— Counter-Currents —

The Philosopher Is In
Might & Right

durerwildmen [1]

Albrecht Dürer, wild men from the side panels of the Portrait of Oswald Krell, 1499

524 words

Spanish translation here [2]

A reader has asked me for my thoughts on the relationship between might and rights. (By the way, I am happy to entertain philosophical questions.)

What are rights? Rights are principles defining political freedoms and obligations. If rights are political, what makes rights “natural” as opposed to conventional? What makes rights natural is an argument deriving them from human nature. Thus natural rights are socially instituted, protected, and enforced freedoms and obligations that are rationally grounded in nature, not just arbitrarily created like the rules of football or hopscotch.

The standard straw man argument against natural rights is to assert that they are some sort of occult power that in and of themselves protect us against violence. I call this the “Ghost Shirt [3]” view of rights, after the magical shirts of the Sioux Indians that were supposed to render them bulletproof, but didn’t.

Of course rights can protect us even if we lack the power to force others to respect them, but only if we are dealing with people who share common values and are open to moral suasion. But natural rights advocates all recognize that when dealing with criminals and barbarians, we need to use force to put them down.

Tough guys like to set up the Ghost Shirt straw man, which they then “refute” with a punch in the nose. Then they claim that if rights are conventional, not natural, the man with the biggest muscles will tell us what our rights are, indeed what is right in general. This is the view that “might makes right.”

The best argument against this position is offered by Socrates in Plato’s Republic, book I. If might makes right, then right is determined not by strong individuals but by the masses of weak men, who, by banding together, become stronger than the strongest man on his own.

As my favorite undergraduate teacher once said in a political philosophy class, illustrating Hobbes’ idea that men are naturally equal simply insofar as no man is so superior to his fellow men that he can’t be killed by them: “You may be big and tough, but you have to sleep some time. And when you do, some of us skinny guys will band together and stick a knife in you.”

In short, natural rights might not render us bulletproof, but neither does physical strength.

Now, some advocates of the might is right position are willing to accept this conclusion because they implicitly accept a fundamentally egalitarian view of man and politics. Most, however, reject this argument indignantly because the intuition that underlies their position is implicitly aristocratic. They believe that the best men should rule, and when they articulate what is best, they claim it is strength. But if might really makes right, then many average men united together are better entitled to rule than the superlatively strong individual. This implies that they should reject the idea that might makes right and search for a better account of the qualities that entitle the best men to rule.