59 thoughts on “A Tale Of Two Rights

  1. Gregg

    A very fine article.

    I think, though, that the populace at large (and certainly myself) needs a primer on rights:

    Too often a pol will claim we have a “right” to this and a right to that. Yet without a definition of rights, there’s no way to measure whether or not the claim is justified. If it takes several courses in Constitutional law then it’s fatally impossible.

    I know there are unalienable rights and civil rights; the former we are supposed to have by virtue of existing – the latter stipulated by the State.

    Which rights are which? The statement about unalienable rights is “…*among* these are Life, Liberty, Pursuit of Happiness…”…. that means there are others. What are they? How does one figure out whether it’s an unalienable right? Civil right? or no right at all?

    If you aren’t religious is there still a source of unalienable rights – rights that cannot be removed by the State?

    It seems to me to be a word people toss around very cavalierly.

    1. Curt Thomson

      Why does one need to be “religious” to recognize rights that one has as a result of “existing”? Why cannot a right’s “origin” be simple human recognition? It seems to me that all humans having a right to Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness is self evident. I don’t feel any need to have “faith” in anything other than Humanity to agree with that sentiment. And I am not troubled at all that the word “among” might imply there are others.

        1. Bob-1

          Oh, wait, I guess there are “existence proofs”. But rights aren’t existence proofs for themselves, or at least, I don’t see why they would be. This can degrade into angels dancing on the heads of pins arguments though, so I’m happy to drop it.

          As a non-religious person, I believe rights are legal instruments conferred by governments or contracts, and the goodness of a government or contract can be measured by how happy the rights will make people.

          1. Gregg

            “I believe rights are legal instruments conferred by governments or contracts,”

            So you only have the rights a government (ignoring contracts for the moment) decides to give you? And when a government decides to take it away that’s ok too?

            ” and the goodness of a government or contract can be measured by how happy the rights will make people.”

            And who gets to declare that the the people’s measured happiness is happy enough?

          2. Bob-1

            Why would it be ok if a government took away rights? Since I like liberty, it would usually make me very unhappy, and probably most people would feel the same way. I’m looking forward to people all over the world getting more rights as their governments are reformed or replaced, and I’m often not against the USA giving people help militarily to that end.

            Nobody “gets to declare” when people are happy enough. Measuring goodness is difficult. I suppose you start by asking people what they think, and looking for a majority, but there are complexities. For example, I personally am often unhappy when I believe the rights of a minority are not sufficient, even when I am in the majority that has sufficient rights (eg I’m a straight person who wants gay people to have equal marriage rights.) If there are enough people like me, minority rights will continue to be important – there seem to be — this strategy has worked increasingly well for 200+ years, and that’s what great about the history of American rights.

          3. Bob-1

            “now”?

            I have been for the war in Iraq since the Kuwait invasion, through the Clinton and Bush administrations, and I still think it was well-intentioned.

            I deeply regret the loss of life.

            I could elaborate if you are really interested in what I think about the Iraq war.

            But I’d rather stay on topic and find just ONE more example of mandatory education when an adult wants to exercise their rights, besides gun ownersip and abortion. Or are those really the only two in America?

          4. M Puckett

            The right of self-defence is self-evident. Nature abounds with examples of creatures embued with that right.

          5. Bob-1

            Isn’t it a mistake to confuse abilities with rights? Animals have the ability to defend themselves, as do people. But unlike animals, there are plenty of cases where people have the ability but not the right to do so. For example, a thief might have the ability to defend himself from an arresting officer acting lawfully, but the thief doesn’t have the right to do so.

      1. wodun

        There doesn’t need to be a religion present to recognize rights but there thousands of years of philosophical writings discussing the role of gods or nature in the basic rights of humans.

        What is the philosophical perspective of people who don’t believe in gods or nature on where rights come from?

  2. Bob-1

    I read the article.

    I am interested in other examples of mandatory education for adults, when all the adult wants is to exercise their rights. Apparently, bizarrely in my opinion, there is no “right to drive a car”, so that wouldn’t qualify even if education was (or is) required. Can anyone think of any other examples?

  3. Gregg

    Bob-1
    January 25, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Please answer the first question I asked:

    So you only have the rights a government (ignoring contracts for the moment) decides to give you?

    1. Gregg

      So to clear away the trivia:

      You are saying that you only have the rights that a government decides to give you? If the government doesn’t give you a right – you don’t have it?

  4. Bob-1

    Gregg,Yes, I believe rights are not like spirits and souls, but instead are real things that we can exercise, as the consequence of laws. Where would their reality come from, if not from governments and contracts? Although I’m not a libertarian as the term is used in American politics, I believe my position could be happily embraced by an American libertarian (or Republican or Democrat). I believe I am not suggesting anything subversive, although I would be grateful if you convinced me that I was wrong about that.

    1. Gregg

      oops sorry hit the wrong reply link:

      So to clear away the trivia:

      You are saying that you only have the rights that a government decides to give you? If the government doesn’t give you a right – you don’t have it?

      You only have the right to life because the government decides to give it to you?

      1. Bob-1

        Yes. I want to explicitly say that it would be deeply evil for a government to not convey the right to life to people (as opposed to animals or body parts) since it would make people profoundly and tragically unhappy, and I believe such a government should be toppled, but yes, I think “rights” come from contracts and governments.

        1. Bob-1

          Would it help if I said “rights come from other people”? Because that’s where governments and contracts come from!

          1. Bob-1

            I am not unfamiliar with them. I reject them as an example of spiritualism.

            But again: I see no practical difference between my position and Gregg’s.

          2. Curt Thomson

            It’s spiritualistic to have a right to live? You need other people to grant you a right to live?

            You are a mess Bob.

          3. Bob-1

            If you are living alone, say, on an island in the South Pacific, you don’t need rights. You don’t even have rights, but it doesn’t matter, because you don’t need them. You can explain to the poisonous fish that you have a right to live, but the poison will work just the same.

            I’m a materialist. I believe in atoms, not spirits. (Lets not get into quantum mechanics and sub-atomic physics.) I’m saying that rights describe the relationship between at least two people, as measured by the people’s beliefs and behavior. Since we are talking about humans with brains, if you ask me where the rights are, I’ll point to people’s brains, and say “there! Right there! In the neural patterns of the people in question. Take away the people, and you’ve taken away the very atoms that make the rights possible to exist.”

            Do you understand my position? If so, why disagree with it, except because you believe more exists than just the material world?

          4. Titus

            I am not unfamiliar with them. I reject them as an example of spiritualism.

            Yet it’s not clear what you’re using instead, or maybe more correctly, what you seemed to have replaced it with is simply not as robust. (e.g.: if there are no rights without government, then what we would normally call “murder” in our society would not be immoral outside any jurisdiction.)

            Further, it seems to be muddied by some Utilitarian appeal to “happiness”, and it’s not clear which of these is subordinate to the other. I’m guessing the latter since you feel some laws are unjust because they make some people unhappy, but where is the calculation? Maybe there is more net happiness with what you deem to be “inequality” (I’m certain the monarchists in the crowd would agree here), a think which makes you unhappy because that’s what you’ve been taught (right, wrong or indifferent.) This is why Utilitarianism falls appart — it must always appeal to other facts which must be proven, many of which cannot.

          5. Bob-1

            You know, please ignore the first paragraph, about the pacific island. It is distracting, and I would delete it if this blog had an edit function. I think the second paragraph explains my position better: a belief in materialism, a belief in atoms (and other physical phenomena like electromagnetic radiation) is the key concept.

          6. Titus

            I’m a materialist. I believe in atoms, not spirits.

            Okay, but do you believe in logic, in mathematics, in robust formal systems? Ethics is really no different. Science and Ethics both assume that induction is possible.

            I’m saying that rights describe the relationship between at least two people, as measured by the people’s beliefs and behavior.

            An agreement of rights does not create them any more than agreeing that the sun exists creates it. Indeed, a social contract exchanges certain natural rights for conventional ones. (e.g.: You give up a certain percentage of your wealth in the form of taxes in exchange for access to the common wealth (paved roads, defense against invaders, etc.)

            Really, I encourage you, as a Liberal man, to read up on the works of John Rawls, probably the most influential liberal philosopher in modern times.

          7. Bob-1

            Titus, I’m having trouble understanding your comment, but I’d like to know what you think. Could you criticize my position with a concrete example, and without using jargon like “Utilitarianism”. (Yes, I understand the jargon, but I don’t like it.)

            The one example you used was murder. I guess maybe I’ll go back to the pacific island after all.

            If two people are living on an island, and one murders the other, “rights” don’t come into it until the Navy arrives and the murderer is brought to justice in a jurisdiction.

            If three people are living on an island, maybe they decide to have a cooperative relationship (an informal contract) or maybe they decide to be mutually antagonistic.

            If the three people are at war with each other and one kills another, then again, no rights have been violated. But if the three people are in a cooperative relationship with each other (and thus have some sort of contractual obligation, even if it is just based on informal friendship) and one murders the other, the third person might rightly think that the murdered person’s rights were violated.

            What rights were these? The right to friendship, not murderous hostility. The rights are a consequence of the relationship between the people — they aren’t inherent in each of their bodies just because they are human. And this isn’t a great example because the rights aren’t very explicit. It might not be realistic, but if the three people did form a written compact specifying the expectation of mutual assistance, then I would be much more persuaded that a right was violated if one person murdered another.

            Note that there were no references to morality in any of the above.

          8. Curt Thomson

            If two people are living on an island, and one murders the other, “rights” don’t come into it until the Navy arrives and the murderer is brought to justice in a jurisdiction.

            Horseshit. You have a serious problem in understanding the distinction between a natual right and a potential consequence of violating that right. Your mind-numbing faith in government, here manifested in “the Navy”, is pathological. “Without a government to enforce a right, the right doesn’t exist.” As I said, you are a mess.

          9. Bob-1

            Curt, do you believe that every difference of opinion in abstract philosophy calls for rudenss, or do you just act that way?

          10. Bob-1

            Titus, here’s my reply to your 12:18 pm comment:

            I think your point about logic, numbers, math, etc, is a fine one. “Do numbers exist if there is no intelligent life in the universe? How about logic?” Those are fine questions. Any materialist should try to answer them. But I don’t think we need to answer them in this discussion – I’d rather try to stay more concrete.

            Your comment about science, ethics, and induction is intriguing, and I bet I disagree that induction is relevant, but that’s all I want to say — again, I want to stay more concrete.

            The rest of your comment is a discussion of a particular point of view. I’m not unfamiliar with it. I shared my alternative point of view. So what are the advantages and disadvantages of each point of view?

            The practical advantage of my point of view is that everyone can know exactly what their rights are, they can measure their governments by those rights, and they can fight for new rights if they want to improve their government. ( For materialists, the advantage of my point of view is that there are fewer immaterial entities to be concerned with, but that isn’t a concern if you aren’t a materialist. )

            The practical advantage of my point goes away if everyone can agree on what their natural rights are. I bet they can’t.

            The supposed advantage of your point of view is that in an oppressive regime, people can point to their natural rights and demand them. But if they subscribe to my point of view, they can simply point to their desired rights, and demand them just the same. In the end, the will of the people will have the same force regardless.

            But I do think liberty is more important than abstract philosophy. If you think your point of view will convey some motivational advantage to the masses yearning to be free, well, then great! In an oppressive situation, I certainly wouldn’t go around knocking the idea of natural rights. They might be motivational, they might elevate a society to where I too want it to go, but to a materialist like me, they aren’t philosophically compelling.

          11. Curt Thomson

            Curt, do you believe that every difference of opinion in abstract philosophy calls for rudenss

            Of course not. If you stick with abstract philosophy, I’ll keep my mouth shut.

          12. Titus

            to a materialist like me, they aren’t philosophically compelling.

            Well, okay, you are entitled to your opinion. I have no duty to change it.

            I like fast cars and loose women.

          13. Titus

            Sure. Deontology created Western civilization. Teleology is destroying it. Is that advantage significant enough?

          14. Bob-1

            I don’t see how either is relevant to this conversation, and I think you’re using both words incorrectly. I use the word teleological to describe the mistaken belief that darwinian evolution has a direction, or “is evolving toward some particular design”. Obviously the word can be used in other contexts, but I don’t see what the word has to do with explaining what rights are. How about dropping all the fancy talk and just speaking plainly?

  5. Gregg

    Bob-1
    January 25, 2012 at 10:42 am

    …and as for the rest of that post…..

    WOW…..I mean really…..wow…. there is just so much…..wow………hard to know where to start.

    …..you are one trusting person…..and sorry to say woefully ignorant of about 3000 years of Eastern and Western Philosophy. Just one example:

    you write:

    “Measuring goodness is difficult. I suppose you start by asking people what they think, and looking for a majority,….”

    people knew the folly of that about 3000 years ago. Worse…YOU should know the folly of that – especially if you lived through the 50′s, 60′s and the early 70′s.

    You are also self-contradictory. First you write:

    ” and the goodness of a government or contract can be measured by how happy the rights will make people.”

    and then you write:

    “Nobody “gets to declare” when people are happy enough. Measuring goodness is difficult. “

    1. Bob-1

      I don’t know what you’re getting at, but I believe I’m embracing the principles of American democracy. For example, the Bill of Rights exists only so long as We the People choose to keep it intact. The Bill of Rights did just fine in the 60s and 70s. (I’d worry more about slavery and related problems if you’re doubting the strength of American democracy on a decade by decade baisis But we emerged better than we started there too.)

      My point about “nobody gets to declare” is that there isn’t one person who decides when everyone is happy. But figuring out whether one government has better rights than another is only easy when you have extremes like America and Syria. If you want to figure out whether British rights are better than American rights, it is harder. I vote for American rights, but it is at least arguable that the UK’s health care system gives us some competition. Presumably, opponents of a national care system think that it will leave the populace less happy (less wealthy, worse care, less freedom) which gets to my point about happiness being the way to measure goodness.

      As for me being too trusting — I don’t see it. I don’t see any practical difference between your position and mine.

      1. Curt Thomson

        One would think a good metric of “happiness” regarding health care would be the number of people who voluntarily travel to another country to receive treatment rather than stay at home.

  6. Fletcher Christian

    There are many rights in most societies which are dependent on the proper education and/or training. (Please note that I am using my UK experience here.) They include the right to drive a motorised vehicle; the right to fly a plane; the right to perform surgery; the right to install electrical wiring in a house; the right to fit gas equipment. The right to keep guns in the USA is usually another example, AFAIK.

    All these rights have something in common. They involve the fact, in all cases, that doing these things without the proper training might have drastic and possibly fatal effects on other people. This, of course, also applies to guns; would any of you care to be around a completely untrained individual with a loaded gun?

    Requiring education of some type before an abortion bears no resemblance to requiring training to drive a vehicle, for example. IMHO the central issue with regard to abortion is whether a foetus should at any time be regarded as a person, and if so when.

    An early-term foetus is a group of cells, that may or may not be regarded as human. If it is not, then what’s the problem? Your left earlobe is also a group of cells; does it have rights?

    1. Darkstar

      “The right to keep guns in the USA is usually another example, AFAIK.”

      The view in most of the States (again AFAIK) is that I do not need a proper education to exercise either my 1st (Free Speech) or 2nd Amendment (Keep & Bear Arms) rights.

      States do tend to have their Concealed Carry permits require training.

  7. Bob-1

    You make a great point. We *could* say that mandatory education may be justified before a right is exercised if education can significantly reduce the likelihood of harm to someone else. If the fetus is a person, mandatory education might save the fetus’ life.
    But now we have a bizarre dissonance:

    If the fetus in question is a person, then the abortion in question should be illegal.

    If the fetus in question is not a person, then the mandatory education is not justified.

    The you-must-view-the-ultrasound-image law tries to have it both ways. I would expect libertarians to be against the law.

    1. Frank

      The fact that the question about the fetus being a person exists is reason enough for the ‘view the image’ law.
      Who is better to decide the question than the woman in whose body the fetus exits? The woman needs to know what her answer to the question is before she makes a decision to end its existence. Her long term happiness may depend on her ability to know that she made the best decision she could given all the facts.

      1. Bob-1

        That’s well-intentioned but quite paternalistic of you. Why not let her be responsible for her long term happiness, just as she is for other aspects of her life in a free country?

        1. Frank

          I could be OK with that, after a certain age. I’m not sure what that age should be. Thirteen seems to young but certainly anyone old enough to run for congress should be left alone by the government.

    1. Bob-1

      What part of my comments above on people demanding liberty would lead you think that?! You’re showing a real misunderstanding of my position.

      1. Curt Thomson

        You reject outright the idea of natural rights. You dismiss it with arm-waving about “spiritualism”. Your dismissal of anything being self-evident is similarly substance-less. But murder on a deserted island? “You… You… just WAIT until the NAVY gets here! You’ll get yours alright! They have jurisdictions that will take care of you!”

        1. Bob-1

          I reject the idea of natural rights because there isn’t anything “natural” about rights, just as there isn’t anything natural about “souls”. If you believe in souls, you are welcome to your religion, but that’s all it is – a religious belief. Both souls and rights are not things that a scientist can observe in the natural world. And by scientist, I mean anyone acting like a scientist, including me and including you.

          I dismiss “self-evidence” because if claims could be self-evident, there wouldn’t be any need to prove them. (I did acknowledge existence proofs. If you want to use one to show me that natural rights exist, please show me. Mike Puckett tried, and it was an interesting claim, but I gave a refutation that hasn’t been challenged.) Proofs are important — don’t dismiss them with “self-evidence” as a cop-out.

          Finally, my claim – that rights are simply agreements between people and that without at least two people there are no rights – does not imply any support whatsoever for serfdom and is perfectly consistent with any libertarian goal you can describe.

    1. Bob-1

      Thank you, and I will read it despite its length, but it is a very strange article.

      For example, here is a quote: ” It is even difficult to make a convincing utilitarian argument that rape is unlawful. Feminist utilitarians who attempt to construct utilitarian arguments against rape have been forced to make unreasonable assumptions about males and male sexuality.”

      That’s a bizarre assertion! Nevermind dubious claims about male sexuality — don’t you think knowledge of the rape of anyone brings deep unhappiness to the great majority of people, including the great majority of men?

    2. Curt Thomson

      I like this one better:

      many notable philosophers, such as Berkeley and Bertrand Russell, who started out arguing that natural law does not exist ended up concluding exactly that – that nothing exists.

        1. Curt Thomson

          In other words it’s horseshit. How about dropping all the fancy talk and just speaking plainly?

      1. Titus

        Do you want to get into the specifics?

        What would be the point?

        Do you have a question for me — one with a plain, preferably binary answer? What is it you wish me to hurl across this oceanic divide? I cannot throw the continent itself, merely a handful of earth (I’m not aiming for your head, I swear.)

        Is there some notion you wish to disabuse yourself of so that you may summon the courage for the voyage across, or are you just looking to feel more comfortable at home? The former, I might be able to help if you are specific, the latter is just a waste of mine and everyone else’s time.

        1. Bob-1

          Natural rights have objective, external existence.

          I think the above sentence is not true. You apparently think it is true. Finding out about “objective external existence” is the goal of science, and and I’m a scientist, (an amateur one), so I’m interested in whether the quote is true or not. Aren’t you? I think a good conversation on this subject should have the goal of resolving the matter one way or the other. Maybe we’ll help each other design a good experiment to perform. If you would like to get into a conversation like that, I’m game.

          1. Titus

            Finding out about “objective external existence” is the goal of science, and and I’m a scientist, (an amateur one), so I’m interested in whether the quote is true or not. Aren’t you?

            Yes, and I’ve read enough and experienced enough to answer affirmatively that both ethics and metaphysics are externally true, intertwined even.
            Again, the key is induction — to move beyond the sensory/empirical to make assumptions, all of which are falsifiable, about what’s “out there.” When I study ethics, it’s with my STEM hat. I’m not interested in A and B’s ephemeral agreements — those, the trading of rights and duties, are arbitrary and exist as a subset of natural rights per Rawls. I’m looking for the stubborn truths — the natural law.

            Maybe we’ll help each other design a good experiment to perform.

            Here’s a good thought experiment in the objective measure of trustworthiness and the value of Beysian statistics from that same site. Don’t just take his word; you can find all this stuff quite easily with a Google search.

            Have a good weekend.

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