Monday, September 04, 2017

Do human rights exist?




John B. Moore said...

Rights don't exist in their own right as things out there in the cosmos. Rights don't exist apart from the people acting in accord with their concept of rights. Rights are mental constructs that refer to actions.

You could just as well ask whether "walking in the park" exists, or whether "singing a song" exists. These things are not static objects like tables and chairs, and they are also not some undefinable non-physical "thing," but they are simply objects in motion.

Starhopper said...

Well, Victor got to play the heretic in the conversation below this one. Now it's my turn. Although I am a firm believer in Objective Reality (the universe does not make sense without it), I do not believe that "human rights exist in the same, objective fashion. One does not have to do with the other.

Here is a passage from one of my favorite science fiction novels, Heinlein's Starship Troopers. The scene is a classroom debate on whether such things as human rights exist.

Instructor: "A human being has no natural rights of any nature."

Student: "Sir? How about 'Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness'?"

Instructor: "Ah yes, [life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness]... Life? What 'right' to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What 'right' to life has a man who must die to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of 'right'? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man's right is 'unalienable'? And is it 'right'? As to liberty, the heroes who signed the great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called natural human rights that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost. 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 ensure that I will catch it."

(Although I absolutely love this book (while loathing the movie with the same name), I disagree with more of it than I agree with. But Heinlein spells out the various controversies within it with such consummate skill, even if you violently oppose what he's saying, you nevertheless appreciate the way he says it. I would have loved to see him in a debate with our current politicians - of either party.)

Victor Reppert said...

Didn't you used to call that book Stormship Troopers? Did the late Bill Patterson change your mind about the quality of that book?

Screwtape Jenkins said...

Rights don't exist in their own right as things out there in the cosmos. Rights don't exist apart from the people acting in accord with their concept of rights.

But should people have concepts of certain rights? If a populace lacks the concept of a woman's right to own property, have they failed in some objective moral duty?

If so, rights would be "things" of a kind, even if not material things. They would be objective moral duties. So, proving they exist would require proving moral realism.

If not, it makes no sense to say that a country that denies women the right to own property has wronged them, because they have no duty to recognize that they have such a right.'

Kevin said...


I agree with you, and it is a question I have posed to numerous progressives who are vocal about women's and minority rights. If rights are derived from a society, and a certain segment does not have that right, then no right is being violated. Really it's the same argument about morality in general - does anyone truly have justification for calling any given society evil? Is it arrogance to condemn someone who does not conform to one's own opinions of moral behavior, as though those opinions hold greater weight than others?

John B. Moore said...

I also agree with Christians and others who point out that moral relativism has no basis and is self-defeating. The reason objective moral values exist is because life exists, and all living things have a certain basic drive to survive. It's what we all ultimately strive for, just by virtue of being alive.

It's not that people should have a particular concept of rights, but it's just a fact that people do. Life strives to continue. Whatever seems to foster life is good. Whatever seems to impede prosperous life is bad.

Yes, rights are "things" of a kind. They are mental constructs in people's minds. They are actions people habitually do in response to those mental constructs. They are statements people make describing their mental constructs, describing the life they are hoping for and striving for.

Starhopper said...

There is a fundamental difference between morality and what we call rights. Rights are political in nature, and are only peripherally grounded in morality. Take the case of calling health care a "human right". How so? Was it such in PreColumbian America? Or in ancient Babylon? Or Medieval Germany? Although how society decides to organize its health care system must surely be premised upon the core values of fairness and decency, in what exactly does the "right" exist? That is a matter for honest debate, and honorable persons can hold differing views on the subject.

Or what about the right to vote? Surely what is just and fair in a contemporary democracy is totally different than what was so in a feudal monarchy. Were the rights of a Bavarian peasant being somehow violated because he had no say in who would be the next King? No. Are the rights of an African American of voting age violated if he is turned away at the voting booth? Yes!

And this is IN NO WAY has anything to do with whether or not there exists Objective Morality. Apples and Oranges. (Or, as the Brits would say, chalk and cheese.)

Kevin said...

Mortal: "And this is IN NO WAY has anything to do with whether or not there exists Objective Morality. Apples and Oranges."

Yes, but rights are often smothered in moral language because not everyone sees them as legal privileges. The west condemns human rights violations in societies dissimilar from ours, for example the way women and gays are treated in many Middle Eastern countries, but those groups are treated in accordance with the laws and standards of those societies, thus no rights are being violated, thus no human rights ate being violated when, say, a raped women is executed or a gay man is thrown off a building.

The only way to view that as a human rights violation is to conflate rights with moral truths, far as I can tell. But if moral truths themselves are subjective, then it becomes difficult to justifiably do even that.

That's why I said the arguments were similar.