George Carlin has a new comedy routine. It has recently appeared on HBO and is quite popular among the atheist blogsphere because of Carlin's explicit atheism. In this particular program, Carlin also took a swipe at the existence of rights.
Carlin is no philosopher, and to examine his work is not the same as examining a philosophical argument in defense of a position. Unfortunately, the pop philosophy of somebody like Carlin will reach more people and have more of an impact than anything having to do with a reasoned defense of a proposition.
If a comedien is going to defend a particular proposition, it would be better if they would defend a proposition that is true, and ridicule those who hold it to be false. When a commedien defends a proposition that is false, and ridicules those who believe it is true, it is counter-productive.
We know this. When Carlin says that no God exists, and ridicules those who believe in a God, we consider this to be a good thing.
I doubt that a commedien can convince somebody of a new proposition, but it probably does have the effect of reinforcing a proposition that a person already holds. It gives that attitude positive reinforcement, and positive reinforcement of a belief, though it is not a 'reason' for holding a belief, still has an effect.
So, while Carlin is reinforcing the attitude that no rights exist in an activity that does nothing in the sense of providing reasons, it may be worthwhile to offer some reasons on the other side of the scale.
Carlin's first question is, "Where do they come from?" He dismisses the God option (rights come from God) easily enough. "The God excuse - the last refuge of a man with no answers and no argument."
When I speak about rights, I certainly do not speak about anything that comes from God.
I hold that all forms of value exist as relationships between states of affairs and desires. Moral values concern relationships between malleable desires and other desires, and focus on questions of what malleable desires we have reason to promote or to inhibit. "Rights" fit into this account as states of affairs that we have reason to promote a desire for or an aversion to.
To say that there is a right to freedom of the press, on this account, is to say that it would be a good idea for us to promote an overall aversion to responding to words or other ways of conveying ideas with violence. We may, of course, respond with criticism and even condemnation, but not with violence.
Similarly, the right to a trial by jury on this account states that we have reason to promote an aversion to certain types of kangaroo justice - that we have reason to be averse to doing harm to a person unless that person has been proved to be deserving of harm in an arena where he has been allowed to defend himself and confront the evidence against him, and where the evidence is heard by a body that has no personal stake in the outcome (the 'jury').
These rights, I would argue, certainly do exist. These 'states of affairs to which there are many and strong reasons to argue for a desire or aversion' exist. They do not come from God. They are simply descriptive facts about how particular desires relate to each other.
The types of rights that Carlin says we made up are the rights that are found in documents - such as the Constitution of the United States. He notes that different governments around the world enumerate different rights. The fact that different cultures enumerate different rights is supposed to be evidence that they are simply made up.
Yet, if the account of rights that I use is true, their enumeration in any document is irrelevant. The question, concerning the existence of any right, is whether or not it is true (or false) that people generally have reason to promote any particular desire. A right to life exists regardless of whether it is enumerated in a Constitution, so long as people generally have reason to promote an overall aversion to killing.
In fact, this is how rights are spoken of in the various documents that Carlin referred to. The right to freedom of speech in the First Amendment, for example, is not something that did not exist until the First Amendment was ratified. Rather, it existed before the First Amendment was passed. The Amendment is nothing more than a limitation on the government from abridging a right that already exists.
Similarly, the 4th Amendment did not invent a right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. It is a prohibition on the government from violating a right that already exists.
Different people in different countries do not have different numbers of different rights. Instead, there are different theories describing states to which people generally should have desires or aversions, and there are different enumerations of those things to which people should have desires or aversions.
Another argument that Carlin uses to argue that rights exist is to say that rights cannot be taken away. He uses the fact that Japanese Americans were interred during World War II.
In 1942 there were 110,000 Japanese American citizens in good standing; law abiding people who were thrown into internment camps simply because their parents were born in the wrong country. . . . They had no right to a lawyer, no right to a fair trial, no right to a jury of their piers, no right to due process of any kind.
In fact, they did have a right to a lawyer and a right to a trial. These rights were violated. In fact, the very claim that the actions taken against them were wrong is the claim that their rights were violated.
If, indeed, a person has no right to a lawyer and no right to due process, then it would be false to claim that those who denied them a lawyer or due process did anything wrong. We would have no reason to apologize to the Japanese Americans about the way we treated them if it were true that they had no rights. It is precisely because they had rights that the U.S. Government ignored that we classify the act as 'wrong', 'immoral', or 'unjust'.
Nobody who seriously defends the concept of a right claims that a right is something that cannot be violated. In fact, they would claim that it is nonsense to speak of a right as a thing that cannot be violated. The violation of a right is not proof that the right does not exist. Instead, it is the fact that a violation of a right is a moral wrong - a contemptible act - is evidence that a right exists even when it is being violated.
So, Carlin's argument here is a straw man. The absurdity he is arguing against is more 'made up' than the rights that he claims to be talking about.