A Really Simple Theory of Moral Rights
What are moral rights? Where do they come from? How do we know what moral rights there ought to be and for whom?
These are potentially complicated questions, which I will dispense with characteristic ease:
Moral rights exist to give the intellectual proletariat a way to participate in debates.
Let’s say you think Charlie should be allowed to do something, but society wants to prevent him from doing it. You are unable to come up with an actual reason as to why he should be allowed to do this thing.
Among the rhetorical tactics at your disposal is to assert that Charlie has a moral right to perform his action. This seemingly shifts the required work to your opponent to show that either the right ought not to be a right (which probably makes your opponent a meanie) or that the right ought not to be given to Charlie (also mean). This bit of verbal kung-fu is available to everyone.
You might object that moral rights are real. And they might be, but to actually convince anyone that the rights you say ought to be rights are rights requires you to answer the questions that opened this post. For you to convince someone that a moral right is real, you must provide some sort of argument. And the arguments provided are typically less than compelling.
Legal rights are not moral rights. Legal rights can exist without justification. In the US, these are determined by the Constitution and interpreted by secret courts issuing secret rulings. Legislators may have had their own senses of what moral rights there ought to be and made them legal by writing them down, but that doesn’t make them any less made up than when you and I do it.
God-given moral rights are similarly problematic. In fact, it makes the whole problem worse, because now instead of merely needing to convince me of the right, you now have to convince me that there is a God, that you are accurately reporting what God says the rights should be, and that God ought to be trusted.
Another rationalization rests on one’s “humanity”. If you’re with fancier company, you’ll hear words like “consciousness” and “sentience” used. “Soul” might come up. But you still need to identify what about a person’s humanity or what about sentience or consciousness or a soul merits a certain right. You have to make clear whether small children, large fetuses, smart monkeys, self-modifying AIs, and the brain dead qualify for these rights and why for each. Even scholars who have dedicated most of their adult lives to forming theories of rights seem to give short shrift to such questions.
The universe doesn’t care about sentience or humanity. Humanity and sentience predate any notion of rights; rights stem from minds, not from the universe. It is incumbent on you to explain why a right should be provided. And if you have to do that, you’ve taken the small problem of whether Charlie ought to be allowed to do something and made it a big problem about the nature of humanity and what it entails. That is the opposite of progress.
I should note that none of this mean that really are no moral rights. There are, indeed people who have attempted to go through the inferential steps necessary to determine what moral rights are. I just haven’t met any. (Peter Singer comes closest that I’ve yet read.) Rather, I assert that most people who assert moral rights assert them in lieu of actually making an argument for whatever they are supporting. Instead it functions as a conversation-stopper the same as answering “magnetism” when asked why a magnet attracts iron. The illusion of an answer is provided, not the illumination of an answer.
Of course, you should not just apply this dismissal of lazy claims to rights to assertions of the moral rights you don’t like. The assertion that people have a right to health insurance without further justification is just as empty as the assertion that people have the right to free speech or the right to keep a majority of their income or the right to not be punched in the face. Don’t keep the shortcut available for just the rights you like while sending this post to those who advocate for rights you disagree with.