Pop Quiz!

My Thoughts On: July 9th, 2005

Well, this rant has been brooding the last few days so I figured I'd break my spell of not updating my blog by dealing with it upfront. This is Civics 101 and you gotta close your books and open the test at the first page, yep, it's the dreaded Pop Quiz! Don't worry, today's pop quiz only has one question:

Question: Do slaves have the right to be free?
Please circle one: Yes or No

So I was engaged in an argument with a coworker recently, on the topic of animal rights. Now, as a Libertarian I believe that people have natural rights, however I believe that because people can be communicating, responsible and intelligent beings who (sometimes) have the mental ability to clearly and consistently use complex ideas like "rights" on a practical social basis. So I do not believe animals have "rights" - no one has ever demonstrated any specie besides humanity commanding this kind of intellectual acuity.

However, in all great societies there are many trivial rules and privileges we grant others, and when it's boiled down to it those are useful for dealing with the trivial issues of life. I believe that animals that have been domesticated should be afforded limited privileges - for instance, it should continue to be illegal to intentionally abuse domesticated animals. After all we, higher beings with natural rights, are asserting our responsibility for taking care of an animal we have domesticated. While some Libertarians may disagree with this, I think this is fair to the pet owners and game hunters. I believe ultimately we should pursue a private means of preventing inhumane treatment of livestock as well, but for now it is a trivial compromise to have basic industry regulations to prevent animals in farms from also being abused. These are privileges I say should be granted to animals in these specific situations (domestication & livestock) which I openly admit are enforced by unjust government tyranny. As Thomas Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence, we should not make drastic changes to government for light & transient causes, there are after all more important things to worry about than the problem of how to get humans to not abuse pets and mistreat livestock. Such an attitude of animal privilege might be wrong in a Libertarian worldview, however if it is then it's #10,000 on the list of great tyrannies and relatively unimportant.

So, my coworker is arguing contrary to the "privileges" idea - arguing in favor of animal "rights". You know, the idea that animals have inherent and equal ownership and entitlement to the world that we humans do. Typically this means vegetarianism and endorsement of agrarian communal (and communist) societies. Now, it's unspoken at this point that when we say there is a "right" that "right" is a moral imperative - if something is a "right" then we should act to protect it. So I decided to offer some clarity to the conversation by asking her what she thinks "rights" are, exactly.

Well, first her reaction was bewilderment, then she said something along the lines that rights are essentially "those things which others allow us to do". So, in other words, she's saying rights are just a politically correct version of "privileges". I disagree viciously, I believe in what was written by the American Founders, that rights are inalienable, unalterable, non-grantable, and an indelible part of nature. While people may disagree and have a wide variety of differing opinions regarding "rights", I do not think it's fundamentally correct to state that rights are merely those things our government or other groups of people permit us to have. The moral cause to protect rights exists without the existance of privileges. This whole debate all boils down to the following statement:

Do slaves have the right to be free?

If we're arguing that rights are another form of privilege, then what we are saying is that someone grants us permission to our "right" - the person/people who have the authority to grant us this privilege are the person/people powerful enough to stop us from exercising that action naturally. This means your "rights" are limited to whatever you can basically get away with.

Where does that person get the right to grant us these kinds of privileges? Well, only by one way: force.

So a slave, under this system of logic, does not have a "right" to be free. Why? Because a slave, by recourse of the fact that they are currently enslaved by someone, has obviously been put into a situation where the person with the power to grant THEM the privilege of freedom has taken it away instead. Slaves, in a privilege-rights system, no longer have a "right" to be free - defining rights as privilege, "slaves have a right to be free" is a logically incorrect statement. Just replace the term and this statement makes no sense: "slaves have a 'privilege' to be free". Slaves, by definition, have their freedoms revoked already. You might argue, if you believe in privilege-based rights, that slaves should have the "privilege" of freedom, but not that they do. Plus, if you were to argue that slaves should have "privileges" like freedom, it will be for reasons besides that it's their "right". After all, all privilege-based rights must be given in some way or another before they can exist and be exercised. In other words, whether slaves should or should not be free in this system is entirely up to the moral code of the person(s) with authority.

There is another way to look at it, the way the Founders did, viewing rights not as privileges, but as a self-evident truth which simply exists within nature. The only being that could "grant" us these kind of non-grantable rights is a god - and even then the god could only grant them in the same way that it might move an immovable object or stop an irresistible force, since these are equally inherently contradicting things. God, in these theological terms, is supernatural and exists outside of nature and not bound to our rules of logic. Of course, if you are atheist (like myself), agnostic or just a deist who disagrees that God grants rights, then even God is not necessary, then these rights simply exist and are a fact of nature. In this natural-rights based system, rights serve a fundamental moral purpose because they are a form of political ethics system built into nature.

While the concept of natural rights is easy to misunderstand and misapply (even the U.S., which is philosophically based on a natural rights system, misapplies the concept on a daily basis), natural rights are important to people who value a free society. More importantly, natural rights imply a basic civility by which society should operate, which is why I call this class Civics 101.

Slaves existed in our own system, founded on natural rights philosophy, but why did slavery die and why did we seek equal treatment for minorities? It's not because of Abe Lincoln's force, it's because civil rights activists (like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass) managed to convince Congress of the truth to the phrase: slaves have a right to be free.

The point is inescapable because "rights" are not a construct of politics as much as they are a construct of fundamental human ethics. They are the basis for ideas like "liberty". If you asked me if they are practiced consistently, I would say no. If you asked me if our society and virtually all others endorsing "natural rights" have more "privileges" than they do "rights", I'd have to agree. Practicality is not the point I am making, the point I am making is of principle and it's a very important principle.

What is the basis for deciding who should go to jail and who should be free? You could say "the law" but in reality law is a form of exercised force. Legal systems imply that ours is a system of privilege-based rights, but that is not necessarily true. The point ultimately is that "privilege-rights" societies are unfounded if you believe natural rights do indeed exist. If you believe, as it was put earlier, that slaves have a right to be free, you are already contradicting the idea of privileges. This means that you do not rent your life from others who demand your obedience, nor are you a slave to others who demand your sacrifice. You choose your own goals based on your own values.

What I am proposing as an idea here is that civility is the foundation of a common acceptance of certain self-evident truths like the idea that mankind has a natural and inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of deficiencies in protecting those natural rights, misunderstandings in interpreting and implementing those natural rights, or lack of respect for those rights. These rights exist outside of the fact that our government exists, outside of the circumstances by which we are unequal. It is equally true that a free man has right to be free, and that a slave has a right to be free, however as we illustrated already it would not be equally true if our rights are indeed privilege-based. Natural rights are the only system by which we have equal rights. This does not mean we all have a "right" to be made equal in circumstances, in fact it means the opposite, that we retain the same rights even in (and especially in) unequal circumstances.

However, when we talk about the way things should be, which is a moral statement to begin with, we need to more seriously realize the implications of this argument, and not write it off as semantics. It is indeed important to your entire worldview, that you have an understanding of what rights are. Ascribing to the idea that rights are merely a form of privilege is admitting that privilege is granted based on people's arbitrary opinion. However countering that idea means there is an objective, philosophically stable, reasonable and logical basis by which rights are judged. Now, they can be inaccurately used in society, we see that all the time - however it's inescapable to believe that rights are a constant moral demand. "You can't take away my rights" is a meaningless statement to make to someone who believes in rights as privileges, because if they have the force to do so, then in their opinion they can. "You should respect my rights" is a meaningless statement because privilege-rights based opinions are not rooted in a fundamental morality, therefore whether or not you should is a matter of differing opinion. In natural rights, these kinds of statements carry intellectual weight because they at their most basic level proposing that rights exist indifferent to opinion, speculation, and privilege - that we are entitled to "rights", where otherwise we would only be entitled to the privileges others grant us, the perfect victim-state.

Who decides which is which? In the end, obviously, people do. It's pretty sad they've decided on a consistent basis to make rights something subject to the whimsy of dictators and tyrants, often for innocent reasons, like in this case, finding better treatment for animals. So, is this all still just semantics to you? Therein lies the lesson. Class dismissed.