A Really Simple Theory of Moral Rights

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Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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39 Responses

  1. Avatar Patrick
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    says:

    I love this post.

    I am expecting vehement dissent.Report

  2. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist
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    says:

    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.

    I have a moral right to do just that! The (God(s)/Goddes(s) of my choice) said so!

    (sorry, too busy to be anything more than pithy on this, others will have to offer more substantial comments).Report

  3. Avatar zic
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    says:

    Nice post, Vikram.

    Just to get some of the language debate out of the way — moral rights (legally) refer to copyright law, and the moral right to control their work. Another definition, probably more appropriate for this discussion, places it as a synonym for natural law.

    This is a nice graphic of what ‘moral rights’ might be.
    http://www.isu.edu/~baerralp/MoralRights.pdf

    I am not proponent of natural law; I believe ‘moral rights’ evolve from those with power in a culture to those without through agitation and social change; they are not fixed. The moral right perceived to be natural in one time (for instance to own other humans) will be perceived as immoral in another; which is why your definition of the right to debate is quite wonderful.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to zic
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      says:

      Ah, that was an excellent link. I’ve come across most of what’s there, but it’s nice to see it aggregated in such a concise way.

      The link does mention “possession criteria”, which I claimed was neglected by most of those who assert rights, even when given the space to expand on their ideas in books. (Perhaps if I read more technical works of philosophy, I’d see that others have addressed these problems.) I also find it interesting how matter-of-factly they dismiss the notion of “human rights”.

      Natural law, shares many of the same problems as God-given law. We humans tend to see purpose in nature where there is none. Nature isn’t happy when a person gets access to clean water or sad when someone is gunned down in the street.Report

      • Avatar Pinky in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        I think you should read a spread of natural law philosophers; I think you’d find that a lot of them do ground their theories a lot better than you think they do.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        Any suggestions on who to pick up first?Report

      • Avatar Pinky in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        In all philosophical matters, my first stop is Aquinas, after reading a little Aristotle for context. Agree with him or not, you can’t complain about a lack of rigor. Adler is a good starting point for context about both of them. From what I understand, contemporary Catholic philosopher Robert George has built a natural law philosophy based solely on reason. It’s been said that during the Enlightenment there were as many theories of natural law as there were publishers; Locke had the greatest impact on the US, but his writings were in large part a response to Hobbes. There are a lot of people you could read before writing off all natural law theory as “just so” stories.Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        I am a big fan of Calvin and Hobbes.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        @pinky

        The problem with natural law theories is that they are just prehistoric versions of rule utilitarianism with very bad modal categorisationsReport

  4. Avatar Saul Degraw
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    says:

    I suspect the concept of moral rights probably made more sense in 17th or 18th century England and the United States than they do in 21st century England and the United States. Arguably there more of a united Christianity ruling back then even if many American colonies did make early stabs at Freedom of Conscience/Religion.

    I think when people talk about moral rights they are just merely expressing their own internal ideas of what should be considered an axiomatic right. I’m guilty of this. I can express why I believe in Universal Health Care more than my idea of public transport or paid vacation as a human right. But I feel very strongly on FDR’s economic Bill of Rights and why they should be enacted.

    What I’ve also noticed over the past few years is liberals getting fed up and pushing back on the idea of what counts as moral. We have been dealing with decades of social conservatives using morality to mean stuff of the bedroom and private lives. Since around 2004, I’ve seen liberals push back and talk about how their morality is about the welfare state and the right of people to have health care, food, safe and non-harassment workplaces, adequate wages, life-work balance, shelter, clothing, etc. Basically a life of dignity and decency. I suspect that a large increase in language on moral rights is to push back against conservatives for claiming a monopoly on the words moral and morality.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      @saul-degraw you last graph reminds me of this (surprisingly) awesome post by Clive CrookWhat it means to be a liberal. It’s a review of Edmund Fawcett’s book, Liberalism: the Left of an Idea, (which I have not read.) Crook enjoyed it, and says:

      What, then, do liberals want when they say they want liberty? One thing is resistance to power, the second of Fawcett’s guiding ideas: not just political power, but economic and social power as well. Liberalism expects that power tends toward tyranny unless checked. Another thing liberals want when they say they want liberty is respect for people in their own right — also one of Fawcett’s guiding ideas. “Once embraced democratically, respect for people as such forbade power from excluding anyone from the circle of liberal protection.” He calls this “the democratic seed in an otherwise undemocratic creed.”

      Seems to go far toward my definition of moral rights; including the disenfranchised in the conversation, rooting out tyranny where it takes root, not matter if it’s government, market, or church; and understanding that it will take root, like a noxious weed.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      I think when people talk about moral rights they are just merely expressing their own internal ideas of what should be considered an axiomatic right.

      Yep. From the Elizabeth Stoker link: “Basically nobody has a moral system. People are generally creatures of moral sentiments.”

      If it were me, I’d have revised “moral sentiments” to “moral urges”, but I think she’s more charitable than I am.Report

  5. Avatar Damon
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    says:

    V,
    I approach this from a different place. You said “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.”

    I’d say, Charlie wants to do something, but society wants to prevent him from doing it. Come up with a reason why society should be permitted to prevent him from doing it.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Damon
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      says:

      If I go with the sense of your idea, I think you feel the default should be that Charlie can do whatever he wants, unless there is a reason not to. If no argument is provided on either side, Charlie should be permitted to do what he wants.

      I don’t disagree, but I would note that this isn’t how many people would view the situation. They’d say that if the majority want to stop Charlie, they should be allowed to vote on it, and Charlie should be stopped, even if no reason is provided. Of course, that takes us away from morality and towards theories of governance.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        “I think you feel the default should be that Charlie can do whatever he wants, unless there is a reason not to. If no argument is provided on either side, Charlie should be permitted to do what he wants.”

        This was Teddy Roosevelt’s interpretation of presidential powers. It’s how we got the national parks.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        @vikram-bath
        Yes, but you already brought up governance when you talked about “but society wants to prevent him from doing it.” Society, acting as a group.Report

  6. Avatar Mike Dwyer
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    says:

    “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.”

    This.

    I’m going to put on my partisan hat here and make the generalization that a lot of liberals are guilty of this, though they like to substitute ‘universal’ for ‘moral’ (I suspect because the latter sounds a bit too religious).Report

  7. Avatar Murali
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    says:

    @vikram-bath

    This is why we need political philosophers.

    Some of this stuff is difficult. But there is a lot of good political philosophy out there and your casual dismissal of any justification for rights claims does not do justice to the theories out there. Of course, not all of them work. Perhaps none of them work, but it is not clear that you are equally willing to train the scepticism required to refute those arguments on matters that you are more confident about.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Murali
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      says:

      casual dismissal

      I think that’s a fair way of putting it. I have two outs though. (1) Ido admit that I haven’t read everyone who might have done a sufficient job of articulating a theory of rights. (2) I am largely focusing on how the bulk of people talk about moral rights. Highly technical political philosophers will necessarily make up more than 99% of all the references to rights that the average non-political philosopher will come across.

      it is not clear that you are equally willing to train the scepticism required to refute those arguments on matters that you are more confident about.

      Yes, that is always a concern, and I have found myself guilty of it more than once.Report

      • Avatar kenB in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        Mike, if you were magically transported back in time a few millenia, to a society where “slavery is wrong” was not axiomatic, how would you go about demonstrating the rightness of that statement? How helpful would it be for you to call freedom from enslavement a “moral right” or “human right” without a pre-existing consensus for that belief?Report

      • Avatar kenB in reply to Vikram Bath
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        says:

        oops, obviously meant to reply to Mike Schilling below…Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Murali
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      says:

      All theories of rights, and moral theories in general, ultimately rest on baseless assertions. The reason you can’t bridge the is-ought gap is that ought is a logical impossibility.Report

  8. Avatar Lurker
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    says:

    Did slaves have a moral right not to be enslaved?

    Obvioulsy, the law did not protect them but allowed them to be enslaved.

    A right is just the converse of a duty/obligation. If I have a duty to take care of my chlld, my child has a right to be taken care of.

    You might want to read some philosophy.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Lurker
      Ignored
      says:

      I conceive of rights very differently than this. A “right” may be considered a zone of autonomy, a realm of activity in which I, the holder of the right, may act as I choose. It is an expression of power: the power of the right-holder to act, the lack of power of someone else to do anything about the right-holder’s choice.

      For instance, I have a right to speak my mind about politics, at least as against the government, my right corresponds with a lack of power on the part of the government to (legitimately) punish me for speaking. I may not have a right to speak freely in a private sphere, however; my employer may punish me for saying something it does not like (typically, something contrary to the employer’s business interests, like recommending a competitor).

      If a “right” necessarily implies a corresponding “duty” on the part of another, then might not that duty be expressed as a duty to do nothing? If so, that’s not much of a duty.Report

  9. Avatar Murali
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    says:

    Highly technical political philosophers will necessarily make up more than 99% of all the references to rights that the average non-political philosopher will come across.

    I hope you mean the opposite of this because it seems to me that the average non-philosopher comes across rights talk from political documents (like the declaration of independence or his or her own country’s constitution or UNDHR or some hack on TV or on an Op-Ed page, or at best, from polemicists*

    *who do not care about reasoning rightly, only about saying the right sort of things to convince other people.Report

  10. Avatar Sierra Nevada
    Ignored
    says:

    “This bit of verbal kung-fu is available to everyone.”

    This is the only even vaguely apposite statement I can find in the whole piece. The rest seems to be a lot of consensus-obscuring dust raising, centered around the the old sophomoric standby: “you gotta make a good argument to convince me. I am not easily convinced, ergo most arguments are not good.”

    Yep, verbal kung fu is easy.Report

  11. Avatar Marchmaine
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    says:

    I confess that I’m not sure I get your point… probably too meta for me.

    But. Wasn’t this the gist of MacIntyre’s _After Virtue_ (and other subsequent works)?Report

  12. Avatar Tod Kelly
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    says:

    I’ll say about moral rights the same thing I said about natural law arguments:

    “Not everyone who supports Natural Law advocates for disenfranchisement, obviously. Nonetheless, each person who argues for Natural Law unwittingly passes along the seeds of disenfranchisement.”Report

    • Avatar Pinky in reply to Tod Kelly
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      says:

      Depends how you see natural law. To my thinking, everyone who doesn’t support natural law unwittingly passes along the seeds of disenfranchisement. Without recognition of a universal right, how do you argue for the right to vote?Report

  13. Avatar Wardsmith
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    says:

    Another stellar OP Dr. B.

    A quote you might recognize:

    Mises This book argues that our civilisation depends, not only for its origin but also for its preservation, on what can be precisely described only as the extended order of human cooperation, an order more commonly, if somewhat misleadingly, known as capitalism. To understand our civilisation, one must appreciate that the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection – the comparative increase of population and wealth – of those groups that happened to follow them. The unwitting, reluctant, even painful adoption of these practices kept these groups together, increased their access to valuable information of all sorts, and enabled them to be `fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it’ ( Genesis 1:28). This process is perhaps the least appreciated facet of human evolution.Report

  14. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    My fundamental argument was that morality, if it exists, resides in the whole ability to make choices. Can you choose between X and Y?

    I mean, if you ask me “do you want olives on this?”, that’s not a choice at all. The answer is, and will always be, “barf-a-roo”. Given that this is not a choice, it’s silly to argue that it’d be a moral choice (even above and beyond the fact that it’s a matter of taste). It’s a stimulus followed by a response. No choice. No morality.

    If, however, you give me the choice of “would you do this thing that will benefit you a little in the short term and also benefit others *OR* would you do this thing that will benefit you a lot in the short term and also harm others”, then I might find myself weighing options. This or that. This or that. How much benefit? How much harm? How many others? That sort of thing.

    Now, the conclusion that I reached was that the conclusion that resulted in the ability of more people to make more moral choices was the conclusion that increased morality (and was, thus, more moral). That means, of course, that the immoral choice would be the conclusion that decreased the ability to make choices (in the aggregate).

    Of course, this assumes that I am capable of choosing between the two and not just responding to a much more complicated set of stimuli and responses.Report

  15. Avatar Roger
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    says:

    Good post!

    I definitely agree with the position that “rights” are intellectual constructs based upon shared emotional and moral dispositions within humanity that are designed as “conversation stoppers.” My term in previous discussions is that rights are the areas that we have carved out as being “sacrosanct” or beyond discussion. Lines nobody should cross (or fail to fulfill.)

    Just to add though, I believe conversation stoppers play an extremely useful role in social life*. An essential one, actually. Rights are a useful construct which play an essential role in coordinating human activity.

    Oddly, some of the philosophers who have written on the subject also note that “conversation stoppers” only really work when they are not seen as being conversation stoppers. Daniel Dennet and Richard Joyce both espouse something similar. My take-away from this is that the reason rights and taboos and are so powerful is also why they seem so mysterious.

    * alternatively it could be destructive to make rights too broad as it stops too many conversations.Report

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