Towards A Good Samaritan World

Thursday, December 02, 2004


The debate between Justin Logan (here and here) and Max Borders (here) continues. A much earlier post from Tom Palmer is also referenced, which discusses just war.

Natural rights are a key issue. I thought it might be worth quoting the passage from Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue that convinced me natural rights are untenable.

"It is first of all clear that the claim that I have a right to do or have something is a quite different type of claim from the claim that I need or want or will be benefited by something. From the first -- if it is the only relevant consideration -- it follows that others ought not to interfere with my attempts to do or have whatever it is, whether it is for my own good or not. From the second it does not. And it makes no difference what kind of good or benefit is at issue... if I claim a right in virtue of my possession of certain characteristics, then I am logically committed to holding that anyone else with the same characteristics also possesses this right. But it is just this property of necessary universalizability that does not belong to claims about either the possession of or the need or desire for a good, even a universally necessary good...

"[T]hose forms of human behavior which presuppose notions of some grounds to entitlement, such as the notion of a right, always have a highly specific and socially local character, and that the existence of particular types of social institution or practice is a necessary condition for the notion of a claim to the possession of a right being an intelligible type of human performance. (As a matter of historical fact such types of social institution or practice have not existed universally in human societies.) Lacking any such social form, the making of a claim to a right would be like presenting a check for payment in a social order that lacked the institution of money...

"By 'rights' I do not mean those rights conferred by positive law or custom on specified classes of person; I mean those rights which are alleged to belong to human beings as such and which are cited as a reason for holding that people ought not to be interfered with in their pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. They are rights which were spoken of in the eighteenth century as natural rights or as the rights of man. Characteristically in that century they were defined negatively, precisely as rights not to be interfered with. But sometimes in that century and much more often in our own positive rights -- rights to due process, to education or to employment are examples -- are added to the list. The expression 'human rights' is now commoner than either of the eighteenth-century expressions. But whether negative or positive and however named they are supposed to attach equally to all individuals, whatever their sex, race, religion, talents or deserts, and to provide a ground for a variety of particular moral stances.

"It would of course be a little odd that there should be such rights attaching to human beings qua human beings in light of the fact... that there is no expression in any ancient or medieval language correctly translated by our expression 'a right' until near the close of the middle ages: the concept lacks any means of expression in Hebrew, Greek, Latin or Arabic, classical or medieval, before about 1400, let alone Old English, or in Japanese even as late as the mid-nineteenth century. From this it does not follow that there are no natural or human rights; it only follows that no one could have known that there were. And this at least raises certain questions. But we do not need to be distracted into answering them, for the truth is plain: there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and unicorns." (After Virtue, Notre Dame University Press 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre.)

To sum up (and to bring those who prefer to scroll past long blockquotes back on board), MacIntyre explains the notion of universal "human rights" and then points out that since rights are a recent and Western concept, the claim that they are inherent in humans is implausible. If you're not convinced, bear in mind that this is only a fragment of a larger argument. I found it so decisive in part because it answered a riddle I had been thinking about ever since I noticed (a few years before) that the claim:

"People in China do not have [or "enjoy"] the right to free speech."


"The Chinese government violates people's right to free speech."

have the same meaning in casual speech (or in journalism), even though the first statement implies that a right exists only when the government recognizes (or perhaps creates) it, whereas the latter implies that rights exist (albeit unrespected) regardless of government action. This observation left me with cognitive dissonance on the subject of rights until MacIntyre relieved me of it, in favor of a definition of rights as legal constructs.

This is Borders' position (more or less). But he thinks people will create these legal constructs because of rational self-interest:

1) People are rationally self-interested and prefer peace to conflict (predation and defense are expensive - non-optimal – postures for all parties involved). The state of nature is not a fun place.

2) They will (or “ought to” where ought is rational) agree on reciprocal rules of non-harm - "rights". (Think of a variation on the Prisoner’s Dilemma.)

Interesting but does it work? If I am the strongest, or my family or clan, why should I/we agree not to harm other people in ways that benefit me/us? The other problem is that he seems to be introducing Mill's harm principle, which is a slippery-slope towards well-meaning totalitarianism, because the "harm" criterion offers no non-arbitrary way of drawing the line between "harming" someone by shooting them in the head and "harming" them by saying "mankind" instead of "humankind," or by "bourgeois exploitation," or by offensive behavior in the privacy of their own home (which someone overhears and can't stop thinking about) or whatever.

I think I have intimations of a different approach.

First, let's define a "right" loosely as (the flip side of) a line the government ought not to cross. We'll define it more carefully later.

Why should there be any such lines? Why shouldn't the government do whatever will cause (in its estimation) the great happiness for the greatest number?

In the case of individuals, it is a fairly ordinary claim that the end does not justify the means, and there are some things you shouldn't do even if you think it will make people generally happier-- for example, no murders, even of bad people. If this applies to the state, though, it seems not to apply in quite the same way, since we routinely recognize the power of the state to do all sorts of actions not permitted to individuals. This is recognized in language: "kidnapping" vs. "arrest"; "murder" vs. "execution"; "extortion" vs. "taxation." Each pair of verbs describe the same action; but a different agent; and while the first in each word-pair describes a recognized crime, the second describes what is recognized as a legitimate action of a government. If the axiom "the end does not justify the means" applies to governments, it must apply a bit differently.

While the social contract is a myth in the sense that none of us ever signed it, let us treat the myth as fact and ask: under what conditions would people be justified, or even compelled, to withdraw their signatures from the contract?

Let us classify human actions as good, bad and indifferent. (Some kind of moral realism is assumed here.) A moral person coerced to a good action would have no reason to object since she would have done it anyway (this point will need revising but bear with me for the moment) nor would she object to being compelled to do an indifferent action, since this is permitted by conscience. But if a moral person is coerced by government to do a bad action, conscience forces her to withdraw her consent from the social contract.

Now introduce the problem of moral uncertainty. We don't know with certainty, and we disagree greatly, on what is right and wrong. Some feel it is right to say one thing, some another; some feel it is right to attend one church, some another church, some a mosque, some no religious service at all; some feel they should be dirty, some clean; some feel they should make as much money as possible, some consider poverty to be holy; and so on. Some feel they must proselytize their faith, and not to do so is wrong. Some feel it is wrong to use violence under any circumstances.

When the government forces people to fight when they oppose violence or disbelieve in the cause; when the government prohibits people to worship as they see fit or to proselytize their faith; or when the government forces people to express belief in doctrines they believe are false; its coercion runs up against people's consciences. They either betray themselves or become martyrs. These are the lines the government should not cross, and in the space they create are rights, the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom of conscience. Freedom of conscience, in particular, lies at the heart of it. A rights-respecting state does not make martyrs.

One of the trickiest tasks of libertarians is to draw the links between freedom of conscience (which almost everyone nowadays agrees on in the abstract at least) and a strong doctrine of property rights, which is far more controversial. If you don't mind a long and heavy read that is only obliquely relevant, this essay is my best effort on the moral foundations of capitalism.


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