Rebirth of Reason


Getting Rights Right
by Robert James Bidinotto

Mr. Gregory writes (post #64):

Even if there were "conclusive evidence" that this hypothetical murderer had the means and motive to attack you—and even if, for the sake of argument, we momentarily accept the collectivist notion that the U.S. government is the same as "America"—neither you in your hypothetical, nor America or its government in our real-life scenario, has the right to bomb cities, censor people, enact curfews, establish roadblocks, torture people, or kill innocents to pursue a potential threat.

Let's leave government out of the equation for the moment. A murderer has the means and motive to attack you. According to this, you have no right to "kill innocents to pursue a potential threat." In fact, you don't even have the right to do a lot less than kill: you don't even have the right to interfere with communication or travel in order to prevent the killer from escaping or doing you harm.

This is "the hostage argument." A murderer hides himself behind the shield of innocents, constitutes an ongoing threat to you; he has the means and motive to attack you; but so long as he remains shielded by hostages (or a hostage population), you can do nothing to protect yourself that involves interfering with (let alone possibly harming) the hostages, in any manner whatsoever.

This is all based on the notion of rights as "intrinsic"—as an inherent essence of human nature—rather than as a moral principle of social conduct: a moral principle that arises from the more fundamental ethics of rational self-interest, and applies contextually. This requires some elaboration.

By the intrinsicist conception of individual rights, rights exist as facts or essences or aspects of human nature, independent of any ethics of self-interest. They aren't moral principles; they just are. So to use force against another person, regardless of context, is to "violate his inherent rights." For example, one cannot use force that in any way harms the "inherent rights" of an innocent hostage—regardless of whether that will allow the hostage-taker to use force against you or others. If your own self-defense (even survival) requires a use of force that might harm innocent people, you must forego that use of force. In short, the "inherent rights" of innocent others trump your own right to defend yourself.
However, by the contextualist conception of individual rights, rights are not essences of human nature. They are principles of social morality which derive from an ethics of rational self-interest. Since "rights" are social extensions of a morality of self-interest, they lose their meaning and function outside of that egoist context. 

Like any other moral principle—e. g., honesty—rights have an egoistic moral purpose: to provide a framework for self-interested actions by individuals. But like all moral principles, rights presuppose a context of free choice. When someone initiates force or coercion against you, interrupting your life-serving activity, the bilateral recognition of the moral principle of rights no longer exists. Like all other moral principles, "rights" end at the point of a gun.

At that point, to unilaterally remain committed to recognizing the moral principle of "rights," when your coercive adversary does not, is to commit oneself to a course of self-sacrifice, in the name of what has now become a platonic abstraction. It means committing oneself to a conception of "rights" ripped from its purpose: to provide a framework for self-interested, life-furthering activity.
One of the most common differences between (many) libertarians and Objectivists is their commitments to entirely differing conceptions of "rights." Many libertarians (especially anarchists) adhere to an intrinsicist (platonic) conception of rights, as being an essential aspect of human nature. By contrast, Objectivists uphold a contextualist view of rights, as being an extension of the ethics of rational self-interest into social situations. By the intrinsicist view, rights are something you just have. By the contextualist view, rights are moral principles you recognize and apply.

These diverging views of rights and their source explain many of the political arguments we see here on SOLO. If you believe "rights" are essences of individuals, something they just have, then there are no circumstances in which they disappear. From this premise, it's a short step for anarchists to reject such vital governmental powers as arrest, subpoena, emergency curfews or roadblocks or health quarantines, and contextual limitations on weapons of self-defense (e. g., outlawing private possession and/or use of machine guns, bombs and tanks in "self-defense"). Anarchists reject even defensive wars, because innocent civilians (who are analogous to "human shields" or hostages held by aggressor nations) will likely be harmed during our defensive efforts. They even reject government itself because, being a final arbiter of force, government necessarily compels compliance and/or participation even of unwilling individuals, and thus allegedly "violates their inherent rights" to refuse participation.

By contrast, Objectivists see such governmental activities as necessary and proper extensions of the morality of rational self-interest into a social framework, which any valid theory of rights must therefore incorporate and accommodate.

It's thus easy to see why Mr. Gregory, as well as other anarchists and libertarians weighing in here, are at such odds with Objectivists on so many issues, including those he raises in his post #64. It is certainly obvious in the case of the Iraq war. Leaving all questions of motives aside—and also leaving aside prudential questions concerning the practicality of the specific military policies employed—the philosophical division between what Lindsay Perigo calls "Saddamites" and those of us who supported the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, is defined largely by our difference on one key premise. That premise is this:

Should the concept of "rights" be interpreted within a moral context of rational self-interest? Or is it a kind of Kantian "categorical imperative"—a metaphysical commandment that shouts "thou shalt not impose force," without regard to any considerations of rational self-interest?

A more profitable debate, then, would not be over Iraq or any other specific policy questions. It ought to be over the more basic questions: What is your definition of "rights," and what do you believe is their ultimate source and justification?
Sanctions: 38Sanctions: 38Sanctions: 38Sanctions: 38 Sanction this ArticleEditMark as your favorite article

Discuss this Article (64 messages)