Monday, March 15, 2010

Nonsense on stilts?

Jeremy Bentham dismissed the 18th century equivalent of our notion of human rights as 'nonsense upon stilts'. That judgement may be a little harsh, but the notion of rights certainly is in trouble.

For a start there is the problem of 'rights inflation' whereby more and more supposed rights are added to the list, undermining the credibility of the concept.

Then there is the tendency to ascribe rights to people who can't understand the notion (e.g. infants, or the severely mentally disabled), and even to animals. It is at least questionable to speak of a being having a right who cannot understand that he or she has it and to whom it would be absurd to ascribe obligations. The case of infants and children deserves special treatment - they at least will in time assume understanding and obligations.

There is always the option of reverting to traditional ways of speaking, of course, and, for example, simply proscribing cruelty. We can be perfectly humane without rights talk!

Another problem with the rights notion is that it arose in a world with different belief-structures. Rights were seen to derive either from God (God-given rights) or from a metaphysical notion of Natural Law, which is not the same as the 'laws' of science but a transcendent moral system. For those who believe in God and/or something like a transcendent and morally-based Natural Law, the notion of universal human rights makes some sense - but there still remains the problem of knowing exactly what these rights are.

For those who don't believe in such a spiritual realm, human rights are even more problematic. What is their source?

One could say they arose historically and are a product of civilization, but the very fact that the notion has been debased by rights inflation etc. is an indication that other ways of talking about the issues in question are called for.

Rights talk, however, still has a place, but perhaps a less exalted one than has been fashionable. I suggest that it arises naturally from the implicit rules which govern human interaction. Queuing is a typical example. One has the right to be dealt with before someone who arrives later; they have no right to push in.

In the same way that rights arise from implicit rules of behavior, so, of course, they arise from explicit laws, regulations and legally-enforceable charters or bills of rights. The extent to which rights-specifying laws are well-grounded and respected are important issues, as is the possibility of unintended consequences, such as the rights assigned to one group infringing on the rights of another, or, in the case of bills of rights, the possibility that they may undermine rights that existed under the pre-existing legal status quo.

In general, negative rights (rights not to be interfered with) are less controversial than positive or benefit rights (rights to some good, e.g. food or education). The burdens on other members of the community are less onerous in the former case, though someone's right always entails someone else's obligation, as well as, arguably, (future) obligations on the holder of the right.

One (negative) right which is particularly interesting is the (multi-dimensional) right to privacy. Though culturally relative - there are huge differences in notions of privacy in different human societies - it is one right that is clearly applicable only to self-aware beings. Nobody advocates granting this right - so far as I know - to animals, and it applies only in a tenuous sense to human infants.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Remnants of ethics

For some, moral or ethical considerations are paramount; for others such notions are problematic hangovers from a more religious age and not really relevant to their lives. In the context of business there is a lot of talk about ethics and social responsibility but much of it can be seen as window-dressing. Are ethics and morality ultimately empty concepts?

The concept of law is sustained by a powerful set of very visible institutions: legislatures, law courts, prisons and police. By contrast the concept of morality might look a little questionable (at least to those who don't believe in supernatural rules and judgements). I think part of the problem is that the terms 'ethics' and 'morality' have been asked to bear more weight than they can in fact sustain in a secular age.

If they are taken in a pragmatic sense, however, they can still be useful and meaningful. To this end why not see morality as just (part of) the set of implicit rules of behavior which exists in any society, specifically the subset relating to not harming others, and helping others in certain circumstances? This informal system will of its very nature be difficult precisely to define and delineate - with culture-specific systems nested within other culture-specific systems and all within a broader system defined in terms of our shared genetic inheritance - but few would deny that social life is characterized by particular habits, customs, expectations, etc., some more or less universal, others very localized; and also that these behaviors may be conceptualized as implicit rules.

It is an advantage of an implicitly rule-based understanding of morality that it naturally gives rise to a viable notion of rights, in which rights go hand in hand with reciprocal obligations. Such an approach avoids the 'rights inflation' and empty rhetoric evident in much contemporary discourse.

Seeing ethical systems as rule-based may, however, strike many as somewhat heartless and cold. Is it not important to empathize with others? Is this not indeed the living core of ethics and morality?

Empathy is of course essential, and it is built into the 'rules of the game'. People who lack empathetic feelings - like those with autism spectrum disorders - are clearly handicapped in their ability to understand the rules and to participate fully in social life.

But the ambitious and demanding empathy-based ethics characteristic of religion and left-wing politics is something else again, and it raises certain problems. For example, an individual who embraces such an approach and identifies with the poor, the suffering and the oppressed might be constantly weighed down by the cares of others. Given the vast amount of human misery, this burden can easily become unbearable.

In the traditional Christian context the burden is eased somewhat by a belief in the efficacy of prayer and in divine providence; in the context of radical politics, ideology and political action may serve to fill the vacuum left by the loss of the spiritual dimension.

These are deep and difficult issues which individuals must face in the light of their own priorities and judgements. My contribution is merely to suggest that a more modest view of morality as a component of the complex and nuanced systems that create and sustain the social order may work for those whose worldview precludes belief in divine providence or a future proletarian paradise.