Friday, June 03, 2011

In Honor of Jack Kevorkian

Tibor R. Machan

Jack Kevorkian died. He was unjustly demonized for standing up for the right to assisted suicide, often referred to as Dr. Death. But he also had a movie made about him recently, starring Al Pacino, titled “I knew Jack.”

Dr. Kevorkian’s case epitomizes the radical difference between American conservatives and American classical liberals. American conservatism, by all rights, ought always to include a radical dimension, one that guided the pen of Thomas Jefferson as he composed the Declaration of Independence, but too many conservatives fail to see this. One of the central, if not the central, principles of this document is that everyone has the right to life, simply be virtue of being human. Among the rights that the founders held to be self-evident--for purposes of the Declaration, to be precise--is the right to one’s life. As the Declaration put it, “all men are created equal; that they are endowed, by their creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

No sophistry can obscure the fact that by the lights of the American founders everyone has a natural right to his or her life. This means that what one does about one’s life--cultivate it, wastes it, sacrifices it for a cause, develops it, etc.--must be one’s own choice. (It is not whether it is right to do something that is up to one but whether to do it!) Having a right means just that: he or she who has it has a sphere of personal authority or jurisdiction wherein what one does, provided it doesn’t violate another’s rights, is one’s own decision, be this a sound or unsound, a good or bad decision.

So American conservatives, who supposedly are committed to conserve the principles on which the country was founded, ought all to acknowledge and defend the ideas in the Declaration of Independence. That is what should be their orthodoxy, just as Europeans conservatives have their set of ideas they want to preserve or conserve. But often they don’t and compromise these principles so as to favor their own religious or moral convictions.

It may be a difficult matter for one to both hold that life is precious or sacred and ought never to be given up, for example, by committing suicide, as well as that one has the right to end one’s life. But rights are like that: when one has a right one must be free to exercise it whether properly or not. Even someone who considers suicide morally wrong, or who considers aiding suicide morally wrong, must grant that it is up to the individual human being who has the right to life to exercise it either by promoting or by destroying it. This is no different from the right to free speech--whether one says good or bad things, one must be respected in one’s liberty to do either. One may attempt to dissuade someone who is bent on committing suicide but one may not prevent such an individual from exercising his or her right to life.

Of course the law doesn’t everywhere acknowledge this, just as the law fails to acknowledge the right one has to trade freely, to worship as one chooses, to write what one decides to write and so forth. Throughout the ages human beings have had to fight, not always successfully, to protect their rights and that is as true with one’s right to life as with other rights. And in most instances when rights are violated, abrogated, denied, etc., there is usually some fancy excuse that people who perpetrate this invoke.

But it is a ruse. One’s life is supposed to be under one’s own jurisdiction, as a matter of justice, because one has the right to it. One’s sovereignty rests on this right, the fact that others must abstain from imposing their will on the rights holders.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian bravely, in the fact of much demagoguery and ill will, tried to assert and uphold everyone’s right to life and the corresponding right to exercise it by ending one’s right or securing the assistance of someone so as to end it. That is what aiding and assisting those who want to commit suicide amounts to. They may not be prevented from exercising their rights however intensely one wishes they didn’t do so, even in the case of ending their lives.

There are some complications about this, as there is about nearly anything that involves the outer limits of a principle of social or personal life. If someone is demonstrably incapacitated and thus incapable of making a choice about whether to end his or her life, arguably that would justify not protecting the right to commit and seek assistance with suicide. But that’s all. The mere fact that someone makes such a choice doesn’t by any stretch of the imagination show that the person lacks the capacity to make a rational choice. (In some cases committing suicide can be eminently rational! But even if it may not be, it is up to the person with that life, not others, to make the decision.)

Anyway, it is proper to make sure that Dr. Kevorkian’s struggle doesn’t become obscured by all the sensationalism associated with his own career. Like so many others who fight to gain our rights firm protection, he has met with much abuse that he didn’t deserve.

For more, see Tibor R. Machan, “Aiding A Suicide Attempt,” Criminal Justice Ethics, Vol. 4 (Winter 1986), 73-74.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Students and their education

Tibor R. Machan

Columnist David Brooks of The New York Times, now sadly a reliable lapdog of conservative statism, has come out, in his May 31, 2011 column “It’s Not About You,” against college and university students regarding their education as a means for advancing themselves in their lives. No, he believes their education ought to serve society, the country, the nation, the public, humanity or some such vague purpose.

Brooks begins with an utterly false premise, namely, that commencement talks routinely address graduates with the message that they need to use their education to advance their own lot in life. After 40 years of college teaching I can testify that this is not what most commencement speakers advocate, quite the contrary. Instead what most of them do is echo John F. Kennedy’s detestably statist sentiment that one ought to serve one’s government or country and not insist that government or country serve oneself.

However much praise this sentiment has received over the years, it is straight out of Nazi and communist propaganda. The citizen in those systems must be subjugated to the state. Indeed, individual lives in such systems matter only as they serve to promote the will of the state, not at all as they themselves flourish in life. So to echo JFK is a mistake and goes contrary to the notion that one’s life is supposed to be dedicated to achieving one’s own happiness first and foremost, after which come others--family, friends, neighbors, citizens, and so forth.

Brooks’s message is way off. As professionals, teachers, not only physicians, dentists, plumbers, and so forth, are put to work mainly to help their clients. Not only is the idea of promoting society or country utterly vague, so one can invent nearly anything as a candidate, but it is mostly used as an excuse for some special group in society to rule the rest for the sake of the public good. Just consider, as a simply case in point, how whenever lobbyists plead their case in the corridors of power, they always do it with the pitch that their cause will serve the public interest. Which, of course, is mostly a lie. And indeed if teachers fail to serve their students, they are perpetrating malpractice.

From time immemorial people have been hoodwinked by those of their fellows who aim to rule them for their own ends via the mantra that the public or common or national or some other collective interest requires their sacrifice. But a moment’s reflection will show this to be very dubious: whey do the goals of the people or the country or humanity matter so much but one’s own hardly at all? Who are those who comprise the people, country, humanity, and so forth but you and these other people. And then why is their advancement in life such a superior goal compared to one’s own? Makes no sense at all.

It does make a bit of sense in certain circumstances to preach community solidarity--united we may stand while separately we may fall--but mostly because that is indeed everyone’s best bet. To contend that we should all abandon caring for ourselves, improving our health, wealth, and happiness--including as we aspire to learn about the world and prepare to live in it successfully--is a ruse and it is best that we realize this early on otherwise the price we pay is our own sovereignty, our right to govern ourselves.

There are millions of people out their who sadly prefer living off the rest of us instead of getting ready to live for themselves and cooperate with their fellows on a win-win basis. It is best that these folks do not get the upper hand. Whenever they do, the result tends to be the tyranny of some over the lives of others.

Mr. Brooks, by the way, was to be a voice of American, individualist, conservatism at The New York Times, which is to say the voice of the philosophy of the American Declaration of Independence. He has become, instead, the voice of European, collectivist conservatism. Maybe that is why he is so welcome on the pages of The Times.

Monday, May 30, 2011

My Fathers’ Day Reflections

Tibor R. Machan

On my drive to work the other day I was listening to the local all news radio station and suddenly I am hearing President Obama chiming in with one of those “public service” messages on how fathers should comport themselves toward their children. Maybe this was supposed to be in honor of fathers’ day.

Gee, I had no idea that this is a presidential task, nor that anyone from Washington, DC, could possibly be familiar enough with my family situation to take up the task of advising me on these matters. I figured that Mr. Obama has a full enough plate with, say, being commander in chief guiding the military to do its proper duty, to protect our rights, being the presiding officer for the federal government, raising the funds needed by government to take care of the enormous debt that’s been accumulated by its profligacy over the last several decades, not to mention all the diplomatic problems and challenges he faces around the globe so he could leave the task of acquiring the skills of parenting to us, the citizenry.

But no. Here he is again, deploying his one-size-fits-all social philosophy, kind of like a totalitarian statesman is supposed to do. I recall when I was growing up under the Soviet socialist regime that was tried out in Hungary during the early 1950s, Comrade Stalin himself was supposed to be called by us all “our dear father” (edesapank). And sure enough that befits the head of an aspiring totalitarian regime since it’s political program is to subsume the full management of the life of the citizenry.

Under that kind of system there is no private realm. Everything is of public concern. One is supposed to be part of a collective, kind of like termites are parts of the colonies to which they belong. Individual differences are simply denied. Everyone is a specie-being, an entity of the group, a cell in the organism of society or even humanity. So with such an overall social philosophy it makes sense that those who deem themselves the leaders would presume to know it all about how to live life, everyone’s life that is.

I was actually surprised that nearly all the instructions about how one ought to carry on as a father happened to fit my case. I did in fact go out to throw pitches to my son; taught him and my daughters to bike; read them books, sang them songs, took them on long walks and drives and trips around the globe and on and on. (I even co-authored a little book with my younger daughter, a kind of reminder that “cute is not enough” in her life, which became the title of the small volume!)

OK, so Obama listed some of the activities I managed, lo and behold, to figure out as my own parental tasks. But other parents, more musical or athletic or culinary or nature loving than I probably choose different undertakings in which to involved their children--indeed, thousands and thousands of different ones, reflecting as it should their and their children’s individuality and opportunities and interests. But no, Mr. Obama had this list which he decided he should promote for all fathers to follow, as if he had been hired by them all to given them blow by blow guidelines and as if they couldn’t take up parenting without his regal guidance.

Maybe there are some parents so unprepared for what they have chosen to embark upon when they decided to have children that a little help from their friends is welcome--a bit of personal, private nudging or encouragement from people who know them well enough so it wouldn’t be an affront to butt in with such advice. But that is just it--to do any successful, valuable butting in one needs to know those parents intimately, as a psychotherapist would who has been called upon to lend a hand to those who are a bit clueless. Without such involvement in the life of parents, issuing the advice can only be insulting and quite likely misleading. Children are not produced by cookie cutters, all the same with need for identical parenting to help them grow up.

Of course, this is one of the main problems with Mr. Obama’s social philosophy, namely, that it fails to pay attention to our individuality, or specialness. Doesn’t he realized that just as our fingerprints or DNA fit us personally, with close attention to who we are (not merely some vague notion that we are all people), so must our upbringing. No one from the White House is equipped to give advice except in the most general way, like “Pay attention to what your children need from you!”
A Brief on Time

Tibor R. Machan

I consider much of common sense to be correct about the world, not always muddled or, let alone, wrong. This is a position associated with the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reed and, also, with Aristotle. So I wish to briefly defend the view that time is real.

By “time” I mean, among other aspects of the world, what we record for departure and arrival of planes and trains, what we learn from our clocks and watches, etc., etc, what we aim to save as we go about doing our various tasks, what we complain that we have so little of while others have too much of it on hand. Time is measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, centuries and millennia. And the motion of things in the world, including even the speed of light, is, in turn, measured in periods or spans of time.

Some, however, would have it that time is not real but it is unclear to me what this could mean. Others are “looking into the notion that time might flow backward, allowing the future to influence the past….” But that concept “might” is very slippery—it could mean nothing more than that there is no explicit formal, logical contradiction in thinking that time flows backward, which is very far from its being possible. Nor is it clear what “flow” means here, since what is supposed to be flowing isn’t at all like the water in a river, the paradigm flowing thing.

As to the idea that time is not real, this also poses puzzles and isn’t at all very clear. The claim being made is itself usually written down in a computer or on a piece of paper, either of which takes time or involves duration, starting at T1, proceeding to T2, and on to Tn. Then there is usually a deadline at the publication to which scientific or scholarly papers that advance these sorts of arguments are submitted, and that, too, involves very real time.

Time then appears ubiquitous in our lives, at least at the level at which one considers it in a discussion such as ours. The very length of writing or one’s entire life is measured in time. Then again the idea that “time might flow backward, allowing the future to influence the past,” to quote Discover magazine writer Zeeya Merali, seems to suppose that time is some kind of object or entity instead, as more naturally supposed, a kind of measurement of the duration of something.

Paradoxically, even in the act of denying the reality of time that same reality is clearly manifest—it takes a bit of time to deny that time exists, whatever time is exactly. It doesn’t seem to be unreal or fictional—that appears to be evident all over. Why some think time isn’t real has to do with how often theorists will fail to appreciate the different contexts within which their theories hold or apply. It’s possible that at the subatomic or astrophysical levels what time is ordinarily—on the earth human beings need to deal with—is not recognizable because the context is so different. But this doesn’t support the denial of the reality of time.

Take as an analogy the claim that the earth’s entire surface is curved, so “plane surfaces aren’t real”. And then consider the tables on which the games of pool and billiards are played which, to all rational appearances, are flat. Does the former claim contradict the latter? Not necessarily since the contexts are markedly different. Yes, the earth is mostly curved but, also, the pool table is normally flat. No contradiction here, only a change of context.

The same holds with denials of time: in certain spheres of inquiry or observation time is real but in some circumstances, say at the subatomic or, going in the opposite direction the cosmic level, perhaps time, in the sense in which it is familiar to us and very real indeed in our daily lives, is entirely absent. The view that because in some contexts time could be dispensed with it can be dispensed with entirely in all contexts seems to be false.