After my display of Robert Nozick’s “Wilt Chamberlain example”, Carson expressed how he finds the argument to not be completely convincing. Now, in yet another piece of commentary on social justice, I respond to Carson’s post.
Unlike Carson, where I disagree with Nozick is his most primary premise: that people undeniably have rights. The first paragraph of the preface to Anarchy, States and Utopia reads:
Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them.
Such a fact is necessary to accept Nozick’s arguments. But do rights actually exist? I’m not saying that I think people should be censored, raped, have their entire wealth confiscated by the government, or have no protection of their property. It’s not the end-state of “rights” that I disagree with. It’s the connotation that rights carry that says there are certain things inherently given and protected by nature. Most arguments for “Natural Rights” come from an idea that rights are something granted by God to man and no one or government can take them away from us. But who says God even exists?
Also, if all humans are really granted rights by nature doesn’t that mean that there is a sort of objective list of rights that we can come up with? If rights are so inherent, doesn’t that mean that they don’t change with time, culture, or context? If so, aren’t the things that we consider rights today – freedom of speech, freedom to choose one’s direction in life, or freedom to own property – recent successes of humanity (and mostly in the developed world)? Slavery existed for the vast majority of the world’s history. Women suffrage has been the exception, not the norm. Serfdom, feudalism, and monarchy have defined civilizations much more than any sort of citizen ownership. Does this mean that the rights always existed but no one ever knew them or respected them? If they were always there but couldn’t be enforced, doesn’t that make them essentially worthless?
Right now, we set 18 as the age of consent for most things in the United States. But in the middle ages, because of short life expectancy I presume, the age of consent for most things was instead 13 years old, which made sense at the time. Does this mean that rights change with context or, more specifically, the life expectancy of certain societies? It sure makes it hard to defend a case that rights are objective and inherent wherever you are.
Instead, I agree with Jeremy Bentham’s belief that rights are mere “nonsense upon stilts”, a social construct of sorts that have come about from our recognition that respecting such privileges of all citizens are to the benefit of everyone. But NOT because they are God-given or objective. Like Bentham said,
Right…is the child of law: from real laws come real rights.
In other words, “rights” are only as good as the laws that protect them.
Carson is right, no really would argue for absolute rights and the idea of them is absurdity. But equally extreme utilitarian arguments are just as nonsensical. Example: If the organs of one living person could be used to save ten dying people who needed transplants, society would have better utility. But I don’t think many people would argue that doing such a thing would be justified. Arguing against taking the organs for utilitarian arguments like “well, we shouldn’t do that because actually society will overall be worse off if they know the state could take their organs” are pretty weak. With that logic, one could argue for anything based on the idea that it’s better for society, based on completely subjective and inconclusive premises.
Again, I’m not saying that what we conceive as rights should be ignored just because I don’t agree with the justification for their existence. I am, however, skeptical to design society based on a faulty premise.
Nonetheless, I do think that my point from my original post on the Chamberlain example stands true: we cannot have a society designed on end-state principles without constant interference of people’s personal lives. Liberty does upset patterns.