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Lecture 4c: Revolution or anarchy

February 19, 2014

b. Rights talk

 Up to this point, although Burke and Paine differ on the details of the situation, they are in agreement on four key areas: the American colonies should have greater autonomy; citizens have natural inalienable rights to basic forms of life, liberty and property (à la Locke); democracy represents a complete break with tradition (whatever the truth of the matter, as seen in the continuity between our theses and paradigms below); emotions play a role in ethical and political judgment. Yet it should be remembered that Burke is a Whig (in favor of constitutional monarchy and a strong parliament) whereas Paine is a freethinker and democrat (in favor of a representative democracy in which citizens have an active part). Their oppositions owes to their differing views of the individual human being and how far the notion of rights is to be taken.

For Burke, this complete break with tradition is a bad thing for Burke is quite skeptical with regards to democracy. Although he admits, from a hypothetical standpoint, that in some cases it might be desirable (as was the case in Greece), he insists that democratic government in the United Kingdom of his his day would prove not only inept but oppressive. More specifically, his opposition follows from three basic reasons. First, governance and government require a degree of intelligence, education and cleverness that was quite uncommon among the ordinary citizenry. Second, he holds that ordinary citizens are given to dangerous and angry passions and emotions of the kind that could easily be manipulated by demagogues, were citizens to have the vote. Through the vote, these demagogues would make use of those passions to further their own tyrannical ends to upend social tradition and established religion. All of this would lead in the end to widespread violence and the confiscation of property. Third, Burke warns that democracy would put citizens in a position to tyrannize unpopular minorities who were, as it were, in need of protection from the upper classes and the aristocracy. Overall, Burke has a rather dim view of the ordinary person and democracy, here taken to be a destructive, leveling force..

Payne is at odds with the views above. Against the first point, Paine holds that all individuals are endowed with a certain amount of common sense, such that they are capable of making political decisions on their own. This same common sense undercuts the second point in that, through discussion and reflection, citizens are in principle able to distinguish good actions from bad even if they are sometimes at first given to error (as per a moral sense theory). Against the third, Paine need only note the place of Catholics in society of 17th and 18th century England to show how well the upper classes and aristocracy have protected those unwanted minorities. In short, Paine finds that the common individual is ready to take his or her fate into his or her hands. Although grounded in realism, it is easy enough to see how Paine’s view also verges on the idealistic. That said, we can see the shift from one paradigm to another:

18th Century Scottish Freethought:

1.) Natural order: The world has a natural, regular order that we can observe. If there is a designer, we can have no knowledge of it. Beings pursue the good of others because a.) it is in their own interest and b.) their natural emotions push them to do so.

2.) Affirmation of ordinary life: As each being has its part to play in the natural order, no part is more important than another, and, thus, no life or person is more valuable than another. Everyday emotions guide us in daily life.

3.) Materialism: If things in the world are neutral matter and humanity has a natural tendency to pursue happiness, then things in the world should further that happiness.

4.) Technical progress: If the world exhibits a natural, regular order, then knowledge and science consist in using reason to understand that order and change the material world to improve humanity’s lot.

18th Century Democratic Thought:

1.) Natural order: The world has a natural, regular order independent of any designer. Beings pursue the good of others because a.) it is in their own interest and 2.) their natural emotions push them to do so.

2.) Radical affirmation of ordinary life: If the natural order is not designed, then neither is the distribution of power or authority in the social order. Therefore, that distribution can be changed by human means, and each is due certain natural rights and free to decide for himself.

3.) Materialism and rights: If things in the world are neutral matter and humanity has a natural tendency to pursue happiness, then things in the world should further that happiness in accordance with individuals’ rights.

4.) Technical progress and rights: Knowledge and science should change the material world to improve humanity’s situation in accordance with individuals’ rights.

Despite their differences, both agreed that, from the perspective of rights, something needed to be done in the American colonies of their time and that there was cause here for just war on the part of the Americans.

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