Towards an ethic of moral rights

August 28, 2009

Over on Liberal England, Jonathan Calder has expressed a certain amount of scepticism about the usefulness of moral rights in contemporary moral discourse. Since the only training I can make a full claim to is philosophical, I thought I’d take his points on.

Most modern discourse about morality resolves around rights. It therefore fails to answer the great moral questions like “How should I live my life?” and “What sort of person should I be?”

Actually, most modern academic philosophical discourse does not focus around rights, but rather around moral language, virtue and metaethics. I assume here that Jonathan is referring to moral discourse as presented in the media. If this is the case, then the second sentence is rather unfair. Moral rights (which I will take to be synonymous with the notion of human rights, as Jonathan appears to use these terms interchangeably) are not intended to answer these questions, but rather to take the role of useful attributions of value within broader ethical systems that do answer those questions. Human rights are pragmatic expressions of moral principles, and are useful inasmuch as they provide a counter to the ways in which humans typically attribute value.

It is, I think, inarguable that we instinctively attribute moral value to those most similar to us more so than those who differ; in the first instance our family, in the second our friends and colleagues, and beyond that our neighbours. However, ethical systems and moral rules only have value if they are universal, and so to provide pragmatic way of expressing this in legal terms we can utilise universally applicable rights to provide a counterbalance to our instinctive moral attributions. It is worthwhile noting at this point that objections to human rights typically come as a consequence of cases wherein it is much more difficult to find common ground with the accused.

If a ascribing a right to someone is to mean anything then there has to be a concomitant duty upon someone else to fulfil it, otherwise this right is worthless. NB This is not the same as the Blairite claim that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand – my rights impose duties upon you, not me.

This is true to a certain extent, but neglects the role of the individual in this matter. If your ethical system is universal and therefore includes moral rights, you have a duty to see that they are fulfiled. This may take the form of voting for a party who will uphold those rights, or it may take the form of carrying out appropriate social work yourself.

The more rights we ascribe to people, the more we tend to make the government mighty. If there is, say, a right to work, who can have the duty to give employment but the state? This process tends to make the individual citizen a spectator in important moral questions.

As I mention above, the state is not the only actor who can guarantee moral rights.

Rights are human artefacts: we make them up. They do not exist in some Platonic universe, independent of humanity. In fact, the concept of a right make sense only in a complex society.

The first sentence is certainly true, and stands in opposition to the rather bizarre notion frequently mentioned by Tories of having ‘rights as a consequence of being a free-born Englishman, not handed down to me by the state’, which assumes that England is some sort of platonic entity capable of assigning rights without recourse to her citizens. However, it is not the case that the concept of rights only make sense in a complex society; a member of a tribe who believes all humans have a right to shelter has a duty to share his hut.

Ultimately, the justification for the rights we do choose to give people is the kind of society those rights produce. If those rights produce a bad society, we change them

While this is certainly true, it is also rather besides the point: rights themselves are a consequence of attributions of value, and so already contain within them the values we wish to see in our society. Calder here is failing to make the distinction between value and practice; a right can be morally correct but badly constructed in legal terms.

The danger of expressing our moral judgement in the language of rights is that it becomes impossible to learn from experience… Note that rights will not merely rule out what some regard as old-fashioned social practices: they will also make it harder to establish new ones.

This is where I fear Calder is again going wrong, like in his first thesis – rights are the pragmatic expression of moral judgements, and not judgements in themselves. The moral judgement in, say, a right to housing is to say that all humans are worthwhile and so deserve to be protected from dangerous extremes of environment. The right to housing is the pragmatic cashing out of this judgement.

Moral rights tend to establish a minimum standard of conduct rather than to enshrine the depth of commitment that we have to one another in strong and loving relationships. So children’s rights may describe an hygenic Home but will find it harder to describe a loving home.

Again, this is true, but rather besides the point. Rights are not intended to be the entirety of an ethical system. I do not know anyone who makes this claim, and it rather appears to be a straw man.

Political philosophies differ over the ends of life and how people should act: in short, they have different views of morality. Liberals should argue for their view of the world and endeavour to win power to implement it, but they should not be scandalised when people with other philosophies do not want to write Liberal conclusions into the rules of the contest.

I’m not convinced that this last point has anything to do with rights whatsoever. There are plenty of political philosophies aside from Liberalism that have their foundations in universally applicable ethical rules. The debate in that case would be a question of which rights are the correct ones to enshrine in law, rather than whether rights themselves are useful.

My own view on this matter is given above; that inasmuch as rights are useful legal tools for providing a counter to man’s instinct to value his fellows over those he regards as different, they are proper objects of discussion. But to dismiss them on the grounds that they are not a complete ethical system is to miss the point of them entirely.


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