Thursday, November 26, 2015

Spiritual wut?

La Sainte-Cène du Patriarche, Jean Huber, 1772-73. Image via German Wikipedia. I think Diderot is the wigless man in black seated at right; Voltaire, in the red cap, the Patriarche of the title and the host of the gathering at his exile home in Ferney, is waving for attention, about to make a quip. 
Just the same old shit, obviously, that according to the Declaration of Independence all men are
endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights
which means that they're spiritual rights, not political rights, since the Lord laid them on us without even asking which ones we wanted, though it seems to me like a questionable reading in the first place; I mean honestly what is spiritual about "liberty" or "the pursuit of happiness"? If you believe in a kind of personal Creator, who endowed you with a nose, does that mean your nose is a spiritual rather than physiological property? If it's thanks to the Deity that we have a propensity to argue about politics, does that mean political discussion itself is spiritual rather than political?

I may actually have something new to say on this subject (I'm going to sketch an argument that Jefferson's formulation of natural rights owes less than commonly understood to the good Protestant Locke and much more to the atheist Diderot), but I want to work toward it backwards, starting on the more familiar territory of what Jefferson, as opposed to the Declaration, said.

Because as we all remember, Jefferson didn't write the Declaration of Independence; he prepared a first draft, which was then subjected to revision by the small committee of himself, Adams, and Dr. Franklin, and then a larger committee including Robert Livingston and the severely Calvinist Reverend Roger Sherman (to whom the references to the Deity at the end of the Declaration are commonly attributed), and finally by the Continental Congress as a Committee of the Whole for the "engrossed text" on which they finally voted on July 2. And while as a legal document Justice Scalia might insist that we not look at all at the document's paleographic history but restrict ourselves to the officially promulgated version, I really don't care; if we want to know what it meant at the time we need to know where it came from.

"Engrossed" text:
...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...
First draft:
...that all Men are created equal and independent; that from that equal Creation they derive Rights inherent and unalienable; among which are the Preservation of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness; that to secure these Ends, Governments are instituted among Men...
It's not only that the Creator is absent from Jefferson's original text, as everybody knows, but that there is a bunch of stuff present there that has been deleted from the later versions; the independence of the created men, for instance, and the inherency of their rights, which didn't make it into the fair copy. What would it mean for the unmentioned Deity to make us all independent from birth? Independent of what? (The British monarchy?) And we aren't (passively) endowed with the rights but rather (actively) derive them, from the equality of our creation? What's that about?

And then our rights aren't to things we possess, life and liberty, but to actions we can take, preserving our life and liberty, pursuing our happiness. It's not that we have a "right to life" like a fetus in some claims, but a right to do what we can to save our lives, just as we don't have a "right to happiness" but a right to chase it. That parallelism, between the right to preserve and the right to pursue, is taken away in the second draft, and I don't think it's a good change.

Anyway we also know (thanks, Danielle Allen!) that Jefferson in turn was not just making this up but rather editing in his turn, from a template created by George Mason of Virginia, in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, adopted by the Virginia Constitutional Convention June 12, 1776, or about three weeks before the Jefferson-drafted Declaration was adopted in Philadelphia:
all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
Giving a long explanation for what Jefferson shortened into "unalienable" (it's rights not that can't be taken away from you but that can't be taken away from the next generation), and some alternative verbs, "enjoying", "acquiring", "possessing", "obtaining". But the big shocker here is the word "property", not so much because Mason used it as because Jefferson left it out. (He left out "safety" as well, but it shows up at the end of the paragraph, when he notes that people require any new government to "effect their safety and happiness").

What on earth is that about? Everybody knows that the concept of natural rights in American political thinking comes from John Locke's Treatises of Government (1689), and is focused on the triad of "life, liberty, and property": the reason governments are instituted among men being that for each man in a state of nature,
all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.
"Safety" is clearly part of the deal (and the word itself is used at the end of the passage, seven and eight paragraphs later); and if you want to add the "pursuit of happiness", as Mason did, that's interesting, but why did Jefferson delete property from the list?

And I think the answer has to be that, while Jefferson and Mason were certainly using a vocabulary laid down by Locke at the end of the 17th century, Jefferson in particular was not using this fundamental formulation when he thought of natural rights, but something else.

In fact all Enlightened people of the West were using Locke's vocabulary when they spoke of rights and government, particularly in England and France, and the idea of the "pursuit of happiness" is Lockean itself, but not from the Treatises on Government; it is from his psychological-epistemological Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and rather than being treated as a "right", it is a kind of inexorable instinct, something people are seen as not being able to help.

In France, though, Rousseau specifically criticized the concept of a "right to property" as not natural, not something that would exist in a state of nature—
the right to property being merely conventional, and instituted by humans, any man can dispose of his possessions as he wishes, but it is different for the essential gifts of nature such as life and liberty, which everyone may enjoy and of which no one has a right to deprive himself [le droit de propriété n’étant que de convention et d’institution humaine, tout Homme peut à son grès disposer de ce qu’il possède mais il n’en est pas de même pour des dons essentiels de la nature tels que la vie et la liberté dont il est permis à chacun de jouir et dont on n’a pas le droit de se dépouiller]
—and problematic, as the source of social inequality.

And then Denis Diderot, in his article on Natural Rights for the Encyclopédie (1751-65), doesn't mention property at all—but he does, as a matter of fact, bring in the issue of pursuing happiness, in what is perhaps the first time, in an argument too dense to summarize; Diderot never does come out and say what we have a right to, but the first three body paragraphs are dedicated to liberty, the problem of one's desire for happiness infringing on the liberty of others, and threats to existence or life, as issues we would deal with in that state of nature, which make up Jefferson's trio right there.

So I'm basically thinking he and Mason put the happiness in, and then he took the property out, to conform the expression more to French and less to English thinking. I'm not going to try to work up the argument formally, just lay out the evidence here for future reference, but it's pretty interesting, huh?

Later, when he was in France in the 1780s, Jefferson became good friends with the surviving luminaries, and the old Jefferson mentions Diderot prominently in a discussion of how "spiritual principles", or at least theistic principles, are unnecessary to the virtuous life:
I have observed, indeed, generally, that while in protestant countries the defections from the Platonic Christianity of the priests is to Deism, in catholic countries they are to Atheism. DiderotD'AlembertD’HolbachCondorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.

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