Monday, April 17, 2006

The Conceptual Development of 'Rights'

Thomas Pogge's 'How Should Human Rights Be Conceived?' traces the interesting development from "natural law" through "natural rights" to the modern notion of "human rights" -- a development that largely consists in narrowing the content of morality.

The idea of a "natural moral law" doesn't come with any obvious restrictions on content built in. (So it is a favourite of religious homophobes and others with arbitrary ethical views.) But as Pogge explains:
Expressing moral demands in the natural-rights rather than natural-law idiom involves a significant narrowing of content possibilities by introducing the idea that the relevant moral demands are based on moral concern for certain subjects: rightholders.

This undermines the notion of religious duties, since God surely has no need of rights. More generally, it excludes all the arbitrary concerns that have nothing to do with any individual's interests, or harms and benefits. So that's progress of sorts. But it already excludes too much. For instance, the non-identity problem shows that one can harm humanity (or "people in general") without harming any particular person. And we might also reasonably hold that individuals have a moral duty to develop their talents, etc., whereas there's little sense to be made of the notion of a "right" against oneself.

The notion of 'human rights' is even more restricted. It is an essentially political notion, whereby the violators "must be in some sense official". Victims of theft aren't said to have had their "human rights" violated; not unless this arbitrary confiscation of property was undertaken by government agents acting in an official capacity, or some such. Human rights thus offer protection "only against violations from certain sources". (Though Pogge goes on to argue that the relevant sort of "official disrespect" may be manifested in a wider range of situations than we might at first expect -- including, for example, official inaction when protection is needed, etc.)


  1. While plausible, I'm not really convinced that the move from natural law to natural rights was one of a narrowing of morality, because I'm not convinced that it had anything to do with morality. Natural law theory is not a theory of morality; it is a theory of practical reason (qua authoritative). No serious natural law theorist, so far as I know, had ever identified morality with natural law; the latter just identifies the framework of obligations that practical reason identifies. Likewise, it seems to me that natural rights theory was never considered a theory of morality by natural rights theorists; it was a theory of social justice.

    I haven't read Pogge's argument, but the claim that God has no natural rights, taken as indicating something about natural-rights idiom, seems odd to me. For instance, it is explicitly rejected by Spinoza, and, it would seem, by Locke. The reasoning given, that natural rights were proposed as having to do with harms and benefits to the rightsholder appears to me to be an anachronism, unless Pogge is attributing it to something in the nineteenth century. It isn't early modern natural rights theory, which is better characterized as holding that rights follow from certain kinds of powers, e.g., Locke argues that makers have certain rights over what they make, simply in virtue of the fact that they made it. That is, to put it very, very roughly and crudely, unlike later utilitarian theories of natural rights, rights are not had in virtue of one's passivity, but in virtue of one's activities. If I recall correctly, in fact, Locke argues that human beings have no right to harm each other because harming other human beings violates God's rights.

  2. "Victims of theft aren't said to have had their "human rights" violated; not unless this arbitrary confiscation of property was undertaken by government agents acting in an official capacity, or some such. "

    But the fact we don't talk that way doesn't mean our human rights aren't violated. Especially in the United States I think people would say the right to property (within reason) is a right and that theft is wrong precisely because it infringes on that right. It's just that theft-talk is older that rights-talk and thus rhetorically trumps the later talk.

  3. Do you think so? One could sensibly talk about theft violating one's (natural or legal) rights, of course. But to say a thief has committed a human rights violation sounds extremely odd to my ear. Perhaps we have different concepts in mind. But mine is more in line with Pogge's: a human right is a right specifically against the government.

  4. "Natural Law" and "Natural Rights" are an attempt to ground morality in something other than human nature, even though Aquinas writes of the natural law in S.T. as based on man's rational nature (which he fails to mention is not the only nature). But then the natural law is grounded in the Eternal Law, and when the two conflict, then the ET trumps. It's all crap.

    "Rights" are precisely those claims which the individual does NOT grant to government. To think of them in any other sense is nonsense.


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