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When having the long arguements about benifits, there was a general… - Sally's Journal
June 6th, 2005
09:38 pm

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When having the long arguements about benifits, there was a general theme of rights. "People have the right to somewhere to live" "People have the right not to be tortured" "Noone has the right to take peoples children away from them"

Now, my point in this post is not whether or not any of these things should be rights or not, (so get your hackels down! :-) ) It's more that the more I think about it, the less idea I have what people mean when they say something is a "right".



Obviously the right (ha) place to start is the OED. Where we get "a thing one may legally or morally claim, the state of being entitled to a privalege, or immunity, or authority to act" Or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Lots of rights there...

But it's an odd idea. Take 25.1, which seems pretty typical of the sort of rights that were being discussed:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control

Now, my first idea of a right was that it was something I was fundamentally entitled to, come what may. So if I'd been abducted by alians, and was hungry and naked with no idea of who I was, I could walk up to the People in Charge, and say "I have a right to food, clothing, and housing", and they'd have to give that to me.

This obviously doesn't work very well as an idea of what a right is though. If everyone arrived on an empty planet and made banners and sat down singing "We have a right to be housed" they wouldn't be given houses. There'd be noone to give them houses. Likewise, the population of the world will not get fed if they don't work to gather in the harvest. So the idea that a right is something that you're due even if you do absolutely nothing doesn't quite work.

So my next idea was that a right is more something that people can't stop you doing if you want to. So you can't just expect a house to materialise, but you can get annoyed and start shouting about Rights if you've carefully built a house and someone comes and knocks your house down with a bulldozer (or a Vogon construction fleet). I'm not sure how this is any stronger than the Law though. And it doesn't seem to have the right amount of strength... I mean, I'm all for it being illegal for anti-ski-ists to stop people going ski-ing if they want to go ski-ing and will do so safely, but I wouldn't say "people have a right to go ski-ing". Or maybe I would... but it seems a bit too trivial to be a "right"

So (after a little talking with Sarah) I started to wonder if a right is something you have to feel guilty about. Something that *if* someone wants their right, and you can provide it, you should do so. This doesn't work either. I mean, if one was a house owner, and a begger came to you citing his right to be housed, you wouldn't be obliged to kill yourself so he could have your house. Rewording to avoid that problem, you could come to the idea that a right is something that if someone wants their right, and you can provide it without any damage to you, you have to give it them. Of course then you have the problem of what damage is. I mean, even if it just costs you 5 pence, then you could argue that that's a loss which is slightly detremental. Take 3... perhaps a right is something that if someone wants their right, and you can provide it without taking anyone elses rights, including yours, away you must give it them...

That's a definition that sort of explains prison etc. With the naive idea of a right, Article 3 (everyone has a right to liberty) and the existance of prisons seem to be a bit of a contradiction.

I still don't think I get the whole thing though. I mean, "you have a right to foo" is a statement that I've always thought of as grand and sweeping, absolute and important. Thinking about it and realising that all it can really mean is "you have a right to foo if there is a foo, and noone else got that foo first, and you having the foo isn't going to hurt other people" makes you realise the whole thing is a bit lame at second inspection.

Also, I'm confused by how this stands with the "there is no absolute morality at all" people. I'm not clear how you can believe in universal rights, and yet not that there is some basic moral code that everyone should be taught to believe in. Or maybe there arn't any people who believe in both, which at least solves that problem...

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From:the_alchemist
Date:June 6th, 2005 09:27 pm (UTC)
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It's not a word I like and I don't generally use it. However, I'd say that 'human rights' are things that all human beings have a duty to try to provide for all other human beings. They exist because of consensus (of the human race as a whole, or particular nations, or other kinds of groupings) rather than as something intrinsic - this is how 'no absolute morality at all' people can believe in them.
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From:emperor
Date:June 6th, 2005 09:30 pm (UTC)
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I think the idea of prison is that by commiting a serious enough offence, your forfeit your right to liberty for a while.
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From:naath
Date:June 6th, 2005 09:40 pm (UTC)
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I think that the idea was to encode the law in terms of what people need rather than in terms of what people shouldn't do so that we can see why the laws are the way that they are. The declaration is a list of the things that 'we' think are needed for life to have a chance at being good, a defination of 'civilisation' if you like.

And since lots of people signed it it is good for pointing at when you want to tell someone off.

Your rights are all granted you by the government you live under though.

All of them are arguable under some cicumstances, almost all are a sensible basis for a legal system. They are based on the way we think people should be able to live because it's nice like this rather than on a Holy Book aswell, so you can get inter-faith agreement on the basic ideas.
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From:pjc50
Date:June 6th, 2005 11:27 pm (UTC)
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Your rights are all granted you by the government you live under though.

I had exactly the opposite understanding - that as rights they exist in the abstract, and government is responsible for not infringing and preventing other people from infringing on them.
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From:naath
Date:June 7th, 2005 12:15 pm (UTC)
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Well yes,... that's the *idea*. But, um, in practice the government might be evil. Hopefully the UN or other large thing will come and tell them off. Probably they won't. (See Saudi Arabia for a fine example of un-dealt-with human rights abuses)
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From:thecritick
Date:June 6th, 2005 10:26 pm (UTC)
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Rights do not exist except as the converse of other people's duties or obligations. Thus, I don't have the right to be fed or not to have my house knocked down, except inasmuch as it is true to say that you have (and everyone else has) a duty not to take my food away or knock down my house.

This negative definition is a useful guide because it gives us a concise definition of what things actually can be considered rights (i.e. those things that can be thought of as the converse of other people's duties) and those things that aren't rights, but are things we want everyone to have - typically because we are liberal in outlook (there's no right implied by the desire that everyone should be able to get food for themselves, but there is a duty on other people not to take their food away).

Thus I argue, and will always argue (because it's correct) that rights do not exist, but duties do. I also think this view is helpful if we try to apply these concepts to our moral life: we ought to do those things that are within our power that help society and other people to function: these are moral duties. However, we don't have rights against other people extending beyond their duties (not to hurt or kill us, or to take away our property, and other duties that are necessary for the preservation of society).

The law effectively codifies everybody's duties, and if they all do as they ought, we will have the privileges that they afford (safety, confidence, protection of property - all the things people misguidedly think of as rights). And beyond the law there are moral codes, which we may use to tell us how to act, but again, where these are successful, they are codes of duties ("Thou shalt not..." etc.)

And therefore, I firmly do not believe that one ought to feel guilty about other people's rights at all. We should feel guilty when we fall down in our duties, be they legal or moral.

And then there's another argument against rights, which is that if there are lots of people and limited resources, talk of rights is meaningless. An example is "Right to education". That is obviously non-sensical if there aren't enough schools or teachers since not everyone can be educated. Nor is "Right to food" plausible if there isn't enough to go round. Duties not to deprive other people of food and education, however, still make sense in these cases, and, moreover, are necessary for the functioning of any kind of society in even these impoverished cases.
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From:thecritick
Date:June 7th, 2005 07:12 am (UTC)

The problem with rights-based language

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If a beggar sits on King's Parade, asking for food (and there is no government, etc. to give it to him), it is problematic where his right to food comes from. As you say, should I feel guilty that he's there, and under what circumstances? If I walk past him, should I feel guilty? If I know he's there but don't see him? If I don't know about him am I undermining his right through ignorance?

But if it's my duty (moral or otherwise) to help him, then the situation is perfectly clear: if I walk past him, I may feel a moral duty to give him food (unless other obligations such as duty to myself, my family, etc. intervene - imagine I don't have enough food to feed my dependents as well as the beggar); if I know he's there, I may feel obliged to go and give him food (unless other obligations, including self-preservation, intervene); if I don't know he's there, or I'm too far away, or it's an impossible dream that everyone should have enough food, I have no duty to go and give him food.

Whether the beggar gets fed or not does not depend on his rights, but on the duties of others towards him: if no-one has such a duty (moral or otherwise), he won't get any food. This is why talking of rights is futile, but discussing legal and moral duties is important.
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From:enismirdal
Date:June 6th, 2005 10:28 pm (UTC)
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I've been dubious about "rights" for some time. It could be argued that a "right" is just a set of conditions that some superior regular body has decided all individuals should be able to have applied to them.

The same could be said for the EU regulations that allow a vegetable to be classed as organic. But a carrot doesn't have a innate right to be organic - it just is because someone decided to put in the effort of making sure it didn't get nasty pesticides and things poured on it. Of course, the carrot is incapable of choosing. But then so are people stuck in Sudan and Somalia starving to death - they don't really have much choice in the matter (well, save abandoning their homes and trekking thousands miles across unknown and probably war-torn country to find a pleasant and secluded oasis in which to live...).

Ultimately, I think rights are just courtesies that human beings as a society are expected to extended towards each other.

But even then, the definition differs between social groups. I am sure someone who imposed the rules in China about the torture of Falun Gong followers genuinely believed that those rules do agree with their personal sense of rights.
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From:smhwpf
Date:June 6th, 2005 10:35 pm (UTC)
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I think a lot of what one means by "rights" depends on one's conception of what it means to be a human being. (Or an animal, if talking about animal rights). From a Christian perspective, the understanding of a human as a child of God, loved and valued, is the basis for talking about rights. Of course, many atheists share a passionate concern for human rights without such a basis, but I cannot speak for them as to what they mean by rights.

At a more practical level, there is the distinction between "negative" and "positive" rights - the first including things like the right not to be tortured, arbitrarily deprived of liberty, etc; then somewhat more positive rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of organisation, etc.; I would largely interpret these as saying no-one has the right to stop you doing them, so again in a sense these are negative rights.

Certainly, when you get on to things like the right to adequate shelter, food and clothing, and even education, we're getting into more problematic territory; obviously if you're starting from a blank slate, a desert island, a new planet, no-one has these rights. But, in fact, we're not starting from a blank slate. We're starting from a world incredibly rich in resources and developed in the means for exploiting them. And we're starting from a particular socially-constructed definition of property rights; of who owns land, capital, resources. Personally I think the concept of "owning" especially land is at least as problematic as that of "rights". This "ownership" does not come from some inalienable natural endowment, it is defined and protected by society - and generally speaking it descends from a long history of violence and expropriation.

So, given that society creates and protects this allocation of property "rights" it is very reasonable to say that society also has a duty to ensure that each member of society is granted, through this allocation, at least the basic needs of survival, and the opportunity for productive activity to earn a continuing share of resources. Put another way, if society defines property rights and entitlements in such a way as to leave some individuals to starve, and then forcibly prevents them from trying to obtain food (e.g. from "theft"), then it is committing a gross violation of their rights - by essentially forcibly excluding them from the earth's bounty.

Hence, I would argue that the "right" to things such as food, shelter etc. can be meaningfully defined and defended.
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From:robert_jones
Date:June 6th, 2005 10:57 pm (UTC)
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I think the concept of "owning" especially land is at least as problematic as that of "rights".

Strictly speaking, of course, only the Queen owns land (at least in England and Wales). What subjects own are merely estates, which rights to occupy the land, and that's a "right" in the sense that if someone else occupies it, the estate-owner can apply to the court to have that person evicted.
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From:smhwpf
Date:June 6th, 2005 11:31 pm (UTC)
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Quite so. And the Queen "owns" all the land in England and Wales by dint of hereditary succession from a conquering warlord, which to my mind does not exactly confer much legitimacy. And other claims to land ownership (or at least freehold) ultimately derive from grants made by others in this succession.
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From:pjc50
Date:June 6th, 2005 11:51 pm (UTC)

If property rights don't exist, people invent them

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From:smhwpf
Date:June 7th, 2005 12:00 am (UTC)

Re: If property rights don't exist, people invent them

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Indeed. Society has to define property rights, whether private or common, or some combination thereof. The point is, society has a choice about how it defines them, and can alter them (though IMO it should do that democratically and never arbitrarily). There is nothing immutable about the particular set of property rights that history has handed down to us. And the current global pattern of property rights means that millions of people are pushed to the very margins of existence, or even deprived of the very basis for existence. As development economist Amartya Sen has pointed out, famines rarely occur for lack of food, even in the famine-affected region, but because a large number of people lack entitlements to food.
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From:thecritick
Date:June 7th, 2005 07:16 am (UTC)

Re: If property rights don't exist, people invent them

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But society cannot act arbitrarily over property rights at times it chooses. This results in chaos and danger: two examples: the revoluntionary terror in France in the eighteenth century, Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe.

If society has a definition of property rights, that definition cannot simply be waived in the face of a sudden emergency because the undermines social and economic trust and will ultimately destroy society and the economy, resulting in even greater problems.

Only long-term solutions are acceptable here, niot panic measures brought about by particular instances - these are situations best dealt with through charity. What we need to tackle global poverty and famine is a different food and wealth distribution structure, not radical (but short-termist) panic measures.
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From:smhwpf
Date:June 8th, 2005 06:48 pm (UTC)

Re: If property rights don't exist, people invent them

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It is very easy to counsel against 'panic' measures or revolutionary change when your belly is full. I would say that the current situation where billions live in extreme poverty and hundreds of millions on the very edge of survival shows that the current system of entitlements, property rights, etc. is badly broken and in urgent need of major fixing, if not wholesale redefinition.

I agree with you that violent attempts at changing the system are undesirable; as well as the chaos, destruction and loss of life caused by the process of violent revolution, the result is that it is the group with the most guns, not the one with the most justice or popular support, that wins. But neither am I of the view that gradual reform that accepts the basic status quo distribution of economic power is sufficient.
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From:robert_jones
Date:June 6th, 2005 10:47 pm (UTC)
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Someone once said to me that a right is where, if the opposite is true, you would say, "That's not right." So, I can say, "There are people starving in the world, and that's not right." My moral outrage doesn't help them, of course, which is why I don't find the concept all that fruitful.

Legal rights are fairly straightforward. Until recently, they were alien to British law. If you wrong me, I can sue you in tort (Law French for "wrong"), but I traditionally don't have any legal recourse simply because I am being denied some "right". However, since 1998, we have had the Human Rights Act, and I can at least sue the state and its organs if they fail to provide me with my rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (a document, by the way, somewhat less vague than the UN one, which occasionally descends into mere pious hopes). Then of course there are various provisions in the ECHR for derogating the rights, in particular where they conflict with the rights of others. So those rights are quite simple; they're in a nice list and there's plenty of case-law as to how they work in practice.

I struggle more with the "morally claim" part of the OED definition. It does seem that this just means I sit on the ground and scream, "It isn't right!" which is a bit pointless. By definition, if there is no objective morality, there can't be any objective moral rights. (Legal rights, of course, depend on the laws in force at the relevant time and place.) I think that even if there is an objective morality, there may not be any objective rights, since my morality consists mostly of rules to regulate my own conduct.
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From:mobbsy
Date:June 6th, 2005 10:57 pm (UTC)
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I think some of your conceptions come from the idea that rights are somehow immutable (or "inalienable" as the Americans like to say). I don't believe that they are, to me they seem far more a product of society. They're a moral framework about what an individual expects from society and vice-versa that allows a non-arbitrary legal system to develop.

Religion has traditionally been a source of rights, and I think that's where a lot of the idea of immutability comes from. Rights are probably a lot easier to consider in a religious context where one can just attribute things to God and get it over with.

However, rights change between societies and through time. The UDHR is a good document because it's fairly general, but I suspect in a couple of hundred years time parts of it will still seem as dated as parts of the 1689 Bill of Rights do today.

All that said, there do seem to be some consistent ideas about rights that come through from the earliest religious texts through various legal documents to the UDHR, ECHR and similar modern codices. These probably are basic rights, and are an encoding of the sorts of social behaviour necessary for over-developed primates to form well functioning mutually beneficial social groups. Trial and error demonstrates that people who respect these rights end up with more successful societies, so we build a moral code that encourages us to do so, and punish those who violate other's rights (often, as you observe, by removing some of the offender's usual rights at least for some time).
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From:bluap
Date:June 6th, 2005 11:16 pm (UTC)
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Personally, I'm not sure that I believe in the abstract quantity of "human rights". Yes, there are various courtesies that we should expect to have, when behaving towards fellow people, but I wouldn't go as far as labelling them as "rights". If anything, they're more of a "priviledge"...
From:yrieithydd
Date:June 6th, 2005 11:25 pm (UTC)
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Also, I'm confused by how this stands with the "there is no absolute morality at all" people. I'm not clear how you can believe in universal rights, and yet not that there is some basic moral code that everyone should be taught to believe in.

I think this is the basic issue with the rights based language. In the West, we have seen problems with the 'old' moralities. This is particularly a result of seeing the negative effects of colonialism and the colonial mentality which at times defined English as normal, civilised, decent and Christian and so tried to impose English standards on other cultures without respect for the legal codes/morality/culture of the colonised people (be they Celt or Indian)* and so lost confidence in moral absolutes and want to be culturally relevant. But at the same time, we still have values and we are in some ways more aware of individuals and how they should be treated and don't want the ends to justify the means and can see Saddam Hussein or Mugabe and say that's wrong (despite their being from a different culture). Rights languages has been a way out for us. They are, however, grounded in our values/ideas about what it means to be human. I don't think this is a problem, but if one is arguing for their being no absolutes, one does hit a problem, because these rights seem to be absolutes (based on what/who is human).

*Spot the Celt!
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From:pjc50
Date:June 6th, 2005 11:25 pm (UTC)
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I don't know, I have a similar set of problems...
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From:simont
Date:June 7th, 2005 08:44 am (UTC)

Right on :-)

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I've had similar annoyances in the past, and in particular I had a good rant on the general subject of rights in 2001 on Monochrome. Among the highlights were several things you've already said, and also:

Rights are often so ill-defined that it can easily be seen as morally wrong to exercise them. The example I thought of at the time is a bunch of louts standing on a pavement and blocking it completely; when asked politely to let other people past, they reply "No, we can stand here if we want to, it's a free country". Well, it may be the case that everybody has the right to use that public pavement and they're technically accurate; but even so, it would be entirely appropriate for people to think they shouldn't be behaving that way.

Rights are also often misinterpreted as things people can do without worrying about the consequences. In particular, a lot of people are quick to see criticism of their words as an attack on their right to freedom of speech - because they feel that they should have been allowed to say what they wanted without being criticised, i.e. without suffering negative consequences as a result. Whereas, in fact, the criticism is just as much an exercise of freedom of speech as the original words were; the right to freedom of speech only means that you shouldn't be physically stopped (in particular by the government) from saying your piece. (The other common misinterpretation of freedom of speech is the one which sees a particular newspaper or other forum's refusal to publish your words as an attack on your freedom of speech. You have the right to say what you want, but you don't have an automatic entitlement to say it in the forum of your choice. If you want to say it badly enough, start your own newspaper or website.)

The thing about "rights" language is that it's a very emotive and absolute way to appeal to people, and as such it's actually a useful and good way to talk when people are genuinely being oppressed. Slavery, denying women the vote, condoning domestic abuse or racist violence, locking people up without trial because you don't like their face, that sort of thing. In a situation like that it probably actually is time to wheel out rights language and campaign for equal treatment and general niceness. But once the oppression is ended, rights language is a really bad tool to keep around and involve in your day-to-day civil disagreements.
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From:robert_jones
Date:June 7th, 2005 07:33 pm (UTC)

Re: Right on :-)

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While I'm not a huge fan of rights based language, I'm not sure that this criticism is fair. The fact that a thing can be abused doesn't make it a "bad tool", and all these examples see to be people getting confused about how rights work; the problem is with the people rather than the concept. Your louts don't have a right to obstruct the highway. They have a primary right to "pass and repass" and a subsidiary right to do other things which don't interfere with the primary usage. If they are standing still and causing an obstruction then they are trespassing.

Similarly, your other examples are people who misunderstand what their right to free speech involves. That doesn't invalidate the right itself, it just means they're a bit dim.
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From:simont
Date:June 7th, 2005 08:17 pm (UTC)
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The fact that a thing can be abused doesn't make it a "bad tool"

Not necessarily; but one of the ways in which a tool can be bad is in being easy to use incorrectly or hard to use correctly or both, and so the presence of widespread misuse suggests that it's at least worth checking to see whether it's entirely the people's fault or partially the tool's.

This is a complicated world we live in, and I feel strongly that attempts to simplify it by just throwing away most of the complexity and focusing strongly on only one aspect - such as rights - are missing the point and likely to arrive at unbalanced and outright wrong conclusions. Rights language lends itself very easily to one-sided oversimplification, and rather less readily to a clear view of the big picture. Which is why it works well in situations of genuine oppression, because in those situations the morality is pretty clear and the one-sided oversimplification happens not to be too far from reality.
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From:cartesiandaemon
Date:June 7th, 2005 11:05 am (UTC)
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I think the right answer is that you're correct, there's no good definition, no algorithm for linking rights to actions, but 'right' is a useful approximation for what we think everyone should have and work towards.

That said, I think your first effort was better than you give it credit for.

Now, my first idea of a right was that it was something I was fundamentally entitled to, come what may. So if I'd been abducted by alians, and was hungry and naked with no idea of who I was, I could walk up to the People in Charge, and say "I have a right to food, clothing, and housing", and they'd have to give that to me.

But does the first sentence always imply the second? Can't we agree that everyone is entitled to food, but that doesn't mean it happens automatically, it means we should try to make it happen. In that situation you *are* the people in charge, because there's no one else.

Of course, this hints at the fundamental problem that different people think we have different rights, and aliens might be completely different. I don't think they are universal.
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From:ewx
Date:June 7th, 2005 12:13 pm (UTC)
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I think rights are part of the contract between society and its members, and so are duties.

There's something to the notion that the two are in some kind of converse relationship, in that a right has little practical value if nobody will lift a finger to defend it (and a duty is onerous if it doesn't do anyone any good).

But I think it's incorrect to suggest as some seem to that duties actually come first and rights are merely a consequence of them - it's perfectly possible to think about what rights you think people should have and thus deduce the duties that are necessary to uphold them. I think the approach that would make the most sense in the long is to allow for feedback between the two, constantly seeking a society that best balances rights and duties. ("Best" might not be fixed.)

In the virgin-planet example, there is no society, and the law of the jungle prevails. Everyone may feel they have rights to food, shelter, etc, but without some kind of consensus about what the rights are and how they are to be upheld, those are just opinions, and if someone gives you food when you're hungry, that's an individual act of kindness, even if they have the same opinion

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From:ptc24
Date:June 7th, 2005 04:12 pm (UTC)
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Every now and again I feel the need to talk about some layered system of ethics. An "ethics stack", maybe, by analogy with a protocol stack.

So, at the bottom, you have some grand principle, something small but profound. You could have a Kantian categorical imperative, or some other formulation of the Golden Rule (do unto other as you'd have them do to you), or a Utilitarian idea of maximising happiness/freedom/preference-satisfaction/some-other-utility-function, or a biblical "Love god with all your heart etc., and love your neighbour as yourself". Arguaments about these tend to be emotive, as there's little actual logic to debate.

On top of this you construct a much larger set of rules which you actually live your life by, ones where you don't have to spend forever working things out from first principles all the time, and ones that make rationalising unethical behaviour difficult. It's much easier to have a rational debate about these, as at least in principle you can work out whether they do what they are meant to do.

This applies just as much to collective ethics, enforced by a society or a state, as much as to a private moral code. On the bottom you have some constitutional notion, be it a state religion or a declaration ("we hold these truths to be self-evident..." or just some notion of the will or conscience of the people. On top you have a set of laws, and piles of case notes and precedents and practises and procedures and so on.

So where do rights fit in? I think they're a "middle layer", and strictly optional. It ought to be possible to constuct a perfectly good and sensible code of laws without using the r-word at all. Still, they might be a good way of codifying what the laws ought to be achieving, providing a useful yardstick for judging laws without having to argue about first principles all the time.

I still can't help but shake the feeling that there should be a better middle layer than rights. But that's for another post.
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