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Posts Tagged ‘rights’

My latest Learn Liberty blog post is on the topic above and can be found here. Excerpt:

Kant’s moral philosophy justifies extremely strong individual rights against coercion. The only justification for coercion in his philosophy seems to be defense of self or others. His ideal government therefore seems to be extremely limited and to allow for the free play of citizens’ imaginations, enterprise, and experiments in living.

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The latest in my series of blog posts based on discussions with Ethics & Economics Challenge students is up at e3ne.org. It’s on whether it’s possible for us to have a right to do wrong in some cases, i.e., for there to be some moral obligations that it is not morally permissible to enforce. A selection:

The students correctly understood that the right to free speech doesn’t mean that whatever you speak is accurate. They also picked up on the fact that the right to free speech even covers speech that is immoral. One student brought up the case of Westboro Baptist Church. They engage in hateful protests where they say hateful things, yet it would be wrong to imprison or otherwise punish them for their hateful, morally (and factually) wrong speech.

Read more.

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Political libertarians are a motley lot in terms of their moral philosophies. There are three dominant strands – utilitarians like Milton Friedman, deontologists like Robert Nozick, and teleologists like Ayn Rand – but I’ve also met egoists, postmodernists, and Rawls-style egalitarian consequentialists. In debates over moral foundations, Randians often ally themselves with the deontologists in support of “natural rights” (a bit of a misnomer, as deontologists prefer not to locate the source of rights in “nature” but in reason).

Critical Review editor Jeffrey Friedman, a utilitarian, used to say that rights libertarians are more dogmatic than utilitarians on questions of social science. He was extremely skeptical of the line of argument, commonly found in Rothbard, that libertarian policy X is justified on the grounds of both liberty and utility. What are the chances that the world just happens to line up in such a way that perfect justice and liberty also maximize social welfare in every instance? He calls himself a “post-libertarian” in part because he believes that the empirical evidence is unsettled as to the frontiers of the proper (i.e., utility-maximizing) roles of government. And he believes that it is a mark in favor of utilitarianism as a moral philosophy that rights libertarians are extremely reluctant to admit that any of their policy conclusions might not maximize social welfare.

Now, I would make several points in response. First, (more…)

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For my sins I was recently re-reading Ronald Dworkin’s Taking Rights Seriously (1978), in particular its chapter 9,  “Reverse Discrimination.” The book has not aged well, and this chapter in particular today sounds even more like a dated period piece than the construction of a philosophical argument than it did when I first read it in 1994.

In any case, in a book that invites us to ‘take rights seriously,’ one may be surprised to find this sentence: “An individual’s right to be treated as an equal means that his potential loss must be treated as a matter of concern, but that loss may nevertheless be outweighed by the gain to the community as a whole” (p. 227).

Thus infringing an individual’s “rights” is indeed “a matter of concern,” but if the utilitarian calculus indicates that that infringement leads to greater overall utility, then we might not only be justly allowed to proceed with the infringement, but we may even be morally required to do so. The issue at stake in this chapter is the claim of some whites that the fact that they were being held to different and higher standards for admission to things like law and medical schools than were members of other races was an instance of unequal—and therefore possibly unconstitutional or otherwise illegal—treatment. Dworkin argues that no Constitutional right is violated by this “reverse discrimination,” and he goes on to argue that no moral right is violated either. The alleged moral right is the right all individuals have to be treated equally, for which Dworkin argues elsewhere in the book (see esp. chap. 6, “Justice and Rights”). In the case of reverse discrimination, however, Dworkin argues, as he states in the sentence above, that that right may be infringed when the public good requires it.

All this is quite surprising, given that Dworkin claims in the book’s “Introduction” that the whole point of his book is to argue that “Individual rights are political trumps held by individuals,” and that “a collective goal is not a sufficient justification for denying [individuals] what they wish, as individuals, to have or to do” and “not a sufficient justification for imposing some loss or injury upon them” (p. xi). Indeed, the book’s chapter “Justice and Rights,” argues, as Dworkin explains, “that our intuitions about justice presuppose not only that people have rights but that one right among these is fundamental and even axiomatic. This most fundamental of rights is a distinct conception of the right to equality, which I [Dworkin] call the right to equal concern and respect” (p. xii; italics supplied).  Dworkin specifically and repeatedly argues that his conception of individual rights is incompatible with “the theory of utilitarianism” (p. vii and passim).

It is difficult to reconcile Dworkin’s position on rights and utility, on the one hand, with his position on reverse discrimination, on the other. But perhaps that goes to show only that it is not ultimately possible to subscribe both to a robust theory of individual rights and to utlitarianism. The two will inevitably conflict, at which point one will have to choose which wins. One might wish to have both, but one’s moral and political position can serve, finally, only one master.

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Rights and Duties

The test of whether one has a “right” to something is whether someone else has a duty to provide it. The two—a right and its correlative duty—are logically inseparable; like mountain and valley or ebb and flow, one exists only with the other. Hence if no one has a duty to provide you something, you have no right to it; and you can claim a right to something only if it is someone else’s duty to provide it for you.

What is not the test for having a right to something is that one really, really wants it. I would love a penthouse apartment in Manhattan, and it would make my life much more enjoyable if I had one. But I have no right to one because, if I did, that would mean someone else has a duty to provide it for me—which of course is absurd.

Yet consider health care. Many assert that people have a right to basic health care. But health care does not grow on trees: It is provided only at considerable expense on the part of other people, and that expense must be procured from somewhere. So when you claim that you have a right to health care, you are claiming you have a right to other people’s money, energy, talent, and hard work. Do you?

It is hard to imagine that we must actually answer that question, but in these days of political fairy tales, let us be clear: You do not have a right to other people’s money, energy, talent, or hard work. It might be nice of them to give it to you; it might be charitable or generous or magnanimous or otherwise praiseworthy if they gave some of it to you. But you have no right to it. Sorry.

Perhaps you’re inclined to think that the “right to life” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence entitles you to health care. That’s a mistake, if an easy and common one. What the Declaration claims you have a natural right to are things that do not require others to take positive action to provide. It lists life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: I can respect your “natural rights” to these by simply leaving you alone, by refraining from molesting you. That is a “negative” duty, a duty not to undertake unjust actions. This kind of duty we can indeed believe everyone has toward everyone else, because everyone can simultaneously respect everyone else’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness simply, as Adam Smith put it, “by sitting still and doing nothing.”

By contrast, granting people a right to health care means imposing positive duties on some for the benefit of others. That is precisely the sort of liberty-impinging exploitation that the Declaration meant to rule out. Congressional action declaring it legal does not change its essential character, just as the legality of slavery at one time in this country did not alter its essential character. Using some for the benefit of others has an intrinsic moral repugnance that is not erased by congressional action or by closing our eyes to the actual source of or the full costs of the proposed benefits.

Take one other case. A measure in the recently passed ObamaCare bill prohibits private companies from offering federally guaranteed student loans, leaving the federal government itself as the only lender. Part of the rationale for this is that people have a “right” to education that should, therefore, be guaranteed and provided by the government.

But no one has a right to a college education. This case is even easier than that of health care. Can people survive without a college education? Yes, of course, and quite famously—as several United States presidents, Nobel laureates, and billionaire entrepreneurs (like Bill Gates and Michael Dell) all amply attest. College education is a luxury, not a necessity; and if having a college degree means increased earnings for the graduate, shouldn’t it be the graduate who pays for it?

Regardless, the real test, again, is whether others have a duty to provide it. College education, like health care, is not free. If “the government” is subsidizing, guaranteeing, or underwriting your education, the true, full costs are still borne somewhere by someone.

The would-be beneficiaries of such manufactured “rights” have understandable, if misguided, reasons for asserting them. And of course politicians’ moral grandstanding is also understandable, if lamentable.

But let us not forget the longsuffering taxpayer who is bled, again and again, to support these programs. We may find, sooner than we care to suppose, that the taxpayer simply has no more to give.

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