The Right of the People to Alter or to Abolish

4 July 2014

Friday


Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were named to a committee to prepare a declaration of independence. Jefferson (standing) did the actual writing because he was known as a good writer. Congress deleted Jefferson's most extravagant rhetoric and accusations. (Virginia Historical Society)

“Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were named to a committee to prepare a declaration of independence. Jefferson (standing) did the actual writing because he was known as a good writer. Congress deleted Jefferson’s most extravagant rhetoric and accusations.” (Virginia Historical Society)

On this, the 238th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, I would like to recall what is perhaps the centerpiece of the document: a ringing affirmation of what would later, during the French Revolution, be called “The Rights of Man,” and how and why a people with “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” should go about securing these rights:

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, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

The famous litany of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness names certain specific instances, we note, among the unalienable rights of human beings (a partial, and not an exhaustive list of such rights), and in the very same paragraph the founders have mentioned the Right of the People to alter or to abolish any form of government that becomes destructive to these ends. This is significant; the right of the people to alter or abolish a government that is destructive of unalienable rights is itself an unalienable right, though qualified by the condition that established governments should not be lightly overthrown. The Founders did not say that long established governments should never be overthrown, since they were in the process of overthrowing the government of one of the oldest kingdoms in Europe, but that such an action should not be undertaken lightly.

In keeping with with a prioristic language of self-evident truths, the Founders have formulated the right to alter or to abolish in terms of forms of government. In other words, the right to alter or abolish is framed not in terms of particular tyrannical or corrupt regimes, but on the form of the regime. This is political Platonism, pure and simple. The Founders are here recognizing that there are a few distinct forms of government, just as there are a few distinct unalienable rights. For the political Platonism of the Anglophone Enlightenment, forms of government and unalienable rights are part of the furniture of the universe (a phrase I previously employed in Defunct Ideas and some other posts).

It has always been the work of revolutions to alter or to abolish forms of government, and this is still true today, although we are much less likely to think in these platonistic terms about the forms of governments and unalienable rights. To be sure, the idea of rights has become absolutized to a certain extent in the contemporary world, but it is a conflicted absolute idea, because it is an absolute idea stranded in a society that no longer believes in absolute ideas. In just the same way, the governmental tradition of the US is a “stranded asset” of history — an anachronistic relic of the Enlightenment that has survived through several post-Enlightenment periods of history and still survives today. The language of the Enlightenment can still speak to us today — it has a perennial resonance with human nature — but if you can get a typical representative of our age to engage in a detailed conversation about political ideals, you will not find many proponents of Enlightenment ideals, such as the perfectibility of man, throwing off past superstitions, the belief in progress, the dawning of a new world, and a universalist conception of human nature. These are, now, by-and-large, defunct ideas. But not entirely.

If you do find these Enlightenment ideals, you will find them in a very different form than the form that they took among the Enlightenment Founders of the American republic — and note here my use of “form” and again the Platonism that implies. Those today who most passionately believe in the Enlightenment ideals of progress, perfectibility, and a new world on the horizon are, by and large, transhumanists and singulatarians. They believe (often enthusiastically) in an optimistic vision of a better future, although the future they envision would be, for some among us, a paradigm of moral horror — human beings altered beyond all recognition and leading lives that have little or no relationship to human lives as they have been lived since the beginning of civilization.

Transhumanists and singulatarians also believe in the right of the people to alter or to abolish institutions that have become destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — but the institutions they seek to alter or abolish are none other than the institutions of the human body and the human mind (or, platonistically speaking, the form of the human body and the form of the human mind), far older than any form of government, and presumably not to be lightly altered or abolished. Looking at the contemporary literature on transhumanism, with some arguing for and some arguing against, it is obvious that one of the great moral conflicts in the coming century (and perhaps for some time after, until some settlement is reached, or until we and our civilization are so transformed that the question loses its meaning) is going to be that over transhumanism, which is, essentially, a platonistic question about what it means to be human (and the attempt to define the distinction between the human and the non-human, which I recently wrote about). For some, what it means to be human is already fixed for all time and eternity; for others, what it means to be human is not fixed, but is subject to continual change and revision, taking in the whole of human prehistory and what we were before we were human.

It is likely that the coming moral conflict over transhumanism (both the conflict and transhumanism itself have already started, but they remain at the shallow end of an exponential growth curve) will eventually make itself felt as social and political conflict. The ethico-religious conflict in Europe from the advent of the Reformation to the end of the Thirty Years’ War brought into being the political institution of the nation-state and even created the conditions for the Enlightenment, as a reaction against the religious excesses the Reformation and its consequences. Similarly, the ethico-social conflict that will follow from divisions over transhumanism (and related technological developments that will blur the distinction between the human and the non-human) may in their turn be the occasion of the emergence of revolutionary changes in social and political institutions. Retaining the right of the people to alter or abolish their institutions means remaining open to such revolutionary change.

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Happy 4th of July!

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