ForumTouchy Subjects ► What are rights?
What is a right? In a philosophical sense. I got into a discussion about this on reddit and was surprised by how much pushback I was getting. I want to ask this here where people can't just downvote disagreeable comments away.

Basically, my take is that rights are simply privileges the government allows of its citizens. The government has the ability to enforce its will through violence in the form of law enforcement. If it decided to strip rights away, that decision is backed by those enforcers. You could argue, but you'd likely be countered with violence. There's nothing that guarantees your rights other than those in power allowing them.

People talk a lot about natural or inalienable rights like freedom of religion, but I don't understand what that's supposed to mean. Where do these inherent rights come from? While I think that freedom of religion is essential to a fair and just society, that's just my personal morality speaking, not some fundamental source of rightness. If there is a fundamental source of rightness, how do we know what rights it includes?
  
I don't believe in rights, only positive and negative duties. The language of rights muddies the waters by hiding the agent who may either uphold or violate the so-called right. E.g. "the right to free speech" is better articulated as "the duty of government not to restrict speech". "The right to education" is better articulated as "the duty of society to provide education". Rights-based language makes it extremely easy to equivocate. Anyway...
joetom said:
Where do these inherent rights come from?
By popular opinion, God. Or at least "God, nature, or reason".
joetom said:
If there is a fundamental source of rightness, how do we know what rights it includes?
People have been debating this for millennia. Pragmatically, it's good to reach consensus on a set of basic rights/duties even if we can't agree on the source of their moral justification, if any. It gives us a rational foundation for arguing government policy that isn't based on might makes right.

Incidentally this topic is very close to the derailment conversation Gray and I had recently about moral objectivity.
  
I think Hydrogen has the right of it in calling them "duties." I would go one step further: laws are the rules a government tells its citizens they have to follow; rights are the rules citizens say the government has to follow.
  
Yeah, I like Gray's wording. Its concise and I agree with it. I was trying to figure out how to word it and I couldn't.
  
Yeah, that is an interesting a concise way of putting it. I've been thinking about rights a lot during COVID with all the protests and such around mask-wearing and lockdown measures. Most of the people who object seem to object because it "violates their rights" and don't provide many other reasons. You talk to them about societal obligation, that you should follow these measures because it protects people, but those things don't seem to factor into their thinking. It's just "I have right and the government is violating them so I must resist."

The whole concept of "god-given" or "natural" rights seems to, for some, make their rights such a sacred concept that the desire to preserve them actually gets in the way of solving societal problems.
  
I've always been opposed to the fetishisation of laws and constitutions. Periodically New Zealand debates whether we need a constitution and I strongly disagree with them.

In the last few years I think we've proved that constitutional rights, laws and the notion of democracy only apply if you want to play ball. McConnell, the police and Trump proved you can always bend the law if needed. A constitution is supposed to be a sort of "superlaw" that can't be amended on a whim, but I've only seen the constitution used to argue against widely popular laws, and used to prevent progress in areas like voting rights and campaign spending.

Viewing rights as anything but what rules we think the government needs to follow to allow citizens comfort -- in my opinion -- prevents us from having serious discussions about what rights we really should have and why. "The constitution is sacred" prevents the US from rethinking its electoral system and gun reform without meaningfully preventing Christian hegemony and religious influence in law in very Christian states, or assaults on impartial journalism, or extrajudicial police murder.
  
My understanding of rights mostly comes from Locke (and how it was interpreted by the people drafting the US Declaration of Independence).

Natural rights are those rights which are always immoral to infringe. These are sometimes summarized as "life, liberty, and property." These are supposed to be "obvious" in a way that other law is not (either divine law or civil law). Everybody should (according to Locke) recognize that it is immoral to infringe another person's rights in this way, no matter their religion/culture/government.

Civil rights, by contrast, are things that the government has decided it should guarantee to people - for instance, the right to vote is a civil right. In this way, they're specific to the government/society in which the people live and agree upon.

From John Locke:
The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions… [and] when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.
  
Grayseff said:
A constitution is supposed to be a sort of "superlaw" that can't be amended on a whim
I find this a bit confusing, because the US constitution has been amended 27 times or whatever. People have this attitude of like "oh we can't change the constitution! apart from these 27 times".
  
I think the key phrase there is "on a whim"; it takes significantly more to amend the constitution than it does to simply pass a law.
  
We got that freedom though.

"In the United States, freedom of speech is more widely accepted than in any other country. A 38-nation Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2015 found that Americans are among the most supportive of free speech, freedom of the press, and the right to use the Internet without government censorship."

So when the rest of the world, and even some Americans, are supporting government control of information and the internet for "the greater good" America is out here preserving freedom all thanks to our pesky constitution.

We're among one of the last standing nations that support that freedom and we preserve that right better than any other country in the world. USA, baby, that's right.

I'm not a religious zealot who will say the constitution is flawless or should be blindly unaltered ever, but I am super happy that it is difficult to alter and that people do hold it as higher than a politician or elected official, at least some of us do. I think its better than our politicians. (Granted, that's a low bar to clear since our politicians are some of the worst in the world, I assume anyways).

If freedom of speech were easy to take away they would've done it already, they're trying hard to, some of them, but they can't steam roller it like they can in other countries.
  
Grayseff said:
A constitution is supposed to be a sort of "superlaw" that can't be amended on a whim, but I've only seen the constitution used to argue against widely popular laws, and used to prevent progress in areas like voting rights and campaign spending.

This exact same thing happens in Canada all the time. For example, I often hear about how universal basic income couldn't be easily implemented, because it would require altering the constitution, something that's impossible without unanimous agreement from the provincial governments. Yet, the provincial governments can just choose to ignore the constitution if they want to, such as Quebec's unconstitutional language law. This is supposed to protect "provincial sovereignty" but, to me, it just seems to allow the provinces to violate rights and obstinately prevent progressive change.
Fwip said:
Natural rights are those rights which are always immoral to infringe. These are sometimes summarized as "life, liberty, and property." These are supposed to be "obvious" in a way that other law is not (either divine law or civil law).

My big issue with that is that it's claimed to be a universal morality, but it's really a liberal capitalist morality. (liberal in the classic sense, not how North Americans use it) Someone looking at things through a Marxist framework, for example, could easily point out that property rights are often used to oppress the disenfranchised.

I think that food and shelter should be basic, fundamental rights, but property rights are often used to deny those things to those in need. Such as how there are more empty homes than homeless, but moving into a vacant property is considered trespassing, or how grocery stores throw out massive amounts of food, but taking it to give to the hungry is theft. Ultimately, it just seems to come down to how the state chooses to enforce its power, based on a specific moral viewpoint. It's impossible to determine a "universal" system of morality.
So when the rest of the world, and even some Americans, are supporting government control of information and the internet for "the greater good" America is out here preserving freedom all thanks to our pesky constitution.

Most first-world democratic countries have some form of freedom of expression in their constitution. As an outsider looking in, America's free speech seems to also mean freedom to lie, misrepresent and spread hateful rhetoric, which has allowed lying, hateful politicians to gain power and pass legislation that restricts other forms of freedom for marginalized groups. It's an example of exactly what I think Gray and I are thinking of regarding the fetishization of constitutional rights. Many people place so much value on the right to freedom of speech as an abstract concept that they defend it, even in situations where it's not rational.

Also, I could point to the repeal of net neutrality as an example of the US being less than stellar regarding free speech.
  
We also don't have any laws that preserve libel and slander, false testimony, etc. Those things are still illegal so those aren't valid criticisms.

Just about every politician in America lies, so you don't really narrow it down much. Its the corruption of our legislature that makes the constitution that much more important.

If the government could outlaw hate speech I believe that they would use that power to accuse non hate groups of hate speech and use it to criminalize dissent and ultimately criminalize democracy. Its not hate speech we're trying to preserve, its the freedom to assemble and protest the government we're trying to preserve.

We do preserve the right to hateful rhetoric, hopefully. Its a necessary freedom to ensure the government doesn't use it as an excuse to shut down important dissidence, protests, and other forms of public resistance to tyranny in any of its form.

I think private citizens should have the wisdom, character, and maturity to boycott hate groups on their own, but I don't trust the government with the power to enforce morality.

No one's perfect, but we're closer to perfect than any other country. I agree that we aren't perfect, but I believe no one is and so far as I can see no other country in the entire Earth places so much value on freedom of thought and expression as the USA does.
  
America doesn't protect the right to protest for some protests, and some states are trying to pass more restrictive laws
.
  
I wouldn't have too much of a problem with outlawing hate speech if it was just like, "here is a list of words you're not allowed to say" and it listed all slurs. It'd be impractical to enforce, I mean you'd end up with police units monitoring Twitter all day and that'd be crazy, right. But at least we'd all be clear about what's illegal, and stopping people using crude, abusive slurs wouldn't stifle genuine dissent and criticism.

But the problem is that when you define it broadly as "encouraging hate" or whatever, well don't we all encourage hate to someone in regular political discourse? You can use it to outlaw all kinds of criticism and dissent, especially in a biased and selective way.

To apply the concept consistently and impartially, you'd have to start burning books. Half of this forum has been hateful to one group or another. You start outlawing "offense" and it becomes a case of granting favouritism to the easily offended.

And you can say hate to race is particularly bad because people don't choose their race, but now we're also outlawing hate to religion. Religion is a set of ideas. Ideas can and should be debated, criticised, insulted, or even hated. And while children are often raised in a particular religion, surely once they stop being children they are responsible for their own religious beliefs. Not to mention people convert into and out of religions.
  
Grayseff said:
America doesn't protect the right to protest for some protests, and some states are trying to pass more restrictive laws
.
Which protests are protected?

Those laws they are trying to pass will get bodied by the First Amendment, they'll never stand up to the Supreme Court.

I mean, unless the current administration really overturns our own government. Biden says no Amendment is final and is trying to add more justices to the Supreme Court to alter the vote by adding more bodies to them.

These people swear an oath to uphold the constitution, then take office and practically declare war on it. Very upsetting.
  
The impression that the Constitution and makeup of the court is somehow sacred and it's upsetting to declare changes is exactly what I am talking about. Rather than a serious look at what in the constitution is beneficial, you're simply upset at the notion of changing it.
  
If I thought I needed to change the constitution to address things like police brutality, racism, etc. I would be in favor of changing it in a heart beat, but those are issues unrelated to the constitution.

Name one part of the constitution that needs to be changed for me to protest police, demand they get defunded, or reformed, or anything, or hold them accountable for quasi legal murdering of citizens, or any of it.

If anything, the first amendment guarantees my right to protest the police and demand they get defunded or reformed.

Edit: Its worth mentioning that the constitution was a bad document when it was written. The rights only extended to white men particularly the rich ones. I am in favor of changing the constitution when its necessary. The only reason I like it right now is because it was changed to include all races and all genders and all classes. If it was never changed, if it is viewed as some perfect document, I would not like it.

What I like about it is the concept that my rights are more important than any rich man or any elected official and that this document is viewed as superior to the vain ambitions of the rich and their political lobbyists.

If there is a problem with America that is stemming from the constitution in its current form, I would be in favor of changing it. That's why I don't judge people badly who think that violence can be solved by changing the Second Amendment, even though I disagree.
  
The second amendment and electoral college spring to mind.
  
Yeah, the Electoral college seems very unfair, its complete nonsense that a state can get a majority, but then turn the minority population vote to a president they didn't want. That makes no sense to me, and its stupid that so many states have a winner takes all.

It actually seems almost barbaric. I don't like it. Like that whole Florida fiasco with Bush 20 years ago still haunts this nation.
  
Yea, that and the first past the post house of reps or the inherent unfairness of the Senate (though that is meant to be unfairly advantageous to small rural states) are all things the constitution got wrong. And don't get me started on money as speech a la citizens united.
  
Yeah, money as speech is the stupidest thing. I mean not stupid, corrupt is the word I'm looking for.

Corporations are people when its convenient for them, but not if you're trying to hold them accountable then they are non person entities.
  
joetom said:
Fwip said:
Natural rights are those rights which are always immoral to infringe. These are sometimes summarized as "life, liberty, and property." These are supposed to be "obvious" in a way that other law is not (either divine law or civil law).

My big issue with that is that it's claimed to be a universal morality, but it's really a liberal capitalist morality. (liberal in the classic sense, not how North Americans use it) Someone looking at things through a Marxist framework, for example, could easily point out that property rights are often used to oppress the disenfranchised.

I think that food and shelter should be basic, fundamental rights, but property rights are often used to deny those things to those in need. Such as how there are more empty homes than homeless, but moving into a vacant property is considered trespassing, or how grocery stores throw out massive amounts of food, but taking it to give to the hungry is theft. Ultimately, it just seems to come down to how the state chooses to enforce its power, based on a specific moral viewpoint. It's impossible to determine a "universal" system of morality.

Oh yeah, I'm less than thrilled with him saying that "property" is on the same level of life and liberty. Personally, I reconcile this with my more communist views by differentiating between "private property" (land, house, etc) and "personal property" (your toothbrush). I'm more taking his framework that "natural rights come from nature" and dismissing the specifics that I don't like. :P

I think there's some basic level of morality that's nearly-universal, but it obviously doesn't cover a lot of scenarios. Like, "do not murder people, do not enslave people, do not steal unnecessarily," most everyone agrees on those. But yeah, there's a lot of morality/ethics that are particular to your specific culture.
  
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