(Non-Political) Rights, Ethics, and Morality


There is morality outside the law. And criticisms can even be couched in the language of rights. Timex’s notion of ethereal rights is precisely what this is for.


It’s fine for you to believe that is the source of rights, but go a step further. What is the impact of those rights? What happens if you don’t honor them? What’s the reason to do so?

But how do they create those obligations?
If those rights are undefended, then they haven’t created any obligations at all.

Because they literally don’t exist. If literally everyone ignores the obligation, and no one honors it, then what makes you think it exists? Describe, exactly, what the difference is between a universe without that obligation, and a universe with that obligation, but where no one honors it.

There is no difference, and thus it means that it’s nothing.

Ah, but I think you’re just sidestepping an important part of the situation by doing that.

The fact that nature does not respect those rights, means that those rights are a construct of humans and our society. They do not exist on their own. We have rights within our society, because we agree among ourselves that we do, and we agree to defend them.

No, it’s explicitly NOT that.
It’s a statement that we have rights that we are willing and able to defend, either as individuals or as a communal society which agrees to defend those rights.

That is very different from those rights not existing at all.

You are presupposing the existence of something which has no tangible effect on anything at all. As magnet described, a gun which is invisible, has no mass, shoots no bullets and makes no sound.

I understand why you WANT to do this. You feel the need to presuppose the existence of “natural” rights, because you fear that without some such thing, those rights don’t exist. But I assure you that is not the case.

You say, “But if rights are merely a social construct, and only exist when they are enforced, then they can be taken away at any time!”

And yes. You are proving my point. Because that is EXACTLY what happens in the real world.

And so you say, “But that shouldn’t happen!” and sure… in those cases your personal ethereal rights differ from those enforced by society. Because you aren’t able to defend your personal notion of rights.


Exactly this.

It’s not an argument that no rights exist. We all have our own subjective view of what rights should exist within the world.

But it’s up to us to defend those rights with force in order to make them into REAL rights, and actually impact the world.


If I am in the wilderness, alone, then by that logic does my name stop existing? It’s not changing the world in any material way. I know it, it may be written down somewhere, and it may be known by people elsewhere; all also apply to the idea of a right I might hold.

If so, there must be a point in time that my name stopped existing, and a point in time when it starts existing once more - what are they?


Your name would exist in the same manner as the ethereal rights I describe… as a purely abstract concept, held only by you.


In his example his name is explicitly not a purely abstract concept, it’s written down on a paper somewhere. This corresponds to Rights2, which do have physical form. And this was what I was trying to get at with my examples earlier, that it’s absurd to claim these things, both Rights1 and Rights2, don’t exist because you happen to be in the wilderness. They might not be particularly helpful, but they do exist. To continue with the examples, the Declaration of Independence outlines a right to “Life , Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Just because a bear mauls you in the woods, that doesn’t mean the Declaration of Independence disappears or never existed.


That’s not true.

Utilitarians reject the idea of inalienable rights, they insist that baby Hitler has no right to life and can freely be sacrificed by time travelers to improve the world. Virtue ethicists don’t especially care about rights either. That leaves the deontologists, who are indeed obsessed by rights. But they hardly have a monopoly on ethics.


Well, humans are hard wired with some basic ethics and morals, which is where human right arrise from. So, whether it’s God or evolution, it is not hard to say that humans have hard wired human rights.

One of those rights the right not to get murder. If you look at the US military, and the training people go through, you realize it is notoriously hard for almost anyone to murder another person. We are hardwired not to go out an kill people.

We are hardwired to seek justice and fairness. It’s why we all try to rationalize are greed or selfishness. The fact that we need to rationalize show that it is hardwired. We sometimes avoid our conscious by making the other a nonperson, but again, that is a strategy to avoid the hardwiring that already exist. If that wasn’t necessary, we wouldn’t do it.

Anyway, the UN has a declaration of Human Rights. So, that’s somewhat universal.


I will take science and observation over philosophy. Science, especially Neuroscience, is showing the flaws and limitations of philosophy.


I think you’d have to point me to some research that shows this. Prohibitions against killing could be socialized, not innate. And hardwired to seek justice and fairness? I think that’s highly suspect.

I don’t think so. That’s like saying that genetics is showing the flaws in climate modeling.


Again, “hardwired morality” is not the same as hardwired rights, because not all moral systems recognize rights.

Just consider the trolley problem alluded to above. If there were a hardwired right to life, the problem would be simple. You cannot take a life, period. If others die because of your inaction, that’s not on you. So you obviously must do nothing. Kant would be proud.

But your inner utilitarian disagrees. Forget about rights. Throw the switch, kill a person, and improve the world.

It’s actually not that hard, and people justify taking lives all the time. Even for little benefit. See Florida “Stand your ground” vs Trayvon Martin.

That is also different from rights. In fact, people who believe in “seeking fairness” are often vehemently opposed by people who believe in natural rights, namely a right to property.


Uh, because an obligation is an abstract thing? Is hope literally not a thing if everyone in a place is hopeless?

You are espousing a deeply strange metaphysics here: If something does not affect the world in ways we recognize, it is not a thing. It’s like some form of positivism? But I don’t see what you’re gaining from this approach, and I assume you can tell that it run very counter to almost everyone else’s intuition, for whatever that’s worth.


If it’s on paper somewhere then it exists in the world. However, I think it’s getting somewhat far afield.

I know that this is what our brains tell us. And to be clear, they do exist… but they only exist in your brain at that point, as an ethereal right. Because of that second part you mention, that they are not “particularly useful.”

They exist as ideas, but ideas alone don’t carry weight. They don’t exist outside of your mind, unless you act upon them.

So when I say that “they don’t exist”, I’m solely talking about their existence within the physical, shared reality that we all exist within. They don’t impact anything, and the universe is the same as if they didn’t exist at all… until you act upon those ideas.

But the Declaration of independence is specifically defining a set of rights that its drafters agreed upon, AND THEN DEFENDED, by fighting a war. That’s second step is absolutely critical. If the King had said, “Nope.” and then they didn’t fight a war to defend their claims in that document? I don’t think anyone would remember they had written it.

And as you present with your own bear example… those rights are not actually absolute. You don’t have a real right to existence, from the perspective of the universe.

You have the right to existence, as far as society is able to defend it.

As soon as something comes along which trump’s society’s physical might… like an illness, or a meteor flying in from space… those rights evaporate.


It’s not an easy thing to study.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Grossman_(author) His book,

Evolutionary Psychology would argue tha murdering other members of your species is usually counter productive, especially in a species as tribal as ours, that relies on other members of the species to survive.

Very few other species actually go out an kill other members of the same species, at least on a regular basis (Crows will do it though).

Finally, I would offer https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Better_Angels_of_Our_Nature, although its been a long time since I read any of his work.


Except, we don’t do that. Very few people ever throw the switch. So, the philosophy doesn’t reflect what actually occurs.

If it wasn’t hardwired, it would be easy to teach people Utilitarian Philosophy, but people reject it because our hardwiring rejects it.


But you’re not addressing the issue.
If literally no one, anywhere, honors the obligation… then what is the difference between that situation, and the situation where the obligation doesn’t exist at all?

It’s a concept in your mind, but unless you make it manifest, that’s all it is.

You are espousing a deeply strange metaphysics here: If something does not affect the world in ways we recognize, it is not a thing. It’s like some form of positivism? But I don’t see what you’re gaining from this approach, and I assume you can tell that it run very counter to almost everyone else’s intuition, for whatever that’s worth.

It’s not strange at all… it’s exactly what drives your interactions with virtually everything, every moment of your life.

When you are driving down the street, you are looking in front of you and checking to make sure nothing is there. How are you doing that? You’re looking into the region ahead of the car, and making sure that there’s nothing reflecting light back into your eyes, causing you to see it.

You recognize the absence of things by recognizing the absence of their effect on the universe. We define existence of things by measuring their effect on the universe.

Also,I believe you are mistaken in your belief that this runs counter to everyone’s intuition… there are a number of folks who agree with me here. And really, the ideas I’m presenting are not ones that I have created myself, but rather are the subject of years of more formalized philosophical and ethical research/investigations.


(post withdrawn by author, will be automatically deleted in 24 hours unless flagged)


I’ve not read Pinker’s book either (and he’s a crank these days, so I likely never will), and I don’t doubt that there’s some innate tendencies away from violence in our physical psychology. We’re social animals and have been for millions of years. But, as you say, it’s difficult to study. And part of being social is knowing how to practice treachery and duplicity successfully as well.

What about the Milgram experiment? I tend to think psych-ethics studies are pretty fraught. It is notoriously difficult to recreate the social conditions under which people actually make ethical decisions. I also distrust thought experiments for similar reasons. In a real situation like the trolley problem, there would be a host of contingent factors that would affect someone’s choice and that choice would almost certainly not have to be binary. Again, it doesn’t reflect the real-world conditions under which we make these decisions.


No, not Milgram, the Trolley Problem

The issue is, a person will pull the switch (my mistake, earlier I claimed not) to save 5 people, but kill one, but will refuse the throw a fat guy into the way of the trolley (killing him) in order to save 5 people. The utilitarian view is both the acts are the same. You sacrifice 1 to save 5, but people in general don’t view it that way. Something different is going on since people won’t kill a fat guy to save 5 people, in general.

So, people in general will try to save the lives of others, but will avoid taking an active handing in killing someone, even if it means save 5 other people. People in general prefer to kill others. There are exceptions and there are circumstances that people will be more willing to kill others, but in general, we aren’t murderous. Violent, sure, but not murderous.

As for Steve Pinker, he has some interesting views, but he is still a highly regarded psychologist, especially in the realm of Moral Psychology. Its certainly an interesting blog post, but I do feel it does Steve Pinker and the blog a diservice in the way it’s presented.


Now that folks are talking about the underlying basis for rights, it’s worth digging into some of what Gordon said here, which I think is valuable.

As humans, we do in fact have neurological structures which create certain types of sensations in response to the experiences of others. Certain structures in our brains, called mirror neurons, create a mirrored sensation, so that when we observe things happening to other humans (or even to other animals in some cases), we experience it as though it were happening to us, to some lesser degree. They fire when we perform that action, and they also fire when we see someone else perform that action, so it creates a sensation that those two things are the same. This helps provide an underlying physiological basis for empathy.

However, I would be wary of carrying this so far as to suggest that this implies some sort of “natural law” that affects everything, as there’s no evidence of such a thing. It’s an evolutionarilly advantageous trait.

But THAT last part, I believe, can form a foundation for a shared system of ethics, which does not necessarily depend upon an omnipotent super being to tell us what is right and wrong.

If we, for the moment, cast aside the notion of some external force defining right and wrong for us, we’re left with figuring that out for ourselves. What can we base that upon? Really, we can base it upon anything we want, but a fairly straightforward starting point could be simple self interest. We can attempt to maximize our own, personal, liberty and well being. That’s a reasonably sensible goal.

So does that mean that we should define our rights, ethics, and morality around ONLY protecting ourselves? Of course not. Because that effectively precludes society. If you are the strongest, fully self sufficient being around, then it works. But ultimately, your own strength to defend your rights will likely fail at some point.

A better way to protect yourself, is to band together with others, and agree to protect each other. Even from a purely selfish view, the seemingly altruistic act of helping others can be beneficial. Agreeing, as a society, that everyone has the right to not be murdered benefits us, because while it means that we can’t go around murdering people, it also means that other people can’t murder us.

Even prior to our ability to recognize this on the level of consciousness we now possess, evolution kind of figured it out for us to some degree, in the form of the neurological structures Gordon (and now others) have described. Mirror neurons help create a tangible extension of natural self-interest to other beings, and when reciprocated, it creates a mutually beneficial effect.

In some ways, this can be interpreted as a physiological basis for one of the simplest moral rules that we are taught as children, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

And this, I believe, is perhaps the foundation of a shared sense of right and wrong that most people can agree upon, and can be used to establish a set of rights which maximizes the “right” for society.