Sunday, December 17, 2006

Can Rights be Reasons?

Granted, we may be motivated by respect for another's rights, but that's not what I mean. Rather, I wonder whether having a right to do something can sensibly be described as one's motivating reason for action. I recently read a survey which asked local voters for the reason why they voted. Many cited "democratic duty", or the desire to "have their say", either of which seem perfectly comprehensible reasons. But then others cited their democratic right to vote -- which just seems bizarre.

As I understand it, a "right" in this context simply serves to guarantee that an option remains open to you, in case you wish to take it. Some independent motivation is required for actually bothering to claim the right, however. It's as if these voters were to explain their walking through a door by citing the fact that it was open. It's really not a very illuminating explanation of their behaviour. (Was there something they wanted on the other side? Were they just curious?) "Because I can" doesn't sound like a very sensible reason for anything much at all.

Am I missing something here? Care to hazard a guess at what the survey respondents may have had in mind?


  1. Richard,

    This post, along with your post on pacifism will get some treatment in a post on my blog in the coming week. This paper looking at Lewis and C.B. Martin on Dispositions and Conditionals has first priority, and I'm not looking forward to the mountain of marking sitting on my desk. I have some comments on rights as reasons and on pacifism, but I need a couple of days to be able to write what I want to say.

    For a much better treatment of Rights as Reasons, see Brian Orend's book "Human Rights: Concept and Context" which is essentially an argument (at a fairly basic level) for viewing HR as Reasons. A very good book. And I'm not saying this just because the man is my thesis adviser and mentor. heh (He is also a noted scholar is just war, michael walzer and kant's political philosophy, and so will factor in prominently to my own responses to these posts.)

  2. Perhaps it's based to an extent on the knowledge that many 'rights' such as the right to vote are both scarce and were hard fought for. The duty derives from those who fought for a voting system, and from those who are not able to exercise this basic right. Their suffering is a motive to action, from a sense of gratitude, guilt, shame, something like that. Maybe this is also alongside the knowledge that rights which are not exercised are often lost or forgotten - there is a duty not to let this happen for similar reasons.

  3. I agree with chris on that. Id also like to note that the right to vote in most countries is a result of a conflict for independence which established a "national identity" - voting can be seen as a patriotic duty, and by saying it is a right, you are alluding to that not all countries have that right and it has not been a right throughout most of human history.

  4. This sort of thing becomes incoherent, though, if you look at what else they might have done. They also had the right to stay at home (unless it was an Australian survey), but that didn't provide a reason to for them to do so.

    If you're forced to do something, then saying that you have the right to do it isn't really to the point. Someone living under a dictatorship that holds sham elections may be forced to vote for the president, but they don't have the right to vote against him, then their voting for him isn't a matter of exercising a right.

    I tend to agree with Alex's point (2) - people can often get defensive when certain of their decisions are questioned, and lapse into "I've got a right to" or "It's a free country" or some such. It closes down the conversation without them needing to explain a reason.

    Also, in this case, people who value democracy often enjoy the actual act of participating - a reminder to themselves that they're a part of it. They're celebrating the right to vote by means of exercising it.

  5. Whoops; I seem to have sent my previous comment into oblivion by not signing in properly. The gist of what it was, with some added thoughts:

    I think it's a mistake to talk as if the people in question aren't giving reasons that would genuinely factor into an account of our motivation. The problem is not that they aren't giving reasons, but that the reasons are incomplete as motivations. But this is perhaps not very surprising; we don't have a very clear idea of the whole set of our motivating reasons most of the time -- and by 'we' I mean 'all of us', and by 'most of the time' I mean even when we are at our most rational. What we do when asked questions about our motivating reasons is give the clearest reasons we know for certain were operative. The only difference is how specific we can get about our motivating reasons, and how much we can put it into a coherent account rather than (as it almost always is in fact even when we are at our most rational) a jumble.

    In any case, think of the reverse sort of situation, where somone (say, a woman in a country where it's against the law for women to vote) voted, and, asked why, replied: "Because I don't have the right to do so." Now, this may not be a complete account of reasons, but it's a very good reason to do what she did, and one that may well play a motivating role. So what's so different about the original case that having a right to do something is less impressive as a reason than not having it?

  6. *nods in agreement with Brandon*

    Also if you ask a person for their reason they will almost certainly provide an after the fact justification. that may be pretty different from a real reason.

  7. Brandon - the cases you discuss seem importantly different. If you lack a legal right (that you morally ought to have), then you might act in order to protest this. But what deeper reason is there when you already have the right in question? Like Tom says, they also had a right to stay home, so the appeal to rights is not at all illuminating in explaining why they chose one option rather than the other.

    Other commenters discuss ways that a hard-fought-for right might become something closer to a duty, but then "democratic duty" would have seemed the more appropriate answer for them to make. So my money is on Alex's #2: these weren't really given as reasons at all. It's a simple "I don't have to explain myself to you." (I wouldn't expect the surveys to elicit defensiveness. But perhaps boredom or laziness could have the same effect here. Asserting one's right is a quick, simple answer, which doesn't require too much probing thought.)

  8. Richard,

    If you can vote in order to protest your lack of a legal right to do X, I'm not sure why you can't vote in order to affirm your possession of that same right. The only difference seems to be in the objective status of doing X.

    It's true that they had the right to stay home; but I think the relevance of this is harder to gauge than it looks. Think of it this way. You seem to be looking for a contrastive explanation: why they did X (vote) rather than Y (stay at home). But this is not the only form an explanation can take. So I take it that the question is whether a bare appeal to rights can be an adequate (non-defective) explanation without being a contrastive one.

    And there's at least an argument that it can, at least when the right in question is sufficiently important or hard-won. A very similar sort of reason-giving shows up in a common feminist argument urging women to vote, for instance: that they have the right to vote which is worth exercising in its own right (as generations of women without the vote learned very clearly). Yes, women also have the right to stay home; but that's not a very substantive right (as generations of women whose rights consisted of very little more than the right to stay home learned). So one might well see the exercise of a right as in itself a solid but defeasible reason for acting in a certain way -- defeasible, because there might be a more substantive right that gives better reason for doing something else, as exercising the right to vote may take precedence, as valuable activities go, over excercising the right to stay home.


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