Thursday, July 26, 2012

On "Rights"

Contrary to what we often hear from one person or another, particularly politicians on various occasions, there are no “God-given rights,” nor are there any “Natural rights,” and there are certainly no “Divine rights.” If you live in some sort of society, as all people do, whatever “rights” you enjoy or lack originate or fail in the social contract in which you inevitably exist.

Let us take “life, liberty, and happiness,” as an example. “Life” is not a right, it is simply a matter of fact. Somehow animals, including humans, exist, they are born, they simply “are,” existence just “is.” The reason we hear about the right to life is because the society you participate in defines who can or cannot take your life, and in what circumstances it might or might not be taken. Some people use right to life to mean abortions should be prohibited, but not everyone agrees as there can be untoward consequences or compelling reasons abortions may be necessary, but to be born and live in general is not truly a “right.”

“Liberty,” likewise is not truly a right. Liberty is something you would have only if you existed outside of human society entirely, because then, and only then, would you (at least theoretically) have the liberty to do whatever you wished, whenever you wished. We have liberty because society grants us the liberty to do certain things that are necessary for lives to be lived. We clearly do not have unlimited liberty to do whatever we wish to do as that would result in anarchy.

The same thing is true of happiness. You have a right to seek happiness, of course, but your happiness cannot come as the result of harm to others or (in principle) to the environment. If it makes you happy to make money off the misery of others, or to damage their property, and so on, you cannot pursue happiness by doing such things. Happiness is a curious concept. I’m not at all certain that previous generations even had any expectation of happiness, life for them was often difficult, sometimes virtually impossible, and they just accepted it as it was, survival was the goal. I suspect for many, happiness was not even perceived as a goal. Of course if it makes you happy to believe that some form of supernatural being or nature gave us “rights,” you are free to think so. But you should be aware that not everyone agrees with that point of view, and, in fact, there are malevolent gods as well as benevolent ones.

When it comes to something like health care, it is true it is not a god-given or natural right, and some argue that because it is not you should not necessarily expect or receive it. But health care is provided by all industrialized or “civilized” societies (except the United States). It is not a “right,” it is a privilege (a right) granted you by virtue of your being a citizen of an enlightened and compassionate society that is concerned with the health and well-being of its citizens. It would also seem obvious that it is in the best interest of a society to have healthy citizens for a stable work force and a strong national defense, as well as perhaps a modicum of happiness thrown in for good measure.

Even self-defense is not truly a right. Self-defense is basically a reflex action that all living creatures display when attacked by someone or something. Self-defense may merely take the form of running away, but it may also involve physical violence of some kind. As far as I know all societies acknowledge the right of self-defense, but what constitutes legitimate self-defense can vary from place to place (and even from judge to judge, it appears in the U.S.). Attempting to codify what constitutes legitimate self-defense can be complicated as the Trayvon Martin case has shown us, but no one is questioning the basic principle of self-defense.

Do all people have a “right” to food and shelter? Historically, and even currently, it would appear they do not, or at least some societies are quite ambivalent on the subject. How, for example, does one account for the fact that even here in the U.S., said to be the wealthiest nation on earth, there are homeless people trying to eke out an existence by “dumpster diving” or searching through garbage dumps. This is even more common in many other nations. This would appear to prove that, indeed, people do not have a basic “right to live,” as the poor with no health insurance, garbage for food, and without shelter, do not live long, healthy, and happy lives. It appears that in our society that any attempt to alleviate this dreadful situation is a form of socialism, and socialism is considered even worse than what is becoming more and more common these days under our capitalistic economy, said to be the best economic system in the world. Thus it is, if rights are a result of the social contract, you may or may not have them, depending upon the nature of that contract. It seems that in an unregulated capitalistic society like ours you have no right either to life, liberty, or happiness, unless perhaps the latter can be found in the depths of a Dempsey Dumpster. You can be pretty sure that if “The Great White Dope” manages to get elected President, conditions are not likely to improve.

Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.
Frederick Douglass



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.