Certain recurring questions crop up in my mind and my life. When a question arises, I tend to spend some effort trying to investigate it, and do this until the next question arises, at which time my attention turns to it and away from the previous question, which then lies dormant until the next time it arises in my mind.
One of these recurring questions has to do with rightsthose moral or political or legal entities that we are supposed to have. What are rights exactly? How are they determined? How do they work?
As far as I can recall, this question first arose for me in connection with my interest in environmentalism. I had come across an interesting and even, for me, exciting book called The Commonwealth of Life by Peter G. Brown, a professor at McGill. In it he proposes (as I recall) revamping our political structures and economic thinking to accommodate the idea that nonhuman creatures have rights, and that future beings have rights as well, and all of these should be respected. We, humanity, are not the masters of nature, but parts of it, and should orient our thinking accordingly.
I was immediately attracted to this idea, for one thing because it made a definite step in a direction I had already thought was necessary: to amend our political and economic thinking in response to the changed environmental conditions in which we live, and applying our increased scientific understanding of the environment. I wanted to study his ideas and develop a criticism of them, with the intent not of tearing them down, but of strengthening them. What are the weak points of this project that hostile critics might attack, and how might these points be reinforced and defended?
It seemed clear that the issue of rights was central. It’s a term we often use, but do we know what it really means? Do I know what it means?
Since then (February 2008) I have made intermittent efforts to investigate what rights are. I have bought books such as Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Clapham and Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice by Jack Donnelly and Two Treatises of Government by John Locke, and also read some essays by Mortimer J. Adler. The question to me is deep and unclear, and involves other important and controversial ideas such as those of equality and justice. And, as with so much else I do, I push against the question for a while and then my attention switches elsewhere, to push against something else.
The question about rights arose again recently for me, but I can’t remember exactly why. The most likely trigger will have been reading The Idea of Justice by Otto A. Bird, an excellent little book published under the auspices of The Institute for Philosophical Research, Mortimer Adler’s philosophical think tank, in 1967. But it might also have been reading a letter to the editor of The North Shore News or an online article. Possibly it was from thinking about the controversy around gay marriage, which is usually supported with an argument about rights. Anyway, the question surfaced again in my mind and I wanted to know more.
I remembered the phrase “rights talk”, and that this had been coined by an American writer who was criticizing all the appeals to “rights” being made by people in all kinds of situations. I did an online search and found that there is a book called Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse by a Mary Ann Glendon. I popped open a sample of the book and found that the author begins with a discussion of Alexis de Tocqueville’s journey through the United States in 1831, which finally resulted in the publication of his famous book Democracy in America.
This in turn reminded me of being in a Chapters-Indigo bookstore a couple of years ago, perusing the political science section, and picking up a copy of the Penguin edition of Democracy in America. I was very attracted to the book, which in pocketbook format was relatively cheap, but it was big and not on the point of any of the things I was researching at the time, so I put it back down.
Now, although the opening of Glendon’s book read well and was also attractive to me, I was interested in checking in with her opening source, Alexis de Tocqueville. So I did another online search, and found there was a copy of the book supposedly sitting at the Chapters-Indigo store at Park Royal. Kimmie and I were doing a quick shopping trip out there last night, I so made a point of stopping by the store. They indeed had the book, so I bought it (about $16more than what they charge for it online, grr). I brought it home and started reading the introduction. Fascinating guy, de Tocqueville, and, I sense, even a kind of kindred spirit.
But there you have it: how one bookmy latesthas made its way into my library. Each one has its own story for how it came to be recruited on to my team.