Human Rights

Stephen Whittington's picture
Submitted by Stephen Whittington on Sat, 2005-12-10 10:58

For many years (throughout my highschool years) I scoffed at the idea of human rights. I viewed them as totally subjective. A human right was generally recognised (in law) when enough people agreed that it was fundamentally important. As such, arguments in which others relied on something being a 'human right' never held much sway with me - it seemed to me to be complete intellectual sloth. Human rights were never rationalised.

To this extent I would say that my political philosophy, at the time, was one of radical or direct democracy. One vote, one man, on every issue. The classic objection was that people would vote for tax cuts and more spending - and I had no problem with that, since I had faith in the common man, over time, to realise the balancing act that needed to occur. In many respects I saw this, at the time, as the free market of values taking place in the mind of individuals.

Obviously I disagree with these aspects now, believing that democratic government needs to be restrained from breaking fundamental rights (or harnessed in the favour of human kind). But I have a problem with libertarianism and objectivism in that they both, in my opinion, fail to rationalise the fundamental rights. Many outline all the 'bad' things that happen if they are not upheld. I, personally, do not consider this to be a rationalisation of their inherent worth. It also seems to me that then you end up arguing over degree. If I cannot convince someone that 'bad' things do not occur if we do not subscribe to, say, a right to fresh water, then I have failed to demonstrate why that is not a right.

I do not think that justificatons of the rights to life, liberty, and property are non-existent. I just think that I have not yet come across a clear presentation of them. Anyone care to enlighten me?


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Talking without knowledge

Peter Cresswell's picture

MM said: "Rand bridged the gap between the social and personal with morality. She did not do that with 'rights.' I am not sure that it can be done. Rights are inherently social. You can argue that they exist within the individual, are inalienable, etc., etc. But only another person -- not an animal or a storm -- can deprive you of your rights. To me, this creates a special set of problems that have not been identified or solved by Objectivists."

And this is an example of what some posters here have recently pointed out: that an ignorance of Objectivism allows people to say things such as the above in the name of Objectivism. What Michael has said above is just not true - the lack is not in Objectivism or in the concept of rights; it is in Michael's understanding of what is, in all truth, a very high-level concept: rights, and what the concept of rights integrates.

People generally don't offer you advice on things like how ot repair your car or on where and how to invest without at least a basic knowledge of the subject. Why then do many people like Michael feel they can talk about Objectivism and what it has "identified or solved" in the obvious absence of any knowledge of the subject? The philosophy of Objectivism is far more complex than the subject of car repairs, but somehow knowledge of the subject is deemed less important to those who desire to blather about it. Can anyone tell me why that is?

Anyway: Stephen, I recommend those readings on rights I pointed you to below. Michael, perhaps you should read them too.

Where rights fit in with philosophy

Michael Stuart Kelly's picture

Hi, Stephen.

Obviously, you should do the reading. Nothing will replace that. However, here is a nutshell version of what rights are, as opposed to which rights are proper, which is the fare you normally get in discussions of this kind (usually with a high emotional noise ratio).

Philosophy is built according to a hierarchical division:

1. The broadest base is metaphysics, which is everything (existence).

2. In comes man and consciousness with the field of epistemology (how we know stuff and how we are aware); epistemology (and all consciousness) is only one part of everything (metaphysics).

3. Then we get to the problem of each individual life having severe time and survival restrictions, thus being able to be extinguished - so there is the area of the values needed to continue existing, called ethics, which is based on epistemology (how to know in order to choose), which is based on metaphysics.

4. Then we live with other conscious beings in groups, being a species, so the next field is politics, which is based on ethics, which is based on epistemology , which is based on metaphysics.

5. Then there is esthetics, which is projections of values in works made solely for contemplation and enjoyment, which implies communication, thus it is based on politics (in the philosophical sense), which is based on ethics, which is based on epistemology , which is based on metaphysics.

The interconnections are a bit more complicated than that, but this hierarchy is the essential outline.

Briefly, in descending order of importance:

Metaphysics
Epistemology
Ethics
Politics
Esthetics

Where rights fit into this scheme is that they bridge ethics to politics, establishing the moral principles for social organization.

If faith-based ethics are used, the rights listed and enforced in that society will reflect the documents that lay the ethical principles of such faith (for instance, the Bible, the Koran, or even the Communist Manifesto, to stretch it a little and include collectivism as faith-based, etc.), and thus specific rights will be granted to some individuals over others.

If reason-based ethics are used, the rights listed and enforced in that society ultimately will be based on individual life, as rational ethics are. The documents used for this will be philosophical treatises that deal with such ethics and, consequently, rights, and social contracts and conventions like constitutions. As the existence of each individual will be regarded as the ethical base for such rights, then individual rights will have to be equal and identical for all.

That is why and how different social organizations reflect the ethics that are predominant in them.

I hope that helped. Good luck to you in your reading.

Michael

Whence "rights"?

milesian's picture

Stephen Whittington said: "I do not think that justificatons of the rights to life, liberty, and property are non-existent. I just think that I have not yet come across a clear presentation of them. Anyone care to enlighten me?"

I agree that Ayn Rand defined "rights" in the most useful way. She said that a right is something that you do not need to ask permission for. Therefore, you have a right to life, but no right to a job.

However, Ayn Rand did not bridge the gap you identified -- and I do not know any writer who has. The fact is that rights are social. If you were alone on an island, no one could violate your rights. You would still have them, but they would be irrelevant to your situation.

Philosophical libertarians or classical liberals or other kinds of individualists have found these "Crusoe concepts" useful. Alone on an island, would you need morality? Most people believe that morality is social, so they say, No. Ayn Rand placed morality within the individual and said that alone on an island you would need morality DESPERATELY.

Rand bridged the gap between the social and personal with morality. She did not do that with "rights." I am not sure that it can be done. Rights are inherently social. You can argue that they exist within the individual, are inalienable, etc., etc. But only another person -- not an animal or a storm -- can deprive you of your rights. To me, this creates a special set of problems that have not been identified or solved by Objectivists.

(I have not read any blogs on this subject and I am not sure why 75% of the voters is a magic number, ontologically superior to 63%, 63% being closer to the inverse of the Golden Ratio. Maybe 100 take away 100 times pi would be better.)
________________________________________________________
"I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings."

Readings on Rights

Peter Cresswell's picture

Stephen, Might I humbly suggest that a good start might be my own blog postings on rights, indexed here

For fuller and better expositions of what can be a difficult concept to grasp, given its enormous integration, I'd recommend Rand's article 'Man's Rights' in 'Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal' -- essential reading if you're to understand the concept of rights, and what it integrates -- and also Peikoff's chapter on 'Government' in OPAR (Objectivism, the Philsophy of Ayn Rand) , particularly the section 'Individual Rights as Absolutes.'

If you want more, I'd highly recommend two book-length works: 'Classical Individualism' by Tibor Machan, and 'Moral Rights and Political Freedom'by Tara Smith.

If you get through all that, you should have a pretty good grasp of the subject, and be well able to lecture the rest of us.

Right rights, Wrong rights, and Direct Democracy

Ed's picture

Stephen,

For a quick view, I suggest that you pick up a copy of the Ayn Rand Lexicon at your local bookstore. Then turn to the section on Individual Rights and read the entries. There is also a good justification of rights in the book Objectivism: Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

That said, let me make a few quips ...

Man is a certain kind of creature (and not other kinds of creatures). Man stays alive on this planet by certain kinds of action (and not other kinds of actions). Man is the creature that produces, or dies. Other animals take, take, and take -- living off their naturally-produced environment and by killing or looting other animals. If men had adopted this jungle law from the get-go, then we would have never left the jungle (by producing things). We would also all be dead by now, because we can't survive without altering our environment and rationally coexisting.

Also, you mentioned direct democracy. I think that direct votes, with 75% majorities as the bar, ought to be adopted in the interim to a fully-free society. In this view of mine, government couldn't spend a dime, without first getting 75% of the given municipality on board. Even though this vulgar democracy is still unjust (because up to 25% of folks get their rights violated), there is a degree of justice lost on the kind of cronyism we now have, that couldn't exist under this view of mine.

Ed

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