31 May 2007

Today's reading: "rights"

What is a "right"? Are there natural rights? Are any rights inalienable? You can argue till the cows come home, with little likelihood of generating useful insights.

I think the concept is best seen as an instrument of conflict between competing sources of power. In particular, the meaning of 'rights' at a given time represents the ideological position at that time on the issue of state-versus-individual. When we had absolutism, talk was of the absolute rights of the state (monarch). As civil liberties developed during eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the language of 'rights' was increasingly used to express the idea that each individual has their own territory or area of sovereignty.

In the twentieth century, the concept swung back towards expressing the claims of the collective (in effect, the state) on individuals. In some cases, spurious terms such as 'Volk' or 'proletariat' were used to denote the collective.

We see this swing continuing today under Blairism, a philosophy which — for all the criticism directed at it by now from every corner — can readily be interpreted as an ideal expression of the prevailing Zeitgeist. The idea that the individual has a claim to be left alone by society (e.g. to smoke, or to eat supposedly unhealthy foods) has become, it appears, outmoded.

Other takes:
Stumbling & Mumbling: "Rights, if they are to be meaningful, are not merely something that governments grant to people through legislation. They have moral force ..."
Westminster Wisdom: "Often it strikes me that most who use the term and ferociously argue about it have different definitions of the word, right, but because no one defines that term, persist in thinking that they should agree and can't really work out why they do disagree."
Chris Dillow (commenting on WW): "What you say of rights is true of other categories - justice, liberty and efficiency. Incoherence afflicts almost all popular thinking about moral and political philosophy. ... MacIntyre said it was because we have inherited multiple, conflicting traditions - a sociological fact as much as a philosophical one."


Paul said...

"I think the concept is best seen as an instrument of conflict between competing sources of power."

Yes, in the absence of any agreement on these matters this seems to be all one can say: I think the comments of the others you quote are correct, too.

Unless everyone acknowledges (and concurs on the particulars of) the same, transcendent principles, debate will rage on about rights. Since rights have a special, unquestionable status, they cannot properly be conferred (or withdrawn) by governments, lawyers, altruists or utopians: they must, as mentioned, "trump everything" and be held to do so by all --- yet there will never be agreement about their specifics or even consensus on their general desirability. There will always be those who are sceptical of any instrument devised by man which has such awesome power. ...Despite all attempts by certain quarters to persuade them otherwise.

Mister Anonymous said...

Aye, when people say "everyone has a right to their own opinion" they never enquire into who grants that right.

I think it's a polite way of saying "shut up and don't criticise me". Just look at scientologists - because we are uncertain, on an existential level, as to whether lord xenu really did crash some DC 10s into a volcano, I can't send my goons around to smash up a scientology church for being stupid.

After all, that these rights don't actually exist rarely haunts and bothers people.

But yeah, a right is an assertion of sovereignty, in todays case the assertion of group and individual sovereignty to be (hopefully) protected by an impartial authority from my goon squads. Social consensus as an arbiter of reality.

"Unless everyone acknowledges (and concurs on the particulars of) the same, transcendent principles,"

We're all human god is other people zzzzz

This sums up my final attitude towards rights. I hope no one deprives me of it.

Good post from all.

james higham said...

Saw an interesting piece earlier, at Free Jersey, on the right to discriminate, i.e. should there be discrimination legislation? My view is that it's not a question of rights but that the state should just butt out of people's daily lives, full stop. There is a self-actualizing process which ensures the things the average person sees as 'rights'.

'Rights' involves the state and thus the restriction of 'rights'.