Morality shoudl precede the lawImagine yourself imprisoned in a dictator's concentration camp, locked in an underground cell with the premonition of death in the next footsteps you hear. What would give you the moral fire to attempt escape? What would justify your friends outside to work for a change in government? Even in the event of certain death at the hands of your jailers, why should you refuse to see this as your natural fate on earth? What makes you the victim?
The answer to these questions is that an innocent person has the moral right to his own life. This is a moral principle, not a legal one. It is inalienable, that is, it cannot be taken away by any legal system, whim of a king, or executive order.
But now slithering up out of a crack in the dungeon floor comes Mark Kantrowitz ["Our human rights have been created by society," Oct. 8]. Give up, he squeaks, you are in the wrong. Accept the status quo. Any rights you many have are a gift from the state or "society" -- and in your case the gift has been witheld. The only "right" you have is to serve our leader!
This is like a street lout snatching your purse and jeering, "You have no right to your purse, because I've got it now."
When Dave Honig ["Your work is for your own benefit; decide your obligations for yourself," Oct. 4] refered to rights, he meant moral rights. One can split the idea of individual rights into two parts: moral (natural-human) rights, and political (legal) rights. The former have their source in the nature of man, the latter are a government's recognition in law of the former. That is, a just government protects individual rights (i.e. the right to be free from coercion, to privacy, to keep, use, and dispose of what you produce; in short, the right to pursue your own happiness). This is capitalism.
Valid legal rights are not a gift, but the political recognition of an ethical principle: that of self-interest. Individual rights are the bridge between the politics of capitalism and the ethics of self-interest. Mark Kantrowitz is consistent, at least he realizes that the ethics of altruism (the opposite of self-interest) entails the total denial of human rights.
America was originally based on the idea that government is the servant of the people. Mark Kantrowitz wants it the other way around. He would make you a vassal of the state, his protestions to the contrary notwithstanding. He says "society can choose to establish rights (and responsibilities) for its members, and to enforce them through the government."
He maintains that "each individual should feel grateful to society for granting him or her these rights, and ... the individual should attempt to repay society for them. The only obligations are those that society imposes on its members..." (He then remarks parenthetically that one such obligation is to respect "the rights of others" -- what rights?)
Then he claims that all this does not mean slavery! But it clearly does -- he is advocating the ethico-political basis of station, indeed of a totalitarian state.
He abuses the English language to help put this over. An obligation results from a voluntary contractual relationship. "Impose an obligation" is a contradiction in terms.
He uses "society" as a mystic entity to which anything can be sacrificed (eg. you). In the practical implementation of his ideas, "society" would turn out to be an aristocratic elite.
Observe that the very same ideas, expressions, and collectivist claptrap like "society" are being used to revive the old Selective Service draft, and to establish a colossal new one: a "National Youth Service." In this scheme, which would be a permanent law, the federal government would compel every young man and woman (no exceptions or deferals) to labor at either military or "social" federal projects during one year (or two -- details differ among the NYS's advocates) of his or her life sometime between the ages of 19 and 24 (again, details differ).
Sir, or madam, it is your duty to serve society! You are obligated to the State which does so much for you. You should feel grateful because social-spirited people will not leave you to your own business. If you disagree, we'll just have to throw you in jail for welching on your debt to society.
Needless to say, I was taken over by a spook in that last paragraph.
Why self-interest (and capitalism) instead of altruism (and statism)? Ayn Rand argues that self-interest follows from reason -- see her work. For now, note that Mark Kantrowitz, in arguing for altruism, is reduced to that signature of intellectual bankruptcy, "why not?" -- like a peddler of little opium pills.