I have an e-mail forum on which most of the people are former students of mine. The hope is to continue some interest in and even participation in philosophical discussion after one has left the classroom. Recently we began a discussion of rights, an area of philosophy which has never greatly interested me and of which I am quite suspicious.

Below I tried to reponse to one forum member who asked a bit about rights. I am quite aware that this is a quite naive approach, so I am working to build up a web site for beginners who can get into the rights issue if it interests them.

From the forum:

Sat, 3 Nov 2001
Corbett tries to set "RIGHTS" into a philosophical context in reply to a question from Larry Hillebrand

What is the philosophical argument as to why "Rights" exist ?... Larry

<<<< BC - We can only accept that for which we have philosophical arguments given which we accept. >>>>

Larry, I can't give you a terribly adequate answer to this without research I don't have time to do. Since, as you've read, I am not convinced by any of the right's arguments, I see them as argument-less.

Here's the situation.

One makes a claim such as, we should allow free speech. There are practical arguments for this, but those sort of beg the question, since it's not yet clear in such a question that practical outcome matters as the essential value. First one would have to defend the fundamental value, and the philosophers who call themselves Utilitarians are one group who do. They argue, coming from John Stuart Mill, that one should always do that which is in the greater good of the greater number.

If you ask Mill, why is that? He doesn't really have an ARGUMENT, it is his fundamental starting point, like a faith in God or belief in the goodness of the devil. It is where HE begins.

Rights theorists BEGIN with rights. If one doesn't grant rights, then there is little one can do to speak with a right's theorist. That's why I try to abstract from that impasse and say look:

[Corbett interjects later: This claim above is not right. In putting together the first set of links and readings I have one which details four different lines of argument which are used to defend rights, thus they are not quite as arbitrary, at least in some philosophers' minds, as I have suggested.

Rights' theorists and me agree that we want this or that behavior from government. They will say it is for rights and I will say it is a value I have created for me, and we can't really say much to one another about those NON-RATIONAL starting points (choices of value), but I can ask rights theorist: why that act and not some other and they can ask the same for me. Usually, both of us can give an answer that doesn't necessary just go back in a circle to the starting point. That is, they need not refer to rights to justify the right to not be tortured, but talk about torture and how terrible it is, and I would probably agree with them, thus we avoid have to deal with the disagreement at the higher level since we would agree on the policy however we named it.

Rights talk is popular since WWII and the UN declaration of universal human rights. Again, it is all mumbo jumbo to me, like telling me Samuel prophesied this or that in scripture. Since scripture has no more authority for me that a Mickey Mouse comic, that tells me nothing.

In animal rights there is, perhaps, an enlightening disagreement.

The first great champion of animal rights in modern times is Peter Singer an Australian philosopher. He roots his views of animals not really in a theory of rights, but a theory of Utilitarianism. He argues a version of Utilitarianism which says: Do not cause harm unless there is a significant reason to do so since harm causes pain and pain is obviously to be avoided if at all possible.

Such a principle in Utilitarian theory is normally referring to harming HUMANS. But Singer asks: what's so special about humans and for all answers that are given he has some quite fascinating and powerful objections. Singer argues that the beginning principle of the harm principle in Utilitarianism should not be species, but pain and suffering. If an entity suffers pain, then it should be spared it unless there is a compelling reason, and then he gives reasons to dismiss many activities where we humans cause animals harm, especially is raising and killing them to be eaten and so on.

Actually Singer, himself, does not designate himself as a champion of animal RIGHTS, but of animal LIBERATION -- liberation of animals from unnecessary pain caused by humans.

But, the second great champion of animal rights is truly a RIGHTS theorist: Tom Regan. He argues that living beings have a RIGHT to live. What ARGUMENT does he give for this? Absolutely none. It is his fundamental starting point, his moral insight. (Interestingly his view does have one problem. If he extends the right to life to animals and not just to humans as other rights theorists do and if he does that on the ground that life itself is valuable independent of species, then he has the problem that it would seem he should extend this right to life to plants and bacteria, germs and whatnot since they all live. He himself acknowledges this but, surprisingly, finds this not a THEORETICAL problem, but a practical one. He says in effect: first let's extend this right to animals and get used to this and work it out, and then we can turn our attention to other forms of life.)

Perhaps that example can at least illustrate some of the ways rights theorists would work. But, again, this I tend not to think or talk in "RIGHTS" language except only in the weakest sense of just using the word as a short hand for "here is a policy I would support.," I'm not a great one to give a very informed account of rights theorists.


My Philosophy Page Webster U. Philosophy Department

Philosophy for Children Critical Thinking Current Semester Education Existentialism
Miscellaneous Topics Moral Philosophy Peace Issues Voluntary Economic Simplicity


Bob Corbett