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So THAT's What a Right Is!


Sophmore Nietzscheanism and unreflective naturalism were behind my attitude of "What's a 'right'? How much does it weigh? What does it smell like? Is this 'rights' talk just rebranding of Natural Law talk? That's so jive, maaaan." But there is a fairly simple logical description of a right in Norm and Action, unencumbered by the metaphysical superficialities that prompted my pose-taking.

Living in the former Dominion of Canada as I do, G.H. von Wright's discussion of rights makes a lot of sense to me. The Sovereign delegated certain authorities to her representatives, those representatives have supervised administrative and constitutional changes but have all the while refered to the temporal and divine authority invoked in previous institutions. How this logic might apply to republican constituencies -- where the act of an authority giving permissions to subjects isn't as particular and singular as the historical act of one sovereign -- is not immediately clear:


“Any (strong) permission is at least a toleration, but it may be more than this. If a permission to do something is combined with a prohibition to hinder or prevent the holder of the permission from doing the permitted thing, then we shall say that the subject of the permissive norm as a right relatively to the subjects of the prohibition. In granting a right to some subjects, the authority declares his toleration of a certain act (or forbearance) and his intolerance of certain other acts.” (Norm and Action 89).

So the interminable discussions of "my rights" versus "your rights" or "how can you be tolerant but not tolerate my intolerance" can be terminated by the appeal to the philosophy of action. A right is promulgated by an authority: activity X will be tolerated in that the relevant authority will not prevent activity X from happening. The establishment of a tolerance means the creation of an intolerance: the relevant authority will not tolerate any hindrance of activity X. So Suja and Sub wish to wed. They have the have the same gender. Marriage between agents posessing the same gender will be tolerated. At that instant an intolerance is established: interference in Suja and Sub's wedding will not be tolerated. Ceesuj and and Deesub may want to stop the wedding and may act to do so, by blockading the wedding site or kidnapping the officiant. These actions will not be tolerated by the authority and said authority will deliver sanctions.

Any subject objecting to the toleration is right to say that limits to their action is an act of intolerance. The very concept of a right means that the authority will be intolerant to those subjects who resent that authority's toleration. A less illogical response may be some act ofdefiance with accompanying delcarations of "this authority no longer governs me" or "I reject the person promulgating the tolerance but I do not reject the office which they have usurped." But intolerance, as a logical implication of any act of tolerance, doesn't mean injustice or wrongness and simply crying "intolerance" doesn't constitute a meaningful argument.

Resist the authority if you want. But don't think that going on a Sunday talk shows and chanting "this tolerance means I can't be intolerant, and that's intolerant towards me, and I feel sad" constitutes a normative argument. Any authority which has been established to uphold inalienable rights will not tolerate alienation of those rights. And the same goes for contingent or temporary rights established by that authority.

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Rules


Rules are prescriptions having "generality with regard to occasion" (Norm and Action 83)

Which means rules are easiest to consider as the prescriptions given by a norm authority (not by self or by God or self-generating).

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This can be done in the logic of human action and of norms, and the authorities that issue prescriptions for doing/forbearing from undertaking making certain changes in the world.

They are not predicated on physical tendencies or cause-effect change. No dialectics in or of nature.

These thoughts are elaborations of some side points made by G.H. von Wright in his Norm and Action (1963). In the course of specifying what norms are, how they are prescribed, the authorities that prescribe them, and the agents whose actions they govern, Wright has to describe the temporality in which the subject of a norm pronouncement is to act or forbear.

Let us say an actor is instructed to be "louder, faster, and funnier" at unspecified points within the performance of a play and for the duration of a play's run (the actor not being expected to be louder, faster, and funnier while voting or ordering breakfast).

"even if there can be an unlimited number of occasions for doing a certain act within a limited time-span, an order or a permission to do a certain thing within such a time-span is disjunctively general with regard to the occasion." (80)

Under this description, the l/f/f command is a general command that can be instantiated at this or that time. Under another description, it is a very particular command about one very particular occasion: a command to carry out a particular action on one instance, but an instance that is stretched across a variety of seconds, days, and weeks.

"It may, however, also be thought that, even if there can be an unlimited number of occasions for doing a certain act within a limited time-span, an order or a permission to do a certain thing within such a time-span is particular with regard to the occasion. We then regard the time-span in question as one occasion. This one occasion is, so to speak, 'disjunctively constituted' of a (finite or infinite) number of occasions of a shorter duration. The conception of the time-span as one occasion is somewhat similar to the conception of a collectivity of men as one agent.” (80)

An authority has created a time-span or a tensed occasion, a kind of closed system stretched over time roughly analogous to the way an experimenter creates a closed system to observe how changes in a manipulated independent variable produces (or fails to produce) changes in a dependent variable. The creation of a tensed occasion or a closed system is a consequence of an action. In the case of the theatrical performance the temporality was produced by the authority that was able to issue the l/f/f command: it was not a unity or whole arising apart from that prescription or prior to the enunciation of the prescription.

So the command "you [the cast] have to make the show louder, faster, and funnier" is not addressed to one particular moment, or any named performer. The collective has to resolve which agents and at which particular moments there will be l/f/f moments. There is one norm subject and one occasion for its act.

- Does the tensed or stretched out occasion persist if the agent forbears from doing the act it was commanded to do?
- If 3 of the cast members carry out the l/f/f command, but one does not, is it still a collective?
- if 3 of the 4 cast memebers carry out the l/f/f command on 17 of 20 performances, but not the last 3, did the tensed occasion collapse? Was it persistent only during those 17 occasions and in abeyance during the last 3?

Scholastic quibbling aside: the projection of a unity or the creation of a collective subject were the consequences of the enunciation of a command and predicated on the endurance of a norm. And the norm was heteronomous (76-77), given by an authority to a subject. Is it possible for autonomous, or self-directed norm-giving, and by implication, self-directed creation of instant-spanning occasions and collective action? Wright sets that possibility aside in Norm and Action. Does he take it up again elsewhere? His logic of action addresses empirical norm authorities (variably individual and collective, personal and impersonal). As a consequence, he is cool to the idea of any "supra-empirical" authorities being credited with providing norm prescriptions He sees the "theonomous" norms handled by divine command theories of ethics as derivations from the model of a human agent giving commands to other human agents. His logic of norms is built on axioms regarding heteronomous norms, with autnomous or theonomous treated as secondary derivations from those norms.

Neither are logically impossible. But my takeaway is that self--produced autonomous norms or divinely-sanctioned ones are merely disguised versions of norm giving. Agents are capable of acting and forbearing: their actions should not be regarded as effects caused by this or that command from some authority. But the normative aspect of their actions is inconceivable without taking into account the promulgation of norms by other agents. There is a social kernel that in inescapable. The model is dyadic but not dialogic. The unity of action, or that of an occasion, or of a collective, is dependent on some officer, or authority, or some agent who enunciates commands or injunctions. A dialogic model would imply that interacting individuals can give themselves norms and, in doing so, create unities of occasion and become a collective subject acting on that occasion.

I don't see signs of that dialogic possibility in Norm and Action. And the utopian in me is sad. I have to buck up, though: I cannot drag negative energy into this tournament.

But I am amazed at the implications of even the smallest segments of Wright's analysis of action and the action of norm-giving. Anscombe and Wright deliver precision jiu-jitsu strikes, not the Drunken Monkey style of Zizek, or the baffling Jade King stance of Wittgenstein in his aphoristic mode. I think that they will win the Kumite.

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