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Here’s What’s Wrong With Human “Rights”

Many popular assumptions about “rights” are fully exposed in this talk. What is a “right”? The definition defended is that a right is not some mystical property of a human being, as many imagine. It is simply “a defensible claim”, either positive or negative. A negative claim is expressed when you want NOT to be prevented from doing what you want to do (such as speak freely, travel freely, associate with whom you wish, and so on); and a positive claim is expressed when you demand the delivery of some good or service (such as “free” medical care, welfare, a pension, police security, and the like), supplied by the state, a corporation, or another agent. There are some three or four hundred so-called “universal human rights” floating around today, with nary a mention of the obligations any of those “rights” necessarily impose on someone else, or on a government, to satisfy. Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, for example, does not once mention the words “obligation” or “responsibility”. A special focus is the powerful demolition of the concept of rights by the English critic Jeremy Bentham in 1815 in his brief essay Anarchical Fallacies – a critique that has never been answered because it is bulletproof.

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  1. Jackson Pemberton

    I am responding to your op-ed in The Epoch Times edition Jan 3, 2023 Opinion Section, rather than this blog post assuming that it is very similar.
    First; I recognize that we all have a semantic problem with rights which can create arguments where none is intended, needed, or useful. In this regard, I have found myself using “entitlements” rather than positive rights. Just a personal preference – because I think it drastically reduces the breadth of the definition of “rights”, which is so mushy nowadays. But this is a semantic technicality. Then on to Hume and Locke –
    I dismiss Hume’s argument that, as you say, “a prior system of established law are required in order to establish and enforce contracts in the first place” as a non-sequitur at worst or a conflation of contexts at best. If we send a couple to populate Mars some day, upon their arrival they will immediately continue to establish contracts with one another on a wide variety of topics. Whether they each keep their promises is of no consequence in the philosophical sense of contracts. That means that Hume’s estimation is a very practical viewpoint while being rather useless in the broader arena where we discuss ideas, perspectives, paradigms, etc. But I don’t want to get caught up in semantics either. We are, hopefully, rather idealistically trying to understand what rights are – indeed whether they actually exist.
    Regarding Locke’s view that “governments exist only by contract of the people” as you say, that also seems a very practical, as opposed to a theoretical paradigm.
    I hasten to add that my study of the historical/traditional bases of natural rights left me thinking that they all stand on some “motherhood and apple pie” sort of footing. The claim that rights were endowed by the Creator is a noble one, and one in which I firmly like and believe. However, to say that we have rights just because God gave them to us is a position that can, unless we are critical enough thinkers, block further investigation with its seemingly eternal promise of deeper understanding. More later.
    (By the way, I totally agree with your “Some Conclusions” in your op-ed within the context of your discussion.)
    So I am proposing a completely different paradigm for the existence of rights. This one, while being absolutely secular, poses no contradiction to those who believe they come from Diety. For them, I would say this new perspective is a description of how God did it.
    My training is in Physics and Mathematics, so I have this weird view of everything and when I decided to see what I could discover as a basis of rights in the universe, I came upon this one.
    But first I will note that the idea of “rights” is decidedly abstract and that fact is a great obstacle in any establishment of their existence. This means that no individual person will believe, or use the abstract idea of rights unless they make a decision, aware or not, to adopt the idea. In our culture the idea is backed by a great deal of tradition, literature, and law, and so is commonly held while it seems no one really understands what they are and the word gets more and more embedded in wishful thinking as the days go on. My pet peeve is calling entitlements rights. It is an unfortunate conflation that greatly weakens the idea of natural rights at least.
    So here’s a proposal, and I would appreciate your evaluation of it as one who has an interest in the subject, although my suspicions are that you will look at the idea with a jaundiced eye, judging from the spirit of your op-ed. The following is about natural rights.
    If we allow ourselves the freedom to consider rights as a reality, it is possible to see them in every operator in the universe. Asking the rhetorical question: Does it make any sense to say a rock has a right to fly? we see the absurdity of it, which suggests, that it only makes sense to attach rights (I should mention I am always talking about natural rights.) to things that can be done. With that paradigm, we see that by applying the principle universally we get rights arising simultaneously with the birth of any operator, any entity with the power to change things. I propose this as a new basis for natural rights. It has many interesting properties.
    With respect to human rights, it is clear that stopping with the idea that “I have a right to do anything I can do” amounts to the law of the jungle. Hence a civil society of humans (as well as one with animals and plants) must have an opposing principle. In this case, I suggest the following:
    Rights are inherent and intrinsic in their owner and cannot be violated without violating the nature of their owner
    All conflict is about rights.
    Evil is the violation of rights.
    Government’s rightful role is the punishment of those who willfully violate the rights of another.

    I have named these #temporalRights because they arise and end simultaneously with their antecedent power or capability.

    If you got this far – thank you for taking a look.
    Jackson Pemberton

    1. William Gairdner

      Hello Jackson …
      Thanks for writing, and for your thoughtful analysis and comments. Too much for me to unpack here, but as you can see from my own piece, I resist/challenge the notion of a right as being “inherent” as if it were some kind of internal operating device or perhaps like a kidney? I think what is meant whenever this term is used is that if rights are to succeed and be defended we must conceive of them as part of our being and our human nature, or else we are just defending a phantom ideal. I understand the practicality of that position, but I still think rights are phantoms – and in particular when they are said to exist inherently and without any subjects of obligation to fulfiull them.

    1. William Gairdner

      thanks for this. I will have to study up, as they say, to get more familiar with her position.

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