Rights Talk and National Greatness
[On Sept. 12, 2017, I posted a blog entitled “Let’s Talk About Greatness.” This post is a follow on to that one.]
There are those, often conservatives or “neo-cons”, who argue that “rights talk” should be supplemented of even replaced by, say, “duty talk.” The people, the many, the demos, these sorts argue, need to recalibrate their psyches and talk less about rights and more about duty or duties. Were that to happen then our society would be better off, more law abiding, more orderly, and hence more livable.
This is a rather powerful argument, in part because the idea of duty, being good, is deeply embedded in our psyches and in part because the idea of rights does privilege self-interest over, say, justice or community. There is a problem though. Part of the problem is that this argument in favor of duty almost always ends up as an argument “law and order,” that is, as an argument in favor of obedience to the established order, to the government. The other part of the problem is that those who make it pride themselves as being “political realists,” meaning that when it comes to wielding power the national interest – the rights of the nation - should take precedence over ideas of duty, justice, or community.
So, having challenged or abandoned “rights talk” for the many, these realists embrace such talk for the nation, for themselves, for the powerful. The nation and they should not be constrained by talk of duty, of justice, or of community. Such talk is unrealistic.
In other words, these realists don’t really reject “rights talk.” Unlike Socrates, who asserted that it was worse for human beings to do injustice than to suffer injustice, these realists assert or simply assume that it its worse for human beings to suffer than to do injustice. And, of course, once human beings prefer doing injustice to suffering injustice, they will, whenever push comes to shove, commit and even take pride in committing injustice. Such pride, ala’ Pericles, will even be taken as a sign of greatness. That our nation can commit injustice, even great injustice like genocide, reveals our national greatness. And so it should not be surprising that some of those, even most of those who seek national greatness or a return to national greatness are proud of their capacity for injustice. That capacity they take to be a sign of their greatness.