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Rights, law and the right.

THERE IS MUCH TALK THESE DAYS OF RIGHTS: civil rights, legal rights, natural rights, human rights, women's rights, reproductive rights, children's rights. A great deal of it--if not all of it--is confused and confusing. Indeed, it is safe to say that no politically relevant concept more needs clarification than this one. Futhermore, because we are lavishly spending our political capital, it will soon happen that neither the incantation of familiar phrases nor the public expression of sentimental pieties will keep us from destroying our community. The conflict between property rights and civil rights, so prominent in the 1960s, is only one example of the sort of tensions which we will undergo in the future. Unless adequate categories through which these conflicts may be resolved are accepted, any one solution can only prefigure larger conflicts whose features are ominous indeed.

Strident talk today about such novelties as "reproductive rights" will lead tomorrow to the discovery of all sorts of other new "rights," for example, rights to telephone service, to a car, to a warm house, and, possibly, even to a happy life (someone, indeed, has already sued his parents--unsuccessfully thank goodness--because, by bringing him into the world, they had violated his right to a nonmiserable existence) and to demands that these be enforced. But when everyone comes to think that they have a right to whatever of, provision for, and enforcement of, such so-called rights; this direction cannot but generate and perpetuate deep and lasting divisions within the community.

Hence this article presents--or, rather, except for some outrageous possibilities, re-presents--an older framework within which political issues can be framed and priorities assigned. It first determines the nature of rights in themselves, for example, legal rights, civil rights, and natural rights. Then it tests its definition by applying it to cases where rights are said to be contrasted with such other things as remedies, privileges, and duties, or where they are said to be in conflict with one another. Reflection on these applications of the definition then leads to an alternative framework for thinking about them. This framework, once explored, yields an understanding of the meaning of human freedom.

Suppose now I am walking peacefully down a sidewalk with an older and wiser friend, and that a stranger tries to bar our way. The stranger is not a policeman, and he's not shielding us from danger, so I tell him we have a perfect right to proceed and he has no right to stop us. I have no sooner spoken these words, however, than I find myself asking out loud what I mean by saying that we have such a right and that he does not have the right to stop us. My friend answers, "What you have, my friend, is the permission of the law down the street unimpeded by the arbitrary action of another, and what he lacks is that same law's permission to stop you."

"What's that?" I reply. "What do you mean 'the law's permission'?"

"Well," he answers, "rules of action which operate publicly and as such within a community and which are ordered to the common good are called laws, and those laws either command, permit, or forbid actions. When the law permits an action, it tells anyone who might want to perform it--usually implicitly, by forbidding others to interfere with it--that it will not use its coercive power either to prevent it or to punish it. This decision is grounded on a prior determination: that this action will either not harm the common good, or that greater harm to that good will come if the act is sought to be prevented than if it is allowed.

"And, by the same token, to say that someone lacks the right to stop us is to say that his interference with our walking lacks the law's permission. Permission is withheld because of a prior determination that such an action as his does harm the common good. The provisions of the law in any situation, in other words, determine the rights and wrongs of it. In our particular case, our permission to proceed--our right to proceed--is merely the other side of the prohibition the law places on his arbitrarily stopping us, his lack of a right to stop us."

"But," I reply, somewhat shocked, "this analysis seems to leave me with nothing. When I have someone else's permission, he has everything. All I am left with is the knowledge that as far as he is concerned it is all right for me to do what I want. But he has all the power. I have nothing."

"Yes," my friend replies, "that's true. The 'right' you have is not anything you can call 'my own' the way you can call your body, your power of sight, or your dreams 'my own'. Those things are irreduceably private. But a legal right, being the law's permission to act in view of the common good, presupposes others--fellow citizens--who share that good with you, and hence is irreduceably public. You may talk as if rights were private possessions and say, 'I have a right', or 'You have no right', but your words are misleading if not altogether meaningless. Since the law is a public thing, its permissions are also public and so cannot be anyone's private property."

"Well," I say, "this is strange doctrine indeed. What do I mean, then, when owning something I say I have rights to it? When I sell it, do I not surrender something, namely, those rights? What has this surrendering to do with permissions?"

"What it means to own is a facinating question. Consider the many ways we use the word--'I own up to what I did', 'I own the boy to be my child,' 'He is my own', 'I own him'--besides using it to mean what we usually think we mean when we speak of ownership. If we restrict ourselves to this last case, it seems fair to say that what we mean by the word is a relationship between persons and things whereby the exclusive use of the things by some, who are called owners, is permitted while the same use by others, the non-owners, is forbidden. Those others are then said to have no right to them. The right the owners claim to the things is but the law's permitting them to make such arrangements for their use as they shall, within certain limits, think best. In a sale then, the seller does not sell any rights in the sense of private possessions; he removes himself as a beneficiary of the law's permission to perform certain actions without public interference with respect to the property. Nor does the buyer acquire any such private rights; he merely succeeds to the law's permission and protection that his seller previously enjoyed. In short, in this case, as in that of the man who stopped us, the possession of a right is nothing but the law's permission to perform certain actions without public interference."

I am still somewhat skeptical, however. "This answer still seems to me to fall short of what I mean when I say that I have a right. It grounds something I have on what another is willl to permit. Let me put my objection this way: Why are certain actions permitted and others not? Is it not because one has a right to do them rather than that one has a right to do them because they are permitted?"

My friend answers, "Do you remember that a while ago I said the law commanded, permitted, or forbade actions with respect to the common good, and that, with respect to permitted actions, it said that it was all right to do them? Do you recall that this was because those actions either left alone, or only slightly harmed, that good? What this means is that the law aims at expressing what it is right to do. Your right, as you call it, is derived from, and is wholly dependent on, what is right, that is, on what the law seeks to determine and express. Hence although it is true that the law is grounded in something higher than itself, that something is not your private rights. It is the right in itself."

"Well, I still think you are wrong. You turn my rights into law-given permissions and then make these laws disppear into something you call the right in itself. Are you really prepared to say that when persons say they have rights to this and to that, to do this and to do that, they have nothing at all beyond permission from some law grounded on some vague 'right in itself'?"


"But are there not some actions that a law has to permit or forbid if it is to be a law at all? And are not these the actions that I have a natural right to do? What about the words of the Declaration of Independence: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights'. What about the Bill of Rights and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and its Declaration of Human Rights? What about our political heritage and, increasingly, the whole world's too? Are you going to tell me that all these words mean nothing and that much blood has been shed over nothing at all?"

"No, I am not quite saying that. But since you have moved rapidly from the area of legal or civil rights to that of human or natural rights, perhaps you would tell me a little about them?"

"Certainly. Every person is born into the world with certain inalienable rights. These are his by nature, and no one has to be granted them by governments or laws. Rather do they flow out of a person's nature and it is up to the law to recognize them and render their exercise possible. Among them are the right to life and physical integrity, to reputation, to liberty, to property, to a livelihood, to marriage, to religious worship, to education, to association, and to freedom of expression. To say that these rights are inalienable is to say that they cannot be given away, sold, or renounced to the state, society, or other persons; and that no agents, in turn, can take the rights away from the person and must protect and foster them. The state, indeed, only exists for the sake of that protection and fostering."

"Very good. It does seem to me I have heard some of this before. But tell me, can these rights ever come into conflict with one another?"

"What do you mean?"

"For example, could one man's right to education conflict with another's right to property? Or could one's right to liberty conflict with another's right to a livelihood? Could one's right to freedom of expression ever clash with another's right to his reputation?"

"Yes, I suppose some such conflicts are possible. But what are you getting at?"

"Only that I am a little surprised that the right could ever be at war with itself."

"But we are not talking about what you so grandly keep calling 'the right'. We are talking about rights."

"And what is their relation?"

"I haven't the foggiest idea because I am not sure what you mean by 'the right'."

"Well, let's go back to your list of rights and try to be a little more precise about them. Precisely what is such a right--for example, your right to liberty? What exactly do you mean by the phrase?"

"The right to liberty? Let me see. . . liberty. . . freedom. . . . Maybe I mean something like legal ability, the ability to do what I want to do whenever I want to do it."

"You mean the power to do it?"

"I don't really know. Somehow power doesn't sound quite right. Might and right seem to me quite different. I guess it must be something indefinable, like the notion of straight."

"Would you say the same about the right to association?"

"No, that seems a little easier. The right to association is the right that persons have to meet together for all sorts of purposes, for example, to petition the government or to have a hunting party."

"Yes, I know what it is to associate. But what is the right to it?"

"It's something I have which makes it wrong for the government to prevent me from associating."

"Under all circumstances?"

"Well, not exactly."

"And what sort of things is the right itself?"

"I am not sure. I cannot put it into words, but 'power' occurs to me again and again. I guess the right to associate is the power to do so; not the physical power, but the legal power."

"And legal power comes from law?"

"It seems it would have to."

"So we are back with law. Can you do any better with the right to life?"

"The right to life? No, I don't think so."

"Well, let me try to help you. It seems to me that every one of your natural and inalienable rights is a legal power that you have and that what it means for this power to be yours is only that another has a natural and inalienable obligation not to interfere with your exercise of it. For example, your right to life is but your legal power to defend yourself when attacked, and this power is nothing but the obligation that all unauthorized others have not to take if from you. Your right to association is the prohibition of others' preventing you, under most circumstances, from associating. Your right to liberty is the others' obligation not to interfere unreasonably with your movement."

"All right, but I don't see how that helps. These obligations and prohibitions are duties and their counterparts are my rights. Rights and duties are like the two sides of a coin. If I have a right, another has a duty to respect it."

"Well, perhaps so. But let's look a little more closely now into the prohibition against interfering with your movement, for this prohibition is, you agree, if not the substance, then certainly the counterpart, of your 'right to liberty'. Does the government lack the legal or the physical power--the right or the might--to interfere with your movements?"

"The legal power, obviously, for it is certainly stronger than I am."

"But in order for this incursion by the government to be forbidden must there not be another and higher law and power forbidding it?"

"Yes, I suppose so."

"But since the government is prohibited by this higher law from interfering with certain actions, must not we say that it is by virtue of this very same prohibition that the citizens are permitted to do them, whatever the government may say--just as, in the case of the man who tried to prevent our progress down the street, we could infer from the prohibition on his act the permission granted ours?"


"And did we not agree earlier that a legal permission was granted because the permitted act either did not touch, or only insignificantly harmed, the common good?"


"And did we not also agree that when it permitted an action, the law said that it was "all right" for the agent to do it?"


"Would you object to my calling this higher law by a name it has had for many centuries, namely, the natural law?"


"Well then, can you now tell me what is the difference between these two expressions: Acts by a citizen that do not touch, or only slightly harm, the common good are by the natural law all right to do; and, The citizen has a natural right to do certain things?"

"No, I cannot see any difference at all between them."

"Well, to me too it seems that they are exactly the same. But notice, we are saying now about natural or human rights just what we said earlier about legal rights, namely, that it is law that constitutes them and that, being but permissions given by the law in view of the good, they not only have no existence independent of law but are also wholly derived from law."

"It looks like that."

Here my friend leaves me to ponder and question over again what he has told me. Legal rights are law-given permissions of actions that are judged not to touch, or to harm only slightly, the common good. These laws, in turn, are based on a judgement concerning the right in itself, that is, concerning what it is right to do if the common good is to be achieved. A higher law, sometimes called the natural law, determines and expresses what it is right in itself to do. Natural or human rights are also permissions of actions, but the law which permits these directly, and the common good at which it aims, is broader and deeper than that at which human law aims. Lastly, rights are not private but public. That is, the law which permits actions, whether it be human or some other, applies to all in the community, and this one-many relationship precludes thinking of rights as things privately owned which are, as it were, emanations from each individual.

If what my friend took so much trouble to tell me is correct, we should be able to resolve in its terms five of the oppositions in which the notion of rights figures prominently. Each of these oppositions often seems beyond reconciliation. The first involves a distinction, familiar to all law students, between a legal right and a remedy, and this opposition arises when a statute of limitations is invoked. After the period of time specified in the statute has elapsed and the plaintiff has, as a result, become legally precluded from evicting the trespasser on his land, it is asked whether the plaintiff has been deprived of his right to his land or merely of his remedy for its repossession. The discussion can be carried on endlessly as long as one of the premises is that the landowner's legal right to his land is something other than the permission the law gives to his evicting a trespasser. If the right to land is nothing but the legally enforced permission to evict, then evidently to prohibit eviction is to withdraw both remedy and right: the right is nothing but the remedy.

Another alleged dichotomy is that between a right and a privilege. This dichotomy introduces, it is true, a dimension which requires the preservation of some kind of distinction, though not an opposition, between the two, namely the dimension of grace, mercy, or undeservedness. In most cases, however, a right and a privilege are the same thing. Both are permissions of action given by public authority, and hence it is futile to argue whether driving a car on a public highway is a right or a privilege. So long as a law exists which permits drivers with licenses to drive on public roads, it is only a matter of words whether this permission is styled a right or a privilege.

A third instance was touched on in the dialogue: the case of conflicting rights. The alleged conflict between property rights and civil rights was a prominent example in the 1960s and one nowadays could cite the alleged conflict between the right to choose and the right to life. When the questions are posed in terms of the claims of one right against another, it is impossible to avoid emotional collisions and half-baked intellectual compromises posing as solutions. If it is seen, however, that the demand for the recognition of abortion rights, for example, is but a demand that the law, affirming that the common good requires that women who want to abort their pregnancies should be able to have it done safely and legally, permit doctors to perform abortions; and if it is seen that the demand for the recognition of the right to life is but a demand that the law, recognizing that the common good requires the preservation of human life, protect that life as much as possible, then the question of abortion can be argued at the proper level and in the proper terms. Those terms concern whether the common good does demand that doctors be allowed to perform abortions and, if so, under what circumstances.

A fourth question concerns the often-used phrase "deprivation or rights." Our analysis does not so much clarify a problem here as it makes it evident that the phrase is ultimately meaningless. The word "deprivation" suggests the taking away of something private, and as we have tried to show, legal permissions of action are not private. Hence, although legal permissions can be revoked, no one can strictly speaking be deprived of his rights. This is of course not to say that some persons cannot by force prevent others from doing what the law in fact permits them to do.

The fifth question involves the so-called dichotomy between rights and duties. Rights and duties are said to be the opposite sides of a coin. If I have a right to walk down the street, you are supposed to have a corresponding duty, that is, the duty not to hinder me. There is a serious difficulty with the analogy of the coin, however. The dichotomy suggests that there is an absolutely sharp dividing line between a right and a duty. In fact, however, such a radical separation is illusory. It becomes perfectly clear, when we think about it, that if I am walking peacefully down the street, you have not only a duty, but you have also a right, not to hinder me. Similarly, a policeman whose duty it is to direct traffic has also a right to direct it. We may say that everything one has a duty to do, one has also a right to do.

How then shall we talk about rights and duties? That there is a distinction between them is clear, but that this distinction is not illuminated by the coin analogy is also clear. I turn for help to logic, specifically to the logical relation that obtains between two pairs of propositions in the square of opposition.

The relation that will help us is subalternation, and it exists between the universal and particular forms of two propositions which have the same subject and predicate when both are affirmative or both negative. Thus the universal affirmative, "Every man is mortal," and the particular affirmative, "Some man is mortal," are subalternates; so are the universal negative, "No stone is mortal," and the particular negative, "Some stone is not mortal."

Subalternation exists not only in the categorical square of opposition--the one just described--but also in the modal square of opposition, and it is with this latter than we will be concerned. "Every S is P" and "Some S is P" are subalternates in the categorical square of opposition. "S must be P" and "S may be P" are such in the modal square. Similarly, on the negative side of the categorical square, "No S is P" and "Some S is not P" are subalternates, and to these correspond "S cannot be P" and "S may not be P" in the modal square.

It is the case with subalternates that if the universal is true, then the particular is true also, for the particular is included in the universal. Similarly, then, in the modal square, if the first proposition is given, the second is also given. If I "have a duty" to do something, I also "have a right" to do it.

The modal square of opposition, however, can do more for us than help us analyze the relation of rights to duties. It can also enable us to relate precisely rights, duties, the law, and the right to one another; for it is literally true to say that whatever I have a duty to do, I must do, and that whatever I have a right to do, I may do or have the permission to do. So the affirmative side of the modal square of opposition may be read directly as the affirmative side of what I might call a square of action (see Appendix 1). Thus whatever I must do, I may do. Since affirmative law--both civil and natural--by its commands and implicit permissions, enunciates and determines what I must do and what I may do, it is related to the affirmative side of the square as well as to duties and rights. The right in itself belongs in the square too, since it is the grand function of affirmative law to declare what it is right to do or not do.

The relations connecting rights, duties, law, and the right that exist in the affirmative side of the square exist also in its negative side. Negative law by its prohibitions determines what I must not do--what I have a duty not to do. By what it condones it determines what I do not have to do--what I have a right not to do, what it is all right not to do.

The modal square can be read as a square of action not only in terms of the affirmative and negative sides separately but also in terms of the relation to one another of the pairs of elements that make up those sides. Just as "S cannot be P" is the contradictory of "S may not be P," and "S cannot be P" the contradictory of "S may be P," so "I must do X," a duty, is the contradictory of "I do not have to do X," a right; and "I cannot do X," a duty, is the contradictory of "I may do X," a right. Finally, just as "S must be P" cannot coexist with its contrary, "S cannot be P," but "S may be P" can coexist with its subcontrary, "S may not be P," so "I must do X" cannot coexist with its contrary, "I cannot do X"; but "I may do X" can coexist with its subcontrary, "I do not have to do X."

At this point someone might say, "This is all very interesting, if a bit obscure. But is there no more reason than this for dragging us through all this logical jargon?" Yes, there are two very good reasons. In the first place, the assimilation of the modal square to rights, duties, law, and the right sheds considerable light on some of the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke; by clarifying some of the important obscurities contained in those writings, it enables us to say where they are wrong.

By virtue of these writings we have become accustomed to considering government, or state, or society, as entities defined by their distinction from the individual. The individual--and the name means, literally, atom--is conceived by them as a point surrounded by "natural rights," some of which he "surrenders" when he "enters" society, but others of which he retains because of their inalienable character. The "state of nature," as the prepolitical life is called, is the home of freedom, liberty, and the full exercise of all natural rights. Because of certain inconveniences in this state, however, it is said that men have established another state, the state of civil society: a state characterized by law, coercion, duty, and obligation. This habitual way of thinking takes from Hobbes the identification of natural right with liberty or freedom: "The right of nature, which Writers commonly call Jus Naturale, is the Liberty each man hath to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own Nature. . . . LIBERTY or FREEDOM, signifieth (properly) the absence of opposition."(1) It also takes from Hobbes the opposition of law to right and of obligation to liberty:

... because right, consisteth in Liberty to do or to forbear; whereas law, determineth and bindeth to one of them: so that Law, and Right, differ as much, as Obligation and Liberty; which in one and the same matter are inconsistent.(2)

On the other hand, this habitual view takes from Locke the conviction that the prepolitical existence of man is not quite as bad as Hobbes painted it, and that the notion that the public authority can never legitimately do more than further a common good which is defined as the preservation of the lives, liberties, and estates of the citizens:

But though men when they enter into society give up the equality, liberty, and executive power they had in the state of nature into the hands of the society, to be so far disposed of by the legislative as the good of the society shall require, yet it being only with an intention in everyone the better to preserve himself, his liberty, and property, for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse, the power of the society, or legislative constituted by them, can never be supposed to extend farther than the common good, but is obliged to secure everyone's property by providing against those three defects above-mentioned that made the state of nature so unsafe and uneasy.(3).

An important measure of political progress or regress is in this view the lesser or greater encroachment by the public authority on the private and inalienable rights of the individual citizen. Such an analysis of political life and of law has often enough been criticized, but I think we may now go further and suggest why it is erroneous. At the same time we may find out why it sounds strange to our ears to say that a man has a right to do his duty.

Locke's and Hobbes's view of politics and of man presupposes that the human good is individual and defined by an impulse toward self-preservation, and by the natural right, flowing from that fundamental and necessary impulse, to do anything which promotes it and to forbear from doing anything that hinders it. It assumes, therefore, that the human good is to be found in the bottom half of the square of action, for that is the home, as we can see, of "mays" and "don't have to's"; that is, of rights to do and of rights not to do, of what it is all right to do and what it is all right not to do.

This realm, furthermore, because it does not present the "must" or "must not" of duty, becomes also the home of individual liberty--or freedom--for liberty is nothing if it is not a lack of constraint. Since constraint and force are opposed to liberty, however, and law imposes duties and obligations by force and constraint, the human good becomes also defined in opposition to law. Thus Locke asks, "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 nobody, why will he part with his freedom, why will he give up his empire and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power?"(4)

Because the makers of our political myth have placed the human good in the bottom half of the square, law, society, and government come to be spoken of popularly as encroaching on the freedom of the individual. Law is opposed to liberty and duties are contrasted with rights. To speak of a man's right to do his duty, therefore, seems strange indeed. But that is only because this view of things political is wrong, and this for two reasons. In the first place, the bottom of the square of action--the realm of natural rights and freedom--which, on this account, generates and limits the top half of the square--the realm of human law, duty, and obligation--is, as we saw, itself derived from and wholly dependent on another law, the natural law. It is but the realm of those actions which are, by that natural law, all right to do or all right not to do because they are neither prohibited nor commanded by that law.

In the second place, the realm of human law is itself neither posterior to, nor limited by, the realm of natural rights and liberty. Human law is a particularization and determination of the natural law and derives from it, and the only rights related to it are the legal rights which are derived from it because they are but its implicit permissions put in another way. It is the natural law and the permissions implicitly granted by it (natural rights properly understood) that limit human law (and civil rights), not natural rights understood as independent and self-derived entities.

The second benefit of assimilating the modal square of opposition to rights, duties, law, and the right is that it enables us to articulate some thoughts about the right and the wrong which, though unusual, still merit consideration. It can be argued, a propos of the true and the false, that adding to a statement the assertion that the statement is true does not add anything to its content. That a statement being made is true is asserted simultaneously with the assertion of the statement itself. Similarly, concerning the so-called false, it can be convincingly argued that the false as such--as distinct from true negation--is inconceivable, that it does not exist, that therefore it cannot be meant, and hence that all false statements are ultimately meaningless puffs of air.

I now propose something much more scandalous than that: the right and the wrong stand in exactly the same relation to action that the true and false do to speech. I mean that adding to a command or prohibition the assertion that it is right to do or not do what is commanded or forbidden, or to a permission that it is all right to do or not do what is permitted, does not add anything to either command, prohibition, or permission. Similarly, concerning the wrong, adding to a command that it is wrong not to do it, to a prohibition that it is wrong to do it, and to a condoning that it is not wrong to do what is not forbidden, adds nothing to any of these. Moreover, the wrong as such--except, that is, as the negation of the right--is inconceivable, does not exist, cannot be done; and all wrong actions are, insofar as they are wrong, meaningless.

I can hear the howls of protest and derision right now, but let the argument be made. First and very briefly, the right. If we look at the wording of laws and judicial decisions we shall find, for the most part, that whereas this wording states that something shall or shall not be done, may be done or need not be done, none declares in addition, and in so many words, that it is right that this or that should be done or not done. Such a state of affairs is inexplicable except on the supposition that it would be redundant if not ridiculous for someone speaking in the name of the right to command, forbid, or permit something and then add that it was right to do or not do what had been commanded or prohibited, or that it was all right to do what had been sanctioned or condoned. Just as every statement carries within itself an implied assertion of its truth, so every command, permission, or prohibition carries within itself an implied declaration that it is right to do or not do what is commanded, permitted, or forbidden. I am not saying that every commanded, permitted, or forbidden act is rightly so designated, but only that everyone who commands, permits, or forbids asserts simultaneously with his words, but perhaps erroneously, that it is right to do what he says.

Now we must show that the wrong does not exist. Let us go back to the square of action and begin with an affirmative precept: "You must drive carefully," or rather its double negative equivalent, "You must not drive carelessly." The contradictory of this latter is, "You may drive carelessly." Now two contradictories cannot coexist, so if it is right to drive carefully, then "You may drive carelessly" must be wrong. But to say that "You may drive carelessly" is wrong is to say nothing else than "You must not drive carelessly"; and this is but the double negative restatement of the original "You must drive carefully." In other words, to think "You may drive carelessly" is wrong is to think "You must drive carefully" is right. There is no transition at all between thinking the one statement as wrong and thinking its contradictory as right. Hence it is impossible for a negative precept to be conceived as wrong. No sooner do we try to grasp one, precisely as wrong, than it turns into an affirmative precept; and each of these, as we have already seen, carries within itself an implied affirmation of its own rightness. No sooner is a precept established as right, in other words, than its contradictory, unthinkable as such, goes up into thin air and leaves the field occupied by the double negative, and therefore tautologous, form of the original precept.

Suppose, however, that we now think an affirmative precept as wrong: "You must kill all your prisoners of war." Then its contradictory, "You do not have to kill all your prisoners of war," must be right. But if we ask ourselves what we mean when we say that "You must kill all your prisoners of war" is a wrong precept, we discover that we mean simply that "You do not have to kill all your prisoners of war" is right. In other words, just as the attempt to grasp the wrongness of a wrong negative precept left us holding only a double negative form of a right precept, so the attempt to grasp the wrongness of a wrong affirmative precept leaves us, without any transition whatever, with a single negative form of a right precept.

Hence the wrong, as a predicate of a precept, and therefore as having independent significance, cannot be grasped in thought. No sooner do we try to think such a wrongness than we are led either to a double or to a single negative right. The wrong exists only in the negativity of negative right. But the negativity in a precept of negative right seems unthinkable in itself. For example, how can we think the negativity of not having to kill all prisoners of war? We can only think of sparing them, that is, of keeping our trigger fingers at rest, and so forth. I think it right, therefore, to insist that the wrong as something possessing independent significance does not exist. All that exists in the realm of precepts of action is the right.

But does it therefore also follow that only the right can be done? I can again hear the groundswell of protest at the suggestion of such a ludicrous, not to say offensive, possibility. "The wrong unable to be done! Are you mad? Look at the frightful atrocities that men have committed against one another and themselves over the ages! Look within yourself! Can you ignore all that evidence of evil doing and blithely say that the wrong cannot be done?" Yes. If the wrong could be done, it would be possible to mean something by the word "wrong" when it is predicated of an individual action. If the word has meaning when said of an individual action, it must also have one when that individual action is formulated in speech and then universalized. We have shown, however, that it can then have no meaning. Hence it must also not have one when it is said of an individual act. What then? How can we combine our awareness of the horrible actions men perform with straight thinking about them?

We can get at this problem first by way of analogy to the true and the false. The false does not exist except as the negation of the true, and therefore in itself it cannot be meant and is not there to be designated by a significant word. This is to say that all affirmations are true and that a false proposition is, inasmuch as it is false, not a proposition at all but mere sound. By analogy, then, to say that the wrong cannot be done and does not exist, and that one means nothing by the word, is to say that all actions are right and that a wrong action is, as wrong, not an action at all but mere agitation.

Can it then be said that all actions are right? It can on the universal level, where, just as to think a proposition true is not different from simply thinking the proposition itself, so to command or permit an action as right ("To drive carefully is right") is not different from simply commanding or permitting the action itself ("Drive carefully"). But if it be true on the practical level also that all actions are right, then just as all facts which are truly called false are not facts at all, so those actions which are truly called not right would not be actions at all. To say this raises the question whether just as a fact is constituted as a fact precisely by its being true, so a human act is constituted as a human act precisely by its being right.

I say human actions are so constituted. They are means to ends, for we do what we do, or say what we say, either for its own sake or for the sake of something else. In either case, however, it is in the light of the good, as we consider it, that we act and speak. If, then, there be a good for the human being transcending, containing, and ordering all particular goods, then those actions which are either means to such an end or are themselves the acts of attaining such an end, will deserve properly and especially the name both of human actions and of right actions. They will deserve to be called human actions because they are ultimately ordered to a human good, that is, a rational supreme good. They will deserve to be called right actions because we say that one who is learning a trade does the right thing when he so handles the intermediate steps in his art as most effectively to reach the end, and because those things which promote the good are said to be right. Hence for actions to be truly human actions, for them to be meaningful actions, and for them to be right actions, will be one and the same thing. All human actions will be right, and the so-called wrong act, insofar as it is wrong, not being a means to that ultimate end and good, will in all literalness, meaning nothing, be meaningless. To say this is to say that a fully human being cannot fail to do the right. It is to say that right and might, necessity and freedom, far from being in combat, merge in the depths of the mind and heart of the truly human person.

But--and this is a most important but--just as in the case of false statements it is possible for ignorant, bigoted, and deceiving men to trespass on the goodwill, credulity, and compassion of others by making them think their statements are more than puffs of air, so here we must admit that it is possible, all too possible, for members of a divided and discordant humanity not only to mutilate being but also to lead others to think that such subrational agitations are instrumental in the attaining of the proper end of the human person. As judges, however, knowing ourselves, we must weep rather than rage at the spectacle of what this dreadful possibility has engendered and continues to engender.

There is one absolutely crucial difference between meaningless speech and meaningless action. The remedy for wrong speech is dialectic, for by revealing to us the ultimate absurdity of our wrong opinions, it can restore meaning to speech. Dialectic cannot, however, reveal to us the ultimate absurdity of our false action. It cannot therefore make us at one with ourselves, lead us out of the cave, and restore meaning to our actions and lives. Our cure lies in another dimension altogether.

(1) Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1914), 106.

(2) Ibid., 107.

(3) John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1952), 73.

(4) Locke, Second Treatise on Government, 70.
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Author:Sparrow, Edward G.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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