Self-evident

I always thought the US Declaration of Independence had a lovely bit of intellectual sleight of hand. It’s phrased almost as an exercise in logical deduction (various bits bolded for emphasis):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government … [rhubarb rhubarb] … The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

[long list of ‘facts’ snipped here]

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States….

Quite apart from the awkwardness of reconciling this document with slavery, the phrase I’d particularly  pick out is ‘self-evident’. Jefferson, of all people, must have known perfectly well that over the course of history, it has certainly not been felt to be self-evident that all men are created equal. Or indeed that they are endowed with inalienable rights; or that governments are instituted to secure those rights; or that they derive their powers from the consent of the governed; or that when a government fails in that respect, that it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.

From Plato to George III, there were an awful lot of people who would have disputed those ideas; it is clearly begging the question to treat them as axiomatic.

As it happens, history has been kind to Jefferson: his revolution went well, and the country he and his cronies set up has become the most powerful on earth. The victory of the democratic way of thinking has been so thorough that it is possible to read the Declaration of Independence and take it at face value, as though it actually was a statement of self-evident truth instead of a piece of political rhetoric. Perhaps that’s for the best: if you believe, as I certainly do, that the principles laid out in the preamble to the declaration are a Good Thing, then it probably helps to have people treat them as an item of faith. But my pedantic soul revolts against it. I’m with Jeremy Bentham on this one:

Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.

Those rights — life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, free speech, freedom of religion, fair trials, take your pick — are not given to us by the universe; they are human constructs, things people have chosen and demanded for themselves. All the more reason to defend them.

You may be wondering why I’ve suddenly started going on about C18th political philosophy: well, it’s because I was struck by same process going on right now with gay marriage. There is an attempt by supporters of gay marriage to frame the question as one of simple natural justice: that this is a straightforward case of equal rights* and that the answer is, in fact, self-evident.

Now I’m a supporter of gay marriage, because I think that, all else being equal, we should avoid excluding a large chunk of the population from a social institution which has a central role in the culture; because the evidence generally suggests that having people in committed, long-term relationships is a societal good, and surely having a load of people keen to marry strengthens marriage rather than weakening it; and because it just seems like a way of making people happier with no obvious downside. But any claim that it is obviously a simple question of fairness seems a bit disingenuous.

I mean: has their ever been any society anywhere which has granted full legal marriage rights to homosexual couples on exactly the same basis as heterosexual marriage? I’m no anthropologist, and there may be examples I just don’t know about, but it seems fair to say that most people through history have not thought it was obvious that homosexual relationships are the same thing as heterosexual ones. The people who argue that ‘marriage is defined as between a man and a woman’ have a point: the introduction of gay marriage does redefine marriage in a fairly major way. There’s nothing unique about that; marriage has naturally been redefined over time as society has changed. But if you’re introducing a social change which is almost unprecedented in the whole of human history, it’s hard to deny that it’s a radical agenda.

I’m not suggesting that supporters of gay marriage should present it as a radical agenda; not if they want to get it into law. On the contrary, I think they are exactly right to frame it as a question of equal rights, and tap into the American rhetorical tradition that goes back via the civil rights movement all the way to Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. But like the Declaration of Independence, there’s a hint of a rhetorical rabbit being pulled out of a hat, as a rather controversial and radical conclusion is presented as though it was a self-evident truth.

*and indeed equal rites

6 Comments

  1. 17 November 2008 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    has their ever been any society anywhere which has granted full legal marriage rights to homosexual couples on exactly the same basis as heterosexual marriage?
    Yes. The berdache or third gender figure was not only widely accepted among many indigenous societies in western North America, but marriages between berdaches and regular males – arrangments we would define as homosexual marriage – were completely condoned.

  2. 17 November 2008 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Odd. I paid more attention to the “we” part of that first sentence: We, the radical whackjobs of our era, hold these truths to be self-evident, not because they actually are, but because we want to make our case and we’re pretty pleased at how elegant it sounds. [rhubarb rhubarb, don’t tune in again until we invent the Constitution.]
    At the moment in Seattle, gay marriage activists are annoyed at a couple of local officials because of statements on Saturday about “people should be able to marry whoever they want.” This is a nice sound bite for a rally, but it implies that lots of pairs (siblings, toddlers) should be able to marry.
    Maybe the D of I was never intended to be more than an official’s sound bite.

  3. Harry
    17 November 2008 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Dave. I don’t think that undermines my argument too much, but it’s interesting to know.

    Odd. I paid more attention to the “we” part of that first sentence: We, the radical whackjobs of our era, hold these truths to be self-evident, not because they actually are, but because we want to make our case and we’re pretty pleased at how elegant it sounds.

    Perhaps it’s best understood as something like “we believe these truths should be self-evident”. I expect Jefferson sincerely believed that all men were created equal — all white men, anyway — and wanted others to believe the same thing. But the whole business of trying to derive a political philosophy from first principles is dubious.

  4. Jee Leong Koh
    18 November 2008 at 1:35 am | Permalink

    Hi Harry,

    You raise an interesting question. Your reasons for supporting gay marriage are utilitarian in basis, as confirmed by your reference to Bentham: greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. I am not sure if utilitarian arguments suffice. What if empirical research somehow “discovers” that society as a whole is better off if gay people are denied marriage rights? We would have to look at how society is better off, and that inevitably entails some idea (or human construct) of social good. And even if we all agree on what constitutes social good, there is still the ethical question of punishing a minority for the greater good. I am no political philosopher but I think some version of rights has to supplement any utilitarian arguments. In other words, some version of what is due to each member of society, no matter how weak in strength or small in number. Otherwise, utilitarianism supports tyranny of the majority. I am sure Bentham must have some answer for this, but I don’t know it.

    I agree that “natural rights” is flawed or vague phrasing. The US Declaration does not use that phrase. Instead it says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights . . . .” I think, like Jill, that we should attend to “We hold” in the statement. Like you pointed out, Jefferson must know that these truths are not self-evident in history, but “We hold” is a statement of belief, of radical belief (not radical enough since it does not include enslaved people etc). Read this way, the meaning of “self-evident” becomes more like that of “incontrovertible,” or “of first principles” or “basic assumptions,” the very human construct you rightly argued all ideas about rights are.

    You said that the business of deriving a political philosophy from first principles is highly dubious. The US Declaration starts that way, but very quickly also presents “the facts” about England’s tyranny over its colonies. In other words, it combines first principles with (what may be called) an empirical approach; inductive as well as deductive reasoning undergird its rhetoric. That makes for good rhetoric, though I am inclined towards Karl Popper’s view (critical dualism), that we cannot derive values from facts. Arguments about values (human construct, ideas of social good etc) must be conducted in the realm of values. The debate about gay marriage cannot be resolved by reaching for (changeable, context-dependent, value-laden) facts.

    I do wonder if that debate would favor gay marriage more, if we add the idea of liberty to the idea of rights. J. S. Mill’s version of liberty: each of us knows best what constitutes our own greatest happiness, and therefore should be free to pursue it our own way, provided we do not increase harm or lessen benefit to others. This idea (did Mill get it from the Americans?) chimes with American individualism, that everyone should be left alone to get on with his thing, so long as it does not bother me.

    Thanks for making me think through this a little more.

    Jee Leong

  5. Jee Leong Koh
    18 November 2008 at 1:50 am | Permalink

    About first principles, and deriving a political philosophy thereof: perhaps Evangelical Christians who are anti-gay marriage should be asked to state their first principles. What self-evident truth do they hold? I don’t think I am being completely inaccurate if their first principle goes something like: society is happiest when it lives by the revealed will of the Christian God. Compare that with Mill’s idea of liberty, and all can see the sectarianism, irrationality, absolutism, and intolerance in the Christian first principles.

    Jee Leong

  6. Harry
    18 November 2008 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    I’m not really a utilitarian. I don’t think that any one simple political theory is enough to capture all the things we want from a political system: utilitarianism articulates one aspect of what we want from a society, libertarianism another, the concept of rights another, and so on.

    The reason I went for a utilitarian argument on this occasion is that it seems to me to so clear-cut: it puts the onus on opponents of gay marriage to explain what dreadful thing it is that they think will happen because of gay couples getting married.

    And if empirical research discovers that society as a whole is better off without gay marriage rights? Well, it’s hard to engage with that argument in the abstract because it’s hard to imagine what the evidence could be. If the negative impact was serious enough — let’s say gay marriage resulted in god sending plagues, earthquakes and armies of avenging angels — I suppose I might have to reluctantly stop supporting it. Even if I thought god was being a bit of a dick.

    And I do think there is also an equality argument, I just don’t think it’s quite as simple as it is sometimes being presented. I could happily make an argument for gay marriage on the basis of fairness and equality, it’s just that to be rigorous about it would require some fairly careful unpicking of what we think marriage is, what we think it’s for, what the state’s place is in people’s relationships and so on.

    On natural rights and the Declaration: I’m not sure I can see a distinction between a ‘natural and imprescriptible right’ and an unalienable right which is endowed by a Creator. If they didn’t want to imply something like ‘natural’ rights, they could have said ‘we hold these truths to be self evident: that all men should have certain inviolable rights granted to them by law’.

    And finally, I do think there would be a virtue in making the idea of liberty more explicit in the Constitution: that there should be a presumption that people are free to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. I don’t know how much it applies in the case of gay marriage, though, because it isn’t an aspiration for freedom from interference by the state or other people; it’s an attempt to directly engage the apparatus of the state in your personal relationships. Legalising homosexuality in the first place is a straightforwardly libertarian argument: people’s private relationships are no-one else’s business. Getting the state to recognise homosexual marriages and grant them identical legal status to straight marriages seems to me to require a slightly different kind of argument. It’s an attempt to gain legal rights rather than legal freedoms, surely?

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