(Non-Political) Rights, Ethics, and Morality


Good point.

Anyway, are human rights something that we should strive for, as the UN Declaration of Human Rights does, even if it doesn’t ‘exist’ already?


That’s where it starts to get more interesting. The path forward would be:

  1. Identify low level ethical and moral rules about what constitutes right and wrong. On some level, this could be roughly established as the golden rule, but we may need to dig into it more.
  2. establish a set of rights which then maximize the “right” vs. the “wrong”.
  3. choose to defend those rights as a society.

Something which is harder than it may first appear though, is that second step. Most rights end up restricting some aspect of liberty in order to preserve another. Often this can have unintended consequences. We need to be careful in thinking through those repercussions, and make sure that we are in fact maximizing the good.


Can’t we just use this and be done with it?


Umm, no. I specifically asked about this, an example where society revoked their agreement to defend the rights of some of its members (e.g. the Nuremberg Laws and Apartheid). You said in response:

So despite the existence of a social contract claiming that everyone had those rights, it turned out (per you) that some people didn’t actually have them, because they lacked the power to prevent society from revoking them. If they never had those rights despite the social contract, then no one ever had those rights despite the social contract, because no one is powerful enough to prevent any possible, conceivable revocation.

So the ‘rights’ part of your formulation is superfluous and unnecessary. People either have power or the don’t, either collectively or individually, and how they will be treated is entirely dependent on the sufficiency of that power. ‘Rights’ in that formulation are meaningless.


Why do you claim there is / can be morality outside the law, but reject that there can be rights outside the law. Most people acknowledge the connections between the two. Perhaps utilitarians don’t — they claim not, but I don’t entirely credit that claim — but perhaps utilitarians are simply wrong.

What is the basis for deciding that Apartheid is morally wrong? Who does it wrong, and how? What does it mean to ‘wrong’ those people, if not ‘deprive them of their basic human rights’?


What you are saying here is contradicting itself.

There was no social contract saying they had those rights… as evident by virtue of the fact that society then said they didn’t.

Again, this comes down to what I pointed out to you previously, that the rights which actually affect our lives are not permanent. They shift over time, based on the ability to defend them.

You keep pointing out cases which just prove my case… situations where people were denied rights that you personally may believe that they had (your subjective notion of ethereal rights) because they were never manifested into real-world rights through use of force.

The requirement that rights be defended doesn’t mean that the word is meaningless.


Of course there was. Apartheid was a change to the laws to revoke previously held rights. The Nuremberg Laws were a change to the laws to revoke previously held rights. If a legal system that recognizes rights isn’t a social agreement on what rights are, then what is?

It’s meaningless in your formulation. It’s all about power in your formulation. Any current state of affairs wrt rights is necessarily temporary and no one’s rights are guaranteed by any law.


Again, this part here is really key:


But that presupposes that the purpose of rights is to maximize the good, which is not necessarily the case.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights is hardly the final word on the subject. Plenty of people have objections and/or prefer alternate lists, including the US Bill of Rights, the EU Convention on Human Rights, etc.


I like the Heathcare part.


An interesting statement.
What would be the purpose then, if not to maximize the good?


You elided the second part of my quote, where I said “criticisms can even be couched in the language of rights.”

I can easily make a moral case against Apartheid or the Nuremburg laws without invoking rights at all (justice or fairness are pretty easy principles to rely on), but that’s just semantics.


Yes, you have your own ethical and moral framework, and you use that to make an argument for rights.
And that agreement by all of us as members of society takes the form of rights that society is willing to defend.

Rights stem from a shared view of morality, not the other way around.


You are asking about the basic goal of morality. There are lots of conflicting answers. There are those who want to maximize the good. There are those who believe that morality is strictly about doing your duty, i.e. the Stannis Baratheon approach. Whether that actually maximizes the good is secondary. There are those who believe that you should simply be try to be a better person, which may or may not actually have any effect on the world.

Here is a thought experiment: Sally has a rich aunt who is dying. Sally announces she is going to visit her aunt in the hospital. She tells you she is only trying to please her aunt in order to get a bigger inheritance. Is Sally doing good?

To a deontologist, the answer is yes because Sally has a duty to visit her sick relatives, regardless of what she thinks about them.

To a utilitarian, the answer is yes if the visit actually makes the aunt happier, otherwise no.

To a virtue ethicist the answer is no, because Sally is motivated by greed. But if she were doing the same thing out of a selfless desire to make her aunt happy, then the answer would have been yes.


Well, let’s consider those things:
First, the notion of “duty”. This is effectively the hindu notion of karma, right? I believe that for this to be the basis for morality, you must first ascribe to some notion of a higher authority, who defines that duty. Either in the form of a God who is omniscient and omnipotent, and thus cannot be questioned, or some authority like government who you follow because you believe doing so is good… but I think in that second case, it ultimately just distills into my belief of maximizing good.

In terms of “being a better person”, I think that’s still just maximizing the good, isn’t it?


I don’t think you can. What is ‘justice’, if not a right? If it is not a right, where’s the harm in denying it?

I understand what you’re saying. I’m just pointing out that there’s no room for any concept of rights in that formulation. If society can unilaterally change the definition of your rights without violating your rights, then you have no rights. All that’s left is power.


There are lots of ways to define it. Some are based in religion (not necessarily karma). For instance, the Ten Commandments, or the 613 Commandments of the Torah. You follow them because you must, not in order to achieve some other goal.

But some deontologists believe that you can define your duties even without subscribing to a higher power or authority, using pure reason. Kant is the most famous of them. He spends a long time developing his theory, but I’ll just cut to the chase and tell you it very roughly amounts to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Not necessarily in a touch-feely sense, by the way. Again, think Stannis Baratheon.

No, it’s pretty indifferent to maximizing the good. A virtue ethicist would tell Sally to stay home rather than act on her greed. That means her aunt is less happy than she could have been. And Sally is not any happier either. So happiness is not maximized at all.


This is pure semantics. Justice is someone getting something they deserve. Of course that leaves open how, why and what they deserve, and certainly some of the discussion of that could involve rights language, but it doesn’t have to. The Christian Bible contains a fairly comprehensive system of ethics (that, to be clear, I do not completely agree with), and never once mentions “rights” anywhere.


Yeah, I’ve read Kant, albeit years ago.

But as you say, distilling it down to “do unto others” then essentially just puts you into the same boat as I suggested, right? Where it’s providing you that basic low level evaluation of good, and then your actions are maximizing it.

On some level, I guess it doesn’t matter that much.

I personally ascribe to a utlitarian approach to ethics. The virtue ethicist doesn’t make sense to me, although. I think part of the confusion there though is that I was reading “being a better person” from the lens of my own ethics, rather than what you intended which was from the perspective of someone who judges actions based on the person doing them.


“Maximizing” good is something unique to utilitarians, because they believe that you can do a little bit of good, or a lot of good. For everyone else, actions are binary: either right or wrong (or neutral, I guess). Murdering one person is wrong, and murdering two people is also wrong. Only a utilitarian would say that murdering one person is less wrong than murdering two people.