Ok, maybe not meaningless, but it certainly starts out on a flawed premise.
It all started when I posted this to Facebook:
What followed was an interesting conversation, but one that failed to provide any reason to counter my contention. Here is a summary of my argument:
According to Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
“Rights are entitlements (not) to perform certain actions, or (not) to be in certain states; or entitlements that others (not) perform certain actions or (not) be in certain states.”
I would contend that rights must be granted by persons. By Stanford’s definition, rights are abstract objects. They are intangible. The only way they may even be conceived of is in a mind, and minds are elements of persons. It is meaningless to speak of rights as existing prior to minds existing. It’s like talking about forests that existed before trees.
Once a right is conceived of, or proposed, it must be evaluated on some basis. Just as prices must be expressed relative to the value of currency, and weight must be expressed relative to the force of gravity, rights must be evaluated with reference to some standard. Without an objective referent, rights are merely expressions of what an individual or culture holds valuable. History is replete with examples of cultures who have held different ideas of the value of humans than we hold today. Even today we see varying rights displayed in other cultures. Whether we examine the inherent value societies afford all human beings, or varying values based upon skin color, sex, pedigree, or other factors, it is clear that there is no agreed upon norm. Many cultures and organizations have attempted to create such a standard, but the fact that the standard must be created and ratified is further illustration that rights is fluid without proper grounding. I believe that the only standard by which the notion of rights may be seen as objective and transcendent is God – if He exists.
I would suggest that rights granted to one’s own species are little more than a codification of preferences. If there is no transcendent being, I see no basis to call my conception of rights as any better than yours, or Lincoln’s as superior to Mao’s. They might seem less abhorrent. We might find them beneficial. We could suggest that they would better promote the flourishing of the human species. But we cannot make any objective comparisons. We can explain the differences, but we have no basis to make imperative statements such as “we ought to do XYZ”. All we can do is appeal to emotions and cultural sensibilities. I’m not saying that is a bad thing – only that it is not necessarily a good thing. After all, who’s to say that a culture 1,000 years from now will not look upon ours with equal disdain?
Legal human rights are those which are defined by governments in accord with their national and cultural values. Since they are defined, by definition they may be defined differently. These rights ought to be delineated as they define what a people group values. However, it can hardly be said that one set of such rights has any bearing with respect to any other people group. In fact, this would be bigotry, a violation of one people’s “human rights” in favor of our own. On what basis could we do such a thing? Legal human rights exist, and they vary geographically, historically, and in other ways. But I don’t believe that these are the types of rights we mean when we speak of “human rights” in sweeping terms. When we speak of human rights, we usually think of things like freedom from persecution, availability of drinking water, and equality. Clearly, on a legal basis, all of these can be defined away – and in many places they are. In order for the notion of universal, inalienable human rights to bear any persuasive or imperative force, we must appeal to natural human rights, if such a thing can be said to exist.
So – back to the title of this post. The founders of the USA and those crafting the Declaration of Independence believed in natural rights. From the Declaration,
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
My argument is that the only way this second sentence of the Declaration makes any sense is literally and as a whole. Obviously, they believed in a Creator (ie, God). Not only did they say so, but they went straight to the notion of inalienable (unalienable is a less frequently used variant) rights. (Un/)Inalienable refers that which may not be taken away. It cannot be transferred or revoked. It could be ignored or not recognized (slavery, anyone?) but it could not be removed or repudiated. That can only be the case if these rights had their source from someone besides ourselves.
I have explained the source of legal rights, and have pointed out their shortcomings. The other type of rights is natural rights. Natural rights, if they exist, are those which are inherent and inalienable. They exist independently of us. They must either precede our species or arise concurrently with our species. Since rights are the products of minds, and natural rights precede human minds conceiving of them, they must find their origin in another mind. And since legal rights may be granted, they may also be taken away, and therefore are inalienable. So, either natural rights do not exist except as some romantic fiction in our minds, or they really do exist. It seems to me, for human rights to bear any weight, they must be natural rights, and therefore must be real. The only way that could be the case is if there really is a God.
So, there you have it. That’s my thinking. What do you think – agree or disagree?