Rights Are What We Give – Not What We Take, Research Time, 10/01/2017

Been going through an old essay of Immanuel Kant lately that doesn’t get much attention among the basic intros to his work. Like a lot of sentences Kant writes, the title is very long: “On the Common Saying: That May Be Correct in Theory, But It Is of No Use in Practice.”

It’s taught enough in introductions to Kant’s political and moral thought that it’s included in the Cambridge Practical Philosophy collection of his work. But it’s definitely outside the usual Kant undergrad canon of the first two Critiques and the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals.

Part of what inspired me to write this post was reading about the
harassment journalist Lauren Duca recently endured from the famous
pharma troll Martin Shkreli, who plastered his Twitter account with
images like this one – of his head photoshopped onto Duca's husband
– when she told him to get fucked after he asked her to be his date to
Donald Trump's inauguration party. Shkreli ended up banned (at least
for now) from Twitter
over what he called "just a collage."
Hell, in my experience, I consider myself lucky to have even been offered to read the Critique of Practical Reason in my own undergrad years.

But “Correct in Theory” has some very useful ideas for today’s increasingly extreme politics. Particularly the contemporary defence of bullying and harassment as free speech.

I'm not going to pussyfoot around my own stance on the issue. The notion that all speech – including harassment mobs, threats, and cyberstalking like doxxing – is protected by our values of free expression is a perversion of the entire liberal tradition.

This concept of freedom of speech as the entitlement to say whatever you want to whoever you want, with any attempt to make you go away as an act of censorship, is a distinctly contemporary creation. And it’s a creation of bubbles of self-entitled jerks in toxic online communities like particular Reddit boards, decent chunks of 4Chan, and pretty much all of 8Chan.

As a concept, it’s the notion that a freedom is a personal empowerment. That a right is a protection for the exercise of your power, whose only restraints are what you choose to impose on yourself. It’s a purely individualist way of thinking about rights – my right to do this.

So here’s an old, authoritative, dead white man for the misogynist mobs of the internet to deal with. Immanuel Kant writes,
“Right is the limitation of the freedom of each to the condition of its harmony with the freedom of everyone.”
Right, in other words, is bound up with limits. Despite the fantasies of the most individualistic minds and philosophies, humans are social creatures.

Once again, I turn to the words of Larry David and the voice of George
Costanza for the wisdom that so many of us so often forget.
We are living in a society. So the freedoms we need also come with obligations. Our freedom to speak our minds and opinions has to be tempered with the need for social harmony – not to harm our fellow people, whether by insult, violation of privacy, or disturbing harassment.

Yet that twinning of right and obligation doesn’t even get Kant’s idea quite right. He doesn’t say our rights should be limited by our obligations to our fellows – he says our rights are those limitations.

Our rights don’t come from our assertion as individuals. They are our stepping back from other individuals so that they have the space to live freely themselves.

We don’t create spheres of personal freedom with loud, bold assertions. We don’t beat on our chests like a stereotypical ape to make our rights clear. Our rights only come into being when we let other exercise their rights.

So the goal of political morality in this perspective isn’t encouraging loud, grandstanding, chest-puffing, “I do this to you because I have the right!” Right is the creation and maintenance of social harmony through each of our conscience and choice.

A society of free people is therefore a society of people who look out for each other, who run our institutions and act in everyday life to safeguard the freedom of everyone else.

I shouldn’t have to argue this like it’s some radical new idea. That quote came from an essay that is literally 224 years old!

Yet in our bubbles of self-entitlement, we’ve forgotten this powerful idea.

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