Author


Editors’ Note: There is no shortage of scholars who have come out publicly to say that the story of COVID-19 is a story about the power of mass psychological warfare to transform our understanding of who we are as citizens and as human beings with sovereign rights. The major battles of this war are fought in the human mind, and the weapons are the colors, sounds, images, and words delivered through the major channels of public awareness. Sometimes, humor, mockery, and irony are effective defenses against these ongoing assaults. Such is Christopher Melley’s effort to clear another way out of the psychological battles that have captured many minds.

Abstract

COVID-19 life has given birth to many a socially conscious ninja-warrior or protective government or international agency, brandishing the sword of human rights in response to, or in defense of, controversial social policies that have been implemented since. In effect, the concept of ‘rights’ has been weaponized and used as an ‘off-the-shelf’ component of arguments and policies. The contemporary Theater of the Covid Absurd has brought together a fictitious meeting of historical figures from across various eras who participate in a dialogue using the Platonic dialectical method to help elucidate the meaning of ‘rights.’ The characters consider how human rights may – or may not – be used and applied, in a meaningful manner, in the context of the pandemic. The global event also gives us a chance to discuss the concept of rights at a more fundamental level, to get a clearer sense of what a right is and what it is not, even though the topic of rights far exceeds the boundaries of COVID-19 concerns.

Persons and Characters of the Dialogue

SOCRATES (470-399 BCE) Greek philosopher

GLAUCON (c. 445 BC – 4th century BCE) Older brother of Plato

THOMAS PAINE (1737- 1809) English political philosopher and activist

MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE (1757-1834) French military officer and aristocrat

ARISTOCLES (PLATO) 424/423 – 348/347 BCE

ELANOR ROOSEVELT (1884-1962) diplomat, activist, first lady of the US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt

ALEX SMITH – imaginary inspirational speaker

HAMLET – Prince of Denmark in Shakespeare’ play by the same name

JEREMY BENTHAM (1748-1832) English philosopher

HUMPTY DUMPTY – from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass

ALICE – from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass

SECURITY GUARD – at McDonald’s, Piraeus Port[1]

ALASDAIR MACINTYRE (1927-1986) Scottish-American philosopher

PETER SINGER (1946-       ) Australian philosopher

Scene

Parthenon, Temple of Nike; later, McDonald’s, Piraeus Port

(Glaucon, waving from a distance)

GLAUCON: Why, Socrates! I haven’t seen you in ages!

SOCRATES:  Is that you, Glaucon? It’s been too long since seeing you, my young friend.

GLAUCON:  My, you are up and about so early, at the crack of dawn. I can hear the cocks crowing.

SOCRATES:  That reminds me. I owe a rooster to Asclepius. I mentioned that to Crito, last time I saw him.[2]

GLAUCON (taking a closer look): Gosh, you look the worse for wear.

SOCRATES: Well, it’s been a long time. As well, this morning, Xanthippe, my spirited wife, had many bits of advice in how to improve myself, so I thought I would go for a walk near the Acropolis and think things through, as I go. The walk has done me good; I should argue with her more often. You know, a sound mind in a…

GLAUCON: Sound body?

SOCRATES:  Yes, indeed.

GLAUCON: Are you going to give an offering to Pallas Athena?

SOCRATES: Well, no, not today. That would be a good idea, to be sure, as we can never feel blessed enough in life and thereafter. As you can see, I am standing in front of our much smaller Temple of Athena Nike[3] to…

GLAUCON:  Wish for victory?

SOCRATES: You are a real stalker for words today. Artemis would be proud of you! You are snaring my words, even before I have tracked them down myself. Usually, you play the straight man, but today…

GLAUCON:  I am a lead character?

SOCRATES:  Well, not exactly. You see, there’s this mobile kiosk parked at the steps to the Parthenon; this fellow has the tastiest roasted olive-feta-cheese-bread-combo gyros an Athenian ever….

GLAUCON:  tasted?

SOCRATES: Yes, but…

GLAUCON: Socrates. I thought you were always writing and thinking about justice or truth or goodness.

SOCRATES: Philosophers don’t live by words alone. It is true: I did ask a fair amount of questions, but I never liked to write down my thoughts.[4]

GLAUCON: True, come to think of it, you are always talking with others, not writing.

SOCRATES: I noticed, though, that your younger brother Aristocles is often taking down notes, as I interview one or another person at the Agora or walking along the way to the port of Piraeus. Maybe he will put some things down in print someday. I haven’t seen the young Plato lately; is he still training for the pankration event at the next Isthmian Games, in Corinth?[5]

GLAUCON:  Lately, he has been more at odds with words than men, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Like so many Minotaurs, words can be more powerful and formidable than man, and Plato may need his own ball of yarn to find his way.[6]

GLAUCON: I’ll mention that to Plato, next time I see him.

SOCRATES:  Ah, Glaucon, not to change the subject, but this morning, on the steps of Temple Nike, where we stand, just before you woke me, I had fallen asleep against a column and had a dream where I had quite a long conversation set in a very strange world of some future time, even thousands of years hence, in what seemed like this world of ours, but things were very different. The food wasn’t as good, I can assure you, but I had the very good fortune of meeting several great thinkers and literary figures from different times, all at the same time and in one place, a ‘time-kiosk’ of sorts.

GLAUCON:  How odd and fortuitous at the same time. You had often thought of eternity as a chance to talk with all the noble people, across the ages.[7]

SOCRATES:  Yes, indeed. Say, want to do breakfast? I could tell you of my haunting dream.

GLAUCON:  Do breakfast? I’ve never heard of such an expression.

SOCRATES: Strange, you used it in my dream.

GLAUCON: Such a strange world where people do breakfast and not have breakfast or eat breakfast!

SOCRATES: Yes, indeed.  I love to eat, and, as well, these philosophers in my dream gave me much to chew on.

GLAUCON: I don’t remember being in your dream, but maybe you do.

SOCRATES:  Okay, here goes, to the best of my memory, the dream went in the following way.

~~~~~

(standing before the Temple of Nike)

GLAUCON: …very true, Socrates, true, indeed. How then was your gyros at the steps of the Parthenon?

SOCRATES: As it was, the kiosk at the steps of the Parthenon was gone, and a temple guard with knitted brow approached me and told me the owner had gone out of business since the plague, this pandemic, had started. ‘What we have done to deserve yet another plague?’ I wondered to myself. All this was news to me. The guard asked, “By the way, where is your facemask and V-card, sir?” I had neither, and I wasn’t about to go on trial again; you remember how that went.

GLAUCON: Not well.

SOCRATES: …so I got out of Dodge quick.

GLAUCON: Dodge?

SOCRATES:   I was lucky to get out of there. Now, I am on my way to Plan B, Breakfast at Piraeus Port. Want to come along and talk a bit?

GLAUCON: Nothing would please me more. Walking and talking go well together, don’t they?

(They start off from the Acropolis to the port, along the Long Walls to Piraeus.)

GLAUCON: Say, I see you are still walking barefoot.

SOCRATES: Yes, I noticed that Antisthenes,[8] who often follows our gaggle of students, also is walking barefoot.

GLAUCON:  And how ironic that one of your best friends at the Agora is Simon the cobbler!

SOCRATES: Think on your feet, I like to say. Gosh, why are so many of the passersby wearing masks and avoiding us?

(looking upward at Temple Nike and the Parthenon, now receding in the distance)

And the temple buildings look so old and our poor Parthenon looks a wreck, a rubble. Where’s the roof? And where have all the painters gone? Nothing is painted! Everything seems worn, aged, and faded, more like a boneyard, full of bleached marble blocks. Why, I helped bring the stone blocks for the Parthenon, as a young man. What has become of Athens?

GLAUCON: Nothing stays the same, Socrates; everything changes. Much has happened since you were here last.  The Parthenon is a long story, perhaps for another time.

SOCRATES: Okay, but what’s with wearing masks and carrying a V-card?

(stopping and looking at the sign)

GLAUCON: Say, let’s do breakfast here.

SOCRATES:  Do breakfast? I never heard that expression before.

GLAUCON:  You’ll catch on.

SOCRATES: Say, what’s this, a new kiosk? Mc – Do – na – ld’s? I’m game.

GLAUCON: (donning a surgical mask) Okay, but here. Put this on.

SOCRATES:  A mask?

GLAUCON:  And here is a V-card.

SOCRATES: V for Victory?

GLAUCON: No, V for ‘vaccination verification’, showing that you are protected against the plague.

(Glaucon gives Socrates a V-card.)

SOCRATES: This is the V-card?

GLAUCON: Just flash it when you go in; they don’t seem to look too closely. (looking down) Don’t look at your feet!

GLAUCON:  They may have a footwear requirement too. Let’s just enter.

SOCRATES:  Got it. What a world this is where I must cover my feet and my mouth as well. So many things here appear so different than my old world.

GLAUCON: Tell me about it.

SOCRATES: Not only décor and food, but also more fundamental things have changed too?

GLAUCON:  I wonder about that too. Where is a good idea when you need one?

THOMAS PAINE (standing just behind):  Well, sirs, here’s an idea: What Archimedes said of the mechanical powers, may be applied to Reason and Liberty. ‘Had we,’ said he, ‘a place to stand upon, we might raise the world.’[9]  With that firm grounding in place, we can form new societies without hereditary tyrannies and end slaveries of all kinds, so that societies may be self-ruled and among equals; such are the rights of man.

SOCRATES:  How lucky we are to be on this line!  I am most interested in what holds these rights of man, as you say, particularly the basis or foundation for such ideas. Such heavy ideas as rights must have massive foundations to hold them in place for the ages. Do you mean that there is some firm and unchanging place, something that remains untouched and sovereign, beyond the reach of time or temperament or sentiment?

THOMAS PAINE (busied in ordering): I’ll take two Egg McMuffins and a side order of…

(standing just ahead in line)

MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE: Well, I couldn’t help overhearing the two of you talk about what is permanent and enduring, and I thought immediately of the many human rights. With the help of my good friend Thomas Jefferson from America, I drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man. I remember by heart some of the preamble:  that the representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly, believing that the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man.[10]

SOCRATES: You have a good memory! What fine words and spoken so well and with great forcefulness. Even as you said those uplifting words, I too felt uplifted and a great emotion welled up from within. Sometimes, our sentiments or emotions appear to act as arguments themselves. I wonder if a sentiment can be an argument too. I do have a question, though, Monsieur Lafayette.

LAFAYETTE: Fire away.

SOCRATES:  Is there a difference between declaring something to be the case and arguing something to be the case?

LAFAYETTE: Well, our Rights of Man declares something to be the case, something so fundamental as not to require an argument.

SOCRATES:  I see. So, the Rights of Man you mention rests on an implicit assumption?

LAFAYETTE:  Well, yes.

SOCRATES:  Just for the heck of it, could we declare just the opposite of your document and use the same technique?

LAFAYETTE:  Well, yes, I mean, no, as the Rights of Man is, well, just and good and true and its opposite would necessarily be unjust and bad and false.

(turning to order)

SOCRATES: But…

LAFAYETTE: Yes, mademoiselle, I’ll have the Garden Salad with a large order of…excuse me, but why do you call them French fries?

(A young man, standing up from a table nearby, begins to speak.)

ARISTOCLES: Not a place, my good mentor, but a non-spatial timeless realm of eternal Forms from which this flawed and frayed reality, including what is considered good and right and beautiful, takes its appearance, however faded and tattered copies they may be.  Please, my old mentor, I invite you to my table, so we can talk a bit, or may I come to your table?

(Glaucon and Socrates take their seats with Plato.)

SOCRATES:  Why, Aristocles, Plato! What a surprise!  I was just now thinking of you. How you have been? I saw Glaucon and right away, I thought of you, his younger brother. You are always bright and sharp of wit and thought, today no less.

PLATO: Well, I wrote a lot after I last saw you, started a school and such. I’ll tell you the details later, over coffee.

SOCRATES:  Coffee?

PLATO:  Well, we can have some wine. Back to the point I overheard a minute ago. Much is at stake here in finding that fixed point, upon which we can build a house of knowledge and a stable, enduring shrine to goodness and beauty and truth too, in so many words, as well as a well-ordered society based on these enduring Forms that not even God may change.[11] Everything in this fluid world flows by and disperses, disappears, while other things take their place. Governments come and go, as do customs and beliefs, blowing away like leaves at end of autumn. Certainly, something has to remain in the calm and quiet eternity.

(Sitting down nearby with trays and each carrying some papers, Eleanor Roosevelt and Alex Smith enter. Seating themselves at one of the tables, with others around.)

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: I’ve read your Victoria Declaration, Dr. Smith, and find that it accords so well with our Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations.

SMITH: And it’s also consistent with Lafayette’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man. I was not the only author, though.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT:  Nor was I.

SMITH: But I am so pleased with our list of rights and the idea of rights as a natural foundation for a just society.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: (to Socrates) Excuse me, could I bother you two for some salt?

SOCRATES: Well, they have these salt and pepper packets over there. I’ll fetch some!

ELEANOR: What a gentleman! But these days, ladies do for themselves.

SOCRATES: My wife would certainly agree!

(At the condiments counter, Roosevelt overhears a fellow talking with two others at another table.)

HAMLET: Denmark’s a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ: Then is the world one?

HAMLET: A goodly one; in which there are many confines,

wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

ROSENCRANTZ: We think not so, my lord.

HAMLET: Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing

either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me

it is a prison.[12]

(overhearing, Roosevelt returns in pensive fashion, sitting down slowly, putting the salt and pepper packets on the table.)

SMITH: We have had so much positive feedback from our Victoria Rights Declaration. I am so pleased at the response, not only from Canadians, but also from people around the world. Every right rests on this “sacred inheritance”, and every right is “inherent and non-negotiable”.[13]

SOCRATES (listening closely to Dr. Smith):  Excuse me, sir. I couldn’t help but listen to your thoughtful remarks about rights.  I am Socrates of Sophroniscus of Athens and my friend Glaucon and his brother Plato.

SMITH: I am Dr. Smith and I gave a speech two days ago at Epidaurus about human rights, to a full house.

SOCRATES: And how did it go, well, I hope?

SMITH: Very, well, if I may say. I received a standing ovation and an award as best speaker that day for the topic of rights.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: I was there. He was such a good speaker; each word could find itself on the capital of a new library.

SOCRATES: I always like a good speaker.

SMITH: I could recite some of my speech, if you like.

SOCRATES: I would love to hear that some other day, but today, I am more interested in the substance of your thought rather than in its delivery.

SMITH: Sure! Shoot!

SOCRATES:  So, Dr. Smith, is it true that the rights you identify are sacred?

Smith: Yes, indeed, the rights mentioned are sacred and inherent in the way things are, part of the fabric of reality.

SOCRATES: Well, that a right is associated with divinity certainly puts it in good stead.  Whoever, then, would quibble about one of those rights risks a thunder-bolt from the heavens, something to avoid. You also mention the word ‘inherent’. So, are the rights described in the Victoria Declaration part of things, part of our world, even reality itself?

SMITH: Embedded is the word I was looking for. Yes, the rights mentioned in the Victoria Declaration, as well as the rights Mrs. Roosevelt’s Universal Declaration mentions: All of them are part of our world and reality itself.

ELANOR ROOSEVELT (smiling): As I was saying, I agree, the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the “inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”[14]

HAMLET: (from the table neaby) How interesting. I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation.

SMITH: And you are…

HAMLET:  Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, son of the late King Hamlet, tragically murdered by my uncle Claudius.  I admit the words you say are noble and lofty, but sorry to bring you two down to earth. I should be the last man to do this, as I am so stricken with grief and woe at my father’s murder, my thinking might not be straight and clear. As well, I elected to appear raving mad and might have abdicated for good any chance of being taken seriously.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: Just a moment ago, I could not help but take your thought to heart. What is it you said to your friends who are now smiling at us from across the way? “…nothing is right

HAMLET: Oh, yes, nothing is right or wrong, but thinking makes it so.

SMITH: Why, I have to disagree. Take, for instance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, formulated shortly after the Second World War. Just listen to the Preamble: “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,…”[15]

PETER SINGER (from another table, speaking): Well, I have been listening to all of you with great interest. If I may, I would like to say that the Universal Declaration as a declaration of sentiments can do some good as a sort of call to action; however, if we examine the document as philosophers, the document comes up short.

SMITH: But why?

PETER SINGER:  Well, I can’t outline my entire philosophy at one lunch, but I would say that grounding essential rights to humans only is born arbitrary and exclusive, based on species identification. As Jeremy Bentham (sitting at the same table as Singer) would assuredly agree – (turning to Bentham) By the way, Mr. Bentham, I am such a fan of your utilitarian philosophy; it has really helped to define my own thinking about the ethical questions! – that a full-grown horse or dog…

JEREMY BENTHAM: *****is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month old.*[16]

PETER SINGER:  As well, if we were to analyze the statement from the Universal Declaration, we would have to contend with the universal qualifier of …

SMITH: “of all human beings”. Yes, that the dignity of a being is not based on its social utility or function or capacity, as then we create a ‘slippery slope’ scenario that is too easy to add more and yet more exceptions that would rob us of the universality that the Universal Declaration asserts.

PETER SINGER:  Well, what matters is not a being’s species affiliation or function. As Bentham states, the question is not can they reason? …

JEREMY BENTHAM**: …**or Can they talk? but Can they suffer?[17]

PETER SINGER: Yes, exactly.

SMITH: So, what then supports a right is not anything inherent in a being, but whether the being and others involved in the complex web of relationships found in society and also the larger setting of life in the natural world, have their sentiments and preferences relating to pain and joy taken into account?

PETER SINGER: Yes, roughly so, you characterize my point. The locus of reflection is moved from considering the essential nature of a being as having this or that attribute, in this case, a variety of rights, to a discussion of the sentiments and preferences we exercise as conscious and self-conscious creatures with the capacity to sense pain and joy and sense it in others, including non-human creatures.[18]

SMITH: I for one cannot accept placing any right on the shifting sands of sentiment and preference, however. Surely some firmer foundation must support the rights described. Doing so would allow and force each person, each generation, to continually define and redefine rights in terms of sentiments and preferences of individuals and collectives.

GLAUCON: How about grounding rights in international law, where all or most all kingdoms are unified in codifying a certain minimum number of rights.

PETER SINGER: You are clearly ahead of your time, but here too, codifying a minimal set of rights makes rights dependent upon international laws, but as the young fellow said earlier – I happened to overhear you talking, while looking for some dressing for my salad. – that kingdoms change, come and go, including the laws of those kingdoms.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: And if we return to that idea of grounding the rights in divinity?

PETER SINGER: Well, whatever God says is often ambiguous and adding God into the discussion makes the job of proof even more challenging. As well, there are many gods from which to choose. We can see that these difficulties would make universality a difficult goal to achieve.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: Okay, what about concentrating on the most important rights?

PETER SINGER:  Reducing the number of most important or sought-after rights does not reduce the difficulty of grounding rights. Nor does narrowing the conversation to positive rights or negative rights reduce the burden of proof.

HAMLET (Looking at Mrs. Roosevelt and Dr. Smith) Such fine words. And, my lady, you go by the name of …

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: Eleanor.

HAMLET: (smiling) Yes, what a lovely name, my lady. When I hear such sentiments as you and Dr. Smith have expressed, I have to shake myself and ask, ‘Where is the proof of the pudding?’  Show us, if you would, how a right is part of independent reality, from the bright firmament above to the humble oyster below. As one fellow mentioned on this last topic, long after my time, despite centuries of effort in this direction [in establishing the foundation of human rights] there has been no success.[19])

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT:  Well,…

(Walking by, with an empty tea cup and broad-brimmed hat in hand, Jeremy Bentham stops on his way to the re-fill station, bows, and speaks to Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. Shaw.)

JEREMY BENTHAM: Though causing discomfort for no reason is indefensible, unless it serves a greater good, if I may add salt to the wound, such natural rights [are] simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, — nonsense upon stilts.[20]

(Sitting precariously on one of the table dividers, Humpty Dumpty woke up and nudged little Alice, sitting next to him.)

HUMPTY DUMPTY: Stilt! Kilt! Wilt! Quilt! What’s on stilts might wear a kilt while wrapped in a quilt that wilts. Is that a meaningful sentence?

JEREMY BENTHAM: Yes, it is a sentence. The sentence has a subject and a predicate, complete with a very curious and colorfully described image.

HUMPTY DUMPTY:  Curious? Just what is curious?

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: Well, just now, we were talking about rights, human rights.

HUMPTY DUMPTY: So, does that leave me out of the conversation? If I have no rights, what’s left.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: Left?

HUMPTY DUMPTY:  Right, I thought so.

HAMLET: Well, Humpty Dumpty,…

HUMPTY DUMPTY: What’s your name?

HAMLET:  I am Hamlet.

HUMPTY DUMPTY:  What does it mean? A tiny village?

HAMLET:  How now, an egg with a sense of humor! Oh, sorry, well, I meant to say you look like an egg with a sense of humor.

HUMPTY DUMPTY: (Scowling at Thomas Paine’s remaining Egg McMuffin) I am not an egg, though I have a well-rounded character and think often of walls, of Alice, and of all the king’s horses and…

SMITH: …all the king’s men! Say, that’s not what ‘well-rounded’ means in this context.

ELANOR ROOSEVELT: Well, while all of you were talking, I looked up Humpty Dumpty and it says that ‘Humpty Dumpty’ means “a person or thing that once overthrown or broken cannot be restored or mended” or “a short fat person”[21]

HUMPTY DUMPTY:  I’ll choose the first one. There’s glory for you!

ALICE: I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’.

HUMPTY DUMPTY (smiling contemptuously)Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!

ALICE:  But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,’ Alice objected.

HUMPTY DUMPTY (in a scornful tone):  When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

ALICE:  The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.

HUMPTY DUMPTY:  The question is which is to be master — that’s all.[22]

SOCRATES:  Humpty Dumpty, you have shown that definitions are important, aren’t they.

HUMPTY DUMPTY:  Why, yes. So much of a talk hangs on the definition of terms.

SOCRATES: So if we define a different word, such as ‘right’, as in ‘human right, then, it comes down to …

HUMPTY DUMPTY: who is master, that’s all.

SOCRATES: So, is a human right hanging by such a tenuous thread?

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: Well, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both ‘universality and ‘inalienability’ are two essential traits.

(Security Guard comes to the table.)

SECURITY GUARD (to Humpty Dumpty): Sir, you are not wearing a mask.

HUMPTY DUMPTY: Well, I had it outside, but I lost it after my 18-wheeler ran out of gas. I came inside to get warm and get some breakfast. I’m sorry. My rig is …

SECURITY GUARD:  …blocking traffic.

HUMPTY DUMPTY:  Yes, that’s right. These Athenian winters are not as tough as those in Ottawa, but the Greek truckers are in solidarity with the Canadian truckers against vaccine mandates, so we’re blocking this McDonald’s entrance.[23]

SECURITY GUARD: You are free to leave.

HUMPTY DUMPTY: But not free to stay. I got it. Looks like he’s got the power. (forlorn)

SMITH: Well, Humpty, you are right in the following sense. You are free to decide at this moment. Freedom is a fundamental right; you can’t take it away from me, from us.

HUMPTY DUMPTY: But I just lost it.

(From across the aisle)

ALASDAIR MACINTYRE:  But, Mrs. Roosevelt, the Universal Declaration as a statement of human rights is really based on a “fiction”. There are no such rights, I am sorry to say, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns.[24]

SOCRATES: So, such ‘fictions’ have only a life of sorts in the mind of the person thinking them?

ALASDAIR MACINTYRE: Yes, and these rights have a sort of mental existence, since we are discussing rights. However, rights have no ontological status above an airy thought.

HAMLET: Ditto that, my liege!

ALASDAIR MACINTYRE: I suppose that if enough people believed in the same thought at the same time, then we would have the appearance of a more firmly grounded concept, grounded in reality, but this collective is really only individual people thinking and believing in a thought, in this case, a right. It would be a sort of mass psychosis, similar to the Miracle of Fátima.[25]

SOCRATES (to Glaucon): Glaucon, I am sorry to say that I didn’t bring enough drachma with me to cover my lunch.

GLAUCON: That’s okay, Socrates; I got you covered. However, you came with a fistful of questions, and that is more than enough to hang on to.[26]

SOCRATES: Eureka! That’s it!

PETER SINGER: What?

SOCRATES: Drachma, money! As we were talking, I was thrashing around in my mind, trying to find an analogy to what Dr. …

ALASDAIR MACINTYRE: Dr. MacIntyre. You can call me Alasdair.

SOCRATES: Alasdair, is money akin to rights in the manner you describe? That is, money is a concept that is, well, just made up, just pieces of metal stamped with a portrait of Athena and the Owl of Athens, so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat. (Margin Call, 2011)

ALASDAIR MACINTYRE: Yes, I would say so. Money too is really a collective fiction. If everyone or most people believe in the value of money, then the money has value. As soon as people lose faith, then the money becomes just so much stuff, basically worthless.

PETER SINGER: I would agree with that. In fact, since rights talk is pretty much just that, talk, we should rather let our collective preferences guide our thoughts about how best to live and arrange things.

SOCRATES: What do you mean? Can you give us an example to guide our thinking?

PETER SINGER: Well, let me think….Okay, here goes.  In the 1970’s, Melbourne, Australia, where I am from, was the first jurisdiction in the world to make it compulsory to wear a seat belt in a car. The legislation was attacked as a violation of individual freedom, but Victorians accepted it because it saved lives. Now most of the world has similar legislation. I can’t recall when I last heard someone demanding the freedom to drive without wearing a seat belt.[27] Such seatbelt laws, now a part of most every country’s array of vehicle laws, does infringe on personal liberty, and such laws are paternalistic. But I appeal to John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, which suggests that we should avoid an action that would put others at serious risk. Not being vaccinated against the plague, as you call it, actually Covid-19, poses a risk to others.

SOCRATES:  So, using seatbelts is similar to taking the vaccine?

PETER SINGER:  Exactly. You see, we are not good at protecting ourselves against very small risks of disaster. [28]  Though the risk of getting injured in a car, without using seatbelts is quite low, we need only talk with people who experienced serious car crash injuries because they forgot to or opted not to use the seatbelts. They regret their irrational decisions, to be sure. Same with the vaccine.

SOCRATES: Well, are seat belts and vaccines really equivalent? After all, using seat belts when in the chariot race is something the driver puts on his body. The vaccine, though, is something that is put into the person’s body. We can easily take off the seat belt, but we cannot ‘take off’ the vaccine, as its effects are at least more than crinkling one’s cloak.[29]

PETER SINGER: Well, I’m not saying the situations with seat belts and vaccines are identical, but in the case of vaccination, the case is even stronger because you are putting other people at risk in the way that not wearing a seat belt is foolish for your own interests, but it doesn’t really put other people at risk.[30]

SOCRATES: Okay, let’s formalize your argument. If X requires a minimum discomfort to the individual in order to bring about a greater good for the community, then x should undergo that discomfort, which, in this case, is one or another of the vaccines/boosters made available.

PETER SINGER: Yes, you’re right, so far.

SOCRATES: Let’s say that x gets the vaccine/boosters.

PETER SINGER: Then the greater good for the community is brought about, at least, less risk.  It’s an easy argument and is based on preferences, not a metaphysical concept.

SOCRATES: It must be an easy argument, if I can follow the trail.

PETER SINGER: The argument is of course valid.

ALASDAIR MACINTYRE: But is that argument sound? By this I mean, are both premises in fact true? Let’s rephrase the argument using one of your favored argument forms you have used for other topics, such as famine relief, treatment of nonanimals, and helping others generally.

PETER SINGER:  Okay. Here goes.  If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.[31]  The rest of the argument would follow, as unstated, as one or more enthymemes.

SMITH: But the same problem of soundness occurs in your first premise. Everything hangs on the facticity of the first premise, and the truth or falsity of such a statement is an empirical task.

ALICE: (following the conversation as best she could): Maybe wearing seatbelts and taking a vaccine are two different animals.

SOCRATES: That’s a great point, little Alice. By the way, what’s your favorite animal?

ALICE: Lately, I have a penchant for rabbits, but in the end, all animals are something special. Would you agree, sir (to Peter Singer).

PETER SINGER: Yes, indeed, young Alice, as all sentient animals can experience joy and pain.

ALICE: Oh, yes, to be sure.

SECURITY GUARD (returning to the table and table divider, where Humpty Dumpty and Alice are sitting precariously):  Do you have a V-card?

(Humpty Dumpty pulls out a slip of paper with a computation on it.)

365 – 1 = 364

SECURITY GUARD (looking at the math): What have these numbers to do with anything? And you’re holding it upside down!

ALICE: That’s my line![32]

HUMPTY DUMPTY: To be sure I was.[33] Okay, I don’t have a V-card.  I am in good health, have natural immunity, and practice social distancing and hygiene and such. As you can see, I am sitting on this wall, away from the rest. I decided not to get vaccinated for literary reasons.

SECURITY GUARD: (frowning) That’s it. You’re out.

ALICE: Here, take my hand, Humpty. Let’s book.

HUMPTY DUMPTY:  I come from a book. Let’s have a look at the nook where you took the rook!

ALICE:  I am just the Queen’s pawn, but I hope to learn more from the grown-ups.

HUMPTY DUMPTY:  Good luck with that.  As you can see, they haven’t a clue. (looking at the guard) Okay, I’ll go, but can you help me down?

PETER SINGER (Leaning in on the conversation): And if Humpty Dumpty has a great fall, what then? Who and particularly when will the doctors put Humpty Dumpty back together again?

ALICE: Well, it can’t be all the king’s men.

PETER SINGER: If he falls and goes to pieces, I think that because he has not been vaccinated for the plague, he should go to the end of the line at hospital or clinic as well. In fact, I suggest that when both a vaccinated and an unvaccinated patient with COVID-19 need the last available bed in a hospital’s intensive care unit, the vaccinated patient should get it. Those who view vaccination as a ‘personal choice’ need to bear personal responsibility for choosing to place others’ lives at risk.[34], [35]

SOCRATES:  Tough love!

PETER SINGER: Well, there are consequences for our actions of not buckling up or not getting vaccinated and booster follow-ups or falling off a wall.

SOCRATES:  What about standing in line at Mc…

PETER SINGER:  McDonald’s? Should unvaccinated people be placed at the end of every line? Now that’s a thought worth considering. But if my argument had its way, they’d be on the highway, not here.

SECURITY GUARD: (looking at Socrates): Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.

SOCRATES: Really?  Why? I didn’t see the lights flashing last call. Oh, I have my mask and V-card. (flashes the card quickly)

SECURITY GUARD: This is McDonald’s, sir. You don’t have any footwear and are not in compliance.

SOCRATES: (moving slowly toward the exit): Okay, I will go. So long, all of you! If this is eternity, to speak about enduring topics in such a lively manner with such noble and thoughtful spirits, then “let me die again and again.”[36]  There are so many noble spirits that I still have yet to talk with about the question of human rights. Want to come with us, Humpty Dumpty and Alice?

ALICE:  We’re off!

(everyone waving enthusiastically to the parting guests)

(outside, below the Golden Arches, the foursome stand, the sun well up and shining)

GLAUCON: Socrates, once again, you were not in compliance.

SOCRATES:  One of my habits. God forbid if a philosopher is entirely in compliance.

GLAUCON: Yes, indeed, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Now, that’s the Glaucon I have known all these ages! Let’s book!

GLAUCON: Book?

SOCRATES: No, I don’t like writing; I mistrust pinning thoughts to papyrus, like so many butterflies in a dusty collection.[37]Instead, we should let the thoughts fly where they will.

GLAUCON:  Yes, I agree, Socrates.

(looking upward)

Say, look at those golden arches!

SOCRATES: They must be a sign! I wonder what they mean.

Notes

[1] Though there are several McDonald’s in Athens city center, no McDonald’s is presently located in the Piraeus Port area, so the location is fictitious.

[2] Plato. Phaedo, 118a, a reference to Socrates’ last words to Crito. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Asection%3D118a

[3] Temple of Athena Nike was destroyed several times, but at the time of Socrates, its form and repairs were completed during Socrates’ lifetime, in 420 BCE. Athenians prayed for victory over their Spartan rivals in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). https://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/en/other-monuments-periklean-building-programme/temple-athena-nike

[4] Plato. Phaedrus. 275d. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0174%3Atext%3DPhaedrus%3Asection%3D275d Socrates disliked writing down words.

[5] Ancient Olympics. http://ancientolympics.arts.kuleuven.be/eng/TB003EN.html

[6]Theseus was given a thread to use when entering the maze, to find and slay the Minotaur, and find his way out again. https://www.greekmyths-greekmythology.com/myth-of-theseus-and-minotaur/

[7] Plato. The Apology. 41a-b. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DApol.%3Asection%3D41a

[8] Diogenes Laertes. Lives of the Philosophers. Book VI, Chapter 1. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:abo:tlg,0004,001:6 Antisthenes was one of Socrates’ students. He lived in Piraeus and would walk barefoot to Athens city center, to listen to and talk with Socrates. Antisthenes later went on to found a school of cynicism.

[9] Paine, Thomas. The Rights of Man. 1791. https://www.ushistory.org/Paine/rights/b2-intr.htm

[10] Declaration of the Rights of Man, 1789. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/rightsof.asp

[11] Plato. Euthyphro. 10a. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DEuthyph.%3Asection%3D10a

In asking the young Euthyphro about the nature of piety, Socrates poses a dilemma: “Is that which is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?” Socrates suggests that the definition of piety cannot be tampered with; not even God may change it.

[12] Shakespeare. Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/full.html

[13] Victoria Declaration. E-mail correspondence with Dan Broudy.

[14] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, 1948, https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

[15] Ibid.

[16] Bentham, Jeremy, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Chapter 17, 1789. https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/bentham1780.pdf  Bentham contributed much to the theoretical basis for later and more refined contributions to the theory of utilitarianism.

[17]Ibid.

[18][18] Singer, Peter. Interview. The Big Conversation. “I disagree with The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unDW0JWWUB8 Singer, one of the most outspoken public intellectuals in the English-speaking world,  has written extensively on treatment of and regard for nonhuman animals, particularly Animal Liberation.

[19]  Kelsen, Hans. “Plato and the Doctrine of Natural Law,” 14 Vanderbilt Law Review 23, 1960 https://scholarship.law.vanderbilt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3935&context=vlr

[20] Bentham, Jeremy, Anarchical Fallacies, Article 2, #3 (1843) http://fs2.american.edu/dfagel/www/Class Readings/Bentham/AnarchichalFallicies_excerpt.pdf

[21]  Free Dictionary. https://www.thefreedictionary.com/Humpty+Dumpty

[22] Carroll, Lewis, Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6, 1871. https://sabian.org/looking_glass6.php Lewis Carroll, pen name for Charles Dodgson, taught math and logic at Christ Church, Oxford, and wrote two lengthy and enduring children’s stories, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

[23]Despite Court Order, “Canada Protesters Are Still Blocking Key Border Bridge.” New York Times. February 17, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/02/11/world/canada-trucker-protest Actually, Greek truck drivers were striking and blocking traffic for liberalizing driving permits, to increase the number of licensed truck drivers, not in favor or reducing vaccination mandates for work.

[24] McIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue:  A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd edition. (Notre Dame, Indiana:  University of Notre Dame Press, 2007, p. 69.

[25] Silva, Lara. “What happened at the Miracle of Fátima?” December 14, 2021. https://www.portugal.com/history-and-culture/what-happened-at-the-miracle-of-fatima/

Three peasant children were convinced they saw and spoke with the Virgin Mary, on at least six difference occasions, over a period of months, culminating the Miracle of the Sun, the final miraculous event at which over 70,000 people witnessed.

[26] The drachma was a unit of currency during the time of Socrates, and its etymology refers to ‘grasping’, ‘holding’. Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/drachma

[27] Singer, Peter, “Why Vaccination Should be Compulsory,” Project Syndicate. August 4, 2021. https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/why-covid-vaccine-should-be-compulsory-by-peter-singer-2021-08?barrier=accesspaylog

[28]  Ibid.

[29] “Eminent philosopher Peter Singer calls for compulsory vaccines” Sky News. August 9, 2021. https://www.skynews.com.au/opinion/andrew-bolt/eminent-philosopher-peter-singer-calls-for-compulsory-vaccines/video/2937c0425c2b5d067a954ea698cba083 Socrates’ thoughts about the analogy were mentioned by the Sky News interviewer, when talking with Peter Singer about compulsory vaccines.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”. Philosophy and Public Affairs. Volume 1. Number 3 (Spring 1972), 231. https://personal.lse.ac.uk/robert49/teaching/mm/articles/Singer_1972Famine.pdf

[32] Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6.

http://www.literaturepage.com/read/throughthelookingglass-53.html Humpty Dumpty and Alice converse about the relative advantages of celebrating a birthday or many un-birthdays.

[33] Ibid.

[34]  Singer, Peter. “Victims of the Unvaccinated,” Project Syndicate, January 5, 2022.

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/why-covid-vaccine-should-be-compulsory-by-peter-singer-2021-08?barrier=accesspaylog

[35] Eminent philosopher Peter Singer calls for compulsory vaccines. Sky News interview. August 9, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ct83CQdb4wo In this interview, Singer uses the same seatbelt-vaccine analogy, but expresses a much milder view than the later article “Victims of the Unvaccinated,” January 5th, 2022.

[36] Plato, Apology, 41a, https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DApol.%3Asection%3D41a)

[37] Plato. Phaedrus, op. cit. Socrates suggests that writing is not an effective method of communication. Writing is merely the “appearance of wisdom” (275a) and debilitates memory and aids forgetfulness. Also, words, as with a painting, does not respond to a question, but merely sits in silence: “Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing.” (275d)

(Featured Image: “The Parthenon – Acropolis, Greece” by Arch_Sam is licensed under CC BY 2.0.)

Author

  • Christopher Melley

    Christopher Daniel Melley has taught undergraduate philosophy since 1984, at Green Haven Correctional Facility, Dutchess Community College SUNY, Marist College, the University of Maryland University College, and a host of other colleges online. He completed an MA in philosophy at Columbia University; then earned a PhD at the University of Saarbruecken, Germany. Concentrating on issues relating to healthcare ethics, he has enjoyed forays into other areas, such as logic, time, language, and more recently, writing a series of dialogues in the spirit of Socrates as well as a play set along the German-French border. He has spent most of his life in the US, Germany, and is now in Okinawa, Japan. He has recently revived his life-long interest in percussion.