Desires are not Rights

hand-in-pie-featured-w740x493“May you live in interesting times.”

There is some debate about whether this quote is an ancient Chinese curse or something more recent, yet the fact of the matter is: we live in interesting times.

Around the world we hear of the recent violent events in Paris and Mali, combined with the greatest mass migration of a group of people in history. One country after another is getting into the act of bombing the new, self-declared caliphate of ISIS in Syria and the United States issues a World Wide traveler advisory to American citizens. Side note: Having grown up during the Cold War I never thought I’d hear a French president publicly plead for an American president to join forces with a Russian president in bombing a common enemy!

Closer to home are the debates regarding Syrian refugees, illegal aliens entering the U.S. from Mexico, the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., the growing prominence of “safe spaces” in Universities to protect students from anything that might offend them and just down the highway from me, the University of Ottawa Student Union telling a yoga instructor that she can no longer offer yoga classes (for free) because of the risk of “cultural appropriation!”

Interesting times, indeed!

While there are many aspects to the current events taking place (political, social, religious, cultural, demographic, etc), both in Europe and North America, there is one that I wish to focus on for it highlights the ideas that we are trying to focus on in this series.

Origins of today’s “God is Dead” Morality: Hobbes and Rights Born of Desires

“Every man has a right to every thing …” (Thomas Hobbes)

Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher best known for his work on political philosophy, especially his most famous book Leviathan, which is required reading in University along with Machiavelli’s The Prince. Writing during the English Civil War that took place between 1642 and 1651 he was an advocate of both a strong sovereign monarchy as well as individual rights. His writing were influential in leading to the creation of modern political philosophy and political science.

Yet it is not so much his political philosophy that I would like to focus on but rather the metaphysical and anthropological ideas that form the foundation for his theories.

Thomas Hobbes was a strong proponent of materialism, the idea that human beings are creatures of matter in motion. He showed through the use of examples that the complexities of humanity can be explained materialistically, without recourse to anything immaterial such as the soul or spirit. The human mind can be understood as responding to specific stimuli in either a positive or negative way, by what attracts and what repels.

Consequently, for Hobbes, desires are at the root of humanity and since I desire something I have a right to that thing.

“Whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire, that is … [what] he for his part calleth good: and the object of his hate and aversion, evil; … for these words of good and evil … are ever used with relation to the person that useth them; there being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common rule of good and evil to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves.” [i]

Hobbes’ ideas rest on the metaphysical principle that the only absolute principle of reality is that matter affects matter. One thing may affect a person one way while at the same time affecting another person another. For example, the smell of garlic may make my mouth water while it might make someone else nauseous. This desire and passion can be extended to anything (your car) or anyone (your wife) for there are no limits or restrictions to how someone might react to stimuli. And if I take your car or wife then this is no sin, no fault of mine for “[t]he desires, and other passions of man, are in themselves no sin. No more are the actions, that proceed from those passions.” [ii]

Obviously, then, if humanity is actually like this, then of course there will be chaos and violence as we each strive to fulfill our desires. Hobbes describes humanity as “a war, as is of every man, against every man,” where there is “continual fear and danger of violent death,” so that life is most likely “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” [iii]

The reality that Hobbes presents is one of natural chaos and violence, yet in spite of all this he cannot claim that there is anything inherently and morally “wrong” with this. He continues by saying:

“…to this war of every man, against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the two cardinal virtues.” [iv]

Hobbes concludes:

“… Because the condition of man … is a condition of war of every one against every one; in which case every one is governed by his own reason … there is nothing he can make use of, that may not be a help unto him, in preserving his life against his enemies. … if followeth, that in such a condition, every man has a right to every thing; even to one another’s body.” [v]

Ideas Have Consequences

Hobbes was a uniquely pessimistic philosopher! Hobbes wrote after the Thirty Years’ War and during the English Civil War. This had a profound impact on his philosophy. He based his ideas of humanity on the worst possible example and built his theory of the Social Contract from there. Right from the beginning Hobbes’ critics pointed out that if this had in fact been the case from the earliest days then no families, no tribes, no peoples could have ever have developed and prospered.

The problem with Hobbes’ ideas, however, is not that human beings are naturally in a state of war but rather that rights are linked with desire. Benjamin Wiker, in his book 10 Books That Screwed Up The World writes:

Which is the most egregiously fantastical fiction? Is it that our natural condition is one of war? Is it that, in our natural state, everyone is governed by his own reason (meaning, for Hobbes, that each person acts like a cunning, ruthless Machiavellian)? Is it the assertion that primitive human beings naturally and easily resort to cannibalism when they run out of coconuts?

No, it is the groundless claim that “every man has a right to every thing.” It is hard for us to spot the fatuity because “rights” talk has largely overtaken our public and political discourse, rudely shoving moral speech out of the way. Hobbes meant to shove it out of the way, and to do it he concocted out of the thinnest air his entirely fictional notion of rights. According to this toxic fantasy, rights are simply equivalent to desires, so that “I have a right to X” is merely another way of saying “I have a desire to do X.” [vi]

“Rights” in the classical and medieval philosophical understanding of metaphysics and human nature are based on the Principle of Finality. Since human beings exist for an end, a purpose, rooted in a common, universal, human reality then we have a “right” to that which allows us to fulfill this purpose. Hence human beings have a right to life, food, clothing, shelter. Since we are spiritual beings we have a right to freedom of religion. Since we are rational beings we have a right to an education (in so far as it is available), and so on. Our “rights” are based on something objective and universal.

However, the idea from Hobbes that rights are based on desire turns this definition on its head leading to the absurd statement that “every man has a right to every thing; even to one another’s body.” Granted that Hobbes was using this to argue for the necessity of a strong State in order to curb and control men’s desires the fact remains that this definition of “rights” has trickled down through the ages into our society. Hence we now have “a right to my body” (a desire for abortion), “a right to free speech” (a desire for pornography), “a right to marriage” (a desire for same sex marriage), “a right to a child” (a desire for in vitro fertilization and surrogacy), “a right to self identify” (a desire to define my gender), etc.

This equating of “desires” with “rights” has led to the current situation where University students, who are supposed to be in school to gain a deeper understanding of the mysteries of the world, are now claiming that they have a “right to a safe space” or “a right not to be offended.” They don’t want their views and ideas challenged because it might make them uncomfortable.

When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke of “the eclipse of Reason” and the “Dictatorship of Relativism” he could have been speaking of precisely this situation. Hobbsian philosophy eliminates God and absolute notions of good/evil. He reduces human life to the physical pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. He removes any limits to human activity and thus claims humans are free to do whatever to preserve their own life (the “right of nature”). Desire trumps Reason. The modern individual cries out “you have no right to tell me what I can and cannot do!”

The irony, however, is that for this to actually happen, the individual needs an increasingly totalitarian state to enforce their “right” to do what they want. Dr. Wiker points out that “if a society acts according to Hobbes’ notion of rights, then it becomes, increasingly, a fractious, rights-demanding, passion-driven collection of self-willed individuals hell-bent on getting whatever they desire no matter the cost, and all the while claiming they have a right to what leads to their own and society’s self-destruction.” [vii]

Modern society cannot handle the multitude of challenges that now confront it for it lacks the intellectual capacity to do so. Europeans, who espouse the absolute notion of “tolerance” and “acceptance” cannot deny the entry of so many refugees because these refugees have a “right” to move to Europe because they “desire’ to do so. At the same time they can’t understand how these new immigrants can’t accept Western ideology, instead clinging to their religion and desire for their own restrictive morality. University administrators must capitulate and/or resign because students have “rights” to “safe spaces” free from offensive language or ideas. Failure to do so will result in protests that will draw media coverage and public scorn. (In a brazen display of narcissism the protesters at the University of Missouri complained bitterly on social media that the Paris attacks drew media attention away from them and demanded that the media return its focus upon them.)

Certainly I have not done all of Hobbes’ philosophy justice in such a short article but the key element stands out that has led to our “God is Dead” morality. While his political philosophy and theories have been questioned his premises that there is no God, that man is simply a material creature subject to the movement of matter ruled by the principles of desire, and that morality was divorced from any objective reality, was accepted by many Enlightenment thinkers that followed. Consequently, in such a moral and intellectual vacuum, Western civilization cannot hold together much longer.

Footnotes

[i] Hobbes, Thomas; Leviathan; Book I, Chapter 6

[ii] Book I, Chapter 13

[iii] Book I, Chapter 13

[iv] Book I, Chapter 13

[v] Book I, Chapter 14

[vi] Wiker, Benjamin, PhD.; 10 Books That Screwed Up The World: And 5 Others That Didn’t Help; Regnery Publishing, Inc.; Washington; p36

[vii] p.40

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About the Author

As of February, 2015, Dennis Buonafede has been teaching High School Religion and Philosophy in Ontario, Canada for the past 14 years. Dennis grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia before moving to Ontario where he completed his B.A. in Philosophy at St. Peter’s Seminary at the University of Western Ontario, his M.Div. as a lay student at St. Augustine’s Seminary at the University of Toronto and his Bachelor of Education degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Prior to transferring to St. Augustine's, he studied at Holy Apostles Seminary in Connecticut from 1990-1992.

Dennis has been married to Teresa for 20 years and they have two children aged 16 and 18. Dennis is an active member of his parish and has been a member of the Knights of Columbus since 1995. He was a Charter Member of Council 11708 and PGK of Council 8851. He co-developed a leadership program for the KofC sponsored Ontario Catholic Youth Leadership Camp and was the camp director for 3 years. Dennis is currently a Civilian Instructor with Air Cadet 242 Squadron where his son is a Warrant Officer 2nd Class. Dennis is a voracious reader, likes to ride motorcycles and enjoys fishing. He follows hockey (Toronto Maple Leafs) and football (Chicago Bears).

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