Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Reports of My Death are Greatly Exaggerated

Among the achievements of Western Civilization is the proposition that people by their very nature have certain fundamental rights.  In John Locke’s day, they were thought to be life, liberty, and property.  Thomas Jefferson listed them as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Our own Constitution returned to the Lockean formulation with the Fifth Amendment.  In any case, these notions of rights depend on a fundamental assumption about people:  Each of us is actually a conscious, self-aware being.  If we were all mindless, automated robots that only simulated consciousness, we would not have a moral claim on so-called human rights.  As self-aware, conscious beings, we begin life with a set of rights, established by natural law, the infringement of which amounts to a grave crime.

In Locke’s day, or in the Founders’, there was no doubt that this self-aware consciousness existed because each of us possessed a divine soul.  Really, the soul carried the natural rights, not so much the self.  The soul was an idea as old as Western Civilization itself, older than Christianity.  The ancient Roman Stoics wrote often concerning the soul (“de anima”), as had the Greeks before them (“peri psyches”).  But during the 19th century the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, in his atheistic and anti-Christian works, proclaimed the death of God.  Nietzsche has had a powerful influence on European and American thought, especially in the colleges and universities.  The late Allan Bloom recounted, in his The Closing of the American Mind, how the influence of Nietzsche pervaded the groves of academe.  Along with Nietzsche’s atheism, there also has crept into the universities a new view of the self.

Naturally, when Nietzsche pronounced “God is dead,” he likewise proclaimed the death of the soul.  But he did not stop there.  Nietzsche also proclaimed the death of the concept of the self.  He argued that we only think there is a self because our language requires us to have subjects for sentences.  Even when we talk about a purely natural phenomenon, like rain, we find ourselves inventing a subject to be the agent, the active cause, of the rain.  We may ask, “Is it raining?”  We may answer, “Yes, it is raining.”  Well, what is the “it” in those sentences?  Some conscious being, some agent?  Nietzsche could certainly not accept that God might be making the rain, and that left only blind, unconscious nature itself.  Rather than saying “it is raining,” perhaps we ought to say, “Rain is falling.”  Even that expression, though, just turns the grammar around and makes the rain itself the subject.  So, Nietzsche concluded, it is our language that makes us posit the existence of agents in general and selves in particular.  The self, therefore, is just an illusion.

Many theorists these days seem disposed to accept the death of the concept of self as old news.  CONSVLTVS is not so easily convinced.  The question is an important one, because the status of human rights as understood for centuries depends on the answer.  In an increasingly secular society, Conservatives are well advised to formulate their arguments in secular terms.  Religious arguments are simply a waste of breath in any dispute with unbelievers, and so CONSVLTVS intends to employ only secular reasoning.  (It is his conviction that secular reasoning is sufficient to make the Conservative case in almost all instances.)  So, leaving aside the question of an immortal soul, it should be apparent that if Nietzsche is correct then the entire Western concept of human rights will vanish like rain in a drought.  Without a self, there is no person to be disadvantaged by a denial of rights, no one conscious being whose well-being can be infringed.  Without a self, human beings are mindless automata, undeserving of moral stature.  Without too much fanfare, however, certain members of the academic community have accepted Nietzsche’s claims on the death of the self.  Though not intending a grand disruption in the legal theories of human rights, they have nevertheless continued Nietzsche’s work in that direction.

Of course, it is intellectually dishonest to evaluate the truth of a proposition by whether we like its implications.  So, the first step really must be to see whether Nietzsche’s proclamation on the death of the self is true.

Long before Nietzsche wrote, a French philosopher named Descartes was working through some existential problems.  Descartes, who unlike Nietzsche was a religious man, was concerned about how to establish the reliability of his sense impressions.  In the way that only philosophers have, Descartes asked himself if perhaps all his sense impressions might not be the creations of a wicked devil, sent by Satan, who deliberately kept him from seeing the world as it is.  What’s more, such a devil could even cause him to perceive a world when it did not even exist.

Given such a devil, Descartes would have no way of verifying any empirical fact through observation, which meant that the only thing he could accept as true were tautologies like mathematics (which functions within a closed logical loop and is therefore provable on its own terms).  Apart from such logical certainties, Descartes reasoned there was only one thing about which the devil could not fool him:  his own self.  He might doubt that everything else existed, but he could not doubt that his own mind existed.  As he put it, “I think, therefore I am.”

What would Nietzsche have made of such a statement?  He clearly knew about what philosophers call the Cartesian “cogito” (from the Latin, “cogito ergo sum,” “I think therefore I am”).  For Nietzsche, though, Descartes was just presupposing an agent, a thinker, because language (whether German or French or Latin) requires a subject for every sentence.  In the view of CONSVLTVS, however, Nietzsche missed the central insight of Descartes.  To put it plainly, if the self is an illusion, then who is being fooled?

Descartes’ certainty that his self was the one thing in the world that really existed derived from powerful logic.  Imagine that you had a self that perceived the world and was self-aware, but that also did not really exist.  The picture is impossible, because if the self does not exist, then it cannot perceive anything at all—even itself.  On the other hand, even if all it can perceive is itself, well, then it must exist.  But apart from logic, there is also a very deep instinct about the self that appears to be nearly universal among people.  We simply perceive the existence of the self as a fact.  It is very hard to describe in abstract terms, but so is any other part of experience.  CONSVLTVS knows exactly what blue looks like to him, but there is no epistemological certainty that you perceive it the same way.  Still, when you talk about a blue sky, CONSVLTVS will agree with you that the sky is blue.  Likewise, when you say “I,” everyone knows what you mean.

The universality of this experience is quite probably the real reason so many languages display a sentence structure that requires a subject (even if only implied).  So, Nietzsche had it backwards.  It is not that we only think the self exists because our language forces us to have a subject for a sentence.  Rather, we use language that requires a subject because we know our selves exist.

Here is another refutation of Nietzsche on this point.  If the self is an illusion, an artifact of grammar, then what is going on with sleep?  We actually know what it would be like to be mindless automata because we lose consciousness every night.  If there is no real self, then why do we perceive a difference between waking and sleeping?  Or, for that matter, between sobriety and drunkenness?  Since we do perceive these differences, we may conclude with Descartes that we exist as conscious, sentient beings.

In metaphorical terms, the self is like an irreducible singularity of awareness.  Behind all the masks and game-playing and habitual interactions we have with other people there is always that kernel of awareness.  And that singularity of awareness, that self, remains the bedrock of our philosophy of natural rights.


  1. I agree with you that this is a very important theme for politics in general and conservatism in particular, and it is very odd that liberals - who talk so much about human rights etc. - don't seem to see that the traditional view of human rights is problematic if certain religious and/or metaphysical notions are rejected. Leaving the issue of the self aside for now, I think one can develop a secular view of rights based on reciprocity (or the potential for reciprocal action). So humans can have rights because they understand them; animals don't have rights because they don't understand reciprocal responsibilities (which is not to say that it's okay to be cruel to animals).

  2. What a good clear essay. I trace the "death of the soul" to Hume, who was concerned to eliminate anything supernatural from epistemology and then, by extension, ethics. As empiricism took hold in the philosophy of knowledge, there was no room for a "spirit soul" and Nietzsche's declaration follows from this empirical emphasis. "Mind" is the modern replacement for soul; the "mind/body" problem we think of today was for Descartes (vs Gassendi) the soul-body problem. But as you point out, Nietzsche takes aim at mind as well, so that suddenly there is no subject/self with moral standing as an agent. Clearly this is a mistake; an excess of skepticism at least.

  3. Dr. English, that's an interesting point about animals. I have always deplored animal cruelty, but I agree it makes no sense to invest animals with the full array of rights we accord to human beings. On the Leftist tendency to reject the notions that sustain traditional views of human rights, I completely concur. This tendency does not seem to inhibit the zeal with which some of them are prepared to impose their new morality by fiat.

  4. I like the Machiavelli quotation!

    On this subject: The author is clearly an individualist. I wonder why he thinks of himself - or others think of him - as "on the left", the opposite side of the great divide, the side of the collectivists?

    Another point: How does the fact of my existence mean that I have "the right to exist"? What does "the right to exist' mean? What are "natural rights"? Whence do they come? (Omitting the idea of God.) I can be granted a right by law, and there's something I can do about it, by law, if it is infringed. But what redress shall I have if I lose my life, from whom shall I claim it? I've always preferred to say "one is free to ..." rather than "one has a right to ...".