(Non-Political) Rights, Ethics, and Morality


First, let’s establish one rule here, which is that this thread is absolutely apolitical. There is no need for politics to enter into this discussion, as anything determined here should influence one’s politics, and not vice versa.

I will request that moderators remove any such attempts to make this into a political discussion. As a result, this may provide those on the forum with differing political views to participate in P&R in an environment which is perhaps less hostile towards them.

Now, down to business. I’m gonna start off with a bunch of babbling.

This started with a discussion regarding the notion of rights. I presented the following statement:

This presents a notion of rights as two separate things.

First, we have a purely subjective, ethereal notion of rights. Each of us has an opinion, based on our personal views and experiences, of what constitutes “right and wrong”. Being purely subjective, there can potentially be wide variances in this judgement from one person to another, and that will then translate into a variation in terms of what we believe SHOULD be granted as a set of rights to each individual

But then, separately, we have a more concrete notion of rights that exist within the real world. That is, these rights exist in a form which directly impacts our lives. That real-world manifestation of these rights takes the form of, really, the only thing that affects anything, physical force.

That is, you have these real, tangible, concrete rights if and only if they are defended through force. In an anarchistic society, like with animals, you have the rights which you yourself can defend. The antelope has the right to not be food, if he can outrun the lion. In human society, this force can go beyond the individual, which is a big reason why we enter into society in the first place. Society and centralized government, in its ability to exert far more force than any individual, provides a mechanism by which we can enforce a notion of rights that provide an agreed upon set for the whole of society.

In a democratic society, this set of rights can be fair and representative of the will of everyone. In an authoritarian, autocratic regime, less so. But the important point is that while you, personally, may believe that you have certain rights, if you cannot defend them ( or have someone else defend them for you), it’s largely meaningless. Those beliefs can influence dialog with other humans, and perhaps convince them to work with you to defend those rights, but the rights themselves don’t actually mean anything outside of the enforcement framework. If you’re in the wilderness with a murderer, and he has a gun pointed at your head, your rights don’t actually exist at that moment, and you’re going to die.

So then, we have a problem, in that we need to find a way to get from those subjective, ethereal rights, to the concrete, enforced rights that affect our lives and protect us. We need to find some notion that we can all agree upon, so that we can band together into society and have our collective might defend that agreed upon notion of rights, which is ultimately based in some large way upon our notions of right and wrong.

There’s a notion of “natural rights”, but I think that in a lot of ways such an idea misses a key step, and simply assumes certain things. In many case, it assumed some notion of an omnipotent super being, who defined what was right and what was wrong. God’s notion of right and wrong could ultimately create a framework for rights, because He was the ultimate enforcer. While you might not listen to him in this life, he’d punish you in the next one. Ultimately, even beyond the purely theistic basis for such things, a lot of the older ideas about a lot of rights tended to be somewhat circular arguments, presupposing that the underlying societal norms were correct, because everyone in the society agreed upon them (ignoring that a reason for this is that they had all grown up in that society).

If you believe in God, and believe that whatever mechanism he communicates with you is sound, like a religious text, this is potentially easy. It can be extremely dogmatic. Follow these rules, because God said so, the end. There doesn’t need to be a ton of more complex thinking, if those rules are suitably concrete and all encompassing. That being said, in practice, no religion really goes into that level of detail in actual texts. There is always room for interpretation, and this can lead to all kinds of interesting things. You can look at the works of someone like Thomas Aquinas, and see all kinds of interesting arguments for more nuanced philosophical things.

But not everyone believes in God, especially in modern American society. So we need another framework to decide what is right and wrong, if we’re going to come to some agreement.

That’s probably a decent start, I guess. Folks can jump in and tell me how wrong I am. Or we can go into defining a framework for what is right and wrong in a universal sense.


Nice writeup. I have things to say here that I’ll try to write up when I’ve got a few minutes. In the meantime, here’s this:


I think the idea of “rights” obscures the reality that we live in a world where people have conflicting interests and governments have limited resources. Reframing a personal or collective need as a “right” bypasses any utilitarian equation that should be part of any democracy. Which is why everything is a right today.

Rights and ‘Rights Talk’ (reviewing Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (1991))


I would ask that folks be wary of posting opinion pieces from various media outlets, as it is likely to start getting into political views which I specifically would like to avoid.

This is more about an academic, philosophical discussion.


As I said in response to your argument in the other thread, I think you’re confusing power with rights.

Let me start with this:

In effect, you say, there is no such thing ever as a violation of anyone’s rights. If someone violates what you think are your rights, they could only have done so because you were unable to defend them, so they were never your rights after all.

That seems an absurd result to me. Surely you admit that there are (or have been) regimes that violate the rights of some of their citizens. Or do you say that there are not and never have been such regimes, because if the victims of those regimes were unable to defend their rights, they never had them in the first place?


No, you can violate someone’s rights, at least within the context of our society.

We, as a society, have agreed upon a certain set of rights that society itself is willing to defend.

But out in the wilderness, outside of society and its ability to enforce those agreed upon rules… those rules don’t exist. At least, they do not exist in any meaningful sense. You may BELIEVE that you have certain rights, but that belief has no impact on reality unless you can defend those beliefs.

Your beliefs are purely abstract. They are ethereal.

Only when backed up with physical force, do they influence the real world.


From my Robert Pirsig readings, you’ve missed a core topic for the discussion, without which, the discussion will definitely suffer - Values. There’s a reason his first book is subtitled “An inquiry into values”, while the second book is subtitled “An inquiry into morals”:


I took ‘wilderness’ to mean something other than ‘state of absolute lawlessness’. If someone shoots me while I’m hiking in Yosemite, I’m pretty sure my rights have been violated.

Where is this wilderness? I mean to say, does your argument about rights rely on the existence of lawless states?

And, again, as I asked in the other thread: The Nuremberg Laws removed some people’s legal rights and allowed the state to act accordingly. Is it your view that:

  • the victims had their rights violated by the state, or
  • the victims never had any rights, as demonstrated by their inability to defend them

I think it’s an important question, since you are effectively making rights analoguous to law and state power.


No, it was intended to mean “outside of society”, in order to highlight the dependence upon the enforcement capabilities of society as a key element of the rights.

Now, in terms of you hiking in Yosimite, if I were kill you and no one ever found out? You may feel (right before you die) that your rights were violated, but it wouldn’t actually matter. In terms of real world outcomes, there is no tangible distinction between you believing that you have rights that you cannot enforce, and you not having those rights at all.

Our hope, as members of society, is that society would realize that you were murdered, find the killer, and punish him, thus enforcing the agreed upon notion of rights.

The key issue here is that without enforcement, any notion of rights is meaningless, because they have no impact on the real world.

In order to turn those ethereal rights into tangible ones, you need to either be able to enforce your beliefs via your own physical force, or you need to convince other humans to work with you to enforce those beliefs.

Or, as I pointed out, the other possible option is the existence of some higher power who serves as an “ultimate enforcer”, like God, enforcing his own set of rules at some point.

Yes, they never had those rights. The most powerful authority decided that they didn’t.

We can argue that they SHOULD have had those rights, and we can come to some agreement and then enforce it through our society’s laws. But our beliefs, on their own, don’t actually mean anything.


Then you are confusing rights with power. Consider:

There is no such thing as a right, in your view, because a more powerful entity can always take it away (as happened with the Nuremberg Laws).

There is no reason for you to make any distinction between ethereal rights, the ones that are just in our head, and tangible ones enforced by power, because we lack the ability to enforce any of them with power. Even those that seem to be enforced with power might not be tomorrow.

All rights are just ethereal things in our heads, regardless of whether we’re in a lawless state or one with laws. Is that a fair enough understanding of your view?

Edit: Also, how is this view different than e.g. the Divine Right of Kings?


No, I’m saying that one does not exist without the other.

No, I’m saying that rights exist as something which the powerful enforce, and not outside of that context.

it’s why a democracy is better to live under than an authoritarian dictatorship, because in a democracy we agree to have society create rights that defend more of us.

No, the reason is because without that power, your perceived rights don’t exist.

That’s why it’s important to preserve things like democratic institutions, because they are the only things that actually protect us. Your belief in rights doesn’t matter.

No, we have rights as defined under that set of laws. They are real.

What seems to be bothering you, is that they are not permanent, or universal. They exist only within the context of society.

But that’s how it is.

Again, I’m merely talking about tangible, real world effects. There is no material difference beween you believing in a right which you cannot defend, and you not having that right at all. The world is exactly the same in both cases.

That’s simply a potential reality that can exist… but again, it’s a reality which DID exist. The King was the ultimate authority, and was able to dictate the rights his people had… .until they realized that they had enough physical might when they banded together, to define their own set of rights.

My description is not a suggestion that we should abandon the notion of ethereal rights. Your subjective opinion of rights matter, in that you can convince others to support your view. But it highlights that as a necessary step, in order for them to matter. For rights to matter, you need to ensure that they are defended. That means creating a society which defends them (or, in the wilderness, being strong enough to defend them yourself).


This discussion reminds me of the ending of the Hogfather. One of the best Discworld Novels.


Your viewpoint reminds me of a philosopher I chanced into knowing about recently (and I should at least watch the recent movie). I read about her on the Wikipedia and it resonated with my view of the world. I’m not sure you want me to link, but

Arendt’s primary criticism of human rights is that they are ineffectual and illusory because their enforcement is in tension with national sovereignty. She argued that since there is no political authority above that of sovereign nations, state governments have little incentive to respect human rights when such policies conflict with national interests. This can be seen most clearly by examining the treatment of refugees and other stateless people. Since the refugee has no state to secure their civil rights, the only rights they have to fall back on are human rights. In this way Arendt uses the refugee as a test case for examining human rights in isolation from civil rights.
[…] Arendt argues that the consistent mistreatment of refugees [fleeing from Nazi Germany], most of whom were placed in internment camps, is evidence against the existence of human rights. If the notion of human rights as universal and inalienable is to be taken seriously, the rights must be realizable given the features of the modern liberal state.

I do think you stretch this a bit too far, though. While they might be meaningless to protect you, the idea can still be important and gain strength. Indians could not conquer their right to self-determination, and yet they won it. African-americans couldn’t win a fight against segregation, and yet it ended. I suppose we could argue about how “defending” relates or not to violence, but still, my point is that they were ideas that were not meaningless for the long periods where nothing happened.


Oh sure, i explicitly stated that later:


Are the rights delineated in the Constitution moral rights? Or are they only legal rights? I am serious.


My belief is that they are legal rights, defined as a reflection of the morality of the American people.

And that’s why they have changed over time, as our collective view of right and wrong has evolved.


So are there basic moral rights that are above the law? Or even superseding the law? Such as life? Liberty? And my favorite, the pursuit of happiness? Also serious.

I mean, are there basic rights that, as a human, I have? Kinda baked into the human mind or form? What are our truly basic rights? Are there any?


My argument is that, no, you do not. At least not in the absolute sense.

Think about it, if you are out in the wild, and a lion is about to eat you… What? If you are unable to defend yourself, then you are food. The universe doesn’t care what you think your rights are.

I covered this stuff in my long winded ramblings above.


Indeed you did. I skimmed. Sorry. You don’t mind clarifying though, do you? It is your thread. :)


And to be clear, I agree with you.