Rights and Philosphy

My post on Rights: Natural and Legal received a lot of ignorant comments. These commenters missed the point that the topic of rights is a subject of political philosophy. That means it is far more complex than their simplistic understanding of the concept demonstrated by the quality of their comments.

First off, one needs to define ones terms and show working knowledge of those definitions. Merely repeating phrases is a meaningless act. It only demonstrates ignorance. In fact, these comments show a lack of knowledge of philosphical debate that comes from a lack of knowledge of the topic either in depth or even superficially.

Secondly, one needs to acknowledge and address the paradox that the person who spoke of inalienable rights and wrote these words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Not only was a slaveholder, but engaged in the institutional rape of one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings.

If Ms. Hemmings had unalienable rights given by her creator, why was she Mr. Jefferson’s slave? Moreover, in addition to her slavery, she was unable to resist Jefferson’s sexual advances. That is a fairly clear example of Jeremy Bentham’s denounciation of the doctrine of natural rights as “simply nonsense” and natural and inalienable rights as “nonsense upon stilts”.

Not to mention is it a paradox which must be addressed if one is going to asserts that rights are “inalienable”, “god given”, or “pre-exisiting”.

Likewise, one should not confuse the term “right” with that of “ability”.

Because one is able to do something does not give one the right to do so. The ignorant comments show that this point is one that they do not comprehend.

Far from being a settled topic, the concept of rights is a on going debate in the realm of political philosophy (see http://publicreason.net/2009/01/27/the-ironic-tragedy-of-human-rights/). This is a paper which addresses the hysterical comment I received about rights in Darfur, Libya, Egypt and such. I did notice the commenter neglected the Palestinians who have had their right of return (granted by UN Resolution–UN General Assembly resolution 194 and Article 13(2), Universal Declaration of Human Rights) abriged since 1947.

The best comment came from Baldr Odinson:

Where it gets dangerous is when we raise the value of America’s Bill of Rights above common sense, and start viewing it almost as some sort of religious doctrine, not to be touched, ammended, or even questioned.

The topic of rights is one that is hardly sacrosanct, but is one riddled with controversy. Likewise, the US Constitution and Bill of Rights are hardly religious documents to be treated as sacred and without question. They are political documents and should be addressed as such.

I would suggest a read of Paul Treanor’s essay: Why human rights are wrong:

Increasingly, the doctrine of human rights is itself a cause of suffering, oppression and injustice. Increasingly, the argument that superpowers have a ‘moral duty’ to enforce human rights, is used in the same way as the doctrine of the ‘civilising mission’ once was used to justify colonialism. Since this was first written, it appears that the civilising mission – or at least crusades in defence of western civilisation – are not quite dead yet. American reactions to the attacks of 11 September 2001 have re-emphasised the so-called “Clash of Civilizations”. In that vision of history and geopolitics, democracy, freedom, and human rights are seen as universally valid, and yet historically specific to western civilisation. They are seen as a gift, which the West must bring to the rest of the world, or at least defend against the rest of the world. The position presented below is a rejection of human rights, without any appeal to cultural relativism or ethical relativism.

Or as Charles Blattberg points out in The Ironic Tragedy of Human Rights:

With the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the idea of human rights came into its own on the world stage. More than anything, the Declaration was a response to the Holocaust, to both its perpetrators and the failure of the rest of the world adequately to come to the aid of its victims. Since that year, however, we have seen many more cases of mass murder. Think of China, Bali, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and now Darfur. Of course one could always claim that such horrors would have been even more frequent if not for the Declaration. But I want to argue otherwise. For I believe that human rights have contributed to making mass murder more, rather than less, likely.

To be clear, my concern is specifically with the language of human rights, not the values it expresses, values which I certainly endorse. The problem with this language is that it is abstract. And the problem with abstraction is that it demotivates, it ‘unplugs’ us from the ‘moral sources,’ as Charles Taylor would call them, which empower us to act ethically. After showing why, I then go on to describe how the rise of human rights has constituted an ironic tragedy of sorts for those philosophers who have attempted to lend it intellectual support. On the whole, they may be divided into two groups. One, led by cosmopolitans such as Martha Nussbaum and Thomas Pogge, tries to interlock rights within systematic theories of justice, thus fixing the priorities between them. The other, led by value pluralists such as Isaiah Berlin, Stuart Hampshire, and Bernard Williams, rejects such theories as infeasible and asserts that the best we can do when rights conflict is to negotiate. Yet both approaches, I argue, are counter-productive.

As Paul Treanor points out: “The human rights doctrine is a classic political ideology.” It is not an absolute in any sense.

Probably the most salient comment came from the Man with the Mudrake who said:

Laci, your post is most excellent and informative. The question arises, however, as to how many Americans would
1) take the time to read this or,
2) understand it?

The answer is painfully obvious–not many of them.

References:
The Ironic Tragedy of Human Rights–http://publicreason.net/2009/01/27/the-ironic-tragedy-of-human-rights/
How Rights Work–http://web.inter.nl.net/users/Paul.Treanor/rights.html
I renounce my human rights–http://web.inter.nl.net/users/Paul.Treanor/afstand.html

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