Friday, July 20, 2007

Defining 'Rights'

I have another question from the studio audience that I would like to take on.

I wonder if you'd agree with me that defining human rights is ultimately an act of social agreement (with input from culture and, hopefully, design principles)? Or do you think a set of objective and well-defined inalienable rights can be reached through reason? (Or as certain theists might phrase it, are human rights as absolute as 2+2=4?)

This is a very popular question. Unfortunately, I think that the question itself contains some mistakes. It is an example of what logicians call a ‘complex question’ – a question of the form “Do you still beat your wife?” The question itself assumes that two things are true that are, in fact, not true. Consequently, the question cannot be answered without first identifying and eliminating those mistakes.


One of the problems with this question can be illustrated by asking a similar question. “Do you think that (the word) ‘dinosaur’ was invented in the 1800s? Or did dinosaurs die out about 65 million years ago?”

Before answering this question, one has to ask, “Are we talking about the word ‘dinosaur’, or are we talking about dinosaurs?” Because, these are not the same thing. The word ‘dinosaur’ did not exist until the 1800s. Dinosaurs lived over 65 million years ago. The word ‘dinosaur’ was made by combining the Greek words ‘deino’ (terrible, fearfully great) and ‘sauros’ (lizard). Dinosaurs were made of cells.

When a person asks a question about definitions, they are asking a question about the word. The danger here comes from saying something true about the word that is not true about things in the real world. It is like saying, ‘The word ‘dinosaur’ did not exist before 1840; therefore, there were no dinosaurs in existence before 1840.”

So, now, let us look at the statement, “Defining ‘human rights’ is ultimately an act of social agreement.”

This is true.

It is also true that defining ‘dinosaur’ is an act of social agreement. Defining ‘planet’ is an act of social agreement. Defining ‘atom’, ‘malaria’, ‘argument’, ‘hypotenuse’, ‘blog’, and every word ever conceived in every field of study from physics to entertainment are all acts of social agreement.

The fact that defining ‘dinosaur’ is an act of social agreement tells us nothing about dinosaurs. In particular, it does not give us any reason to argue that dinosaurs themselves existed merely as a consequence of social agreement. The fact that defining ‘human rights’ is a matter of social agreement tells us little about human rights as defining ‘dinosaur’ by social agreement tells us about dinosaurs.

Make Believe

So, the question is, “Are human rights a matter of social agreement?”

Here, I am going to engage in a reduction ad absurdum argument – I am going to reduce the belief that rights are a matter of social agreement to an absurdity. Because, if human rights are a matter of social agreement, then the institutions and practices where human rights are used are a game of ‘make believe’ or ‘let’s pretend’.

Let’s pretend that people have a right to life. The way we play this game is that we say that everybody has this ‘right to life,’ which means that anybody who takes the life of another (in a certain way) deserves to die, so the rest of us get together and kill him. Killing him doesn’t violate his right to life because we are going to pretend that this ‘right to life’ disappears – it evaporates, sort of – whenever a person kills another in a particular way.

But is there really a right to life?

Well, no. Don’t be silly. There’s not really a right to life. Everybody knows that. We’re just pretending.

But, if you are just pretending that there is a right to life, then are you just pretending to kill people who violate that right?

We have the power of changing the definitions of words simply by agreeing to a new definition (as astronomers did with the word ‘planet’). But changing our definitions has zero effect on things in the real world. Pluto did not change, simply because we changed our definition of ‘planet’.

Yet, those who hold that human rights are a matter of convention, hold that we can change things in the real world simply by changing the way we talk about them. Call something a right and it acquires new properties – new powers – that it did not have when we did not call it a right.

The only things that we can change simply by agreeing to change them are things in the realm of ‘make believe’ or ‘let’s pretend’. If we all decide to agree that Santa has a ninth reindeer named Rudolph, then Santa has a ninth reindeer named Rudolph.

This ties in with what has become a slogan in my writing:

I do not accept that there is a distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. I accept that there is only a distinction between ‘is’ and ‘is not’. We must either place ‘ought’ squarely in the realm of what ‘is’, or we must relegate it to the realm of what ‘is not’. To claim that there is a third option – a third essence or realm reserved for ‘ought’, that is distinct and separate from ‘is’, but which must not put in the realm of what ‘is not’ is an extraordinary claim – the type of claim that we have no reason to accept, except through extraordinary proof.

The False Dichotomy of Ethics

Now, we enter the realm of the second false assumption written into one of the most commonly asked questions in ethics – the false dichotomy. I am either required to say that morality is a game of make-believe as described above, or I must defend the thesis that the universe is filled with a particular type of value-entity – a type of ‘goodon’ and ‘badon’ radiation emitted by certain states of affairs that we have the capacity to detect.

This is why discussions in ethics so often go around in circles. One person says, “The idea that morality is a game of make-believe filled with imaginary rights and duties is so absurd that goodons and badons must exist.” His opponent then counters, “The idea that the universe is filled with goodons and badons is so absurd that morality must be a game of make-believe involving such let’s-pretend entities as rights and duties.”

The question of which view is correct can never be answered, because both views are mistaken.

Desires exist. They are not make-believe, they are real. They are as real as we are.

Desires are propositional attitudes that provide reasons for action. A ‘desire that P’ for some proposition P is a reason for that agent to act to bring about or preserve a state of affairs in which P is true.

Some of the states of affairs that people have reason to bring about is to promote the existence of desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and to inhibit the existence of desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Everything I have mentioned is still real. Yet, I have not, nor will I ever, need to bring in any mysterious entities such as ‘goodons’ and ‘badons’.

Some of the desires that there are many and strong reasons to promote is an aversion to taking the life of others, aversion to action without consent, and an aversion to responding to mere words with violence.

Another way of saying the same thing is to advocate a right to life, to liberty, and to freedom of speech (to give just three examples).

The proposition that there are many strong reasons for action for people generally to promote these aversions is as true as propositions about height, weight, distance, numbers, or locations of things in the universe. There is nothing make-believe in any of this. There are no intrinsic values involved.


So, my conclusion is to say that I am not talking about defining ‘human rights’. Our definition of ‘human rights’ is as unimportant to the study of the reasons that exist for and against an aversion to killing, as our definition of ‘planet’ is to our study of Pluto.

I am talking about relationships between desires and states of affairs – between the different things that can exist and the reasons-for-action that exist for preserving or bringing about those states. In this, all objectively true statements fall within the realm of what ‘is’, and all else false within the realm of ‘is not’ – with some wiggle room created by fuzzy logic and similar concepts that still apply equally to all sciences.

I think that there are objectively true and false relationships between desires and states of affairs. In the realm of value theory, this is all I need.


Anonymous said...

Heh, I didn't mean to set it up as an either/or like that. I asked the question fully expecting you to come up with an approach I hadn't considered. Thanks!

olvlzl said...

One thing I am absolutely certain of, if someone lives in a situation, a country, region, etc. where their basic rights are violated up to and including the right to life all of this analysis would not only not be necessary, it would be rejected as absurd. Reading "Long Walk To Freedom" or Southern Horrors, Lynch Law in All Its Phases (available online at Project Gutenberg) will clarify the issue more than this kind of discussion. Reality is real.