13 November 2016

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 grounds 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 as the basis for natural rights. Conservatives maintain that human beings possess the natural right to seek and secure what they need. Conservatives deny that which liberals claim for human beings—the natural right to whatever they want. 

This becomes more obvious when we understand what really goes on when someone asserts a right. They are making a rights claim. But it is more than just an assertion of the possession of a right.  It is a claim against others that imposes  duty or obligation upon them. What is this duty? It is the duty not to deprive another person of the means to secure his needs. For example, a claim for the natural right to food creates a duty on the part of others not to take another's food or deprive him of the means by which he acquires food. 

It follows that rights claims are negative in the sense that they impose a duty on others not to interfere with the exercise of the right to secure one's natural needs. They are not positive in the sense that they impose a duty on others to provide for the natural needs of another.

Moreover, only rights claims in this negative sense can be called universal. One can make a universal negative rights claims that obligates every other human being to refrain from frustrating another human being in pursuit of natural needs. One cannot make a universal positive rights claim that obligates every other human being to provide for another's natural needs. To assert that other human beings, who may live half way around the world and who may be worse off materially, have some obligation to provide for one's natural needs is plainly unintelligible.

Because rights derive from human nature and natural needs, 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 probably originated from a wrong turn taken by Christians in the disputes within the medieval 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. Although they say little or nothing about Eden, they both explore rights within the context of a post-Eden "state of nature" prior to the formation of a "social contract."

Conservatives also deny the contemporary liberal replacement of John Locke's man living in a “state of nature” with John Rawls'  imaginary "original position" as a prelude to the social contract. 

There is no social contract. 

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