Monday, March 03, 2008

George Carlin on the Absence of Rights

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.

7 comments:

Stefan Monsaureus said...

Carlin's point, I think, was to demonstrate that rights are not absolute, nor are they permanent. Working with the common understanding of "rights" as the codification of a social contract, he challenges his audience to question their own assumptions. In an age that is sadly bereft of critical thought and in which some civil liberties have been placed at risk, I won't quibble too much with his underlying philosophy.

With respect to your description of "rights" as "states of affairs that we have reason to promote a desire for or aversion to" I have to wonder if this suggests that a freedom of the press exists under a totalitarian regime, but is simply being violated, as certainly it is a state of affairs that a majority might wish to promote. Similarly, would slaves have a right to be free, even if they have no legal basis under which to assert that right? If so, there seems little actual value in this conception of rights. What good does it do to say that one has a right to do X, but will be arrested for doing X?

Secular Planet said...

I can't accept your definition of rights as "states of affairs that we have reason to promote a desire for or an aversion to." People have different desires and thus rights cannot be absolutely defined; a community accepts a set of conventions. It's also far too broad and would apply to things no one recognizes as rights (e.g., everyone on earth making $100k+ per year).

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Stefan Monsaureus

Carlin is not, in fact, working with the concept of 'rights' as a codification of a social contract. This concept of rights defines them as elements of an ideal contract - a contract that everybody in a 'state of nature' would have reason to sign themselves to. Carlton instead looks as 'rights' as the creations of actual 'contracts' or systems of law. He looks at the so-called 'rights' that governments do recognize, when moral rights are concerned witht he 'rights' that an ideal government would recognize.

Only an idiot would try to argue that there is freedom of the press under a totalitarian regime. However, it is true that the people have a right to the freedom of the press in the sense that people generally have reason to promote such a freedom. If there were no right to freedom of the press in a totalitarian regime, then anybody in a totalitarian regime who claims that the government is immoral and should be over-thrown, in part, because it violates such a right would be mistaken.

And if slaves have no right to be free, then it would be a mistake for them to fight for their freedom. A slave who tries to throw off his chains first says, "I have a right to be free," meaning, "My masters are morally wrong to have put these chains on me." If you deny that there is such a right to be free, then you deny that it is wrong for his masters to have put his chains on the slave.

The 'good' that it does to recognize that a person has a right to X even though he would be arrested for doing X is that it identifies a goal that is worth fighting for, even perhaps at some personal cost. It tells us the side in a dispute - between the pamphleteer and the tyrant, or between the slave and the master - we should support. It tells us who should win such a struggle.

The good that it did to say that slaves had a right to be free even where they were not free in fact is that it motivated people to fight for their freedom. The good that it does to say that people have a right to a fair trial by a jury of their peers where tyrants kill people on a whim is that it motivates people to fight to replace the tyranny with a system of just laws.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Secular Planet

Of course people have different desires.

However, my definition does not identify rights in terms of the desires that people have. It identifies rights in terms of desires that people have reason to promote.

I have a number of desires. You do not need to know what my specific desires are to know that I cannot fulfill a vast majority of those desires if I am dead, or if I am a slave to somebody else. In order to protect my life and my freedom, I have reason to create in others an aversion to murder, and an aversion to slavery. The claim that there is a right to life and a right to be free is simply to say that people generally, regardless of their specific desires, have reason to promote a society around them in which people generally have an aversion to murder and to slavery.

Also, this definition of 'rights' is subject to the law of morality that 'ought' implies 'can'. For example, it is not the case that a rescue worker has a duty to teleport a child out of a burning building, because it is not the case a rescue worker should teleport a trapped child out of a building burning. Since it is not the case that he 'can' teleport a child out of a burning building it makes no sense to say that he 'ought to' to do so.

The so-called 'right' to $100,000 per year would be nonsense, because it is absurd to say that we 'ought' to give everybody $100,000 per year when it is not the case that we 'can' give everybody $100,000 per year.

Since people do not have a reason to promote a desire that cannot be fulfilled, it is not the case that my definition actually supports such a 'right'.

The definition of rights that I use would, on the other hand, support the claim that people have a right to a certain minimum level of food, shelter, and health care to the degree that society 'can' provide it. Contrary to the claim that my definition is 'too broad', there are people who argue that we do have such a right.

Brian Cheek said...

Alonzo,

I don't think your clarification of your definition of "rights" successfully addressed the first problem that Secular Planet had with it, namely that your definition of "rights cannot be absolutely defined" because people's desires are different. Your response simply moves the problem from the sphere of individual desires to "people in general"'s desires, which themselves are subject to great change and variety - the problem of relativism, in a nutshell.

Who are these "people in general", and how did they arrive at a consensus on such things?

In particular, your slavery example is problematic. "If you deny that there is such a right to be free, then you deny that it is wrong for his masters to have put his chains on the slave." But it seems that your definition of "rights" allows for such a denial. If enough people - "people in general" - have good reason to promote slavery, then "people in general" have a right to own slaves.

Perhaps a good counter argument to this is that "people in general" must include those enslaved, and they of course do not have good reason to promote slavery. However, this is easily avoided by the slaveholder by defining the slaves as a group that is something other than completely human (which, of course, is not only a logic lesson but also a history lesson).

What am I missing in your definition to which you could appeal to stop this sort of thinking?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Brian Cheek

For a part of your answer, we need to distinguish between two closely related moral theories:

(1) Desire utilitarianism (the right act is the act that a person with good desires would perform, and good desires are those that tend to fulfill the most and strongest other desires)

(2) Desire-fulfilling act utilitarianism (the right act is the act that fulfills the most and strongest desires)

Act utilitarian theories ignore the fact that people act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of their desires, given their beliefs. The only way that an individual can consistently follow option (2) is if he had only one desire - a desire to fulfill the most and strongest desires. If he had any other desire (e.g., aversion to pain, hunger, thirst, desire for sex, preference for chocolate over vanilla) then there are instances in which he simply will not be able to do the right action.

Desire utilitarianism repects the fact that people act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires and asks, "Given this, what are the best desires that we can possibly cause a person to have?"

So, we are not talking about slavery itself per se on such a theory. We are talking about a love of liberty.

Slavery is the symptom of a culture that has an insufficient love of liberty. A society filled with people who love liberty is a society that is filled with people who abhore slavery. A slave society, in turn, is a society filled with people who have no love of liberty.

In order to protect my own freedom, I have reason to promote a love of freedom in others. In promoting a love of freedom in others, I am promoting an aversion to slavery.

I could, of course, promote an arbitrary and groundless assertion that 'those people over there don't count; they can be enslaved". Yet, if I do that, then I am promoting an arbitrary and groundless assertion that I don't count, or somebody that I care for does not count, and that they may be enslaved.

Not only am I safer in terms of not being arbitrarily excluded from the group that may not be enslaved, but I can negotiate the cooperation of a far larger number of people. Somebody else may define freedom to exclude those who are enslaved, but those who are enslaved still have many and strong reasons to oppose slavery. We cannot define their reasons out of existence. They still exist, and they will still motivate slaves to act in particular ways, and it motivates them to side with those who propose a wider concept of liberty.

The best option is a generic love of freedom. Everybody is safer in a society where there is a general love of freedom for everybody. Including me.

Rosangela Canino-Koning said...

You said: "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."

I think you meant "Another argument that Carlin uses to argue that rights DON'T exist is to say..."