Sunday, January 31, 2010

Musings on Rights

...or, I love it when liberals contradict themselves...

Over at Bob S.' place last week, in the comments to this post arose quite an interesting discussion of where rights originate. One R. Stanton Scott claimed right off the bat that rights more or less depend on society -- that is, that certain rights are not inherent to humans by virtue of their very existence but are dependent on societal mores and whims. I suppose one might say that last term is a loaded one, as it implies that society would do things to bestow rights on people or strip said rights from them by way of chasing certain fads or what-have-you. But is that opinion really that far-fetched, considering what happened to the Jews and other folks in Nazi Germany? As I noted in the comments, to say that people only have the rights society decides to let them have is a recipe for discrimination, tyranny and genocide -- with Nazi Germany being a textbook illustration of that.

RSS defended his position by saying that rights being dependent on societal norms "makes them no less real." And here he contradicts himself for the first time, at least in this particular debate. If rights are dependent on societal norms and relations -- thereby subject to revocation depending on societal attitudes -- do they exist at all in any meaningful sense of the word? I would argue that they don't. If humans aren't entitled to be treated in a certain way by virtue of their very existence -- if they're only entitled to said treatment because society says they are -- then that opens the door to all sorts of scum to perpetrate all sorts of villainy upon those that societal consensus deems deserving of it. A couple of us asked if the Founders were wrong when they wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." RSS answered by saying yes, they were wrong, that all men were NOT created equal with certain unalienable rights, "(a)t least not the dark-skinned ones." To which I replied:

"The point about the treatment of 'the dark-skinned ones' is well-taken; however, I do not regard the Founders' failure to perceive the incongruity between their words and their actions as a justification for following generations' failure to recognize and respect inalienable rights. The treatment of 'the dark-skinned ones' was wrong. But if your view is the correct one, it was just peachy because they didn’t have the right to be considered equal anyway. After all, that was the societal consensus back then…"

To which RSS replied: "(A) 'right' to be free did not exist for slaves at the time of the Founding, since rights only exist when social understandings include the concept. This does not make such a situation just of course, or suggest that enslaving them was not unjust–it simply means the understandings of the day included a different concept of justice."

Here RSS contradicts himself yet again. If you acknowledge any kind of injustice in what certain societies did in the past, then you are necessarily acknowledging by implication that somebody's rights were violated somewhere along the way. And this, in turn, completely negates the argument that rights are dependent on societal norms and understandings, as it implies those rights were there before society decided they weren't. This leads to the question that I posed, which by the way was never answered: If rights aren't dependent on societal understandings, then where exactly do they come from? I would love to see someone answer that question who would argue that rights are not inherent to one's existence.

For a little bit there I was trying to put my finger on what exactly irks me so about that position, but I think I figured it out. It all goes back to something Sabra and I have spoken of before -- the phenomenon of moral relativism. This is exactly what the "rights are dependent on societal consensus" argument smacks of, as it implies that whatever societies decide to do to certain segments is okay. If you're going to argue that, then you necessarily have to argue that the societal consensus is just, and I think -- as the old saying goes -- down that road lies nihilistic madness. As I said in the comments:

"Society can contest certain rights to its heart's content, but the recognition -- and respect -- of a right to life is ultimately the only thing that keeps said society from descending back into the tribal warfare that Hobbes argued was man's natural state. If we're not going to acknowledge and respect the basic human right to life -- yes, inherent to one's very existence -- then what's the point of existing at all? And we can talk all day long about this individual vs. collective right manure, but the fact is that if an individual is denied the best tools of self-defense, said individual is denied the right of self-defense, which ultimately can be seen as depriving him of his right to life. Which takes us right back to the question of whether said right is inherent to one’s existence or dependent on society's whims. Do you really want to live in a world that is the latter? I sure as hell don't."

Yes, there is -- dare I say it? a certain pragmatism in acknowledging that rights are endowed upon us by our Creator. One could almost say acknowledging those rights is the only way humankind will survive. It's pretty frightening to think there are those who still think rights are what society says they are.