Search This Blog

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Pontifications on the Extended Order - Part 3: Rights Make Might

These Pontifications are my personal Creation Myth. Not a Creation Myth that goes all the way back to the creation of the universe or life or anything insignificant like that, but rather a myth that explains some of the factors that caused us to get here and now to this particular arrangement of humanity and civilization, with the existence of life and the universe being a given.

In Part 1, I outlined the evidence that leads me to believe that man (and earlier hominids) started as "a bunch of violent primitive tribes frequently at war". In Part 2, I showed that simple geometry is one very strong motivation for a constantly warring animal to form into large groups. In this essay, I'm going to show why I believe that all rights are linked to the power of the group. In other words, I believe that might makes right, yet at the same time rights make might.

I'm certainly no authority on philosophy, interpreting philosophy, history of philosophy, or anything else to do with philosophy. But, like everything else that I'm not an authority on, I immensely enjoy spewing forth on the subject.

I've always been interested in where "natural rights" come from. I suppose natural rights are, by definition, the right of human beings to follow their nature, but since many humans are murderous brutes by nature, clearly some filtering of those rights was required for civilization to evolve. In addition, humans are fairly adaptable and generally have some culture nurtured unto them which rather obscures their true nature.

In the beginning, rights were pretty scarce. You had a right to breathe as long as you could out run that saber tooth tiger chasing you, and that was about it. An early innovation was that a group of hominids could band together and beat back the saber tooth tigers with sticks and stones to break its bones and even bring down woolly mammoths for food with the captured saber tooth tiger fangs mounted on a spear. So now as an early hominid, you had a choice. You could either remain independent, forage on your own, and provide for your own self-defense against not only saber tooth tigers, but also against bands of marauding hominids; or you could join one of those bands and pretty much give up all of your rights and live under the autocratic rule of the biggest, strongest, nastiest, and most brutal hominid of the group (i.e. the alpha-male leader). Needless to say, nearly everyone who survived chose the latter, because it seemed better to live and eat with no rights than to have rights and not eat and not live. John Locke, in his Second Treatise of Government, puts this concept as follows:
IF man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property. (2nd Tr., §123)
I really don't think that early hominids (and other apes and mammals that organized into some sort of pack) were particularly worried about their estates and property, and they didn't necessarily have a word for "liberty" at that point so perhaps Locke was a few hundred millennia ahead of me (and perhaps ahead of himself as well), yet we're certainly in agreement about the "preservation of their lives" part.

Let's say you're an early human and you've joined a tribe headed by some alpha-male (let's call him Zorg). Joining the tribe (as opposed to continuing on your own) has probably doubled your life expectancy and you might now live to see thirty years of age - if you're lucky. Sure, Zorg makes you kneel down daily and grovel in the gravel at his feet, but it's better than fending for yourself, so you're better off and you're gonna stay with the tribe.

Zorg is the best off of all. He's one strong dude, but still no match on his own for saber tooth tigers and other tribes, so he benefits from the protection of the group just like you. Leading this tribe, he gets a disproportionate share of the resources in terms of edibles and babes. He also benefits more than anyone else from the power/might of the group. He's one happy camper.

But here's the thing. Zorg would be better off still if he has everyone's unwavering loyalty. Loyalty that wavers in the face of danger isn't particularly valuable. If Og's tribe attacks and you don't help fight and leave Zorg hanging out to die, then all that grovelling you did at Zorg's feet didn't really do much for his well being (or his, well, being).

So Zorg has every reason to make the members of his tribe really want him to keep being the leader. If he can do that, it increases his power. There are many ways he can increase his constituents' loyalty, but certainly one of them is to allow them certain benefits. For example, he might let them own property (we're catching up to Locke in a hurry now). If he bestows these benefits consistently and thoughtfully, then his constituents prosper and he'll have their unwavering loyalty. But not only that, because everyone is prospering, the tribe/group/nation is becoming more and more powerful. People actually begin trying to join Zorg's kingdom. Eventually, he rules all of England and changes his name to George (now we've definitely caught up to Locke).

Might makes right and rights make might. A positive feedback loop. George bestowed rights using the authority he derived from nothing but the fact that he's the alpha male. He bestowed those rights only because he thought they would make him more powerful - which they did by creating prosperity for his constituents which created loyalty to him and also the power that's derived from wealth of the group.

In my Creation Myth, rights are derived from power for the purpose of increasing power and no other factors are required. No philosophical constructs (e.g. Golden Rules, Categorical Imperatives), no religion, no God, nothing except power. As Lord Voldemort says, “There is no good and evil, there is only power...” Or was it Machiavelli who said that? No matter, I've always suspected that Machiavelli was one of Slytherin's heirs, just like Voldemort. I wonder if Machiavelli was a parselmouth?

That's not to say that leaders don't use philosophical arguments, religion, God Almighty (see, there's "might" again!), and all kinds of other propaganda to sell themselves as leaders. They might even get caught up in their own arguments and believe it. But I'm convinced, that underlying all rights, there's nothing but power.

You might wonder how I think that democracy fits into all of this. It's just a power grab, that's all. By giving rights to his constituents and cutting back on using terror to reign, George is both buying power and sowing the seeds for his eventual loss of control of the populace. The populace is emboldened by their rights and the wealth they accumulate because of it. George is extraordinarily powerful as long as he retains the loyalty of his constituents. But if he rules poorly for a spell, or luck runs against him (so it looks like he's ruling poorly), the very people he empowered with rights toss him out on his ass (or they chop off his head or something like that). The people then try to rule themselves (so as to keep power for themselves) and in a few cases a representational form of government has worked quite well. In the case of the United States, the people had the might and gave themselves rights which gave them more might - the most might ever, as a matter of fact!

In summary, this essay has described the one and only basis for all rights enjoyed by humans - and that's might. Good increases the might of the group, evil reduces the might of the group. There's nothing else.


Duck said...

I think you have the positive feedback loop correctly identified. But I don't agree with Locke about how it developed. Men were not born into solitary liberty, they were born into a tribe. Group affiliation is man's natural state, not liberty.

I think that in the primitive form of tribalism, before the rise of larger kingdoms, the tribal leader's power was not that much greater than the other males. He was probably the grandfather of all or most of them, so familial bonds played more of a factor than raw power.

When you had extended tribes where no man was father to all, power politics became a bigger factor. I don't see being the chief of such an extended tribe as a goody grab-bag of perks and priviledges. It was a full time job making sure that your biggest supporters were kept happy. The chieftain earned deference and some priviledge befitting his position, but he could never treat his fellow tribesmen as slaves or serfs.

Real power, and the abuse thereof, came with the rise of large settled civilizations and the formation of separate warrior and peasant classes. But still the king could not abuse his power too much within his warrior elite. Alpha male politics, from the apes up to man, haven't changed a lot. The alpha will always sit uneasily upon his throne.

Bret said...

Duck wrote: "Men were not born into solitary liberty, they were born into a tribe..."

I agree completely. But go back even further (this is a Creation Myth after all :-) to other mammals and great apes. Most mammals live in groups, but some are pretty solitary, like the orangutan.For those that do live in groups, the lead animal does often get first dibs on food and babes.

duck also wrote: "He was probably the grandfather of all or most of them, so familial bonds played more of a factor than raw power."

So everytime a grandpa died, the tribe would divide peacefully into many subtribes? Or would the next generation beat each other with clubs until the last one standing became the new leader? I've assumed it was the latter. Especially since that's what seems to happen (minus the clubs) in chimp tribes. The youngsters don't wait for gramps to die either, they challenge him as soon as they think they can whip him.

duck also wrote: "The chieftain earned deference and some priviledge befitting his position, but he could never treat his fellow tribesmen as slaves or serfs."

I'm under the impression that the institution of slavery is quite old. According to Wikipedia, "Slavery predates writing and evidence for it can be found in almost all cultures and continents." I always assumed that when one tribe conquered a second one, at least some of the members of the conquered tribe were killed or enslaved. Do you have evidence that this wasn't the case?

Susan's Husband said...

It sounds to me like you're coming back to Ayn Rand's view of things. In essence, "natural law" is that law which promotes human survival. Because humans and reality are as they are, some laws do this and some don't. The most basic system and general system that does is called "natural law", because to a great extent it's been hard wired in to humans via evolution.

Bret said...

Does it sound that way? Hmmmm, then I have to think about it a bit more because what I'm trying to say is a bit different, but it's subtle and complex enough that I need to cogitate on it for a while before I respond. I'll have to start by insuring that I understand Rand's philosophy.

Duck said...

Slavery may be old, but not as old as the species. If you look at hunger-gatherer tribes like the Yanomamo or the New Guinea headhunters, they did not keep slaves. They would raid the other tribes for heads, women & booty, but not to take slaves. Hunter gatherers don't need slaves, and they wouldn't have the time & manpower to police them. I think slavery came later with settled agriculture and a stratified class structure.

I'm not sure how much we can glean about ancient humans from apes. The apes act differently between them. Bonobos are less violent and polyandrous, chimps are violent and polygamous, as are gorillas. Orangutans are solitary and serially monogamous.

Susan's Husband said...


Why don't the women captured in raids count as slaves?


I don't think sounding like Ayn Rand should be considered a priori wrong. I think that if you're trying to build an atheistic morality, you could do a lot worse than start with her basic Objectivist axioms as I outlined them.

I don't see it as much different than your position, except possibly as the dual rather than exactly the same. "That which promotes human survival" and "evolutionary successful" are different phrasings for the same concept. You might be arguing about demic selection from extra-somatic knowledge, or straight up evolution in the ideosphere, but it's fundamentally the same concept.

Bret said...

I'll buy that hunter-gatherers didn't keep a lot of adult male slaves (though I've never heard of a shrunken head escaping! :-). And I suppose that women were probably pretty much slaves whether captured or already part of the tribe, though they were probably treated differently depending on whether or not they were part of the tribe (they would be treated badly or really, really badly - at least by our standards).

But a child of a tribe that was just slaughtered probably couldn't survive on his own and would probably have to submit to slavery in order to get a few scraps of food thrown his way from time to time. Perhaps not in the tribe's you mention, but once upon a time there were a lot of hunter-gathere tribes and I'd be surprised if absolutely none of them enslaved any males of any age.

At any rate, there does always seem to be a pecking order and those at the bottom of the order seem little better off than slaves if they are not actually slaves.

Bret said...

Also, I personally think that it is reasonable to compare common chimp behavior to humans in that they're omnivores. The bonobos are believed to be strictly herbivores so I wouldn't expect their behaviors to match humans very well.

Bret said...

Susan's Husband,

I'd like to think of it as an agnostic or non-theistic morality (or perhaps non-morality) as I haven't made any attempt to deny the existence of god(s) in my creation myth. They just aren't involved (at least so far).

Back to Ayn, now that I've slept on it. She starts at a very similar place, but ends up, I think, with far more certitude about how things ought to be than I'm comfortable with. For example, I'm not sure how you can get from what I wrote to hold "that the only moral social system is laissez-faire capitalism".

Certainty bothers me, and you might've noticed that it bothers Howard, the other regular poster here, as well (perhaps this should be "Uncertain Guys Weblog" instead of "Great Guys"). That comes from my futures trading days where if I ever became certain of anything - like the direction of the price of some commodity or even whether or not the sun was shining - it seemed like I'd immediately have my ass handed to me. And if you can't be certain about something simple like futures prices, how the heck can you be certain about the best organization for human society which is many orders of magnitude more complicated?

Susan's Husband said...

I am in basic agreement with you concerning Rand, which is why I'm not an Randroid or Objectivist, despite the fact that view has a lot of appeal for me. As I noted, her basic axioms seem correct to me and in agreement with yours, but yes, the more specific elements of her philosophy not so much.

I'll go with "non-theist" as a better descriptive term, which is where I work as well.