Tuesday, April 29, 2008

What's Important about Rights

Today, I wish to explain what rights are and to show that rights are real. Or, more precisely, that a particular conception of ‘rights’ refers to something that is real.

Emu Sam wrote in a comment last week:

I think I don't understand your definition of a "right." . . . I think . . . that you are saying a right will be inextricably bound up with morality. There exist rights, and these rights can be discovered by seeing what people generally have a reason to promote. Now that sounds like you're saying something exists - that there are "right particles" which can be violated or upheld. Obviously, this is not what you intended to say.

There are no 'right particles' in nature. Nor is there some sort of 'natural right' that takes the form of 'ought radiation' emitting from certain types of acts that somehow have the metaphysical implication of making it wrong to perform acts that are counter to this 'ought radition'. Any theory of rights that suggests such things can be dismissed as nonsense.

Yet, rights exist. They simply do not exist in any of these forms.

Rights exist in the sense that there are certain families of action that we have reason to cause others to have an aversion to performing. One way of saying, "People generally have many and strong reasons for causing others to have an aversion to actions that would deprive others of X" is to say, "Others have a right to X."

This conception of rights is not a 'noble lie' theory. I am not claiming that the false belief that rights exist is useful; therefore, if we are smart, we will promulgate this false belief that rights exist. I saying that rights do exist. A 'right to X' is precisely equal to 'people generally have many and strong reasons for causing in others an aversion to violating X'. There is no lie in this. This statement can be (and sometimes is) quite literally true.

Furthermore, it is a fact that we can discover – and it is a fact that we have discovered. When the founding fathers said that we have rights to life, liberty, property, a trial b jury, religious liberty, speak (or write) freely, freedom from unwarranted searches and seizures, not to be subject to cruel and unusual punishment, and the like they were saying that people have many and strong reasons to set up aversions (and other barriers) to performing these actions. The many and strong reasons are the reasons that they appealed to when they said that such a right existed.

I want to approach this issue of whether rights exist by looking at what people are afraid of when they should think that rights to not exist.

What people fear is that to deny that a right exists means that others must be at liberty to do as they please. So, if I say that you have no right to freedom of speech, it means that nobody can do any wrong in attempting to silence you. If I say that you have no right to liberty, then people may act to enslave you without doing you any wrong. And if I say that you have no right to life, then others are under no obligation to refrain from killing you, if it should serve their interests to do so.

Whereas we all have reason to fear the suppression of truth, as well as being enslaved or killed (or having those we care about enslaved or killed), we have reason to worry what implications people may draw from the claim that 'there are no rights'.

In logic, if a person claims, "A implies B", and yet we can show that B is false, this means one of two things. Either it means that A also is false (since, by assumption, if A were true then B would be true). Or it means that A does not, in fact, imply B.

So, if the claim that 'no rights exist' implies that 'people can do no wrong by suppressing speech or enslaving or murdering others', then a proof that shows ‘it is the case that those who suppress speech or who enslave or kill others do wrong’ implies either that rights do exist, or the denial of rights does not carry the implication that people fear.

Yesterday, I argued that we have many and strong reason to promote in others an aversion to killing. Given the tremendous instrumental value of a life, we have reason to protect our own life and the lives of those we care about. One way to do this is to promote in others an aversion to killing the innocent. The reason we want an aversion to killing the innocent (as opposed to simply a rule or a law) is that an aversion will motivate an agent not to kill the innocent even when it would otherwise be profitable to do so and even when he would not get caught. The agent will refrain from killing because one of his strongest reasons for action is 'to not be a killer of innocent people'. If this is what the agent desires, then there is no way that killing an innocent (even when he would not get caught) can fulfill such a desire.

The same argument can be given for creating an aversion to restraining speech by violence, or enslaving others.

This statement that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote in others aversion to silencing speech through violence, aversions to slavery, and aversions to killing the innocent, can be said much more economically by saying, “It is wrong to restrain speech, to enslave others, or to kill the innocent.”

Where, "There is no right to life" implies "There is no wrong in killing the innocent," a demonstration that it is wrong to kill the innocent implies that there is, in fact, a right to life. Or it implies that the absence of a right to life is not the same as saying that it is morally permissible to kill the innocent. Which is it?

Here, I am going to borrow a page from a Chemistry handbook. The term 'atom' originally meant 'without parts' – a particle that could not be divided. When chemists became accustomed to speaking about oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon atoms they confronted a theory that said that these 'atoms' did, indeed, have parts.

Chemists were left with a dilemma. They could continue to say that 'atoms' had no parts, and that these minute particles of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and the like were not 'atoms'. Or they could continue to call them 'atoms' but allow that atoms could have parts.

I want the reader to recognize that the distinction here was fully arbitrary. It did not depend in any way on any experiment or observation of nature. It was simply a decision on how to use a term. Chemists choose to continue to speak of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen atoms but allowed that atoms could have parts.

And so it is with rights. I could hold that 'rights' are supernatural entities that make it wrong to suppress speech or enslave or kill others. Or I could allow that 'rights' are 'whatever it is that makes it wrong to suppress speech or enslave or kill others'. The first option denies the implication that 'no rights' implies 'it is not wrong to suppress speech or enslave or kill others'. The second option implies that 'it is wrong to suppress speech, enslave or kill others' implies 'there are, indeed, rights to freedom of the press, to liberty, and to life'.

I want the reader to realize how the chemists’ choice in no way threatens the objectivity of chemistry. It remains a hard science, even though the choice as to how to use the term 'atom' was purely subjective. Similarly, it is no threat to the objectivity of ethics that there is a similar choice to make on how we are to use the word 'right'. If we wish to insist that the absence of a right to life implies the moral permissibility of killing, then rights do, in fact, exist. They do not exist as strange supernatural entities, of course, but they exist. They exist in the fact that people have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to killing the innocent.

Similarly, the term 'malaria' meant, literally, 'bad air' (mal aeria) – and referred to a disease that people once falsely thought was caused by bad air. Incense swung around a room (as during some Catholic rituals) and perfumed cloth held over the nose and mouth were thought to ward off the disease because it sweetened the air.

Similarly, the American Astronomical Association recently changed the definition of a planet, and changed the truth value of the statement, "Pluto is a planet" from 'true' to 'false' by taking a vote. Yet, this did not in the least bit put the objectivity of astronomy into doubt.

The move that I make above with respect to 'rights' does nothing to call the objectivity of ethics into question – any more than chemists playing with the definition of 'atom' physicians playing with the definition of 'malaria', or astronomers playing with the definition of 'planet' were threats to the objectivity of chemistry, astronomy, or medicine.

Given that we have a strong tradition of using the term 'right' to refer to things that we have reason to give people an aversion to doing, we should continue to use the term 'right' to that which we have many and strong reasons to give people an aversion to doing. There really are things (such as theft, rape, and killing the innocent) that we have reason to cause others to have an aversion to doing – and aversions that they have reason to cause in us. So something that is as fit to call a 'right' as the smallest particle of an element can be called an ‘atom’ or a we can sensibly call ‘rights’ actually does exist.


Emu Sam said...

Thank you for this essay.

Making sure I understand it: According to you/Desire Utilitarianism, a right is a (thing/state of affairs/set of circumstances/situation). This situation is such that people generally (read most people/most rational people/most people if they were rational?) want this situation to apply to them. Therefore, people generally have a reason to promote this state of affairs for everyone.

However, it's important to remember that it must be possible to promote this state of affairs generally. People do not have a right to immortality, no matter how much people generally may have reason to promote it, because immortality is impossible at the current state of medical science.

Also, "many and strong reasons" means that just because most people have a whim doesn't make it a right.

I think this may turn out to be an important concept that's difficult to keep straight - which is probably the reason you use "people generally have reason to promote" instead of "people have a right to" in most of your essays.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Emu Sam

According to desire utilitarianism, a 'right' is a relationship between a desire or aversion and other desires or aversions such that a 'right to X' implies that 'people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to depriving agents of X'.

As far as "people generally" . . .

This does not mean 'most people' because it may be the case that 'most people' have a weak reasons to support P while a minority have very strong reasons for supporting not-P. I use the phrase 'more and stronger' because a few strong reasons can outweigh a larger number of weak reasons.

This also does not mean anything that includes the word 'rational' because 'rationality' applies to means. There is no rationality of ends. It does not matter whether the pain one feels upon suffering third degree burns is 'rational' or not. Indeed, it might not be rational to feel pain (after you have saved yourself from the fire). What matters is that it hurts.

There is an element of rationality in that I say that a right is something that 'people generally have many and strong reasons to promote' - it depends on the reasons actually existing. A person might (irrationality) believe he has a reason to promote X that does not exist in fact. However, this is captured by the fact that I am talking about the reasons that exist, not the reasons that an agent believes to exist.

Desires (not beliefs) are the only reasons for action that exist.

You are correct in that morality is bounded by the limitation that 'ought' implies 'can'. That is to say, the options that morality is concerned with are options that are possible.