Sunday, December 02, 2012

What gives you the right?

A friend of mine asked me yesterday, "What gives a society the right to coerce [some] of its members?" He didn't ask this question rhetorically, he believes that sometimes society really does have the right to coerce its members, so he wants to know where these rights come from, and how we know what they are.

My friend has stated earlier that he's a moral objectivist and perhaps a realist: morals, values, ethical principles really do exist, independently of our opinions about them, and we can (somehow) know they are true. I, however, have a different view. I have written at some length on meta-ethical subjective relativism, where I hold that our moral beliefs are fundamentally related to our subjective natures.

From my subjective relativistic view, I see our use of language to discuss rights is confused and sometimes fundamentally in error, especially when we draw conclusions from linguistic habits. We talk about "rights" as if they were objects "out there" in the world, in the same sense that rocks and trees, or physical laws, are "out there." But they're not. Instead, "rights" refer to two different, but related, kinds of subjective facts. First, rights refer to explicit, socially constructed legal or customary standards of behavior. The First Amendment and its associated jurisprudence, for example, establish the legal right, and the limitations of that right, of free speech. But legal rights don't exist in a vacuum; we create the legal right to recognize certain facts about the minds of people, i.e. subjective facts. First, people want free speech, at least for themselves individually. Second, we have found from experience that when we legally protect speech, our society operates more smoothly, peaceably, and responsively.

Meta-ethical subjective relativism is a fundamentally pragmatic philosophy. It's not about what we should do whether we like it or not; it's about our preferences, what we actually do like. Of course, our preferences are not infinitely labile; we are products of our biological and cultural evolutionary history, and this history constrains our actual preferences, our available preferences, and how preferences change over time.

Similarly, the natural world constrains our preferences, both individually and socially. Given how things are today, some changes in one individuals' preferences cannot easily propagate to others, and eventually disappear. Other changes in preferences result in social collapse in cultural "group selection" events, such as revolutions, conquests, military defeats, again causing those preferences to disappear from people's minds, or become so marginal that they do not much influence our overall society and culture.

So what "gives" society the right to coerce some of its members? That should be obviously not a well-formed question. Rights are not objects that can be given or received. Instead, people assert rights, and, if the right becomes sufficiently popular, begins to enforce it. People create rights, such as the right to not be murdered, because they want to live in safety. People create the government's right to tax themselves and their neighbors because they want public goods such as roads, bridges, schools, police, etc., and they want to manage the allocation of resources by taxation, because they believe that's the most effective and efficient way to obtain those public goods. Indeed we can say that a society, as opposed to some random collection of people, is defined by the rights its members hold in common.

Rights are social constructs, they are aggregate statistical features of the minds of people in a society. In any society, but especially in large societies such as most modern nations, none of these social constructs are assented to by everyone. Societies, therefore, create "meta-rights": what rights must an individual affirm to remain a member of society. These meta-rights range from the absolute (enthusiastically affirm every right in word or deed or die) to the pluralistic (some rights demand conformance in behavior or suffer punishment or death, but verbal dissent does not remove one from the society), with many gradations in that range.

Since rights are social constructs, any individual can challenge a right merely on his or her own preference. If you would prefer we manage our society without taxation, you may, in a pluralistic society such as our own, speak out and say so with neither permission nor legal consequence, on no authority but your own. The rub is, of course, that to change a right, which is a social construction, you must not only dissent from it, but convince enough other people to dissent from the right that it becomes socially "unconstructed." Thus, we socially constructed, for example, that alcohol was bad, and unconstructed the right to consume alcohol, and constructed the right for the government to punish people who bought, sold, transported or consume alcohol. Thirteen years later, we decided that was a bad idea, and reconstructed the individuals' right and unconstructed the government's right.

But what if "the people" socially construct an "unjust" right? Suppose, for example, they decided that freedom of speech was no longer either a shared preference nor a valid legal principle? Wouldn't they be mistaken, in the same sense that, for example, people who do not admit the scientific validity of evolution are just mistaken? Isn't it true in some sense that freedom of speech is a "natural" right?

Under an objectivist view, a natural right is a right that is true even if everyone were to believe it false, in again exactly the same way that evolution was true even when everyone believed it false, and in the same sense that some profound new theory of physics we may discover in a hundred years is true today even though today no one believes it. But this view is epistemically problematic. How could we know such a natural right? We cannot know it by scientific means. We know that a scientific law is actually true by never observing an exception, but of course we observe people contravening even those rights that we do hold, much less those we do not hold (because no one believes them). It seems that the only way to hold this kind of natural right as true is by divine or mystical revelation.

In the subjectivist view, a "natural" right is one that most people actually hold, due in some sense to the more-or-less fundamental biological or cultural evolution of our minds, or a right that is more consistent than its opposite with other rights that most people actually hold. A right that almost no one holds is not presently a natural right, but if human nature changes (and we are changing, biologically and culturally; change is inevitable), it might become a natural right.

We talk about the difference between natural and legal rights simply because historically, many governments have functioned with only minimal popular legitimacy. These governments regularly operated in ways that shocked the consciences of its own populace. The government didn't abridge an objectively true right, it abridged the subjective sensibilities of its own people.

I think this subjective view of rights accords more closely with history. Our changing views of rights, governments, ethics, are, unlike science, not a matter of conforming more and more closely with objective truth but a matter of reflecting how our culturally- and socially-constructed minds decide what kind of society we actually prefer, and how those preferences change over time.


  1. The great Carlin summed it up very well.
    Paraphrasing----We do not have any rights in this country, we have a 'Bill of Permission' and a constitution that lists a number of permissions.----which is what I got from your post, and any one who thinks they are not permissions have not paid much attention to the way things change in this country.

  2. I see personal rights as being anything to which an exclusive claim can be made. your own life for example

    perhaps in the disscussion of the "right" of the state to coerce its members, a better term would be moral authority. so what gives the majority of society the moral authority to control the minority in society?

    majority opinion does not constitute moral authority

  3. The fundamental view here, lib, is that there is no such thing as "moral authority." There are only socially constructed ways people employ to keep a large society of people functioning more-or-less smoothly.

  4. alright, so what then is the end of society?

  5. alright, so what then is the end of society?

    The Zombie Apocalypse? ;-)

    But seriously, I'm not sure I understand your question. What precisely do you mean by "the end of society"?

  6. I think that libertarian meant, what is the end of society in the sense of "What is the goal that society is intended to obtain?"

  7. Perhaps, HH. But again, that's an imprecise question, and we're into some tricky territory here, so I really want to be careful.

    The passive voice in your question, "is intended," introduces an ambiguity: who or what do you think is doing the intending?

  8. When asking open-ended questions such as those of the libertarian or HH, it's helpful to offer preferred or candidate answers. Sometimes possible answers can shed light on the meaning of the question.

  9. I meant "what is the goal (or a number of goals) of society?" and "who decides what the goal of society is going to be?"

    in other words, whenever you say you are trying to take a "pragmatic approach", what are you trying to accomplish? for example, I would say it would be the pragmatic thing to allow the free market to determine prices, rather than applying the keynsian approach, because the market outcome is better than the unintended results of the keynsian policy.

    also, what person or group of people has the authority to govern and how did they get that? (I know I keep going at this from different angles, but I want to figure out what is required for a government action or power to be legitimate)

  10. "who decides what the goal of society is going to be?"

    It would seem that, pretty much by definition, the members of a society determine its goal(s). Who else would it be? People not in the society? Space aliens? God?

    I would say it would be the pragmatic thing to allow the free market to determine prices, rather than applying the keynsian approach, because the market outcome is better than the unintended results of the keynsian policy.

    How would you create a falsifiable model to test this assertion by observation? Or do you hold that an outcome from a "free market" (which is an intentionally idealized, unrealistic construct) is better because it's a market outcome?

  11. also, what person or group of people has the authority to govern and how did they get that? (I know I keep going at this from different angles, but I want to figure out what is required for a government action or power to be legitimate)

    The stock political science answer is "from the consent of the governed." I'm not sure what more you want. If you don't consent to the government, you're free to vote against it or leave. That most people in industrialized republics comply with laws and regulations without having to be directly coerced seems sufficient evidence that they consent, at least to some degree.

  12. I’m a little confused how you can be pragmatic about morals, but nothing else? But then you never said what you were relative to things outside of morals – are you a Realist otherwise?

  13. Andrew, I don't understand your question. Can you give more detail? I do think the real world of rocks and trees and things exists outside my mind, and will still exist after I'm dead.

  14. For example, it wouldn't seem to make much sense to say, "I'm a materialist about objective things, but pragmatic about subjective things." Which isn't to say you're a materialist, but that would be a form of Realism.

  15. [It wouldn't seem to make much sense to say, "I'm a materialist about objective things, but pragmatic about subjective things."

    I'm still confused. Materialism and pragmatism are not usually held as dichotomous.

  16. They're just not compatible. Pragmatism eschews the usual materialist/realist dichotomies; e.g. subject/object, found/made, appearance/reality, etc..

  17. They're just not compatible. Pragmatism eschews the usual materialist/realist dichotomies; e.g. subject/object, found/made, appearance/reality, etc..

    It does?

  18. You don't generally agree that pragmatism entails those ideas? Again, I'm just curious how you weave those ideas together - it would seem that one would want to swallow the other.

  19. You're going to have to make the whole argument. I'm not even sure what your position actually is, much less whether I find it credible.

  20. And just so you know, Andrew, I want to avoid a repeat of our last conversation. If you say, "I define 'pragmatism' as thus-and-such, which is different from your definition," then my response is going to be, "So what?" If you want to make a definitional argument, then it would be helpful to show how my definition is unclear, unhelpful, contradictory, nonsensical, or so far from the ordinary definition as to invite confusion.

    English, like every natural language, is inherently equivocal: almost all words have multiple meanings. This is especially true in philosophy, where philosophers go out of their way to look at ideas and concepts, labeled by words, in unusual and counter-intuitive ways. If I am being clear and precise, and I'm in the ballpark of the ordinary meaning, then my definition stands as stipulated for the purpose of my own argument.

  21. Okay, well, you said take sort of a ‘pragmatic’ (or something that would be considered a pragmatic philosophy) approach to morals, but then at the same time you turn around and use the found vs. made distinction”

    “We talk about "rights" as if they were objects "out there" in the world, in the same sense that rocks and trees, or physical laws, are "out there." But they're not. Instead, "rights" refer to two different, but related, kinds of subjective facts.”

    In other words you’re in a sense saying that things like trees are ‘found’, but things like ‘rights’ are made. But, made from what? And found, found where? We don’t just make these things up from nothing. The pragmatist position eschews that distinction. Yes the world is out there, we have a sort of causal relationship with it. Though we have a causal relationship with the world, it doesn’t tell us what to believe (i.e. facts don’t exist in the world), it merely causes us to have beliefs. In other words the world causes to have moral beliefs in much the same way it causes us to have beliefs about puppies. What you’re calling pragmatic here, I’d argue isn’t pragmatic at all (at least not as I understand it).

    I’ll steal an idea from Rorty here. We normally say that a bank account is a social institution rather than an object in the natural world, whereas a giraffe is an object in the natural world rather than a social construction. Bank accounts are made, giraffes are found. Now the truth in this view is simply that if there had been no human beings there would still have been giraffes, whereas there would have been no bank accounts. But this causal independence of giraffes from humans does not mean that giraffes are what they are apart from human needs and interests. On the contrary, we describe giraffes in the way we do because of our needs and interests. We speak a language which contains the word giraffe because it suits our purposes to do so.

    So again, you want to say you have this so-called pragmatic view, but this really doesn’t sound pragmatic. To be a materialist about the objective world, and relativistic about morals could really just be more materialism as pragmatism isn’t relativistic (although relativistic is a term many realist like to charge on pragmatists), and it doesn’t draw a distinction about subjective made up things vs. objective things that are as they are. Again, pragmatism doesn’t say that things are made up and relativistic. So I’m left thinking, are you using this in the “practical/utilitarian” sense? But that wouldn’t make any sense because the assertion that “Meta-ethical subjective relativism” is a “practical” / “utilitarian” view raises the question, “How so?”

    I mean hey, if things like morals are relativistic, than anything goes.

    1. I dunno, Andrew. A lot of your comment sounds like a lot of philosobabble to me.

      In one sense, yes, we are always talking only about the contents of our own minds. We are never talking about puppies, or giraffes, or bank accounts, or morals; we are always talking about our beliefs, beliefs we label with words like "puppies," "giraffes," "bank accounts," and "morals."

      So what? Big deal. I have little patience for philosobabble, and I'm losing patience with you. Give me an actual point.

  22. hm, maybe we think it would be a "pragmatic thing to allow the free market to determine prices", and by your standard, there's no need to "create a falsifiable model to test this assertion by observation?" because rights are just all about what people want or prefer, and we want non-keynsianism" - to use That Libs words.

    Since your system of rights and morals is relativistic and preferential (and that seems to be your use of pragmatic), then whatever method of justification you use must also be relativistic and preferential. For if at some point preferential positions are to be required to have logical justifications based upon the intrinsic nature of ‘something’, than morals and rights really aren’t relativistic and preferential as you say – or perhaps they still are, but it becomes trivially true. This goes back to my original question about how one could be materialistic (as an example) on the one hand and pragmatic on the other without one taking over the other. It’s almost as though you want to say things are preferential, but that ultimately they cannot be justified in that way.

    In other words (in theory) we could all have this free market system free of tyranny so long as everyone preferred the virtues of the system. A logical entailment of tyranny works only if one can establish some universal human nature – in which case again, morals and rights become no longer preferential and relative.

    But I don’t know, maybe that’s just more philosobabble – you’re a tough guy to please, Larry.

  23. OK, Andrew. I've given you a lot of chances, but this just isn't going anywhere. You're not making any sense whatsoever; you're just babbling. Go babble somewhere else; I have work to do.

  24. Fair enough, and please continue arm waving your ideas around with philosophical systems that don't work and justifications that don't make sense.



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