Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Concept of "Rights" in American Political Discourse

In his recent speech to the Values Voters Summit, Paul Ryan said the following:

So much of our history has been a constant striving to live up to the ideals of our founding, about rights and their ultimate source. At [the Democratic] convention, a rowdy dispute broke out over the mere mention of that source.
For most of us, it was settled long ago that our rights come from nature and nature’s God, not from government.

In the increasingly eristical dialectic of American politics, it has become a general and inviolable law that, given enough time, the concept of "rights" will somehow eventually be introduced into every political dialogue one encounters. Usually they are gratuitously invoked as a kind of moral bludgeon - as a blunt and unequivocal way of demonstrating to one's opponent exactly where the boundaries of acceptable moral debate lie, and to demonstrate forcefully that these boundaries have just been transgressed. In my last post I suggested that moral thoughts act as a means of terminating internal dialogues that might otherwise lead to socially damaging actions, and here I suggest that the concept of inalienable "rights" serve the same function in socio-political dialogues: that is, they set the inviolable limits beyond which no political discourse is ever permitted to transgress. They are cognitive "conversation-stoppers", only writ large and on a wider social context.

In this respect, "rights" might be viewed as little more than universalised moral judgements, supported and enforced by some legitimate authority (I will expand upon the nature of this authority shortly). Like moral judgements, they can be regarded as cognitive strategies wielded by the mind to set specific limits on the range of acceptable human actions. Unlike moral judgements, however, judgements concerning rights tend not to be quite so personal, nor quite so visceral in their origin. Although "human rights" can inspire great emotional reactions, it seems that there is quite a difference between saying "slavery is wrong" and "freedom from slavery is a fundamental human right". The former sentence concerns the kind of cognitive projectivism I discussed in my last post: that "wrongness" is an inherent, ontological feature of the institution of slavery. The second sentence, on the other hand, has abstracted, depersonalised and universalised the moral judgement involved, such that it no longer resembles a moral statement in many respects. The opposition to slavery no longer seems to be predicated on the kind of personal moral judgements I explored in my last post ("Slavery is repulsive" / "I am repulsed by slavery") but rather appears to have some external source, completely independent from the fickle caprice of individual human judgement. This sense of "externality" - of supra-human authority - is critical to the way that rights are processed and invoked in political discourse.

So what is this "supra-human" authority from which "human rights" are derived? From where are these declarations concerning the nature human rights derived, if not from the human mind? For many, the answer self-evidently lays with God: as the supreme authority and creator of human life, the boundaries of human rights could only be delineated by him. Indeed, the creators of the US Declaration of Independence held it to be "self-evident" that all men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" (the use of the word "endowment" here implies the kind of external imposition mentioned above). For others, these rights have a natural origin: they are an inexorable aspect of the ontological facticity of human beings as forged by nature. In this respect no different from other aspects of human facticity - such as bipedalism - in the sense that they exist as a priori and essential aspects of "humanity". Still others are happy to have it both ways: human rights are both naturally and divinely ordained. Paul Ryan is apparently one of those people.

But let's examine this claim in the wider context of his speech. While it partly served as a means of hammering home the "godlessness" of the Democratic Party, it was also used as a means to stress the widely-held conservative belief in the superfluity of government: that is, that "our rights come from nature and nature’s God, not from government". There are several objections I can raise to this comment, and to this conservative American attitude to "rights" in general. The first can be found in the Declaration of Independence itself, which - shortly after emphasising the divine origin of "Rights" - goes on to suggest that "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed". This explicates the important difference between the assertion of human rights and their actual enforcement. To simply assert that one possesses some right is completely futile if there is no authority to recognise or secure this assertion. It is - I am quite sure - of very little comfort to the adulteress stoned to death in Nigeria, or the political dissidents imprisoned in China to know that they have inherent and inalienable rights derived "from nature and nature’s God": rights simply have no practical meaning without some institution there to enforce them. The only institutions with the power to effectively enforce human rights are governments, or something closely resembling them. Ryan's tactless contempt aside, human rights have never been - nor could they ever be - present in the absence of human government.

The second objection comes from the observation that identifying the origin of human rights in nature or God is of no help to us in determining specifically what the content of these rights might be. For example, noting that human rights have a divine origin doesn't give us any clue as to what precisely it is that governments should be enforcing. Is healthcare a fundamental right, for example? How about education? Or food? It's not easy to say, and compelling arguments can be raised for and against each of these putative "rights". Even a right as self-evident as the freedom from slavery was violently resisted until 150 years ago and some might even argue that it still persists in some parts of the world today. The recognition that our concept of "rights" continually change with time - or that such a concept scarcely existed at all prior to the political philosophy of Locke and others - should indicate to us that however "natural" or "God-given" our rights may be, it is still entirely incumbent upon human beings to delineate their scope.

The above also leads me to my third objection: that, ultimately, human rights have an entirely human origin. There are ways of approaching the nature of human rights that preserve their transcendently authoritative nature, without the frankly superfluous metaphysical invocation of God or "Nature". William Downes, for example, notes that our conceptualisation of human rights might be best explained in the context of the "authority of the species-mind". That is, we can reach largely universal judgements about human rights due to the almost identical nature of human minds, and the similar things that are likely to make us happy or miserable. If human slavery creates a degree of misery that every human can empathise with, then it makes sense for all of us - collectively - to universally denounce such a practice. This explains the somewhat contingent nature of human rights and why we can expect them to change with time: if human rights are the consequence of a global, inter-subjective agreement that must necessarily shift with time as our subjective inclinations also change. This might make human rights seem unduly contingent, but that does seem to be their nature: what possible meaning could the claim to a universal human right have if the majority of human beings simply refuse to recognise it?

In any case, the recognition that human rights have an entirely human origin needn't necessarily blunt the moral force that they carry. It obviously becomes incumbent upon all of us to collectively agree upon what these rights might be, but - as I wrote above - exactly the same must be done even if we assume a divine or natural origin for these beliefs. Secondly, it is perfectly acceptable to process and enforce these rights as though they carried a "supra-human authority", only instead of appealing to the transcendent authority of "God" or "Nature" we are now appealing to the transcendent authority of "Humanity". Humanity, as a singular collective, is a metaphysical being whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Moreover, it is a being whose nature changes with its individual constituents: as we evolve individually, so does humanity. This both explains and justifies changes over time in what constitutes a "human right" in a manner that explanations invoking "God" and "Nature" simply cannot. "Crimes against Humanity" remain, for this reason, the most serious moral transgressions of our time.

So it is clear that although "rights" have a purely subjective construction they can still have a concrete, objective influence on the way we process moral judgements. Their origin is irrelevant - that they exist, and that they are upheld by common assent is the only authority we need appeal to in their defence. However, like the moral judgements I examined in my last post, there are some who approach the concept of rights in an entirely promiscuous way, introducing them into areas of consideration in which they have no rightful place. Just as it is possible to dull one's capacity for rational moral consideration by reacting with instinctive disapprobation to every action one opposes, and treating all such acts as equally grave moral transgressions (e.g. morally conflating abortion and the holocaust), it is also possible to view to invoke "rights" in such a way that all other moral concerns - concerns that should be central to the issue at hand - are swept away by a all-encompassing logic of petty legalism. In other words, while a moralist terminates all further consideration once she believes she has found the moral locus of the issue at hand, the "right-monger" (I can't think of a better expression) terminates all further consideration once she has found the legal locus. The only relevant question in her mind becomes "Does this conform with / infringe upon some 'right'?", and no other considerations - moral or otherwise - are taken into account.

This, it seems to me, is particularly prevalent in US political discourse, where discussions that should most properly be conducted on a moral or logical plane are instead conducted with regard only for the turgid expression of legal "rights". We have all been in an argument with someone who - when backed into a corner and with the argument long lost - will react against the evidence piling-up against them with the denouement that they are merely "expressing their opinion" and that they "have the right to voice it". The issue that should be central here - whether they have reality on their side - is completely ignored. Similarly, we have fundamentalist Christian groups who wield their "right to free speech" as a shield against the criticism they receive for demonising gays and Muslims. Again, the issue as to whether the speech they offer is any sense justified - or the potential concern that their speech might causing a great deal of harm and anguish - just doesn't figure in their thought. They have identified their personal "rights" in this regard, and further considerations - including their moral obligations to others - are simply ignored.

What inspired this particular post was Mitt Romney's now infamous comments to donors, secretly filmed (most likely) by a member of the "help":

There are 47% of the people who will vote for the President no matter what... there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that they are victims, who believe government has the responsibility to care for them, who believe they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing.

There is not much I can say here that hasn't already been said, only to point out that this is an prime example of the kind of "right-mongering" I mentioned above. For Mitt Romney, the primary consideration when faced with poverty - with people who are sick, starving and homeless - are what kind of "rights" they might be able to claim under the circumstances. For Mitt Romney, the issue isn't one of human suffering or basic human decency, but rather a legalistic inquiry into the constitutional status of the impoverished in the United States. In essence, he resents the poor for treating "healthcare... food... [and] housing" as entitlements; that is, inalienable rights that we are obliged to act upon. For Romney, the issue is clear-cut: such provisions are not god-given "rights", therefore our sphere of moral concern need not be penetrated by their futile bleating. We have no inherent legal obligation to assist those who are so poor as to not be able to afford food and they are wrong to impose their suffering on us in any way: such a recognition marks the terminus of our social dialogue. No-one has the "right to food", so all other considerations are secondary.

The genuine poverty (if you'll excuse the pun) of such thinking is that it entirely misses where our focus should be. Perhaps Romney is correct in saying that access to food is not a fundamental human right, and that no-one should be criminally sanctioned for eating a hearty meal while her neighbour goes without. I would disagree, to be honest, but that's scarcely the point. The question is not whether someone else has the right to demand something of me, but rather whether I am right to deny them this something. I am completely unaware of any sensible moral system on the planet which treats assisting the poor as anything but an unequivocal good. Indeed, unqualified compassion for those less fortunate exists at the centre of most religions that I am familiar with, including the religion of Jesus that Mitt Romney claims adherence to. In the petty legalism that Romney wields in lieu of a compassion-based morality, however, questions of being "good" are simply ignored. The only question that guides his conduct (and the conduct of his ideological brethren) centres around a set of negative rights - that is, rights that delineate moral behaviour solely on the basis of whether they negatively impact upon someone else - and the moral status of positive, proactive behaviour is treated as lying beyond our concern.

It is this fundamental mistake - confusing having rights with being right - that exists at the centre of all modern, right-wing American thought.

No comments:

Post a Comment