Posts

Rights Without Reason

Posts in this series.

Free Will, Agency, And Evolution
Goal Directed Agency And Intentional Agency
Great Apes AS Rational Agents 
Socially Normative Agency
Socially Normative Agency And Rights
Coming To Grips With Free Will

Introduction

Social media is full of right-wingers bleating about the infringement of their rights. Sometimes it’s gun nuts blathering about their rights to own every gun. Sometimes it’s some dude whining about being slammed for exercising his free speech right to spew his racist opinions. These blowhards say that no limitation on their rights is permitted, whether it’s criminal penalties, civil damages, or public insults.

Perhaps these oppressed people get their idea about rights from the Declaration of Independence,

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….

But, of course, the Declaration doesn’t confer any rights. Maybe they think the right to mouth off and the right to strut around with guns are God-given. That would explain why they are offended when they encounter consequences for their behavior.

Perhaps they believe these rights spring from the first two Constitutional amendments. But SCOTUS says otherwise in US v. Cruikshank (1875).

The right of the people peaceably to assemble for lawful purposes existed long before the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. In fact, it is, and always has been, one of the attributes of citizenship under a free government. It ‘derives its source,’ to use the language of Chief Justice Marshall, in Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. 211, ‘from those laws whose authority is acknowledged by civilized man throughout the world.’ It is found wherever civilization exists. It was not, therefore, a right granted to the people by the Constitution.

The very idea of a government, republican in form, implies a right on the part of its citizens to meet peaceably for consultation in respect to public affairs and to petition for a redress of grievances.

….

The second and tenth counts are equally defective. The right there specified is that of ‘bearing arms for a lawful purpose.’ This is not a right granted by the Constitution.

The Supreme Court says that neither the right of free association nor the right to keep and bear arms are granted by the Constitution. By that logic, neither is the right of free speech. The cases applying these amendments to the states under the 14th Amendment do not reject this reasoning.

It seems that our rights depend on the interpretation by five members of SCOTUS of a word like “republicerad”, or of whatever they think they know about our tangled history. If so, there is no way to explain anything about our rights. That’s especially true of this version of SCOTUS, which doesn’t even pretend to care about precedent, and invents rules to suit its preferred policy outcomes.

Preliminary Ideas

I’m going to read and write more about our rights. For starters, here are some thoughts. It will be interesting to see how these thoughts hold up against other people’s ideas.

1. Every idea people have about everything was invented by a human being. This is a point made by the early Pragmatist William James; see the last part of this post. This is the second in a three part series on Pragmatism, the other two are here and here. They lay out the basic ideas that help me to understand our world. For those interested in how this philosophy works in our time, take a look at Philosophy And Social Hope by Richard Rorty, a collection of essays by the late Pragmatist.

2. One problem with our Bill of Rights is that the language is unhelpful. Many of them are couched in the negative, leaving open the nature of the positive right. Others use imprecise language, such as “cruel and unusual”. From the beginning these amendments were seen as limits on the national government. When the Supreme Court began to implement the Reconstruction Amendments, it imposed the language in the Bill of Rights limiting the national government on the states. The result was the eradication of the power of the states to participate in the regulation of these rights. This was a major change in our federalism. And we were left with the vague language, now subject only to the interpretation of SCOTUS. Constitutionalizing these ill-defined rights leads to inflexibility in thinking about their content.

3. What exactly do we mean by “rights”? As a starting place, and in keeping with what I take to be the position of First Amendment absolutists and the gun nuts, we mean that no one is allowed to interfere with some action taken by another. For example, the right to own a gun means no one can interfere with anyone else’s right to buy and own a gun, including violent criminals and domestic abusers. The right to free speech means no one can interfere with the right of anti-abortion fanatics to scream outside my neighborhood abortion clinic.

4. Rights are inherently social, not individual. Every right requires a concomitant imposition on everyone else. The existence of rights limits the way our society can regulate itself. For example, anti-vaxxers may make religious liberty claims, while others point out that refusal to get vaccines threatens their children. If the anti-vaxxers prevail, we are all exposed to greater risk of illness and death.

This implies that rights should have a political aspect. Our current system is heavily biased towards a legalistic approach, empowering courts, especially SCOTUS, with undue power. It also focuses on the claims of individuals and ignores the impact on society and the claims of people not in the litigation. Dobbs is a good example: the plaintiff was the state government, and the defendant was an abortion clinic. What about pregnant women? What about their families? What about he impact on society? Alito and four other self-righteous rulers don’t care.

New Series

My next book will be The Evolution Of Agency by Michael Tomasello. I think it indirectly supplies a more useful approach to thinking about social relations, and thus rights. It’s short, and easy reading (mostly).

In this post I discuss the Epistemic Regime as described by Jonathan Rauch, in his book The Constitution Of Knowledge. The Epistemic Regime is the way we arrive at truth in the Pragmatic sense. I think it’s good background for some of Tomasello’s ideas about our species.

I’d like to follow that with books or papers about the theory of rights in the US. I don’t know what that will be yet, and if anyone has a suggestion, please put it in comments; also I’m still on Xitter @MasaccioEW, and slowly moving to BlueSky. @[email protected].

The Supreme Court Has Always Been Terrible

Index to posts in this series

The Civil Rights Cases

The Slaughterhouse Cases and US v. Cruikshank are preludes to the final gutting of the Reconstruction Amendments in The Civil Rights Cases, decided in 1883. Earlier bills aimed at insuring the full citizenship of Black people were struck down by the Supreme Court but Congress kept trying, passing another Civil Rights Act in 1875.

The new law required all businesses to serve people equally regardless of race or prior condition of servitude. The Civil Rights Cases are a consolidated group of cases brought by Black people to enforce their right stay in a hotel, to visit a theater, to sit in the dress circle of a theater, and for Black women to ride in the Ladies Car on a railroad. The Court struck down the law on the same grounds as cases linked above. I have two further observations.

1. Writing for the majority, Joseph Bradley writes:

We have … felt, in all its force, the weight of authority which always invests a law that Congress deems itself competent to pass. But the responsibility of an independent judgment is now thrown upon this court, and we are bound to exercise it according to the best lights we have.

Bradley doesn’t say who threw the “responsibility of an independent judgment” onto him. He uses the passive voice to hide it. We know it can only come from the minds of the members of the Court. He also knew he could get away with this outrageous assertion of power. By 1883 Congress was controlled by the Democrats, then the part of White Supremacy, so they didn’t care. The presidency, then at a low ebb in power, was irrelevant.

The lives and liberty of Black people didn’t count, and nothing was left of the Reconstruction Amendments.

2. To add insult to injury Bradley offered this argument.

When a man has emerged from slavery, and, by the aid of beneficent legislation, has shaken off the inseparable concomitants of that state, there must be some stage in the progress of his elevation when he takes the rank of a mere citizen and ceases to be the special favorite of the laws, and when his rights as a citizen or a man are to be protected in the ordinary modes by which other men’s rights are protected. There were thousands of free colored people in this country before the abolition of slavery, enjoying all the essential rights of life, liberty and property the same as white citizens, yet no one at that time thought that it was any invasion of his personal status as a freeman because he was not admitted to all the privileges enjoyed by white citizens, or because he was subjected to discriminations in the enjoyment of accommodations in inns, public conveyances and places of amusement. Mere discriminations on account of race or color were not regarded as badges of slavery.

The Supreme Court had struck down that “beneficent legislation”. Bradley knew about the Colfax Massacre. He knew the army had been sent in to stop murderous groups like the KKK. He know about lynchings, rapes, robberies, and mob violence. He knew that states refused to protect Black citizens, and that Congress was trying to fill the gap. He knew full well the intent of the Reconstruction Amendments was to enable the federal government to protect Black Citizens. He just didn’t care.

Bradley would fit right in with the MAGA SCOTUS of today.

Our Current SCOTUS Doesn’t Care About The Consequences of Its Decisions

Three examples will suffice.

Gun Case. Here’s a section of the oral argument in Macdonald v. City of Chicago.

… BREYER: You’re saying they can have — no matter what, that the City just can’t have guns even if they’re saving hundreds of lives — they can’t ban them.

….

… SCALIA: There’s a lot of statistical disagreement on whether the Miranda rule saves lives or not, whether it results in the release of dangerous people who have confessed to their crime, but the confession can’t be used. We don’t — we don’t resolve questions like that on the basis of statistics, do we?

Miranda is not analogous, and the intellectual fraud Scalia knew it. The statistics the odious Scalia is talking about are real dead and injured people. Like this child. Scalia doesn’t care about these murders or what guns and gun violence do to our society. He thinks his views of the intent of the Founders are more important. He thinks the Founders would sacrifice thousands of dead people for the right to waltz around with an AR-15.

The OSHA Rule. Here’s a snippet from oral argument on the OSHA Covid vaxx or test rule.

… ROBERTS: No, it’s not so much that OSHA has less power. It’s that the idea that this is specific to particular agencies really doesn’t hold much water when you’re picking them off one by –one by one.

I think maybe it should be analyzed more broadly as this is, in effect, an effort to cover the waterfront. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing.

But I don’t know that we should try to find, okay, what specific thing can we find to say, oh, this is covered by OSHA? What specific thing can we find to say that this is covered by the hospitals? What specific thing can we find to say, oh, no, we’re doing this because this is a federal contractor?

It seems to me that the more and more mandates that pop up in different agencies, it’s fair –I wonder if it’s not fair for us to look at the Court as a general exercise of power by the federal government and then ask the questions of, well, why doesn’t Congress have a say in this, and why don’t the –why doesn’t this be the primary responsibility of the states?

Roberts is saying it’s suspicious that Biden (and Trump before him) marshaled all government agencies to deal with the pandemic. He’s going to decide how the government can respond, no matter what the statutes say, and as Elizabeth Prelogar, the Solicitor General responds, he could just read the statute. But you won’t see Roberts taking any blame for the people who died, or spent days or weeks in intensive care, or got long Covid, because of his decision. For him, that’s just statistics. He doesn’t care.

Abortion. In Dobbs v. Jackson Whole Women’s Health Alito says SCOTUS doesn’t have to follow precedent, meaning Roe v. Wade, in part because no one can prove they rely on it. Reliance requires proof that one is planning in advance based on the precedent. No one plans to get pregnant then get an abortion. Presto, no reliance. There’s more, and it just gets more cruel.

Alito ignores the actual effect of Roe v. Wade: that women and their families can control their own lives, that their lives are valuable. The abstract idea that states should have a say in women’s lives is more important than an unknown number of deaths, thousands of dangerous pregnancies, and loss of dignity as citizens. Alito doesn’t care.

Conclusion

The Constitution doesn’t give SCOTUS the final say on our rights. It doesn’t say SCOTUS has the unrestrained power to throw out laws and rules created by the elected branches. That’s all invented by SCOTUS itself, taking power and control away from democratically-elected officials.

The Fox News Six would repeat every decision of the Reconstruction Era Supreme Court. They follow in the footsteps of people who don’t care.