Rights and Game Strategies – §B

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Submitted by Stephen Boydstun on Thu, 2006-11-30 13:18

B. Moral Aspect of Rights

David Hume surmised that the moral quality we attach to principles of justice is due to a generalization of the sympathy we feel for victims of injustice. We sympathize, to limited degree, with the interests of the general public. Because justice secures the public interest, we count principles of justice as moral principles.


Here Sugden parts company with Hume. Sugden attempts to show how people, pursuing not some general public interest, but their own parochial interests, could come to feel that conventional rules, such as rules of property, morally ought to be respected. He argues, for example, that once there is established a convention that one retains, by force if necessary, possession of those things one has possessed in the past, it is in one’s interest to follow the rule “thou shalt not steal” provided almost everyone else does and provided one possesses something. “Thou shalt not steal” becomes the norm; people come to believe that everyone ought to follow it because violators are a threat to people who do follow it. “At least some of what we take to be our rights are grounded in nothing more than convention” (Sugden 1986, 177).


This view of the role of convention in morality is an exaggeration. It is not at all plausible that property rights are grounded in nothing more than convention. It would hardly be more ludicrous to argue that moral injunctions against homicide are grounded in nothing more than customary laws that emerge to set limitations on blood feuds between families in primitive societies (Fuller 1981). Why would those peoples attempt to prevent wars to the death between families, through conventions such as “one life for one life,” if they did not already apprehend that being killed is generally undesirable? Is it plausible that the prevalence of moral strictures against homicide today is the result only of our cultural ascent from families that evolved limitations on blood revenge?


Sugden does not imagine that his reduction of moral precepts to convention applies to all moral precepts. For the important precepts to which he does apply the reduction, the reduction must fail to be total; the precepts are not social conventions through and through. Sugden errs in making the common assumption that as children we get all of our social standards from adults.


Two-year-olds are capable of inferring that the pains they suffer in various circumstances are also suffered by others in those circumstances; the child acquires the capacity for empathy and spontaneously regards restraint of aggression as good. By the third birthday, the child has developed a sense of self, a self that can acquire objects and maintain control over them. Jerome Kagan suggests that the inhibition of aggressive behavior in young children is not based solely on fear of adult punishment, but is supported by endogenous standards (1984).


Young children’s standards that are not picked up from adults are not conventional. Their formation evidently attends development of the central nervous system and specific cognitive competences. We come to our culture with values deeper than culture, with values that are then reinforced or developed further by social interaction.


Unlike Sugden, Hardin does not shun Hume’s utilitarian basis for the moral rightness of justice and property. Hardin warmly embraces the broad strain of utilitarianism developed by Hume, Bentham, Austin, Mill, and Sidgwick.


For Hardin goodness is goodness of the outcomes of our actions. Goodness should be judged by the degrees to which outcomes secure benefits to all concerned. Rightness of action is imputed from goodness of outcome. Human rights should be respected because of the human welfare they facilitate.


Exactly what human welfare consists of, Hardin deliberately leaves fairly open. Why human welfare is the good, he admittedly does not attempt to answer. The same sort of stance is taken, though less candidly, by Jan Narveson with regard to the value of human liberty. If liberty is only instrumentally valuable, as Narveson claims, then to justify liberty one must do what Narveson does not attempt: Justify the non-instrumental value of as least some of the results made possible by liberty (1988).


The circumstance that the value of human liberty or human welfare is largely merely presumed by Narveson or Hardin does not mean that these philosophers have nothing to teach us about those subjects. As Robert Nozick once remarked, there are words on subjects worth saying besides last words.


(This article continues under one more subtitle “Utility of Rights,” which I will try to display in a separate post to the general forum. I will tuck the references for the article in the present post.)


Fuller, L. 1981. Human Interaction and the Law. In The Principles of Social Order,

       K.I. Winston, editor. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hardin, R. 1982. Collective Action. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

------. 1986. The Utilitarian Logic of Liberalism. Ethics 97(Oct):47–74.

------. 1988. Morality within the Limits of Reason. Chicago:

       University of Chicago Press.

Kagan, J. 1984. The Nature of the Child. New York: Basic Books.

Lewis, D. 1969. Convention. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

March, J. 1978. Bounded Rationality, Ambiguity, and the Engineering of Choice.

      Bell Journal of Economics. Autumn: 587–608.

Narveson, J. 1988. The Libertarian Idea. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Nozick, R. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.

------. 1977. On Austrian Methodology. Synthese 36(3):352–92.

------. 1985. Interpersonal Utility Theory. Social Choice and Welfare 2:161–79.

Rapoport, A., Guyer, M.J., and D.G. Gordon 1976. The 2x2 Game. Ann Arbor:

       University of Michigan Press.

Salthe, S. 1985. Evolving Hierarchical Systems. New York: Columbia University Press.

Schelling, T. 1960. The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sugden, R. 1986. The Economics of Rights, Co-operation, & Welfare. Oxford: Blackwell.

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