One of the interesting things the human mind can do is to use abstractions. We can think and talk of carrots and crops. Carrots are real physical things. You can eat one. The word “crops,” on the other hand, means plants grown to be harvested.”Crops” is an abstract idea that covers all kinds of things. But you can’t eat an idea.
It may seem silly to pry carrots and crops apart from one another when they are so closely related. However, there are important issues at stake here.
The Concrete Truth about Abstractions
An abstraction is actually a figment of our imagination, a convenient mental tool. The ability to think abstractly, to imagine a complex thing as a simple thing, is developed in early youth.1
There are at least three significant problems here:
- that abstractions simplify things by hiding their details, and,
- that when I use an abstract word, you have to imagine the details of what I am saying and you may imagine something totally different than what I am thinking, and,
- we have thousands of words that can be used as an abstraction or a concrete object. The word “label”, for example, is a concrete object in “Put this label on your shirt” but it is an abstraction in “It is bigotry to put a label on someone.”
So using abstractions make communications fuzzy at best, and deceptive at worst.
Noah Webster Worried About Abstractions
Noah Webster was so concerned about the tendency of abstraction to hide reality that he learned 28 languages so he could understand the origins of words in their ancient context. “Even the use of words such as ‘the people,’ ‘democracy,’ and ‘equality’ in public debate bothered Webster, for such words were ‘metaphysical abstractions that either have no meaning, or at least none that mere mortals can comprehend.'”2
As we write laws and as we discuss politics and religion – always touchy topics – we must be careful to avoid these thought and communication traps. We can do that by being sure the details don’t get overlooked or assumed. Otherwise, we can get ourselves into trouble.
This is one of the differences between liberals and conservatives. Liberals often want laws that affect groups or classes of people, but conservatives want laws that protect individual rights. At least this seems to be a trend I see in our two major political parties. I would love to hear how you see that. You can comment below.
Abstractions Confuse the Nature of Human Rights
We often see confusion in discussions of human rights. If we stick to concrete things, then we see “inalienable”3 or “natural rights”. But if we are okay with abstractions, we can talk about a “right to adequate health care” or even the so-called “freedom from” rights.
Natural rights formed the foundation of our democratic republic so we need to understand them if we want to protect them. Arguments for rights based on abstractions may be unfounded so we must know how to tell the difference between a natural right and an assumed one.
A quick review of natural rights seems in order here.
A “right” is a legal concept that describes the authority of its holder to act, and to not be prevented from action. The concept is, in itself, an abstraction, but natural rights are based solidly on objective reality as the following will show.
So consider a stone. There are billions of these in our world. They are so common as to be ignored except when they are needed or until one intrudes our private space in an unwelcome way. So does a stone have the rights to take up space and to be heavy? Notice that you cannot deny those rights of the stone without destroying the stone. These are clearly inherent and inalienable rights because they cannot be separated from stones. You either have a stone with rights or you have neither. This simple fact is the key to remembering the essence and power of natural rights.
Then consider a tree. Does it have the right to mine the earth, block out sunlight and even to digest the stones to fee