(Non-Political) Rights, Ethics, and Morality


Oh you’ve dragged me back in.

This is a totally wrong way of looking at rights. A better way perhaps is to investigate what activities and circumstances promote human flourishing, because what is natural for humans is what makes human flourish.

So, for example, human flourishing isn’t us standing naked in a field of alfalfa chewing grass all day on hands and knees - not only and just because we can’t do that (we’d almost certainly die from even relatively small quantities of ingested alfafa). We also don’t sit in trees and flap our arms and try to fly, not because there are laws preventing you from doing so, but because doing so isn’t “natural”.

We don’t need to evoke religious principles in order to understand that “doing what humans do” is what a natural rights encompass, and things that prevent those activites are what ideal social orders should regulate or mitigate. Of course now we have to wrangle with what “doing” is exactly, but there are huge swathes of behaviors in the natural world we can exclude at the very start.

We can also relatively safely exclude self destructive behaviors. Sure you may find a few individuals of diseased or deranged minds that enjoy cutting off their own fingers or sticking hot needles through their arms, but most living things abhor such behavior, and if you get trapped in semantic or logical eddies unable to dismiss the aforesaid behavior as unnatural then you’ll never get anywhere; so we can move on.

Somewhat less clear, but Hobbes was probably, mostly wrong; human beings in a state of nature are not absolutely wicked. If we were, society would have never developed beyond the extended family, because our destructive tendencies would have been too great. Instead the problem has always been (on a macro level) the ability of large states to amplify the wickedness of individuals to inflict suffering, while the tyranny of rude, subsidence level pre-industrial society is mostly economic rather than political; your life is brutish and short mostly because you live in a cave, have few to no goods, have no medicine or spare time, and are a few days away from starvation for most of your short, unhealthy life. Economic development and specialization are the main drivers of uplifting the short and brutish to the reposed and civilized, and it is economic development that is the main function of social aggregation.


If you wife has cancer, do you have a right to go out and steal the drugs that could save her life, if you can’t afford the drugs?


Uh, no. That’s not what happens at all.

People throw the switch, ignoring concerns for an inherent right to life, 90% of the time.


Welcome to the discussion John Locke. :)

Oh, and Aristotle too! Everyone is gathering. Is Kant around?

Endigm your post seems like it’s about ethics and not rights. I don’t think “doing what humans do” is narrow enough to provide a description of rights. Humans do lots of things that don’t fall under any definition of rights. Humans fart, get drunk, run long distances, have sex face-to-face, wear clothes, etc. I don’t know how to fold those activities into discussion of rights. How do you determine which things are natural rights and which aren’t?


Yea, as I stated, in a later reply, I got that wrong. I was focused on the fat person problem. People will throw the switch, but they won’t throw the fat person in front of the trolley, despite the fact that the outcome is the same. 1 death saves 5 lives?

Doesn’t that go against the idea of the utilitarian though? Shouldn’t people be just as eager to throw the fat man in the way of the trolley if it meant saving 5 lives?


You are killing a person either way. They won’t throw the fat person because it’s too personal. Just as people are willing to eat meat, but not willing to slaughter an animal.

If you are willing to kill a person who is far away then you’ve already rejected an inherent right to life. That does not change merely because you don’t want to get your hands dirty.

Yes, it suggests that humans don’t rigorously follow any moral principles. They prefer to do the right thing when it’s easy.


So, 90% of people will pull the switch, but 95% of people won’t throw the fat people over the rail, and you think it’s just because it’s too personal? Not, perhaps because the point of view to begin with is flawed and has no basis in reality?


Well the questions are twofold; what are those rights (and what is the basis of those rights), and how do you implement and defend (or improve or help to grow) these rights in a hypothetical society.

All i was addressing at first was the idea of folding a large share of what is ethical and natural into what should be categorized as a right. So worker bees do not have the right to not be worker bees, not because we support bee slavery, but because being a worker bee is inherent to their biological and sociological condition. As to humans i’m less concernded about the exact niggling details of what those natural rights exactly are but simply that as a blanket statement “natural” rights are parallel and adjacent to the physical human condition.

There are whole categories of more political and economic rights but i would say these as being of second or tertiary order and not essential. So, for example, the right to vote may not be an essential human right, depending upon how you frame what voting means or how in practice voting works. The right to “flourish” otoh might include voting, depending upon how the essential human political franchise is to the human experience.

But anyway that’s another separate post; all i was addressing was the “natural” part of rights as being inherent and existing from the fact of biological human existence and not being derived sui generis from religious principles which in any event are socially constructed second or third order beliefs.


There are lots of possible explanations for how people respond, but none of them are consistent with the idea that humans believe in an inherent right to life. Because “inherent” means that it’s equally applicable to people far away.


I’d say this another way. I’d say that humans always make moral decisions within a context: that principles are merely one factor in human moral decision making. This is exactly why the trolley problem is useless to figure out anything. I’d ask: do I know any of those people? Is there a way to stop the train? Can I call someone to rescue the people tied to the track? How do we bring the person who did this to justice? How did I get into this situation? In reality no moral decision is made in a vacuum, so constructing a false vacuum around the decision tells us nothing.


In fact, if the person one has to kill is known to them, then suddenly people respond that they wouldn’t kill them.

So yeah, I agree that the experiment doesn’t really demonstrate intrinsic moral reasoning, much less inherent natural rights. Rather, it lays bare our own tribalism and suggests that morality is often merely a posthoc justification for what we are already inclined to do.


Humans have certain basic psychological tendencies, but those tendencies alone are not an ethical code. They are merely instincts left over from evolutionary adaptation over millions of years.

We have the capacity, as rational beings, to do better than simply act on instinct.


I don’t know. Isn’t this circling back around to the original point? If you can’t define any specific natural rights, then they’re only active in context, which makes them indistinguishable from Timex’s definitions. What do humans have an inherent right to simply by virtue of being human?


Or that moral explanations are merely posthoc, and that moral decision making is more complex and immediate than can be captured by applying simple principles.


Well, if you can’t explain how you arrived at a decision then you aren’t operating on principle. And “moral reasoning” implies operating on some sort of principles.


Well you might argue that there is no compelling necessity to enable human flourishing. I mean i guess we can argue that by virtue of being human afford no special consideration from … other humans.

I think the whole point of these discussions is premised on the idea that human beings want to organize society to promulgate laws and policies that defend and support the human experience. If your starting point is “why should we help other humans at all?” than imo we have a deeper problem.


Why is that a problem?
Just because it’s not a question you assume the answer to doesn’t mean that there’s not an answer to it.

Considering that question, and coming up with a rational answer, is in fact better than simply assuming you should do it.

I touched on this in that more recent, long post I made, about why we should help other people, and a shared view of right and wrong. The answer is that we should, but the reason why we should is deeper than simply “because”.


Explain how you arrived at the decision to go to work or not this morning. Most decisions are not considered, including most moral ones. Morality is mostly conditioned, not reasoned. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If we want to act in moral ways, we need to be inclined to do that. Posthoc is how our brain justifies most of its decision making.


I think that this kind of discussion needs to transcend simply describing what humans do. Humans are not entirely rational beings. We do bad stuff sometimes. We make mistakes.

Simply saying “most people do X” doesn’t necessarily mean that X is best thing.

I think that the purpose of this type of discussion is to figure what what we SHOULD do, to make things better, which may contradict what many people actually do.


I actually disagree with this premise to some extent though because the implication (imo) is that psychologically there is no difference in human beings between doing good things and doing terrible things.

So from your perspective (as i understand it, i could be wrong, and i am typing this at work so…) the only reason i’m not raping, murdering, stealing, burning and taking whatever i can when i can is because society has placed restrictions upon me from doing so, and because it is socially advantageous of me to work with other people.

And that’s bonkers.

The most fundamental basis of doing right vs doing wrong isn’t some some shared, maybe unspoken or some kind of assumed, utilitarian social contract.