21 October 2020

Values, rights, power

Ethics are concerned with values and rights with regard to human beings living with one another on the Earth. Values are what we humans value, cherish, treasure, respect, estimate, esteem, starting perhaps with life itself and living well. Rights, on the other hand, are protected values, either by law or aspirationally so, as with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Under the value of life itself, for instance, is the value that children should be spared labour in favour of being educated so as to be better prepared for adult life. This value is then proclaimed aspirationally as a regulative ideal in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one that ought to be protected for every child on the planet. Or it is also protected and enforced in the laws of certain countries, thus passing from what ought to be to what is the state of affairs. Infringements of rights, their negation, are legion. There are never-ending power struggles of every imaginable kind worldwide to establish values as actually protected and enforced values. 

With regard to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights there is also dispute among the various cultures over whether they truly deserve universal status. These disputes are fueled not only by non-Western cultures, but especially by political regimes for which the non-acknowledgement and suppression of human rights are convenient in order to exert and maintain power over and control their respective populations. It is plausible to point out that individual human rights are an 'invention' of the West that emerged through thinking on human freedom as individual freedom. In intercultural ethics it is often disputed that such individual freedom as proclaimed and cemented in individual human rights is inapplicable in non-Western cultures. The most visible and contentious example of this is the patriarchal nature of non-Western cultures in which androcratic customs serve to keep women and girls under the thumb of male power. Such androcracy is still very much alive in the West, but it also has long been put into question, at the latest since the 18th century, and the struggle to assert the value of female lives as women's rights has also had some success.

The human being as a human individual living in society is an historical event accompanied by philosophical thinking on human freedom itself within a given age. The individuality of the individual itself emerges through the loosening of feudal bonds of dependence and the ascendancy of capitalist market economists in struggles that threatened and ultimately deposed the political and social power of the feudal nobility. In the place of sociation through social relations of direct hierarchical subordination, sociation came to be mediated increasingly by thingified value in its various forms. The modern individual as an individual is enabled (not caused) by virtue of sociation via thingified value. 

When, in the 17th century, John Locke famously proclaims individual human rights, he does so in an historical context in which thingified value has already assumed a major role in sociating society. But Locke does not see thingified value as thingified value. He sees and thinks it as private property which is one of the phenomenal forms, guises or 'looks' of thingified value. It is therefore not merely incidentally that the idea (εἶδος or 'look') of human rights, as formulated in Locke's famous threesome of rights, includes the right to individually own property. If you own property or, more to the point, if you have at your disposal thingfied value in one of its several  garbs, usually money, you also have the freedom of social movement that reified value affords you as an individual. Money as universal equivalent gives you power over all that is for sale; the more money, the more power. 

Since capitalist market economy has long since become globalized as the gainful game in which almost all of us inhabitants on Earth are players, one can plausibly assert that the historical socio-ontological basis for individuality has today permeated and been established worldwide. Such individuality of human rights may well and does collide with other historical forms of sociation via other cultures' customs of hierarchical personal dependence, notably patriarchal androcracy, under which women and girls live and suffer. Their suffering as such is only visible to the mind against the backdrop of the historically cast individual rights intimately interwoven with sociation through thingified value.

Sociation in any society is accomplished through the interplay among the members of that society according to certain rules of play, namely, the customs of a culture and the power relations structuring the society through political power. Political power wielded by the state today ubiquitously includes the power to raise taxes from the subject-population and also the power to do physical violence to it by means of the police and, if need be, the military. The free interplay among individuals as such may be and is often fettered. Nevertheless, individual human freedom is the freedom of the individual to be the source of its own life-movements in the interplay with other individuals, where here life-movements are conceived very broadly (e.g. whether to have a child or not).

In the interplay with others, you exert your powers of life-movement as does your opposite player. The interplay is therefore necessarily a power interplay. As players in power interplay, you mutually estimate and esteem, i.e. value, each others powers, whether it be appreciatively or depreciatingly. The power interplay is either fair or ugly, fair or foul (cf. Macbeth's witches). It is social power interplay in which values are constituted in the first place. What we value as individual values in living with each other always has a grounding in how values are valued in sociating power interplay. Values are hence grounded in power interplay, just as rights are grounded in values in the sense of protections and guarantees for such rights.

Social freedom itself cannot be thought as such without a conception of sociation in power interplays, that is, through a kind of movement that is social, sociating movement emanating ultimately from individual players (no matter whether they regard themselves as individuals or not). Such power interplay can be seen more clearly when the overlay of customary forms of social power hierarchy is stripped away. Established customary forms of hierarchy, in effect, rig the outcomes of power interplay according to pre-given rules of play. In patriarchal societies, for example, a wife must always subjugate herself to and obey the man of the house. There is no room for a free power interplay, albeit that the woman may well resort to subterfuge and intrigue to get her way in the power interplay behind her lord and master's back.

Individual human rights as proclaimed and enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights therefore do not fall from the sky. Nor are they simply a set of regulative or normative ideals set up and envisaged by individual moral conscience, as Kant would have it. Rather, they have their socio-ontological origins i) in the values valued in a given historical way of living in which thingified value plays a prominent sociating role and ii), moreover, in the sociating power interplays played out. In this sense, one could say that values and rights, and hence ethics and morality themselves, are rooted in social power — and, more particularly, in those movements called power struggles — rather than in ideals.


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