Thursday, November 18, 2004

The existentially threatening questions

ruminant or ruminative? Posted by Hello

Perspectives and limits! Those sort of sum it up for me. Why is it that we choose to look at events through a particular prism in life? Assuming a particular perspective, as we can all probably agree, isn’t all that natural, is it? What accounts for the explicitly stated or the implicitly assumed?

So, here I am sitting in Tehran-- not really all that interested in being ruled--just in the same way as an average Falloojan had no interest in being ruled either-- by the reigning ( de facto ) Occupation Authorities. Two cities, two governments and two distinct cultures and rhetoric. Yet, her house is now ruined. What happens to mine remains to be seen!

What am I thinking here?

That some can speak of liberty while persistently thinking counter-insurgency tactics. Doesn’t matter whose tactics, really! The brutality as model: the French in Algeria or the Belgians in Congo perhaps, or even the Mongols of the ancient time.

And the question for me is: how many flattened cities before the actualities of the conduct one advocates or condones come to contradict one’s empyrean self definition? How many lives is one too many? Is there a limit?

And so the limit of the Sovereign’s power is what I have been obsessing about lately.

John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government has an interesting discussion in the fourteenth chapter titled Of Prerogative:

Sec.159: WHERE the legislative and executive power are in distinct hands, (as they are in all moderated monarchies, and well-framed governments) there the good of the society requires, that several things should be left to the discretion of him that has the executive power […] Many things there are, which the law can by no means provide for; and those must necessarily be left to the discretion of him that has the executive power in his hands, to be ordered by him as the public good and advantage shall require: nay, it is fit that the laws themselves should in some cases give way to the executive power, or rather to this fundamental law of nature and government

Sec. 160. This power to act according to discretion, for the public good, without the prescription of the law, and sometimes even against it, is that which is called prerogative: for since in some governments the lawmaking power is not always in being, and is usually too numerous, and so too slow, for the dispatch requisite to execution; and because also it is impossible to foresee, and so by laws to provide for, all accidents and necessities that may concern the public, or to make such laws as will do no harm, if they are executed with an inflexible rigour, on all occasions, and upon all persons that may come in their way; therefore there is a latitude left to the executive power, to do many things of choice which the laws do not prescribe.
Sec. 161. This power, whilst employed for the benefit of the community, and suitably to the trust and ends of the government, is undoubted prerogative, and never is questioned: for the people are very seldom or never scrupulous or nice in the point; they are far from examining prerogative, whilst it is in any tolerable degree employed for the use it was meant, that is, for the good of the people, and not manifestly against it: but if there comes to be a question between the executive power and the people, about a thing claimed as a prerogative; the tendency of the exercise of such prerogative to the good or hurt of the people, will easily decide that question.

Sec. 163. And therefore they have a very wrong notion of government, who say, that the people have encroached upon the prerogative, when they have got any part of it to be defined by positive laws: for in so doing they have not pulled from the prince any thing that of right belonged to him, but only declared, that that power which they indefinitely left in his or his ancestors hands, to be exercised for their good, was not a thing which they intended him when he used it otherwise: […]

Sec. 164. But since a rational creature cannot be supposed, when free, to put himself into subjection to another, for his own harm; (though, where he finds a good and wise ruler, he may not perhaps think it either necessary or useful to set precise bounds to his power in all things) prerogative can be nothing but the people's permitting their rulers to do several things, of their own free choice, where the law was silent, and sometimes too against the direct letter of the law, for the public good; […]

Sec. 168. The old question will be asked in this matter of prerogative, But who shall be judge when this power is made a right use of ? […] And where the body of the people, or any single man, is deprived of their right, or is under the exercise of a power without right, and have no appeal on earth, then they have a liberty to appeal to heaven, whenever they judge the cause of sufficient moment. And therefore, though the people cannot be judge, so as to have, by the constitution of that society, any superior power, to determine and give effective sentence in the case; yet they have, by a law antecedent and paramount to all positive laws of men, reserved that ultimate determination to themselves which belongs to all mankind, where there lies no appeal on earth, viz. to judge, whether they have just cause to make their appeal to heaven. And this judgment they cannot part with, it being out of a man's power so to submit himself to another, as to give him a liberty to destroy him; God and nature never allowing a man so to abandon himself, as to neglect his own preservation: and since he cannot take away his own life, neither can he give another power to take it…

Even for Hobbes, the need for self preservation is the red line. Chapter fourteen of the celebrated Leviathan starts thusly:

“THE right of nature, which writers commonly call jus naturale, is the liberty each man hath to use his own power as he will himself for the preservation of his own nature; that is to say, of his own life; and consequently, of doing anything which, in his own judgement and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.

By liberty is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of external impediments; which impediments may oft take away part of a man's power to do what he would, but cannot hinder him from using the power left him according as his judgement and reason shall dictate to him.

A law of nature, lex naturalis, is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved. For though they that speak of this subject use to confound jus and lex, right and law, yet they ought to be distinguished, because right consisteth in liberty to do, or to forbear; whereas law determineth and bindeth to one of them: so that law and right differ as much as obligation and liberty, which in one and the same matter are inconsistent.”

But Spinoza’s outlook is the most intriguing. It takes work. He is such a joy. Just look at how effortlessly he makes a case for something we are all mostly still struggling daily with:


“[20:1] (1) If men's minds were as easily controlled as their tongues, every
king would sit safely on his throne, and government by compulsion would
cease; for every subject would shape his life according to the intentions of
his rulers, and would esteem a thing true or false, good or evil, just or
unjust, in obedience to their dictates.
(20:19) No, the object of government is not to change men from rational
beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds
and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled; neither
showing hatred, anger, or deceit, nor watched with the eyes of jealousy and
injustice. (20) In fact, the true aim of government is liberty.”

On to chapter 16 though for the essential riddle we have been pursuing:

“It is now time to determine the limits to which such freedom of thought and
discussion may extend itself in the ideal state. (3) For the due
consideration of this question we must examine the foundations of a State,
first turning our attention to the natural rights of individuals, and
afterwards to religion and the state as a whole.

(16:4) By the right and ordinance of nature, I merely mean those natural
laws wherewith we conceive every individual to be conditioned by nature, so
as to live and act in a given way. (5) For instance, fishes are naturally
conditioned for swimming, and the greater for devouring the less; therefore
fishes enjoy the water, and the greater devour the less by sovereign natural
right. [16:1] (6) For it is certain that nature, taken in the abstract, has
sovereign right to do anything, she can; in other words, her right is co-
extensive with her power. […]

(9) We do not here acknowledge any difference between mankind and other individual natural entities, nor between men endowed with reason and those to whom reason is unknown; nor between fools, madmen, and sane men. (10) Whatsoever an individual does by the laws of its nature it has a sovereign right to do, inasmuch as it
acts as it was conditioned by nature, and cannot act otherwise. […]

(16:19) It follows from what we have said that the right and ordinance of
nature, under which all men are born, and under which they mostly live, only
prohibits such things as no one desires, and no one can attain: it does not
forbid strife, nor hatred, nor anger, nor deceit, nor, indeed, any of
the means suggested by desire. […]

(16:22) Nevertheless, no one can doubt that it is much better for us to live
according to the laws and assured dictates of reason, for, as we said, they
have men's true good for their object. (23) Moreover, everyone wishes to
live as far as possible securely beyond the reach of fear, and this would be
quite impossible so long as everyone did everything he liked, and reason's
claim was lowered to a par with those of hatred and anger; there is no one
who is not ill at ease in the midst of enmity, hatred, anger, and deceit,
and who does not seek to avoid them as much as he can.

(27) Now it is a universal law of human nature that no one ever neglects
anything which he judges to be good, except with the hope of gaining a
greater good, or from the fear of a greater evil; nor does anyone endure an
evil except for the sake of avoiding a greater evil, or gaining a greater
good. […]

(16:31) As a necessary consequence of the principle just enunciated, no one
can honestly promise to forego the right which he has over all things
[Endnote 26], and in general no one will abide by his promises, unless under
the fear of a greater evil, or the hope of a greater good. (32) An example
will make the matter clearer. (33) Suppose that a robber forces me to
promise that I will give him my goods at his will and pleasure. (34) It is
plain (inasmuch as my natural right is, as I have shown, co-extensive with
my power) that if I can free myself from this robber by stratagem, by
assenting to his demands, I have the natural right to do so, and to pretend
to accept his conditions. (35) Or again, suppose I have genuinely promised
someone that for the space of twenty days I will not taste food or any
nourishment; and suppose I afterwards find that was foolish, and cannot be
kept without very great injury to myself; as I am bound by natural law and
right to choose the least of two evils, I have complete right to break my
compact, and act as if my promise had never been uttered.”

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