Sunday, February 22, 2015

How to Be Right on Rights

Traditional conservatives deny the liberal claim that government cannot enforce any particular notions of virtue because that would violate the rights of the citizens. Every citizen, so the argument goes, has the right to choose his own vision of the good life. For a government to deny a citizen's right to choose how he will live violates this fundamental right. Conservatives generally disagree.

Does this mean conservatives reject the idea of natural or human rights?


The Right, however, demands a little more thorough thinking about rights.

Liberals over the last several decades have inflated rights claim faster than the federal reserve has inflated the currency. Sometimes the rights claims resemble those television evangelists exhortation about praying the promises of God—just “name it and claim it.” And rights claims also serve as the purported end of many political discussions. “It's my right!” somehow trumps any and all other considerations in political debate. Little efforts is made to establish any philosophical or political basis for such rights claims.

A conservative view of natural rights considers the following.

All human beings possess the same basic human nature. We also have the same basic species-specific needs. Some examples include food, clothing, shelter, knowledge, and friendship. Because these goods are basic to meeting our natural needs—physical and psychological, we claim the right to secure them for ourselves. Natural needs serve the basis for natural rights. Conservatives maintain that human beings possess the natural right to secure what they need. Conservatives deny that which liberals claim for human beings—the natural right to what they want. As stated in the previous post, governments can and do make provision for securing the needs of their citizens because they are the same. Owing to the diversity of human wants, however, governments cannot even begin to satisfy them.

Because rights derive from human nature, conservatives deny the historical validity or philosophical need for John Locke's “state of nature” to explain natural rights and the origins of the state. That idea resulted from a wrong turn taken by Christians in the disputes within the Catholic Church over vows of poverty and the right to property. Theological discussions about property rights both in Eden and after the fall take on a life of their own. Hobbes and Locke sound like a faint and distance echo of those theological arguments.

Conservatives also deny the contemporary liberal replacement of John Locke's man living in a “state of nature” with John Rawls' unencumbered rights-bearing self with no duties but those to which he explicitly consents. No one comes into this world as an autonomous rights-bearing liberal—or anything else. All of us arrive dependent on parents. And we grow older we accept by custom duties to our family, community, and nation. And it is that family, that community, and that nation that enables us to successfully live out our rights to live, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.


CW said...

The challenge I would like to make to the good John Stossel and other libertarians is to come with me to gaze upon life in the inner cities where virtue is neither encouraged nor enforced (for the most part) and tell me that what they see there – the filth, the disease, the violence, the disregard for human life, the apathy, the decay, etc., - is not harmful to those communities in general. No one could make that argument with a straight face in view of the evidence. That’s why this argument about whether gov’t (i.e. the people) has any proper role with respect to promoting or enforcing morality comes down to a question of whether or not the individual and society are interdependent, because to the extent they are, people have a right to enforce those rules of morality that are essential to the future well-being of society. That’s entirely consistent with the “harm principle.”

Libertarians prefer to take a much more simplistic (and may I say self-serving) view of the harm principle that only looks at immediate and direct harm, but that’s absurd of course.

Your post is my first real introduction to Aristotle as well as Locke and Rawls (I am shamefully not well-read), but I’ve done quite a bit of thinking on the subject of rights myself and the topic fascinates me. I like and agree with this statement: “Natural needs serve as the basis for natural rights.” I also think you hit on a key aspect of the conservative view when you say, “…we claim the right to secure [our natural needs] for ourselves,” because this idea of only being entitled to secure (as opposed to receive) what you naturally need is a fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals. Liberals like to talk about “rights” to things like healthcare, higher education, blah, blah, blah, all of which implies an obligation for someone else to provide these things.

vlewell said...

I used to enjoy Stossell. His ABC reports years ago challenged the "conventional wisdom" on a number of fronts and got under the skin of progressives.

The last few years he seems to push in a heavy handed way his libertarian views. He is not nearly as interesting.