Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Eight sceptical theses on moral rights

Discuss the following. Do not attempt to write on both sides of the paper at once:

  1. Most modern discourse about morality resolves around rights. It therefore fails to answer the great moral questions like “How should I live my life?” and “What sort of person should I be?”

  2. If a ascribing a right to someone is to mean anything then there has to be a concomitant duty upon someone else to fulfil it, otherwise this right is worthless. NB This is not the same as the Blairite claim that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand – my rights impose duties upon you, not me.

  3. The more rights we ascribe to people, the more we tend to make the government mighty. If there is, say, a right to work, who can have the duty to give employment but the state? This process tends to make the individual citizen a spectator in important moral questions.

  4. Rights are human artefacts: we make them up. They do not exist in some Platonic universe, independent of humanity. In fact, the concept of a right make sense only in a complex society.

  5. Ultimately, the justification for the rights we do choose to give people is the kind of society those rights produce. If those rights produce a bad society, we change them

  6. The danger of expressing our moral judgement in the language of rights is that it becomes impossible to learn from experience. As I once wrote of the idea that school uniform might contravene human rights legislation:
    I suppose you could say "Fancy that, school uniform has been immoral all along." But it seems to me more compelling to say that if the set of rights we have drawn up rule out a well-accepted practice like requiring pupils to wear a uniform then there is something wrong with that set of rights.
    Note that rights will not merely rule out what some regard as old-fashioned social practices: they will also make it harder to establish new ones.

  7. Moral rights tend to establish a minimum standard of conduct rather than to enshrine the depth of commitment that we have to one another in strong and loving relationships. So children's rights may describe an hygenic Home but will find it harder to describe a loving home.

  8. Political philosophies differ over the ends of life and how people should act: in short, they have different views of morality. Liberals should argue for their view of the world and endeavour to win power to implement it, but they should not be scandalised when people with other philosophies do not want to write Liberal conclusions into the rules of the contest.

11 comments:

Julian Gall said...

Fundamental human rights do not need to be fulfilled by others, they just need to be respected. Rights define what we mean when we say all people are equal. Rights are not "made up" any more than the concept of freedom is made up. Rights are the necessary conditions for a free society.

By extending the concept of rights to include things that must be provided, the state becomes involved and all rights are then subject to the whim of the state.

John Q. Publican said...

Grand post. The difficulty I see with your argument at point 6 is that one can use pretty much the same words to make a case for enforced marital rape.

It is something which used to be culturally justified under various different schema and, indeed, was a well accepted social practice for a good many centuries in a good many places. It has recently been determined and enshrined in law (in Britain) that women have a right not to be beaten up and raped. Thus, it has been implied that marital rape was immoral all along...

I happen to agree that marital rape was wrong all along. I don't happen to think school uniforms are immoral. But you can see what I mean?

to Julian Gall:

Rights are not "made up" any more than the concept of freedom is made up. Rights are the necessary conditions for a free society.


These are both statements of ideology, not reason or observation. The concept of freedom most certainly is made up, and has been redefined in all sorts of ways over the years. The last statement is technically true; but it in no way suggests rights aren't made up. Free societies are made up, and as far as I'm concerned are also still in the realms of fantasy; I don't think we've seen one yet.

I currently live in a country which is both more, and less, free than the one I grew up in, depending on how you count.

james.graham said...

I broadly agree, indeed I've been told off before for writing about morality on Lib Dem Voice.

The only one I think I take issue with is 3 - will have to think more about a response though.

chris said...

You seem to be assuming that all rights are Positive Rights. Negative rights do not have some of the problems that you outline:

2. Negative rights do not have a duty on somebody else to actively fulfil it, they are simply that others should not attempt to stop you should you want to try to do them.
3. Because Negative Rights do not imply any duty for action to fulfil them they are a constraint on the government rather than help its growth.
4. Negative Rights where originally those things that you could do in a Platonic universe, independent of humanity. Free speech, freedom of conscience, freedom from being imprisoned by another, freedom to keep or disperse what you hold (private property), and other Negative Rights are all perfectly possible in a without anybody else around because they do not impose any duties on anybody else.
5. Again only with Positive Rights is the justification for the rights we do choose to give people is the kind of society those rights produce, because positive rights are things you can do without a society around you you can exercise them without a society or the blessing of a society. All a society can do is place boundries on negative rights.

Phil said...

Points 4 and 5 suggest that rights only exist in the context of a complex society. Children and adults with cognitive difficulties have rights but we remove those that require a high understanding of complexity (eg right to vote, right to reproduce). We take away some rights of citizens who are imprisoned for criminal behaviour, but additionally impose rights that only apply to their circumstance. Does the provision of rights require a single society in which there is a rights hierarchy? Or do you have separate societies of different complexity?

CountingCats said...

Well, Chris got there before me.

You are lumping all rights as positive rights. Positive rights impose an obligation on someone else to act, and therefore are incompatible with freedom. Negative rights impose an obligation not to act, and are therfore also also freedoms.

A right to healthcare imposes an obligation on someone to provide it, willingly or otherwise. A freedom to seek healthcare imposes nothing on anyone else, they have no obligation to go along with your desires.

A right not to be offended (hate speech laws) implies activly interfering with someon elses speech. Freedom of speech/expression implies no one so interfering.

Negative rights constrain the state. Positive rights empower the state.

Jonathan said...

I do not find the distinction between positive and negative rights useful. What is the difference between having a right that gives me no claim upon other people and not having a right?

The moral is that we should not discuss politics and ethics solely in terms of rights. Already you are bending the concept to make it fit in with your beliefs.

We should talk more about virtues like generosity and tolerance and less about rights if we want a good society.

Neil said...

@Jonathan: Negative rights in fact DO give you a claim on other people: a negative claim, in the form of "you shall not stop me from doing x".

This is distinct from positive rights, which give positive claims: "you shall do x for me".

You have a right to free speech: Nobody may prevent you from saying what you think. Go to a country that denies the right of free speech, and tell me there's no difference between having and not having that right.

Negative rights are natural. If you were the only person on Earth, you would still be free to say what you like (to the trees, presumably). Positive rights are societal constructs. It is literally impossible to have a right to medical care in the absence of doctors, or to education in the absence of teachers.

The distinction makes all the difference in the world.

Jonathan said...

If I were the only person on Earth I think I would have some trouble developing speech. See Wittegenstein and his private language argument. But I am not convinced that tells us much about free speech in a complex society.

Those of us who believe in free speech would do better, rather than insisting on discussing every issue in terms of rights, to talk about how we foster practices and insitutions that encourage it.

Phil said...

When driving your car in the UK, there are absolute laws such as the road speed limit. There's a conduct book called the Highway Code which explains some of the absolute laws and also defines good practice. Good practice is not an absolute requirement, but if your bad practice causes an accident, you may be prosecuted for it. A further conduct layer comprises good manners (eg leaving a gap to admit another car at a junction).

In rights terms, there is no need to observe good practice or good manners on the road, but overall contentedness would be diminished without them.

Jonathan said...

Thanks, Phil. I think that gives a much better account of how we actually reason about morals than a narrow legalistic right-and-duty model.