Saturday, March 05, 2005

More about the Origin of Rights

Jon Henke of Q&O writes about the origin of rights:
Dean Esmay touches on something very important—something central to the evolution of my political philosophy past rigid Libertarian doctrine...
"You only have any rights because the rest of us pretty much agree that you have them."
America was founded on an idea known as "natural rights," at least as part of our founding myth. In truth not all the Founders believed in the concept, but most went along with the general idea. This concept of "natural rights" is helpful as a frame of reference, but really, it's nothing but an intellectual tool. It's a good way of getting people into the spirit of protecting each others' rights, but ultimatey it's nothing but sentiment.
As a matter of faith some may cleave to the notion that their rights come "ultimately" from God or some other higher source, or perhaps from an elaborately worked out system of rationalization. But as a matter of pragmatism that is all superfluous; unless you believe that your Creator is going to take a direct hand in everyday affairs for you, you are utterly dependent upon our fellow men to protect your rights. To get your fellow men to do that, you're going to have to get most of them to agree on what your rights are or, failing that, get them to agree that the system of government which protects those rights should be obeyed—which is six of the one and half a dozen of the other.

Go on, try to get around it. Quote the Magna Carta at me; I don't care. Quote Ayn Rand for me; I still don't care. Quote Karl Marx or Rousseau for me; then I definitely don't care. Indeed, take any political philosopher who has written at length about any of these issues, and consider: it only takes enough of us who say, "that's a crock!" to expose any such intellectual edifices as castles made of sand.

Your rights do not exist unless your fellow men agree that they exist. You and I will live with that. Regardless of how we feel about it, it is empirical reality.

"Your rights do not exist unless your fellow men agree that they exist. ... it is empirical reality". Like Dean, I still await verifiable, physical proof of the existence of "rights". If they are natural, surely there should be evidence, no?
There is not. Rights, as Max Borders wrote, "are not some Cartesian substance that animates the body in the manner of a soul. Rights are a human construct, just like money. The more we believe in them, the better they work". And yet, objectivists—who are generally dismissive of unsupported claims of the supernatural—are perfectly willing to buy into the idea that the human race is exempt from the "survival of the fittest" - that we are somehow bound by other laws of nature....

A political philosophy should have ideals...but it should also be grounded in reality, else it is not really philosophy at all, merely wishful thinking. There are still many valid rationales for libertarianism, though, and they provide the basis of a more fundamentally healthy political philosophy.
In an update, Henke dismisses a reader's argument for consequentialism as a proof of "natural rights":
[H]is evidence comes down to "an irrefutable correlation" between the recognition of rights and successful outcomes, which indicates that "liberty is in everyone's interest".

And, in that, I absolutely agree with him. But that doesn't prove the natural existence of a thing called "rights", anymore than the productive cooperation that occurs between bees proves that insects have rights.
Precisely. As I have written:
I would like to be able to say, with fundamentalist [natural rights] libertarians, that liberty is an innate human right -- and the only innate right. But that would be nothing more than an assertion, however cleverly I might clothe it in the language of philosophy.

I would like to be able to say that liberty is a paramount human instinct, honed through eons of human existence and experience. But we are surrounded by too much evidence to the contrary, both in recorded and natural history. The social and intellectual evolution of humankind has led us to a mixed bag of rights, acquired politically through cooperation and conflict resolution, often predating the creation of governments and the empowerment of states. The notion that we ought to enjoy the negative right of liberty is there among our instincts, of course, but it is at war with the positive right of privilege -- the notion that we are "owed something" beyond what we earn (through voluntary exchange) for the use of our land, labor, or capital. Liberty is also at war with our instincts for control, aggression, and instant gratification.

I do not mean that the social and intellectual evolution of humankind is right -- merely that it is what it is. Libertarians must accept this and learn to work with the grain of humanity, rather than against it....

There can be much profit in demonstrating, logically and factually, how illiberal laws and government actions make people worse off -- often the same people who are supposed to benefit from those laws -- and in offering superior alternatives. In other words, consequentialist libertarianism can make real gains for liberty by appealing successfully to self-interest.
The superior consequences of liberty argue for its acceptance, not for its inevitability. If the state of liberty were inevitable simply because of its demonstrable superiority, we would never have had to fight any wars to acquire and preserve it, nor would America have traveled as far down the road to serfdom as it has in the past 70 years.

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.