A Frank Discussion of Rights

Previously, I have written on my blog and on social media concerning rights and all the things surrounding rights in common discourse. As far as I can tell, I have not written the word “right” in quite a while… and I’ve only mentioned it a few times out-loud in private conversations as I explored the ideas I am planning to write on, today.

Today, I want to begin a frank discussion of rights. Given my self-imposed word limit and general mental constraints, I want to ask and contextualize three questions and make one follow-up (potentially) controversial statement. One may be able to trace the evolution of my ideas alluded to in previous posts to where I am now by reading though my published posts and the book-exclusive material, and one certainly could do so if they know me on social media or in-person; regardless, this is where I am at in my exploration of the concept of rights. So now, some questions:

  1. What function does the concept of rights serve?
  2. What is the ontology or metaphysics concerning rights?
  3. Are there more philosophically resilient alternatives to the concept of rights?

I will save my statement for later.

Rights seem to be a shorthand for ethical and moral reasoning. In classical texts I’m familiar with, “rights” are less a concern than they tend to be in modern and postmodern texts. As a matter of fact, when the Greeks and Romans addressed concepts that look like “rights”, they tended to focus more on what the term “privileges” covers in the modern age: a liberty granted to an individual or group by the guy(s) in charge. In a lot of ways, moral and ethical argumentation either had everything to do with virtue and ignored rights entirely, or centered entirely on one’s responsibilities as derived from one’s privileges. In the middle-ages, the concept had evolved slightly so as to include what amounts to “privileges granted by God”; a prime example would be the so-called “divine right of kings” or the liberties taken by the Church.

In the 1700’s, there was a major shift in popular philosophy. With the sudden explosion of productive technologies (such as the printing press and general industry), the subsequent decentralization of cultural production and consumption, and the sub-subsequent weakening of governmental power, certain theories that were only whispered about in the middle ages became widely popular. One such set of theories would be those of classical liberalism; another would be social contract theory; and one more example would be the rise of secular humanism.

One theme that was central to all three of those sets of theories was this niggling question: “If our rights aren’t derived from the king’s (or God’s) permission, how can morality exist?” The answer that seems to have won out in the marketplace of ideas is the straightforward, “People have rights because they are people, just because. Rights are something intrinsic instead of some contingent set of permissions.” Given how liberalism, democracy, and humanism have played out over the last few centuries, I doubt anyone with a basic understanding of modern history could honestly deny that the answer provided above is fraught with pitfalls. Even the SJWs demanding that free college, getting paid just for existing, and having permission to murder one’s offspring are intrinsic rights, just because, will tell you that people are mis-applying the concept.

Ultimately, every application of rights I am familiar with revolves around the essential question(s): “What can I get away with and what am I entitled to?” This is the reason I say it seems to be the case that rights are used as shorthand for ethical and moral reasoning; the focus of the rights discussion seems to be largely the same focus of ethical argumentation in general. If I have a negative right (the moral claim to be exempt from some obligation or another), such as the right to be left alone, that would mean that I “can’t get away with” harassing others (because they have the same right). If I have a positive right (the moral claim to be served by others), such as medical care, that would mean that anyone who can provide me with medical care is obligated to do so.

Depending on the theory, rights derive their ontology from different underpinnings. Some theories posit that rights are God-given, others posit that rights are brute facts, yet other theories posit that rights are derived from the general acceptance of society, and on and on. I think this diversity of suggestions is a result of the above discussed function of rights. Ethics and morality are, by their nature, abstract. Ethics and morality don’t make things happen in the world, at least not directly; they are descriptions of how one ought to act, but they don’t make someone act in a particular way. Rights, as a shorthand for parameters of acceptable human action are at least equally abstract. Where one can observe an apple falling in the orchard and posit a theory as to the mechanisms by which such an event occurs and the regularity with which such an occurrence is likely, one does not have the opportunity to observe a right and speculate as to the mechanisms by which the right accomplished its end.

Instead, more often than not, a philosopher or political activist will ask themselves, “What do I want to achieve? By what mechanism can I empower people to give me what I want and disenfranchise those who would get in the way of my goals?” This may sound like a very cynical take on Locke, Montesquieu, Smith… but one must remember that “What I want to achieve” may in fact be “peace on Earth and goodwill towards (wo)men” or some other fruitcake ideal. Upon answering these questions, the strong zeitgeist of rights becomes a valuable tool in accomplishing those ends. One need only come up with a source of rights that is compatible with one’s pre-existing ontological commitments and promotes one’s agenda.

Of course, this cynical reading of the history of philosophy presents a series of arguments concerning rights that have more to do with sophistry and political theory than it does with a genuine pursuit of Truth. If one were to make a genuine attempt to ground rights in a reliable ontological or metaphysical framework, I imagine it would look a lot like the cases made by a number of Rothbardian philosophers. Unfortunately, the level of abstraction required to make a case for the existence and nature of rights rivals the cases for the existence and nature of God. I only have enough bandwidth for one God-level case at a time, and people should know by now which one I’ve taken on. Instead, I just want to point out that a theory of rights which anchors itself in some moral or ontological case needs something metaphysical which lacks direct interaction with the physical world, some sort of platonic realism, and a theory of rights which anchors itself in utilitarian or sociological cases results in a utilitarian ethical framework which is sufficient to replace a similar doctrine of rights altogether.

So, what if a grounded theory of rights is better just left as an ethical framework without the concept of rights? Well, for one, doing so effectively neuters the ongoing social justice commentary as well as the general statist narratives wherein people claim positive rights which must be produced by state slavery. Additionally, It expedites certain discussions within and without my particular school of thought when one focuses on the principles and facts available which concern themselves with issues most people refer to as “rights issues”. What I mean to say is that the rhetoric and traditions of rights may only muddy the waters if there is an equally or more philosophically resilient alternative.

Despite the likelihood of being accused of all manner of character flaws, such as that of being a materialist, being a nominalist, or of being some sort of pagan or atheist, I think we can ground any discussion of “rights issues” in a far more easily defined and effective set of terms and principles. For example, I believe Hans Hermann Hoppe’s premises for argumentation ethics obtain nicely. One such premise is that private property is an inescapable feature of the human condition; the very fact that one has access to and control over one’s body demonstrates the principle of self-ownership in a way that cannot be abrogated by any instance or degree of criminal trespass or chemical interference.

So, ever the quintessential AnCap, I think that exploration of the logical, physical, and metaphysical features of property will sort out all of the issues commonly presented as “rights issues” and will, more often than not, produce results that jive with rational intuition. For example, a good portion of the classical liberal “negative rights” are the immediate logical consequent of the nature of property: the right to secure oneself against coercion, murder, and theft is less a “right” and more a natural result of the nature of self-ownership; If I own my body (and by extension that which my body produces), given the definitive quality of property that is “exclusivity”, I may exclude others from use of that property by whatever means that does not involve trespass on my part. There: without “rights”, I’ve established the justifiability of self-defense and, due to the universal nature of property, have also denied the justifiability of trespasses such as murder, coercion, and theft.

If there were any rationally defensible claim to what is often called a positive right, an argument for such a claim could be made stronger by avoiding a discussion of rights, itself, and focusing on the reality of property, instead. Perhaps the most defensible claim of positive rights is that of the Catholics: the “right to life”. For example, a “right to life” can not be taken seriously, lest it result in absurdity given the above alluded to discussion concerning the relationship between positive rights and state slavery. Death is inevitable, so to have a right to escape such an inevitable phenomena would require that mankind collectively devote every resource available to the discovery of immortality which would, itself, result in the deaths of everyone involved.

Instead, acknowledging the unborn human’s ownership of its body, the propertarian obligations of a landlord (or, in this case, a mother), the degree of action either is able to engage in, and other features of property and the human condition would result in positions which directly parallel the traditional positions of the Catholic Church concerning abortion, evictionism, self-defense, euthanasia, and care for the elderly. As an added bonus, such an activity would demonstrate the absurdity of the “right to choose”, “right to birth control”, and etc.

The time has come for my controversial claim (as if this hasn’t been controversial so far). The Catholic Church made a grave error in adopting the enlightenment-era’s rhetoric concerning rights. I kinda’ already alluded to that claim in the last section of the post, but I think it is important enough to warrant explicit attention. In engaging a secular humanist agenda on its own flawed terms instead of continuing its pursuits in determining the truth of the matter, the Church made itself more popular in an adversarial world. In the process, though, it laid the groundwork for the current social and ethical battles it finds itself buried under. That is not to say that the Doctrinal positions of the Church, or even the moral and ethical teachings of the Church as a whole are inaccurate, but it is to say that the use of flawed theories and terminology obfuscates the veracity of those teachings. Because of this obfuscation, it is not an unfair accusation to blame the SJWs on the Church and to point out that the Church has backed itself into a corner concerning the pursuit of knowledge of creation (most noticeable of which being economics). This mistake can be rectified if teachers and clergy make a concerted effort to pursue truth as opposed to political expedience… but how long it will take to do so is very much a live question.

TL;DR: Rights, in their most resilient formulation can best be described as “temporary privileges granted by the guys in charge” or, alternatively, “an ethical or moral shorthand for determining justification of actions”. There are a number of frameworks in which people try to ground rights and accomplish the ends for which the have created those rights, some are more reasonable than others, but they all present issues I do not believe can be resolved. Additionally, there is far too much baggage and theory in the realm of discourse concerning rights to expect calm, rational debate. Property, and the logical and material consequences of property provide a resilient alternative to the discussion of rights which also achieves intuitive outcomes. For these and other reasons, I think that it would be a better rhetorical move to simply deny the existence of rights altogether and demonstrate the efficacy and utility of property in dispute resolution and moral or ethical dilemmas.

Also, here’s some George Carlin, for your entertainment.

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2 Responses to A Frank Discussion of Rights

  1. Joel says:

    I liked this discussion. The quip on the right to life was particularly interesting.

    On the one hand, I think you are right to pursue this line of thinking with those that are sincerely interested in ideas. Those are few to come by, but there is great value in arguing with those people in this way.

    On the other hand, I’m not willing to concede rights language, or any other language, just because morons and evil people attempt to control it for their purposes. I used to do that, but I think that it may signal an opportunity the right time for a fight. Since they are wanting to take the ideological territory, maybe that’s the time to prove that they are being contradictory and we are consistent. What other time are so many political drones blathering on about an abstraction that we hold so dear- however imprecise?

    In fact, it wasn’t but a week ago that I was in a debate that turned this direction, and I stated bluntly that she couldn’t even define a right, especially since she was being blatantly contradictory. That put a stop to that line of reasoning, and I went on the offensive. She, of course, knew that she was just spouting something her authority told her to say, and wasn’t able to defend it. I could then push what I mean by the shorthand of rights- including self-ownership.

    I think this is a better rhetorical move for the less intellectually sincere, because any concession of language to them is signalling a defeat. They are more convinced by determining that you have a backbone than whether you have rigorous argument for better terms.

    • Thank you. Regarding the “right to life”: I obviously adhere to something that is effectively identical to what the Catholic Church calls “the right to life”, but I feel the use of that term is a mistake.

      I largely agree with you on that point, actually. It’s largely an issue of discursive modality for me. If I’m writing a philosophical or popular work, I would want to eschew rights language in favor for something more accurate and less rhetorically fraught.

      However, in the case of actual dialogue between individuals, I would probably take a similar approach to the one you described. If they bring up a “positive right”, I’d deconstruct the concept and go on the offensive. Basically the Socratic approach: render them skeptical to their own idea and present a better alternative to skeptical nihilism.

      It all depends on the individual engaged in the discussion, if they would be able to engage in a discussion concerning rights terminology and better alternatives, so be it. I get the feeling, though, that most people outside the Tom Woods/Christopher Cantwell audience would be remotely open to such a discussion.

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