Monday, May 31, 2010

On the right to exist.

In all areas of inquiry, there are easy questions and there are hard questions. Easy questions are the ones that aren't really worth answering -- or, at least, the answers are so obvious that they should go without saying. For example: are coalition governments legal, constitutional, stable, and in most ways better than majority governments? The answer is "yes", and the explanation shouldn't be needed. (If needed: explain the difference between the latter and mob rule, with examples, and be sure to identify the precise laws and/or constitutional clauses which block the formation of coalitions.) Or: is a gun registry justified because police use it regularly? The answer is "no", and, again, the explanation shouldn't be needed. (Again, if needed: the police use things that make their jobs easier, but making the job of police easier is a pretty low-ranked policy goal, if a goal at all.) Or: can a state send its military to attack and board a vessel in international waters? The answer is "yes". (A state can do anything.) Should it? The answer is an emphatic "no". (It's both foolish and immoral, and possibly illegal.) And so on.

Easy questions aren't usually interesting to blog about, although they fit well within a tweet or two. One reason is that there's really no reasoning with people who don't see the answer. (Explaining the obvious is possible, but persuading someone towards the obvious is not. If you'll deny the obvious, then you'll deny anything, including basic moves of logic, facts, and grounding precepts.) Another is that there's no genuine controversy, and argument doesn't function without controversy. What we have instead is either confusion or bad faith or irrationality or some combination.

Occasionally, though, an easy question crops up where the received wisdom is so egregiously wrong that it's worth taking the time to explain why the answer is what it is. So, here's the question: do countries have the right to exist? (The answer is "no", for reasons that will hopefully become clear.)

I think this is mostly a confusion rather than bad faith or irrationality. So, let me try to clear up the confusion.

First, there's a lot of ways of thinking about rights. I propose to adopt a very broad view of what a right is: a right is something deserved; that is, I have a right to things that I deserve to have. I wouldn't say the converse, though: I deserve things which I don't have a right to. It's plausible that I deserve to have a satisfying job, but I don't see that it's plausible that I have a right to such a thing. The advantage to this broad conception is that it's neutral between rival views. For example, rights are sometimes conceived as claims. For example, my right to be paid by my employer is a claim I have against my employer. But, if legitimate claims are rights, they are rights because I deserve to have my legitimate claims satisfied. So, desert is at the bottom of the conception. Similarly, rights are sometimes conceived as powers. For example, my right to vote is a power I have -- some ability I can choose to exercise. But, genuine powers are rights because I deserve those powers. There are, after all, many powers I have -- the power to jump, for example -- that aren't rights; so what makes some powers rights is, plausibly, that they are powers I deserve.

Second, there's a lot of ways of thinking about existence. We might say that something exists if it is physically present, and does not exist otherwise. I don't think that's the right view in this case, though, because countries are not physical objects. (I'll come back to that in a bit.) We might then say that something exists if it is taken to exist, and does not exist otherwise. But, again, that's not the right view in this case, because the existence of some countries is controversial. Some people taken them to exist, and others don't, and neither position is fringe. (Is Lebanon one country or two? Is Iraq a country at all?) So, I would say that, in this case, we should take existence to be referring to a non-physical status that doesn't rely on broad acceptance, but rather limited acceptance. This works nicely for most things: the table exists because everyone who runs into it accepts that it does (and anyone who didn't, wouldn't), people exist because we acknowledge that they do, etc. So, a country exists if the people living within the alleged country acknowledge that it exists. This is still controversial, of course, as there are countries where some members within the country want to declare a new country to exist -- think of the Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka or Quebec separatists as examples. But, I think these cases are best conceived of as conflicts of whether a country should continue to exist, not different claims about which countries do exist.

Third, countries are odd things, metaphysically speaking. They aren't physical objects. Land is physical, water is physical, the materials of buildings are physical, human beings are physical -- but countries are not. Countries are made up of or constituted by various physical things -- land, water, humans, buildings, and so on -- as well as various other non-physical items -- cultures, histories, languages, and so on. Countries are a supervenient thing: they require more primitive pieces in order to exist, but, once those pieces are together in the right way, then the country exists as well. This is crucial, because it draws attention to the fact that a country isn't a given. It's not something that's just there, in the world; it's something that got made up. That doesn't mean it's not real, of course -- money is also made up and, as people die from the lack of it, I'd say it's pretty real -- but it does mean that a country can be brought into or out of existence without anything more than a conceptual shift. That is, supervenient things can be destroyed if we just stop thinking about them in the way we do. Taking money again, we could change what money is -- and even eliminate it entirely -- just by deciding to. We can't do that with bits of land, though: rocks don't go away just because you wish them to. Rocks have to actually be moved, through physical means. Supervenient objects are just ways of thinking about their primitive bases -- collecting them together, if you like -- and so they can be changed by changing a habit of thought. So, a country is just something that we habitually think about in a certain way: we think Canada is there, and so it is.

Fourth, we have to take on board the fundamental principle of equality: treat likes alike. (Or, what amounts to the same thing: don't introduce a distinction without a difference.) This is especially crucial for moral issues, such as what rights there are and who has them.So, if one thing of a type has something, then all things of that type must have that something -- unless there is a relevant difference between them. If one person has a duty to tell the truth, then all people have a duty to tell the truth, unless there is a relevant difference between people. (For example, some people may be unable to tell the truth due to not knowing it.) If one country has a right to exist, then all countries have a right to exist, unless there is some relevant difference between different countries. (Manner of founding, for example, or type of government.)

What follows from these? A few things.

First, there's no sense in which countries can have a right to exist. If a country had a right to exist, then we would be saying that a thing which is created by a habit of thought deserves to be accepted or taken by some identifiable group of people. This is absurd. It's like saying that a hockey team -- something which is created by a habit of thought -- deserves to be accepted or taken by some identifiable group of people. The team and the country may actually be so accepted, but I see no basis for the claim that they deserve to be.

Second, there's no sense in which individual people can have a right to exist. If an individual person has a right to exist, then all people have a right to exist. But there are many people who, as a matter of fact, don't exist: the dead, those as yet unborn, and those who could have been born, but never were. So, if one person has a right to exist, all those people have a right to exist. They deserve existence. There is no way to make the dead come back into existence, of course. But the unborn and the never-born could come into existence, both through breeding. So, if there is a right to existence that inheres in persons, what follows is that everyone should be forced to breed -- naturally or artificially -- as much as possible, to ensure that as many people as possible have what they deserve, namely existence. Which, again, is absurd.

Third, there's a clear sense in which individual people have a right not to be killed -- that is, to have their current existence removed. So, once a person exists, then that person has a right to not be caused to not exist, at least by the actions of another person, all things being equal. I take it that this is incredibly obvious, so I'm not going to try to defend it. But, this doesn't apply to countries at all, for reasoning similar to the above. There are many countries that no longer exist. If countries have a right not to have their current existence removed, then it follows that no country could ever fail -- someone would have to be forced to continue to accept that country's existence, or else the country would not get what it deserves. Again, this is absurd.

Fourth, there's a clear sense in which individual people have a right to form groups as they see fit -- that is, to come together with other people. Again, like the right not to be killed, I take this one as just obvious. Given that, though, and given that existence is a matter of some group of people taking something to exist, it follows that individuals have a right to come together for the purpose of and in order to take something else to exist. Given that countries are supervenient objects, one thing people could come together to take to exist is a country. So, while the country has no right to exist, people do have a right to gather together and decide that they will consider some area or some cultural group to be forming a country -- and the right to reverse this decision and disband the country.

So, countries don't have the right to exist -- but we do have the right to create them.

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