14 September 2008

The Heirs of Thrasymachus

Thrasymachus, to explain my title, was a character in Plato's Republic, who took the position that justice was the advantage of the strong. He was by no means the only Greek to believe so. There is, for example, Thucydides writing of the Melian Dialogue in his History of the Peloponesian War. The Melians argue with Athenian envoys that the position of Athens is unjust. The Athenians replied:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences--either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us--and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.

The idea has again cropped up, this time with abortion. Author Camille Paglia has laid bare the foundations of her support for abortion with stark clarity:

Let's take the issue of abortion rights, of which I am a firm supporter. As an atheist and libertarian, I believe that government must stay completely out of the sphere of personal choice. Every individual has an absolute right to control his or her body," said Paglia, voicing the commonest argument put forward by feminist supporters of abortion.

Unlike her fellow pro-abortion colleagues, however, Paglia continued on to - as she termed it - "face the ethical consequences" of embracing abortion. "I have always frankly admitted that abortion is murder, the extermination of the powerless by the powerful," she said.

(h/t regular guy)

Her ethics are the ethics of the tyrant: right is the appetite of the strong. Here is the question of abortion at its starkest, most visceral, most degrading to all, and the most dangerous. She makes no claims or no pretexts. There are no examples of "but what in the case of...?" and that ilk. There is no need to appeal to such exceptions. In an atheistic world, there are no first principles only will and power, and those who have it, and those who don't. In this world, there is neither a reason to kill an infant or to not kill an infant, beyond desire. The only argument against such arguments are greater will, and greater might.

I am also reminded, in many ways, of the words of Samuel Johnson. Johnson saw the hypocrisy of the middle class levelling movement of the eighteenth century, and how the levellers wanted to bring themselves to the level of their social superiors, either by dragging their superiors down or by raising themselves up. However, the levelling impulse did not extend to their social inferiors. In short, they wanted no one to rule them, but were fine with ruling others. Johnson demonstrated this one night by asking a lady who had vociferously supported the movement if she would therefore like to have her servant (whom I believe was black) join them at the table for dinner. The woman was appalled.

As a libertarian, Paglia claims freedom for herself and murder for others if that is her will. She does not shy away from this conclusion. Does she allow the right to murder, in the name of the strong over the weak, even to someone who holds that power over her? I ask only hypothetically, of course. There is no logical grounds, no first principles, to deny anyone that right. Any attempt to elucidate such principles is a farce in the world she describes for herself. Her premises can conclude in her own unwilling destruction. In a world where right makes right, there is always someone mightier.

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