I got involved in a discussion on whether or not ideas do have rights with people on Twitter this weekend. One side of the discussion stated that ideas do not have rights, specifically the ideas predicated by religions. My side of the discussion stated that while ideas should not have rights, they do and this is a scary proposition for atheists across the board.
To really answer the question, we need to settle the terms ‘idea’ and ‘rights’. This isn’t an easy task. Epistemology and ontology have been trying to settle the term ‘idea’ for roughly 2500 years now, and there is no one preferred method for settling this term. However, for the scope of this writing, I’m going to assume that an idea is a thought that has gained some meaningful acceptance. One’s propositional attitude towards an idea could be anything, belief or disbelief. The acceptance of the idea need only be that which can lead to meaningfulness on the part of the idea.
For example, I can talk meaningfully about “love” even though my personal experience of love is qualitatively different from every other person who talks meaningfully about love. This brings up a classic problem of semantics, a problem further expanded upon by the philosopher Frege. The problem of sense and reference.
Now, this problem was illustrated by Frege noting that the term ‘the morning star’ and the term ‘the evening star’ both actually refer to the planet Venus. But ‘the morning star’ and ‘the evening star’ are qualitatively different from each other. Frege solved this problem by attributing qualities to ideas and the words that represent them. To Frege, the referent was the actual object, which includes ideas, in the world to which a word referred. The sense was how that object was qualified through language. Take love for example.
The idea of love is one that has a vague referent, and a unique sense for every language user. The fact that we can even meaningfully ask, “What is love?” points to the vagueness of love’s referent. The fact that we get unique responses when we ask people this question points to its sense being somehow related to the person answering the question. In some ways, the distinction between the sense of an idea and its referent fall into objective and subjective properties. This need not be the case, as sometimes it’s not clear at all what the sense and reference of a particular word or idea are.
Take money for example. It used to be that all currency in the United States was equal to a particular amount of gold. Now, it’s fiat, meaning that its value is ultimately dependent on complex economic factors which give rise to the idea of its worth. We can talk meaningfully about money, but how do we break down the sense and reference of money? Is the referent of money the paper currency and its sense the value? Or is the referent its value and the sense it’s physical or numerical representation? The answer is not really clear in this case as valid arguments can be made to answer both questions.
And in these cases where sense and reference are muddled is where the assigning of rights gets to be somewhat counterintuitive. Take for example copyright. Now the intention of copyright is to assign ownership of a particular idea to a particular person or group in order for them to be able to financially profit off that idea. Now we can generally agree that rights are entitlements to do or not do something, by virtue of the law of excluded middle. The intended rights of copyright is to entitle people to profit off ideas. However, this doesn’t prevent a similar entitlement being predicated on the idea itself. In fact, copyright laws entitle ideas to make money for a person. Ideas don’t necessarily have this property by virtue of being an idea. Furthermore, we can construct ideas which we predicate on other ideas which make the ideas themselves no longer idea-like, and this is the rabbit hole down which we fall when considering corporations.
The intent of incorporating a business is to minimize the financial risk of a business’ directors by raising capital through investors. The idea of a corporation is a particular hierarchy and composition of parts to achieve a particular business goal, in essence corporations are mainly teleological ideas. Here it’s hard not to commit the fallacy of composition. A corporation is not a person by virtue of the fact that in very many real ways it is composed of not only people, but the activities of people.
Now corporations weren’t always considered legal persons, this idea was predicated upon corporations by jurisprudence and legislation at state and federal levels. The idea of “personhood” was predicated upon corporations not just by the legal system, but by how we talk about corporations in ordinary language.
We talk of corporations as if they were people, when they aren’t people. They make “corporate decisions” and have very real rights protected by laws and jurisprudence. But it also makes sense to talk of corporations as not people, because they aren’t in essence people, they’re ideas. The confusion of both legal and ordinary language in this case makes realizing the latter proposition very difficult.
So predicating the idea of personhood on the idea of corporations leads us to a counterintuitive situation, and a bevy of linguistic confusion. We can meaningfully talk about corporations as people, and we can meaningfully talk about corporations as ideas due to their non-personhood. There are two distinct senses in which corporations are meaningfully discussed, much like the case of ‘the morning star’ and ‘the evening star’. In ordinary and legal language, we assign abstract personhood upon a corporation.
There is another abstract person that people deal with on a daily basis in the United States … god. And it’s no surprise to see why people grant personhood to their god. Depending upon one’s religious background, god is very essentially personal. But it would be difficult to say that god is a concrete person, even if your religious views tell you this. God is also an abstract person, but in a very distinct way from a corporation.
The referent of a corporation is the set of its constituent people, activities and structure. There is an ostensive referent, or a referent that we can demonstrate. God has no such referent, as the existential claims to god fail to meet even the most lenient burden of proof. It’s an empty referent.
So if god can’t have the same demonstrable reference as a corporation, then what about religions? Religion and corporations share key properties. They are both constituted by not just people, but the activities of people. Churches often legally incorporate themselves in order to more effectively deal with their financial activities. The First Amendment establishes that religions are allowed to exist, and that the government cannot create laws which give preferential treatment to one particular religion over people or other religions, or that regulate the ideological nature of religions. However, work on shaping the jurisprudence of the establishment clause is always underway.
Which is a scary thought. If we can give corporations legal personhood under the law by means of jurisprudence and legislation, then we can definitely give such personhood to churches and by extension religion itself. This could be used to counter recent gains in fundamental human rights if religions are given such personal rights, especially the gains made with marriage equality. And this is the next logical step in the conservative agenda, which is why they reframe the issue of marriage equality in terms of religious liberty. They want to confer such personhood upon their religion in order for it to be considered, in the eyes of the law, a person capable of being discriminated against. It’s also convenient that it’s easily absorbed by the ongoing and historical persecution narrative central to Christian identity.
Which makes the work of reason activists even more important, we do need to draw a line between an idea with palpable human consequences and an actual person. And while I agree that this is a very good reason why we should delineate the ontological difference between ideas and people, and ideas ought not to have rights, they unfortunately do. So framing the debate in terms of ideas not having rights is, however unintentionally, disingenuous.
What we need to press upon religious conservatives is not that ideas don’t have rights, but that some rights apply to actual people exclusively. Religious liberty is one such right. This is why the Sebeillius v Hobby Lobby decision is so dangerous to individual rights. Now that corporations have religious liberty, it’s not that hard of a jurisprudential move to ascribe personhood to churches and thus religions.
To confer legal personhood upon religions would be disastrous to individual human rights. Any attack, no matter how logical, could legally be seen as a discriminatory practice. This is for the simple reason that the work of the secular movement is to depersonalize religion and show the obvious logical shortcomings of religious claims in the light the evidence available to humanity. The epistemic claims of science relegate god to a redundancy at best, and to a fairy tale at worst. Legal personhood for religion could conceivably, though indeed not highly likely, make criticism of religion not just discriminatory, but genocidal.
And this is the end of the slippery slope argument for granting ideas rights. And admittedly, it is a slippery slope argument, but the very nature of language, which itself is an idea-promulgating enterprise, makes such a slippery slope possible. Language not only influences how ideas are perceived by our consciousness, but how these ideas change over time through discussion and discourse. Language and meaning change over time, and this makes the entire universe of discourse for ideas and language a slippery environment.
So, in order for us to prevent such a slippery slope coming to fruition, we need to be honest about how this comes about. We need to start preventing rights being assigned to legal personages as much as possible. Now, clearly corporations need to have certain rights in order to conduct business, and they should and do have such rights. But there is healthy robust debate about what the extent of those rights should be. We don’t want to end up in such a debate in terms of the legal personhood of religion.
And this is why we need to take charge of the discussion. Yes, ideas do have rights and that’s a scary proposition for any secular person. However, the most important right an idea has is the right to be scrutinized, which is something that is inherent in the nature of an idea.
We need to say that all ideas need to be rationally scrutinized because of their inherent power over humans. We need to establish limits to these rights for the welfare of humanity. We have limited all of the enumerated individual rights in the Bill of Rights in the interest of the welfare of people. You can’t yell fire in a theater with the intent to cause a stampede resulting in harm. You can’t own weapons of mass destruction due to their inherent potential for harm to humans. Religious liberty must be similarly contained, and the reason activists and atheists need to press this point the hardest.
Regardless of any constructed legal personhood, we have to scrutinize ideas regardless of their provenance. An idea from science should be scrutinized as much and as honestly as an idea from religion, and that is the heart of the secular movement. Because once religious ideas are scrutinized as honestly as scientific ideas, those ideas and their claims fade into the cacophony of unreason. And if an unreasonable idea is given personhood, the potential for harm to humanity is beyond calculability. Scrutiny is the right of ideas and the responsibility of people. This is the point we need to stress.