(Non-Political) Rights, Ethics, and Morality


It’s OUR thread, Rich!


Capital letter Rights, Values, Morals are the finest kind of discourse. I think everyone should have some. OTOH people who like them should be prepared to defend them. Seriously defend them.

Or they mean less than nothing.


Interesting posting! I think you’re about 80% “right”, Timex. :D

An initial quibble:
In your original post, you say that there are two types of “rights”, one ethereal and in human mind, the other codified into law, government forms, and other structures of force. For clarity, could you call them “rights1” and “rights2” or some other distinguishing nomenclature? That’s what I’m going to do in my writing, and you can’t stop me.

My general hot take:
Rights (both Rights1 and Rights2) are only meaningful within the context of a society. Rights1 are a social construct, and so far as they exist in the base material world they exist as tangles of neurons within human brains. My internal definition of a Right1 is that it’s an Adama, “So say we all” type of statement about our beliefs. A Right1 is a value that as a society we broadly agree to be true and important. So in a society we can say that a Right1 has been violated, and so by community standards there should be some form of redress or sanction. Alternatively, you could try to claim something new as a Right1, and thus establish a new societal standard.

Taking the idea of Rights1 outside of that social context and making them a statement about the base physical world yields absurdities. E.g. saying that you have the Right1 to “do what you can physically do” as a statement about what you can actually do in the world would just be a tautology. It is instead a statement that in your society (or preferred society), there is no sanction on doing whatever you are physically capable of doing. Similarly, talking about rights in the context of predator/prey or between species doesn’t make sense. It is talking about a societal construct outside of society. It’s like wanting to talk about triangles, but without using any type of geometry.

So to continue on with that framework, I’d disagree with a statement like:

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.

Your Rights1 and Rights2 do exist at that point! Your society still believes and tries to enforce the same things that it did a day earlier. It’s just that those rights aren’t helpful for your current situation.

Another place I’d disagree with you is on how much weight you place on the different aspects. E.g. statements like:

Your beliefs are purely abstract. They are ethereal.

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

undervalue how absolutely essential this ethereal realm of human thought is to the physical world. This area is such a gold mine of quotes that I’m going to throw out 3 of them:
“The moral is to the physical as three to one.” - NattyB
“The difference between an army and a crowd of strangers with guns” - Fire In the Lake
And of course the best of them:

A sword by itself or a gun by itself do not mean anything. It’s only when these things are animated and channeled together by Rights1 (and Rights2) that they have an effect on the world. We are social animals, and all our success and power on this world has come from our ability to work together in societies. These social and mental aspects can be complex and subterranean, but they are still vital and should not be undervalued.


I can see how this idea of divine enforcement supports your argument for rights as only existing when they’re enforceable. But this isn’t the Christian view, for what it’s worth. Our creation by God results in us having “inalienable” rights because we have an inherent and equal dignity due to having been created–in fact, loved into existence every moment–by God. If we are worthy of God’s love, then we are worthy of love from all of his creatures, and obligated to love them. Not because God will punish us, but because, those lives having a divine source, they are sacrosanct. Every authority on earth can deny it, but that doesn’t change it.

We might like to have such a thing, but it’s also possible that such a framework doesn’t exist without a God to provide the grounding for it.


It is trivially true that the ocean doesn’t respect a person’s right not to drown. Even if you believe in God, he evidently doesn’t always have your back in the material world, hence the need (at least in the Christian and Muslim traditions) for martyrs to be rewarded elsewhere.

Rights have to do with humans coexisting with one another and making agreements about how to behave. Some humans also want to extend this context to other species, which is fine as long as it’s understood that we are still talking about humans agreeing about how to behave (I don’t think a dog would understand what animal rights are if you tried to explain it to him).

To the extent that one person’s first can meet another person’s face, then sure, it’s all backed by ‘force,’ although in a civilized society that is typically (not always) more of an implied underpinning than an immediate consideration.

I think that to try to derive ethics purely from rational arguments might miss the importance of neuroscience and evolution. Chimps have ethics, and I assume our shared ancestor with them did too. And when you do something ‘wrong’ – which is to say something that triggers a shame response, learned or innate – you experience very powerful emotions that will persuade you to alter your behavior next time around. Unless you are a sociopath, that is. It is of course true that our ethics, while overlapping with chimps’, are also quite different, and the process of teasing out the whys and wherefores of those differences is a complex one (to say the least).


I’ve long argued that the magna carta and the concepts of rights, power derived from the consent of the governed, etc. was Adam Smith’s invisible hand - a market reaction to Kings’s tendency to take what they wanted, either in war, or to finance wars.


I would offer a different perspective on this.

In the situation where you are in the wilderness, alone, and no one else is there to help… your rights do not exist. Only if the larger society realizes what has happened, do your rights exist. Again, within the context of society, which enforces them. But if no one ever realizes that you were murdered? Then I would offer that your rights did not exist, because the world is indistinguishable from a world where they didn’t exist.

That’s ultimately the crux of my position. Something which does not change the world in a material way, does not exist at all.

Rights that are defended exist, because they affect the world. Rights which are not defended do not, because they do not.

If the universe is the same both with and without object X, then X can only be nothing.

As I pointed out, I addressed this more directly later on. I agree with you here that ethereal rights have utility, in so far as we act upon the belief in them to defend them with force.

But it is that force which makes them real.

I understand what you are saying here, but I think you are missing the key element here that it hinges upon the belief in an ultimate authority figure.

Ultimately, any notion of rights is dependent upon a manifestation of lower level beliefs regarding what is right and what is wrong. For instance, we might believe that individuals have a right to control their own physical bodies, because it is wrong to deprive another conscious being of their liberty.

With the belief of God, His rules are absolute. Right and wrong, in the absolute sense, are defined entirely by Him. And then these form a foundation for your ethical and moral code, which then leads to you believing that people have various rights.

But again, when it comes down to those rights actually MATTERING, they still depend upon an enforcement mechanism.

Now, this does not necessarily imply that you must be punished with eternal hellfire or whatever, but it does mean that there must be SOME negative repercussion for violation of those rights.

In the absence of physical force on earth, you are left with the judgement of God. Again, this does not mean that he will cast your soul into a pit of torturous pain for all eternity. It may simply mean that he’s disappointed in you, like a parent to a child. It may simply mean that you feel remorse and guilt for disobeying him.

But SOMETHING must happen, to create negative feedback in some way for violation of those rights, otherwise those rights don’t exist. As I stated previously, if the world (in this case, including a higher plane of existence) is exactly the same whether you respect those rights or do not, then they must not exist, because they do not affect the world at all.

Eh, I think that it’s possible to establish such a framework. I figured I’d hold off on getting real deep into that just yet though, and maybe touch on it at a later time.



Your Rights1 and Rights2 do exist at that point! Your society still believes and tries to enforce the same things that it did a day earlier. It’s just that those rights aren’t helpful for your current situation.

I would offer a different perspective on this.

In the situation where you are in the wilderness, alone, and no one else is there to help… your rights do not exist. Only if the larger society realizes what has happened, do your rights exist. Again, within the context of society, which enforces them. But if no one ever realizes that you were murdered? Then I would offer that your rights did not exist, because the world is indistinguishable from a world where they didn’t exist.

That’s ultimately the crux of my position. Something which does not change the world in a material way, does not exist at all.

Rights that are defended exist, because they affect the world. Rights which are not defended do not, because they do not.

If the universe is the same both with and without object X, then X can only be nothing.

I can’t agree with this framing. If you had a gun with you in the wilderness, but the murderer got the drop on you before you could use the gun, would you say that your gun did not exist? Or say that the wilderness-murderer dies of giardia before they can make it back to society. (Also, you had an undiagosed heart problem and never would have completed your hike had you not been murdered.) Did the murderer exist? Or say that you have a good but not perfect fire department. Your house catches on fire, and unlike in 99% of other cases the fire department isn’t able to get there before and the entire thing burns down. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that the fire department did not exist. I agree that Rights1 are largely not applicable to the wilderness death battle situation, but I wouldn’t extrapolate too much from that one remote (literally) scenario. The much, much, much more common situation is that we affect the world through creation, trade, and discussion, rhetoric, and a thousand other methods that are not force.


Well no, it’s a physical object. The universe is not the same with it existing vs it not existing.


I think you’re asserting this, but precisely what I was trying to point out is that it’s not some definition of right and wrong that creates rights in the Christian view. Rights derive from our inherent dignity as being created by God, simple as that. No conditions can cause them to be removed or dissipated because nothing can change the fact of our creation. Do we have moral obligations and rules of right and wrong in Christianity? Yes, but these are derived from our inherent dignity, not the other way around.

This is such a weird perspective. Rights are inherent entitlements that create obligations in those around us. Those obligations can be ignored by everyone around us, but that doesn’t make the rights or the obligations disappear. Why would it?


All this talk about whether “rights” exist out in the wilderness, or in the ocean, etc needs to be scuttled. Whatever rights anyone has are with respect to the actions of other conscious beings, not forces of nature. Even if you say something like “citizens have the right not to be burnt to crispy critters by forest fire,” that “right” is with respect to other people (fire fighters, forest rangers, building code inspectors) ensuring it, not the fire itself.


If you have an invisible gun that makes no sound, has no weight, and shoots no bullets, then I would say that it doesn’t exist.

If I can imagine a dragon, does that mean dragons exist? And where do rights exist, apart from human imagination?

We can build fantasy worlds that approximate our collective imagination, so that we can almost believe that dragons have an independent existence. But as soon as we stop caring about dragons, they vanish. So do rights.


Nobody has any inalienable right, rights are just a construct we’ve decided as a species / society we need to enforce so we can coexist in this uncaring, continually trying to murder us, Universe. And we expect that when someone disregards this construct, the rest of society will enforce it, for the good of society.

Nothing is inherent. Mothers don’t always love their children. Some people have absolutely no empathy.
The Universe doesn’t care about you, and most other people don’t much care either.


Your rights always exist, even if you are in a society (and “alone with a murderer” is just a special case of this) that does not recognize them.

Of course, your rights are also whatever someone believes them to be. I believe that slaves have the right to be free. Robert E. Lee thought differently. Cliven Buddy believes he has the right to graze cattle on federal land. I think differently.

Rights are a social construct. But, you know, so is money, something that enough of us collectively believe in that it affects most aspects of our existence.

As a practical matter, whether you can actually enjoy a right or not is a function of what society believes your rights to be.


Again, this is just an odd way of saying that no one has rights at all.

If you can be immersed in a broader society that recognizes your rights, yet they don’t exist because you’re in a current local environment where no one is there to help defend them against someone who wants to violate them, and they further don’t exist if after the fact no one is aware that they were violated and takes any action as a result, then no one has rights, because anyone could be in that situation.

It seems to me that the gist of your argument is one has the rights one can defend oneself, and no other. Ethically, that’s no different than might makes right.

A lion isn’t taking away your rights when it eats you, any more than heart disease is taking away your rights, or any more than the meteorite which strikes you in the head. A lion has no conception of your rights. Talking about what are effectively fatal accidents has no bearing on whether you have rights or not.

You are talking about that, but you’re not merely talking about that. You’re arguing that real world effects negate the idea that people have inherent rights. Real world effects might violate those rights, but they don’t preclude the existence of those rights.

Yes, exactly. Our notion of rights doesn’t emerge from a vacuum and they exist even when we’re powerless. They’re part of our cognition, and they inform our sense of right and wrong. I don’t e.g. do violence to those who I don’t like, even though I don’t like them, and the reason I don’t do violence to them is not because the law protects them. It’s because the idea of doing violence to them seems wrong to me.


It sounds like we are talking of the stages of moral development talked about by Piaget in the early 1950’s and later by Kohlberg in the late 1950s. Child development was never really my field of studies, but I do remember some of my course work, so I looked it up. Besides Wikipedia, here is the best source I could find.

Basically, babies children start put being selfish pricks that only obey rules or human rights because an authority figure tells they might be punished if they don’t. The Golden rule of a baby or 2 year is don’t get caught.

Anyway, the early stages of moral development seem to be in line with @Timex idea that an authority figure is required to enforce rules.

Kohlberg Theory of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg reported his studies on developmental changes in moral reasoning in 1963. Kohlberg arrived at a description of moral development consisting of six stages grouped into three levels.

Level 1: “Preconventional Morality” (Externalized and selfish orientation)- level 1 denotes moral thinking that is egotistical. Rules and conventions are external to the self and adherence is chiefly motivated by the selfish desire to gain pleasure and avoid pain. Children usually belowage 9 are at this level.

Stage 1: punishment and obedience orientation: the child claims that people should be good and so they won’t be punished.

Stage 2: Naïve hedonistic and instrumental orientation: Rules should be followed only when obedience results in benefits or reward for oneself.

Level 2: Conventional level-Internalized Social conformity orientation:

At level 2 moral judgments are called conventional. Here the individual has an internalized moral code which requires a high degree of conformity to socially approved rules and conventions. Kohlberg (1976) has found older children, adolescent and the majority of adults reason at this level most of the time.

Stage 3: Good Boy-Nice Girl Orientation: being good means to gain the approval of others and to conform the proper social stereotypes. At this stage, interpersonal trust, loyalty, gratitude is important moral values.

Stage 4: Law and Order Orientation:

Rules are seen as fixed within an accepted social order. Good conduct means to do one’s duty according to society’s prescribed roles, to respect authority, and maintain the established order.

Level 3: Post conventional Level-Self chosen principle orientation:

At level 3 or the post conventional level individuals may accept many social conventions, but they distinguish between “mob morality” and their own self chosen ethical principles.

Stage 5: Social contract orientation: the individual believes that good behavior should be based on a democratically formed social contract or legal code which recognizes basic human rights such as life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

Stage 6: Universal Ethical principle Orientation: the highest ethical good is to follow self-chosen universally valid principles which supersede adherence to social contracts.


@Timex isn’t arguing that an authority figure is required to enforce rules. No one disputes that. He’s arguing that because an authority figure is required to enforce rules, there are no natural rights. He’s arguing that whenever anyone’s rights are violated, that simply proves they never had them; which means that even legal rights don’t really exist. He’s arguing that, effectively, there are no rights, and no one has any.


If there are no rights outside of law and the power to enforce law, what is the basis for criticizing the USSR? The PRC? The Apartheid regime? Or should we not criticize them?


Which is wrong. Neuroscience shows us that humans have morality and ethics. That’s why the trolley cart dilemma exists.

And where there are are rules and ethics, there are rights derived from it.

Again, if rights only exist if they might can enforce it, that sounds like the first 2 stages of moral development that you see in children. Or, might makes right.


If there are natural rights, we should be able to define them universally. Everyone should agree what they are, and they should apply to everyone universally. What are they?

I think @Timex’s “wilderness” arguments are kind of obscuring his points. (There is no wilderness, so using it as a test case is kind of moot.) And I also kind of disagree that rights require enforcement by a governmental or legal authority. Social and religious forces can exert as much or more influence than any authority. But I do think he’s right that rights are always contextual, and that they’re meaningless outside of some enforcement paradigm. Regardless of what I believe, what my moral sense tells me, what I think is morally correct: I can’t act on a right that is not in force within my particular context. Prisoners can’t assert a right to freedom of movement and then walk out of prison. Americans can’t assert a right to free healthcare and refuse to pay our medical bills.

That said, it is certainly the case that, as Timex pointed out, if we can get enough people together and convince them that a right should exist in our context, we can make that happen. Florida ex-cons can now vote. People have the right to equal treatment in commerce and before the law regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, or sex. Americans can marry someone with matching gender. Those rights proceeded along a general trajectory from nascent idea, to vocal movement, to societal conflict, to legal enforcement, to broad social acceptance.