The source, and justification, of rights

I’m a bit late responding, but the Mises blog had an interesting post a couple of days ago on the source of rights. Not surprisingly, then, it’s largely about the writer’s (Stephan Kinsella) belief about what the source of rights is, but it also touches briefly on the justification of rights.

In the end, Mr. Kinsella argues that, if we must choose a source, it’s empathy. This makes sense – rights are inherently tenuous and inherently social. My rights hold insofar as others respect them; they can be violated by the unscrupulous and sociopathic with disurbing ease. The empathetic among us are the most likely to respect the rights of one another, as Mr. Kinsella says, almost by definition.

This is fine if all we want to do is consider the source of rights. But Mr. Kinsella isn’t only concerned with the source – he is concerned with their rationale, as well. Actually, he’s concerned with the idea that rights have no rationale. He writes

But rights don’t really “come from” anything. When it is demonstrated that 2+2=4, this is a truth, a fact. Does it make sense to ask what is the “source” of this “truth”? Where does 2+2=4 “come from”? This is just nonsense. And it is similar with normative propositions–with moral truths.

Putting aside the poor choice of an example of a mathematical axiom, the equation of normative propositions with axioms is, well, just nonsense.

Any statement of the form ‘one should do X’ – that is, any normative proposition – is implicitly incomplete. A more complete version can be expressed as ‘one should do X, because X will further Y.’ Even more thoroughly, one could employ the ponderous ‘one should do X, because X will further the goal Y, which is a worthy and attainable goal, as evidenced by Z and W, and, furthermore, we have good reason to believe that doing X will actually move us toward Y – see V, U, and T.’

Let’s tease this apart a bit.

Any prescribed action X must further a worthy goal Y. Of course, there is no guarantee that anyone, much less everyone, will agree that Y is worthy. For example, I may value the individual’s autonomy very highly, and so prescribe actions accordingly, but the mere fact that I – or any number of people – value individual autonomy does not make it a worthy goal for anyone other than me, and it certainly doesn’t make it, or the normative statement aimed at furthering it, ‘true’. Goals must themselves be justified.

Here’s a quick, and probably deeply flawed, stab at justifying this one: individual autonomy is a worthy goal because our existence depends on (some measure of) it. I can’t take care of my own needs, or pursue my desires, if I must take care of the needs, or pursue the desires, of (too many) others. I can’t take care of my own needs, and pursue my desires, if someone else insists he is responsible for them.

Any prescribed action X must further an attainable goal Y. When stated plainly, this seems very obvious, but it’s not at all obvious when left implicit in a typically elliptical normative statement. If we have no hope of attaining a goal, there is no point in attempting to pursue it.

This requirement sheds some light on the ‘some measure of’ modifier above, as, in this case, absolute individual autonomy is clearly not attainable. Putting aside the obvious exceptions – children, the infirm, etc… – even an otherwise unencumbered adult cannot attain absolute autonomy. If I want to hold onto this goal, it should be rephrased to reflect this fact. I could, for example, recast it in terms of the maximization of individual autonomy.

Given a worthy and attainable goal Y, the action X must actually contribute to the pursuit of Y. If you’ve got a goal that you value, and that you can justify, it does no good to prescribe action that won’t get you any closer to it. If I value individual autonomy, I can’t advise you to lie if that lie will, for example, prevent another from making an informed decision.

The point, to reiterate, is that normative statements aren’t axioms. The normative proposition enjoining an actor to do X is justified only insofar as X will actually promote Y, and only insofar as Y is a justifiable and attainable goal.

[Postscript: For what it’s worth, my thoughts on ethics are hugely influenced by Larry Laudan’s model of scientific progress outlined in Science and Values. This despite the fact that he writes, in the preface, that

“…[T]his book is neither about how to make scientists more moral nor about how to make moral theory more scientific, however desirable at least one of those outcomes might be …. [A]lthough it is devoutly to be wished that moral philosophers knew more than they do about science, I would not know how to recognize a scientific ethics I were confronted by one.”

I make no claims to have accurately represented Laudan’s model of science here, and clearly he doesn’t think it applies to ethical issues (at least he didn’t in 1984). Nonetheless, his framework for the justification of normative methodological statements in science seems to me to have direct parallels in moral philosophy.

[Post-postscript: while it is very likely that there are incomplete thoughts and problematic philosophical assertions in the above, I must leave now if I am to make it to the free performance of Book I of The Well Tempered Clavier on campus. This kind of thing is one of my favorite aspects of life in a university town, and I loves me some Bach. More later.]]


One Comment

  1. Joshua
    Posted September 9, 2006 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    You will no doubt be completely astonished to learn that I had some things to say about this. 🙂

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