Liberty is an inherently offensive lifestyle. Living in a free society guarantees that each one of us will see our most cherished principles and beliefs questioned and in some cases mocked. That psychic discomfort is the price we pay for basic civic peace. It's worth it. It's a pragmatic principle. Defend everyone else's rights, because if you don't there is no one to defend yours. -- MaxedOutMama

I don't just want gun rights... I want individual liberty, a culture of self-reliance....I want the whole bloody thing. -- Kim du Toit

The most glaring example of the cognitive dissonance on the left is the concept that human beings are inherently good, yet at the same time cannot be trusted with any kind of weapon, unless the magic fairy dust of government authority gets sprinkled upon them.-- Moshe Ben-David

The cult of the left believes that it is engaged in a great apocalyptic battle with corporations and industrialists for the ownership of the unthinking masses. Its acolytes see themselves as the individuals who have been "liberated" to think for themselves. They make choices. You however are just a member of the unthinking masses. You are not really a person, but only respond to the agendas of your corporate overlords. If you eat too much, it's because corporations make you eat. If you kill, it's because corporations encourage you to buy guns. You are not an individual. You are a social problem. -- Sultan Knish

Saturday, March 19, 2005

What is a "Right"? - Revisited, Part I.

Reader Dr. Danny Cline stumbled across my early essay What is a "Right"? and had some objections to it. His opening comment:
Most of what you post on this blog seems to have the right goals in mind. However, your comments on rights, particularly what you claim about the source of rights:

"A "right" is what the majority of a society believes it is."


"Like all "Rights of the People" the right to arms is a social construct - a declaration by a society of what is "right and proper," and generally agreed to by the population."

is a dangerously Marxist/fascist idea (really it is THE Marxist/fascist idea), which comes very close to a justification for those who claim to be working on behalf of the government to remove whatever "rights" (quotes in honor of yours) they want to, in the name of "the will of the people" or "majority rule." The concept of "rights" being a "social construct" is exactly the kind of nonsense preached by the Hegelian/Marxist aristocracy in college humanities departments throughout the US, and is exactly the justification for the removal of gun (and other) rights. Furthermore, the "majority of a society" or a "population" cannot believe anything - groups have no mind. This you should know - the quote from which you gain the title of your webpage says it all here.

Whether someone can or does violate a right of yours (or mine) says nothing about the content of the right itself. It is a mistake (leading to your straying near the idea that whatever "government" does is OK - as long as it has the force to back it up) to consider the question of what is a right to be a question of what is rather than what should be. Rights are not at all like physical laws; they are answers to questions of morality, which science (the realm of physical laws) has never been able to answer. The fact that many people considered (or still consider) rape, murder, and slavery to be morally acceptable is irrelevant to the correct answers to questions of morality. Many people have incorrect beliefs regarding morality (or even regarding physical laws for theat matter), and moral questions are notoriously tricky to answer. (This is quite probably the reason some philosophers decide to eventually go with the gibberish about rights and morality being meaningless, only a result of an act of will, or a "social construct" - out of laziness.)

I'm a fan of Heinlein as well, but in the case of questions about rights and morality, Starship Troopers is not the correct novel to reference - at least not unless a die-hard communist or fascist. The government presented therein is a fine example of a fascist/communist nanny-state, and its subjects/slaves are clearly worshippers of Nietzche's "New Idol" - the state. The criticism of the rights I hold dear (and I believe from the rest of your site that you hold them dear as well) in your quote misrepresents some rights and is simply wrong on others. The "right to life" described in the Declaration of Independence is not a "right not to die", a "right to be immortal" or anything as silly as that. It is simply a right not to be murdered - further such a right does not state that it is impossible that you could be murdered, just that it is WRONG. The fact that rights can be unjustly violated does not mean that they are meaningless or incorrect. Nor does the fact that we sometimes need to defend our rights mean that if we do not defend them or fail in our defense that they dissolve. The final quote on rights from Heinlein comes closest to revealing his mistake (and by extension yours):

"The third 'right' - the 'pursuit of happiness'? It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can 'pursue happiness' as long as my brain lives -- but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can insure that I will catch it."

All rights are simply universal conditions "which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore." Even your Webster's definitions make this clear:

1: qualities (as adherence to duty or obedience to lawful authority) that together constitute the ideal of moral propriety or merit moral approval

2: something to which one has a just claim: as a: the power or privilege to which one is justly entitled b: the interest that one has in a piece of property - often used in plural (mineral rights)

3: something that one may properly claim as due

The words "moral," "just," and "properly" are the key here. The claim doesn't cease to be "moral," "just," or "proper" simply because it is violated. The beliefs of the evil and the wrong do not make a thing right.

I do appreciate that you hold to a (probably) unpopular belief just because it is right (the right to bear arms). However, you need to rethink the premises you use to justify your beliefs, as they actually justify the opposite of your beliefs. Oddly enough, all of the comments your readers left were far more on the money than your article on the question of the source of rights. John T. Kennedy and Don Linsenbach in particular are spot on as far as they go. Even Rob G, who comes to the opposite conclusion from yours at least gets part of what he says right:

"what barbarian invading forces did is no proof text on morality."

even if he reaches the wrong conclusion.

Perhaps you are trying to argue a different point than what I am reading, and you actually agree with what I am saying. If so, or if I have missed subtle evidence of parody or satire, I apologize for bothering you. However, if not, I think what I am saying is an important point, indeed it is THE important point in the American Revolution and all of Ayn Rand's writings. These rights are not things that can be removed; they are innate and inalienable; they are conditions of morality itself. If one TRULY believes that rights and morality are "socially constructed" the only sensible option is to join those in power (the always present "communist masters") and claim your share of their unjustly gained loot.

I don't believe this - I won't DO this - and I think (I hope) the same is true of you.
My reply:
Excellent comments, very well put. The purpose of this essay was to illustrate the pragmatic vs. the ideal. Perhaps the wording "majority believes" should have more accurately been "majority shares a belief," but I thought it fairly obvious.

If you live in a society that does not have a majority that shares your belief in any particular right, then from a pragmatic standpoint that right is not exerciseable. You have a right to not be murdered, but if the State will do nothing to protect you from being murdered, and in fact may be the perpetrator OF your murder, what value does your right to life have?

If you've read the current main page of the blog, then surely you've seen the link to QandO Blog's discussion of the "reality" of rights. As others have said, rights are like money: the more we believe in them, the better they work. "Moral," "just," and "proper" are all values, and as such they vary from society to society. For the ancient Romans, it was moral, just, and proper to practice infanticide by exposing deformed newborns, a practice that is considered criminal today.

I live in a society that is based on a concept of individual liberty heretofore unseen in the world. This belief was severely marred by its simultaneous support for slavery. We fought a war over that dichotomy, and as a result it was freedom that won out.

The purpose of this essay (and it's unusually short for one of my pieces because - as I noted - I was restricted in length) was to illustrate to readers that if they want to preserve the rights this society is based on, it requires active involvement - because those rights are protected only as long as we protect them.

The problem I have is that when people hear about "natural rights," they think that they're something that is truly "unalienable" - when this is patently untrue, as history illustrates in bloody detail.

As I concluded the piece, "If you want to keep your rights, it is up to YOU to fight for them. Liberty is NEVER unalienable. You must always fight for it."

I think the evidence shows that we've largely stopped fighting for it, and we're suffering a decay of our rights because of it. If the barbarians win, our rights are GONE.

If you'd like to discuss this further, I'm willing.
Well, he did, and his reply was as follows:
I'll try to keep my comments about what we'd discussed as short as possible, while still making my point as clearly as I can. First, I do appreciate your interest in the pragmatic side of human rights and political rights, and indeed, one should never become complacent enough to believe that another (or a group) will not try to violate one's rights. This is without a doubt, a wise caution and an important point to make.

However, the point I was trying to make is that although such a pragmatic view is important when dealing with the realities of those who may not have my (or your, or anyone's) best interests at heart, is that it is also important not to view such pragmatic beliefs as the SOURCE of rights. A view rights as a "social construct" or as only what can be defended is a dangerous view to have, primarily because of where it leads. If one views the only true rights are those that can be defended, as it seemed to me (perhaps incorrectly) you were doing in your article, then an immediate following question becomes apparent. Namely:

1. "Is it wrong for a thug to do whatever he (or she) wants to me or anyone else if he (or again, she) can back their actions up with force?"

Also, if one views rights as simply a "social construct" that has no meaning apart from what is practiced in the culture in question, we are again immediately provided with a question (or perhaps several):

2. "Are (or were) the governments of communist China, North Korea,Soviet Russia, or Nazi Germany wrong in controlling all aspects of their subjects lives?"

3. "Was (or is, as the case may be) slavery (or murder, or the forcible confiscation of an individuals property by a government) wrong?"

My suspicion here is that your answers to these three questions would match my own, namely:

1, 2, 3. "Yes it is (or was) wrong."

to all three questions. However, if we view a true right as being only what can be defended or somehow tied to what a society in general believes or accepts, we are forced to accept the following answers:

1. "No, it is not wrong. Unless you can defend yourself, you deserve what you get."

2. "No they are not wrong. (At least in the case of China and North Korea; perhaps they are wrong in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, but only after the fact.)"

3. "No, the people of the time believed it was OK, and so it was OK for them."

This is not to say that this answers the question of what the ultimate source of a human's rights are. This is a much trickier question, one that is almost certainly impossible to answer definitively, though we can use questions like the one above to ultimately eliminate certain potential answers. (Here we can eliminate "There are no rights so they have no source" and "The source of a human's rights is the will or good nature of its community or government.) If a claimed source of rights leads to a statement that violates what we know of our rights and morality in general (and I do believe we CAN say we know certain things about both of these topics), that claimed source cannot be the true source.

Unfortunately, I seem to have failed in my attempt to keep my discussion of these matters short. I guess my main point is that although it is wise to consider what one needs to do to effectively defend one's rights, these sorts of pragmatic questions should not be confused with the source of one's rights in the first place. I guess my answer to all of these questions marks me as a moral absolutist (which I won't deny). Though sometimes that is hard to admit, especially as it often is viewed as implying an intolerance of others (especially for trivial reasons) that I believe is wrong, the moral relativism and moral nihilism that are the other options lead to places - bad places - that are well known throughout history, even in the twentieth century. This difference between what is necessary to defend rights and the source of rights may seem an unimportant issue to you, and admittedly, it is kind of a fine point when we seem to agree on much else. I also could be mistaken in some of my points here - the study of morality is a difficult one and I am only an amateur philosopher (though I have done a fair amount of study on my own and I do have a pretty good background in logic from my training in mathematics). However, I don't think I am wrong in any important point.
Dr. Cline, I believe, has a Doctorate in Mathematics but not in philosophy, and I don't have a Doctorate in anything, but his questions have caused me to reexamine my thoughts on this topic, and in the wee hours of the morning the last few days I have composed and recomposed my response in my head. (Brilliantly, I'll have you know. Only when I wake up again at 5:40AM, I seem to have misplaced the precise points I wanted to make, and the eloquent and compelling phrases with which I was to make them.)

This promises to be a rather long piece, (I know, so unusual for me!) so I have decided to split it into two posts. I will pre-date the second piece so that it appears immediately below this one, and it will follow along (if I'm lucky) sometime later this evening. (It's up, concluded below.)

And y'all? I expect comments.

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