freedom. It would also be a tragedy for the 5,000 mentally ill patients the Brothers serve in Belgium. As Br. Stockman told me, refusal to comply would cast doubt on the future of the Brothers’ operations in Belgium: “Do we have the capacity, in Belgium, where we can still offer our charism and our vision? Because we are facing severe secularization in Belgium.”
He added: “In 1815 we broke the chains of the mentally ill, who up to that point were literally imprisoned. We were liberators. Now we see that our child is going in a way that is not in line with the parents.”
When dealing with religious persecution in the West, it is easy to count incidents of physical violence: a Jewish cemetery desecrated here, a hijabi woman harassed there, and so on. The State Department and various NGOs do such work with admirable meticulousness. Yet it is much harder to document when, in the name of secularity, entire societies and political classes declare war on private conscience and religious liberty.
What Trump supporters heard on Tuesday.
When the president of the United States passed on his third opportunity to condemn unequivocally and without caveats Nazi sympathizers marching in his name, John Podhoretz dubbed it “one of the most disheartening facts of my lifetime.” This gut wrenching display of wounded, bitter petulance turned the stomachs of observers on all sides of the political aisle, and it has catalyzed the most concerted backlash to Trump among Republican lawmakers since the “Access Hollywood” tape. For cynical Trump critics, though, this is all posturing. They await deliverance from the age of Trump. They know that hinges on GOP lawmakers turning on their own president—an extraordinary prospect—and that won’t happen until Republican voters have had enough. The cynics are right. This will not break Trump’s base.
It turns out Trump felt compelled to revisit the comments he made on Monday because they were delivered under duress. Trump ignited a controversy on Saturday when, in the aftermath of murderous violence in Charlottesville, he went off script and condemned violence “on many sides.” According to White House officials who spoke with the New York Times, Trump was frustrated by having to clean up that mess with a canned statement. On Tuesday, he went against their advice by articulating sentiments he had “long expressed in private.”
What the political class on both sides of the aisle heard him say from that podium in Trump Tower was appalling. They watched a visibly agitated Trump fail to make a distinction between a march in which both neo-Nazi demonstrators and counter-demonstrators clashed and a white supremacist attacked peaceful protesters blocks away from the skirmishes. They saw him invest emotionally in the notion that “the alt-left”—a term that, unlike the “alt-right,” no group embraces and has no universally understood meaning—was as guilty as anyone. They heard him defend the people who attended a torch-lit march in which demonstrators rallied around a statue of Robert E. Lee throwing Hitler salutes and chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
For those observers, the spectacle was nauseating. Bound up in ego and without any appreciation for posterity or comity, Trump had taken a sledgehammer to the fragile racial consensus ironed out in America over centuries of conflict. But that’s not what the president’s supporters heard. Even some who have little love for Trump but resent his liberal and media opponents heard something entirely different.
“The night before, they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” Trump insisted. “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”
Who is to say whether that’s true or not? Sure, it seems unlikely that someone who is not a white supremacist would find him or herself in the middle of a crowd of neo-Nazis and go with the flow. But that sentiment is certainly true of America at large. Millions of Americans who are not neo-Confederate sympathizers are nevertheless alarmed by the tearing down of landmarks they’ve known all their lives, especially when that’s not the result of political consensus but the work of frenzied swarms of revisionist youth. They might not have even seen the torch-lit rally because it wasn’t featured in media they consume. They are not racist and they reject violence, but they do resent the pace of cultural change. Trump might as well have been talking about them. So, to them, Trump was right.
Trump later insisted that those protesting the removal of the statue—a pretext only later embraced by alt-right protesters but not the impetus for the “Unite the Right” gathering—had a point. “I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down,” Trump noticed. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?”
Trump supporters didn’t hear the president equate a traitorous religious zealot who fought in defense of slavery with both the nation’s first patrician president and the author of the most powerful classically liberal document the world had ever seen. They heard an old argument, one that has been articulated by Republicans since Democrats began purging Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from their collective histories—that there is no limiting principle to the idea that antebellum slaveholders must be expunged from our public squares. So, to them, Trump was right.
“You are changing history, you’re changing culture,” Trump insisted. “You had people, and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists because they should be condemned totally.” There! Trump condemned the Nazis. What more do you want? And there were counter-demonstrators in “black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats” who were amendable to being provoked into a fight with their racist counterparts. Even the New York Times reporter on the scene admitted to witnessing “club-wielding ‘Antifa beating white nationalists.” So, on that point, Trump was right.
Perhaps in their hearts, these Trump supporters know that the president has given succor to the worst fringes of American society and likely swollen their ranks as a result. But the collective response to Trump’s press conference yesterday on the part of the political class will likely only render the impulse to rally around the president more justified and urgent.
Writing in Business Insider, Josh Barro postulated that Trump’s “many sides” comment on Saturday amounted to a Hillary Clinton-like “deplorables” moment. He speculated that, by evincing caution when faced with the prospect of denouncing his most racist supporters, Trump lumped the more respectable members of his base in with an ugly crowd and they wouldn’t appreciate it. But people possess an infinite capacity for rationalization. In this case, it isn’t even a compromising task; if Trump is all that stands between them and the forces of violence, un-American revisionism, and socialism, a little sloppy messaging on white supremacy is a tolerable compromise.
Republican base voters are not budging and so, no matter their personal sentiments, their elected representatives are obliged to stay put as well.
What Trump could have said.
Completely lost in yesterday’s journalistic typhoon of virtue signaling after President Trump’s highly impolitic, but, as Powerline pointed out, basically accurate statement about the tragedy in Charlottesville, was his statement on infrastructure. It is well worth looking at.
One of the main reasons American bridges, roads, tunnels and other government-owned infrastructure are so often in poor shape is the crazy-quilt federal permitting process that has grown up over the last fifty years and desperately needs to be regularized.
It takes, on average, seven years for a complex highway project to get all the needed federal permits. A single agency can take up to five years to make up its mind. Environmental impact statements run to thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of pages, and the delays cost the American economy trillions in lost GDP. As so often happens in government, the permitting process, which was meant to assure that projects are safe, economically rational, and environmentally sound has been transformed into a means of maximizing bureaucratic paper-shuffling.
In his executive order, Trump requires a single federal agency to be the lead agency for each project and it will ride herd on all the others involved. A single “record of decision” would be signed by all the relevant agencies and permits will be issued 90 days later. The Council on Environmental Quality will mediate environmental disputes between different agencies. The goal is to reduce the time needed for the process from seven to two years.
More reforms will be needed. Environmental groups, such as The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, instinctively oppose any project that would expand the American economy, even ones that would have a net positive impact on the environment. They fought the Keystone XL pipeline tooth and nail, even though it will greatly reduce the threat of oil spills by moving oil transport from railroads to the pipeline.
And these groups have become highly expert at gaming the legal system to tie up projects, sometimes for decades, in court.
But Trump’s executive order yesterday was a good step in the right direction. It would have received more attention if the president could just learn not to step on his own story.
Waiting for a mature Trump.
It took fewer than 12 hours for Donald Trump to effectively retract his condemnation of the white nationalists behind the weekend bloodshed in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Amid intense criticism over his initial equivocation and refusal to name the Hitlerite goons who had instigated the violence, the president corrected course Monday afternoon. At a White House news conference, he railed against the “KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” It was a scripted moment, and it came two days later than it should have. Still, you could almost hear the sighs of relief from Trump’s conservative-media defenders.
The president reversed himself – again – in classic Trumpian fashion. Late Monday evening, he tweeted: “Made additional remarks on Charlottesville and realize once again that the #Fake News Media will never be satisfied… truly bad people!” Which made the afternoon statement look like a begrudging concession to an ungrateful press corps rather than a genuine expression. As if to validate the impression, Trump retweeted an alt-right figure a few hours later.
Set aside the inane whataboutism of the tweet itself: “39 shootings in Chicago this weekend, 9 deaths. No national media outrage. Why is that?” Chicago’s crime epidemic deserves media coverage, to be sure, but so does a white-nationalist rally that ends with a motor-vehicle rampage, the death of one innocent and the maiming of at least 19 others.
More notable was the author of the tweet, Jack Posobiec. The activist and “reporter” is a creature of the alt-right fever swamps. He wouldn’t deserve a minute’s attention but for the fact that he has now been thrust into global prominence by the leader of the Free World.
Posobiec has described Richard Spencer, the organizer of the Charlottesville night of the long torches, as “indispensable.” He has peddled the conspiracy theory that Democrats ran a pedophilia ring out of a Washington pizza parlor. Most bizarre, by my lights, is his claim that globalist forces have drugged French President Emmanuel Macron since his earliest days and are now using him as a puppet.
“It may be a way that they found this guy [Macron] very, very young,” he told the conspiracy network Infowars in May, “and they were using that to essentially turn him into a puppet, turn him into a marionette, and now they’re plying him with drugs, keeping him drugged up and getting him to do whatever they want.”
The expression that comes to mind is double discourse. The president offers one set of messages when he is scripted and facing media pressure while telegraphing something else–sometimes the diametric opposite–when addressing his nutsy online base. As for his defenders in the conservative media, the ones who are convinced that a responsible, presidential Trump is just around the corner: He will always disappoint you. And with each disappointment comes a fresh dose of humiliation.