Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Let's talk about "rights"


Are "rights" --

a) "[M]oral principle[s] defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context;"

b) Defective shorthand for what should be thought of as "Stipulations concerning Entitlements and Responsibilities within a new conception of a Social Contract in order to facilitate the achievement of the Social Meta-Needs -- the Members of the Society being those who Execute the Contract together with all their Property;"

c) Occasionally and sporadically recognized areas of detente in the never-ending war of all against all; or

d) Something else?

For most of my adult life I've tacitly or explicitly operated on a doctrine of "natural rights," and for about half that time the particular doctrine in question has been Objectivist (but feel to riff on some other version for "a" above if you choose).

Over time, though, I've often noticed Underpants Gnome problems ("Phase 1: Collect Underpants; Phase 2: ?; Phase 3: Profit!") in implementation of "natural rights" doctrines:

1) Rights are inherent in the nature of man;

2) ?

3) X is/is not a right.

... with "natural rights" advocates replacing the question mark in "2" with whatever claim about the nature of man they need in order for "3" to yield the answer they want to get.

I also run into a few problems with the whole "in a social context" thing.

A not uncommon claim from "natural rights" advocates -- who tend to be individualists -- is that one cannot delegate or trade a right which one does not inherently possess. But if rights exist only in a "social context," nobody possesses them until that context is operant. A man alone on a desert island neither has nor needs "rights" because there is no "social context" in which they can exist. "Rights" as a concept only makes sense if there are other parties to either respect or violate them. Rights are only functional in a social, i.e. collective, environment.

In the Objectivist community, I've also run into people who take the "context is everything" further than "in a social context." For example, one guy argued to me -- seriously, I'm not making this up, although I'm probably phrasing it more harshly than he'd like -- that Iraqis didn't/wouldn't have "rights" until Americans had bombed them enough to force them into the appropriate "social context." The "rights" of those killed during said bombing weren't violated, because they didn't have those "rights" yet.

So, I'm definitely questioning the whole "natural rights" edifice.

As for "b," "c" and "d," for the moment I'm going to treat all of them as one class based on their mutual exclusivity with "a." We can go there after we thrash out "a or non-a?"

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