Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Nature of Rights

I recently had a conversation about the nature of rights. Are rights conferred or are they inherent? The person I was conversing with held that rights are mere constructs, given to us by human-made laws and that the idea that rights are inherent is absurd.

The most common way out of this conflict is the claim that rights are God-given.
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.
But I’m an atheist, and I believe that rights are inherent. The reference to a Creator isn’t available to me.

But we each have many characteristics, and I don’t believe that these are God-given either. Many of our characteristics are the result of billions of years of accumulated mutations to our DNA. Darwinian evolution affected the statistical prevalence of certain traits encoded in our and our relatives’ DNA with the result that there between 2 and 100 million species in the world today.

Some of these species perceive the world around them. Many species perceive the world differently. They may see certain colors, hear certain frequencies, or smell various chemicals that members of other species cannot. Bats hear ultrasonic frequencies and perceive the physical world through echolocation. Platypuses and many other species perceive the electromagnetic fields generated by other animals. Birds migrate using the earth’s magnetic field, apparently.

Sometimes, even members of the same species perceive the same phenomena differently. One simple example is the fact that human eye witnesses sometimes describe witnessed events very differently.

These observations are germane to the question of the source of rights because they show that not perceiving something doesn’t mean that it isn’t there and that we can perceive real things but might not yet know how we are able to do so.

Let’s do a thought experiment. If rights are assigned, if they are constructs created by law and not a characteristic that exists whether acknowledged or not, then, if the law did not cede a particular right, there could be no violation by treating someone in accord with the law.

But this would mean then, that we would feel no outrage at the Nazi’s treatment of those deemed by law to be subhuman and without rights. It would mean that we would be unbothered by any harm to another unless the law granted them some right that could be violated.

But this isn’t the case. Slavery was legal, but some of us have always been outraged by it. We apparently perceive something about it that is unsettling.

I’m not sure that “rights” is the best term to capture this notion that harming others can amount to the breach of some barrier or the crossing of some line that leads to outrage, but it’s all we seem to have at our disposal.

It is the outrage that we feel when we see or read about others being hurt in certain circumstances that motivates the rights movement. We seem to react intuitively and recognize that something has been violated. But it is only something inherent that could be violated since, in many situations, the law or legally conferred rights aren’t since there are no conferred rights to violate.

It is this visceral reaction to those things we respond to as injustices that makes be believe that rights are inherent and unalienable. If one is born and subject to the experience we call suffering, then it is likely that one is also born with the right not to be subjected to such an experience. I believe this because I am so outraged by certain images of suffering regardless of whether any legal right is being violated.

I am outraged because someone’s rights are being violated. These rights must be inherent.


Anonymous said...

I cannot subscribe to your thought that "If one is born and subject to the experience we call suffering, then it is likely that one is also born with the right not to be subjected to such an experience." Different people "suffer" for different reasons. Many people suffer because they are not wealthy. That does not mean that they have a right to be wealthy. Although rights cannot be the mere product of laws, they cannot be individually subjective.

Anonymous said...

Do you know why that is being done to those monkeys?

Anonymous said...

The monkeys are being tortured. As for what that first commenter above said (and this is really a topic that warrants a book or two):

Simply put, while you are right that people suffer for various reasons, keep in mind that the wealthy obtain their wealth *at the expense of* the masses--most of whom are poor. This is facilitated by a system of laws enacted, for the most part, by the wealthy.

Thus, I have the inalienable human right that *you* NOT be obscenely rich. Where to draw that line, i.e. how much to tax various income groups, has been the focus of every presidential election for the past 100 years in this backward country of ours. Europe, in general, is much farther along in having higher taxes and much more provided by the gov't to its citizens, e.g. health care, college, and so on.

In particular, the lack of health care and affordable college-level education in this country is a result of deliberate actions by mostly wealthy people to enact laws that oppress the masses. Most Americans exist to serve the top 10%, and that top 10% desperately want to maintain that status quo.

Anonymous said...

whoa, dude, *comment moderation*..!?