Friday, March 6, 2009

You Have No Rights. Now Stop Worrying and Get on with Your Life.

I count myself among the “New Athiests,” and I don’t even object to the label, as some do. But let’s forget labels for a second. The particular beliefs I share with, say, PZ, Dawkins, Coyne, etc. are (a) science tells against religion and (b) religion, in being anti-reason, makes the world a worse place.

How does science tell against religion? Well, either God’s existence and activity are supposed to have something to do with the events that occur in the natural world, or they aren’t. If they are, then we can directly falsify religion. If God caused a worldwide flood, we can check the geological record for evidence. If God made the earth stand still, we can use physics to tell us what that would entail and look for evidence. And whenever and wherever we look for evidence, revealed religion will lose. It won’t even be accidentally right, because now we (materialists) are in an excellent position to explain every phenomenon by adverting solely to natural laws.

So if God exists either (a) he* is causally inert (b) he causes natural phenomena, but always in a way that was overdetermined—that is, the world would have gone the same even without God (c) he caused the initial conditions or (d) he did the initial conditions and some overdetermined causation. But (a) and (b) both meet the edge of Occam’s Razor: don’t multiply entities beyond necessity. Occam’s Razor is part of scientific practice, so it’s science itself that rules out these options. And (c) and (d) meet with what I take to be Dawkins’ master argument (though I haven’t read his book, so I just picked up on this somewhere): if the initial conditions need a cause, because everything does, then God too needs a cause; if they don’t need a cause, then postulating God as their cause again violates Occam’s Razor.

I believe something like this, but I don’t want to defend it in this post. Here I won’t be pointing the finger at Believers and saying “ye fools!” Instead, I’ll be pointing the finger at my fellow New Athiests and saying “ye hypocrites!” Why are we hypocrites? Because we accept that science tells against God, but not that it tells against inalienable natural rights. But it tells against them too!

The argument against God goes: we have a complete story of the world, and it doesn’t involve God; and sticking him in is irrelevant and unnecessary. And my argument against inalienable natural rights is that we have a complete story of the world, and it doesn’t involve rights; and sticking them in is irrelevant and unnecessary.

We’re told that we have a fundamental right to believe whatsoever we want to believe, to not be coerced in matters epistemic. But how do we know we have this right? Do we train our rightometers on the oppressed, and notice a spike when they’re forced to keep silent? The other day I read a discussion regarding some individuals’ claims that they had a right to not be offended. Predictably, people said they didn’t have such a right. But how did they know that? How could they know that? It seems as though they couldn’t. This is because rights don’t have effects. They are causally inert. If you have a right to free speech and I make you shut up, the situation is exactly the same as if you don’t have the right and I make you shut up.

Inalienable natural rights are magic. Jefferson thought that God gave them to us, in a magic ceremony one might suppose, and that we can know about them through ‘the light of reason’ or some other equally spooky faculty. But we don’t have spooky faculties that tell us about magic, because magic doesn’t exist. In particular, rights don’t exist.

You might think I’m joking, but I’m not. I’ll give you the alternative proposal: the only morally relevant features of any situation are human happiness and human suffering**. Notice that whether someone is happy or is suffering is determinable by scientific investigation. We can tell whether an action mitigates suffering or increases happiness. There is no magic here.

You might think that talk of rights can be cashed out in terms of suffering and happiness. But I don’t think so. The other day I was reading about a woman in Afghanistan who had had acid thrown in her face by a scorned suitor. Normally, men who throw acid in women’s faces in Afghanistan can get out of jail by merely paying the woman’s family some compensatory sum. This is not a great deterrent, and that’s why so many women are disfigured by misogynist monsters. Now, the law allows for the woman to ask for an “eye for an eye,” that is, that acid be used to blind her attacker. In this particular case, the woman was demanding just that punishment. The interest of the story was that “human rights groups” were up-in-arms. Somehow there is a magical right people have not to be cruelly and unusually punished. Again, I have yet to be presented with the evidence for this.

Now my thinking goes as follows. Some men in some parts of the Arabic world believe that it is not morally abhorrent to throw acid at women. Because this is the case, women must walk down the street in constant fear that these idiots will disfigure them permanently, with little to fear from the law. And many women must live having been permanently disfigured by idiots. If a law allowing these women to demand an eye for an eye were on the books and were applied when applicable, there would be overall less suffering. So it is moral to enact such a law and to apply it, at least until overturning it would bring about a decrease in suffering and an increase in happiness—presumably when men stopped thinking disfiguring women was all in good fun. So please take your human rights elsewhere; I care about people, not about magic.

I think that we’ve become bogged down in nonsensical ‘rights’-talk. Consider the case of abortion. The debate often revolves around what rights fetuses have and what rights women have, etc. But these debates are intractable precisely because there’s no way of determining who has a right to what. One side says “I imagine such-and-such” and the other says “I imagine so-and-so.” But you can keep your imaginings, and you can keep your rights. Fetuses don’t have a right to life, because no-one does; and women don’t have a right to choose, because no-one does. There’s only one morally relevant question here: will there be an overall decrease in suffering if abortion is allowed, as opposed to if it is not allowed? And you don’t have to be a rocket scientist, or even a social scientist, to know that the answer is yes.

One more: Do homosexuals have the ‘right’ to get married? Of course not: no-one does. The question before us is clear: will there be an increase in happy lives if gay marriage is allowed? Yes. Case closed.

I’ve been a little polemic in this post. Good, maybe you’ll comment. But I want to end by pointing out a few things. First, my case against rights does not rest on the truth of act utilitarianism. Rights don’t exist because they’re magic, and they lie beyond the realm of evidence or even fruitful speculation.

Second, you might reply “oh, but there are sophisticated deontological theories of rights that look into both the metaphysical and epistemological issues you’re raising.” Perhaps. But this is a version of the Courtier’s Reply. Your man on the street whining about his right-to-this and his right-to-that does not gain his knowledge of rights by discovering a contradiction in universalizing maxims. There also would not be much in common between what rights he said he had and what rights a scrupulous application of the Categorical Imperative said he had. I am calling him out. I’m saying “what allows you to know that these claims you’re making are true? What makes you think these rights even exist?” I’ll save my battles with the sophisticated deontologists for another day.

Finally, I haven’t given any arguments for utilitarianism. I held it up as an example of a moral theory that does not quantify over magic. Happiness and suffering are real, and measurable. Thus, they are potential candidates for morally-relevant properties. They are not the only potential candidates, and it is a deep question how we determine what matters for ethics. But I know what doesn’t matter. Invisible, undetectable, inalienable natural rights.

Conclusion: the Enemies of Reason™ aren’t limited to those who persist in believing bronze-age myths. Some persist in believing enlightenment-era myths. These myths were important and helpful to our forebears, and they brought about many positive changes in politics and law. But it is time to kick away the latter of myth we climbed in on, and embrace the one obviously true moral principle: nothing cramps your moral powers like not existing!

[* Yes I know God isn’t supposed to have genitals. But that’s what they call it: ‘he.’]

[** I should add animal happiness and animal suffering, but for rhetorical force I’ll ignore animals for the moment. This should not be taken to indicate that I think animal happiness or animal suffering is not morally relevant.]


  1. I'm wondering about your dismissal of the Courtier's Reply in this post. It makes sense to ignore the sophisticated literature if you're arguing that many should give up their beliefs in the existence of rights because they don't have enough evidence that such rights exist.

    But I read most of your post as making the stronger, metaphysical claim that such rights don't exist. If so, this strikes me as a relevant time to point someone to the relevant sophisticated literature.

    The stuff on the epistemology of disagreement makes me reluctant to accept the Courtier's Reply as always mistaken. As higher order evidence, the existence of epistemic peers who disagree with you might count as a prima facie reason to lower your conviction... even if you haven't checked out your peers' specific counterarguments yet.

    Anyway, this is just me making a Courtier's Reply to your dismissal of the Courtier's Reply.

  2. Hi Michael,

    Interesting post. I’m not so sure about a few of your points.

    It seems to me that there are obvious features which separate the epistemic goodness of the natural rights hypothesis from that of the god hypothesis. Also, I’m also not sure at all why you think that act utilitarianism is any more successful at rebutting your argument.

    On the first point, you might want to consider the fact that our beliefs can be justified in virtue of simplifying our overall theories without doing any causal work. Let’s call this possibility Quine’s Bald Head. Quine appealed to his Bald Head to defend mathematics, but let’s try something else.

    Physicists appeal to the uniformity of nature when, for instance, they generalize from the observation that the universe is expanding here, to the hypothesis that it is expanding everywhere. This assumption is going to require us to posit all kinds of material that has no direct observational consequences. We will be required to posit planets very far away, etc, merely because assumptions entailing their existences make for more systematic theories. These posited planets do not have any causal impact on anything around here. We’re just positing them to simplify the overall theory.

    It seems to me that a Quine’s Bald Head type argument allows for a wedge between the natural rights theorist and the theist. The theist typically posits something which is supposed to do causal work from the get go. Now, as you say, such theisms are sometimes directly refutable. As the theist has her gods do less causal work, it looks like she is making arbitrary ad hoc revisions to save her theory. The natural rights theorist, on the other hand, never posited natural rights to do causal work. So, saying that such rights are do not causally interact might not have the same theoretical defects as saying that gods do not interact.

    On to utilitarianism: Let’s suppose you’re right that pleasures and pains are measurable. I don’t agree. I think that pains and pleasures come in some many varieties, and that there’s no easy way to put amounts them into some sort of linear scale. I don’t think it’s easy to sort the pleasures from the non-pleasures. But, I’ll concede it for the argument.

    So suppose we have to posit pleasures and pains, and they come in various degrees of intensity. How does this get us to utilitarianism? That’s not merely a thesis about what there is, but a thesis about what we ought to do. We ought to promote pleasure and decrease pain. But now I’m not sure why your position is any better than the deontologists’. After all, people disagree about the extension of the “ought” relation (see the deontologists you criticize). The ought relation seems causally inert, etc. I don’t see any obvious way to resolve disputes between some ought users and others. So what makes a utilitarian account of the extension of the “ought” relation any better?

    You might say something like the following. Maybe utilitarianism is part of a general reductionist or constructivist strategy for all moral words, and not just a particular theory about the extension of the ought relation. But, I’m not sure why the deontologist can’t say the same thing. Many Kant inspired theories of rights make them look strikingly constructivist. Is there any reason to suppose that a reductionist or constructivist picture is more likely to succeed within a utilitarian framework than a Kantian?

    Lastly, you said that you wanted to save your battles with the Kantian for another day. You seem to reason that the basis that the man on the street is saying something different from what the sophisticated deontologist would say. That’s not too obvious to me. First, if you ask a man on the street why he thinks his neighbor has certain rights, he will likely bullshit for a few minutes and then answer “Because if I can do X to her, then she can do X to me.” Now this is one naïve expression of the Enlightenment view of rights which you attack and to which Kant is responding. I, therefore, don’t think you can so easily carve off the Enlightenment theory of rights from the ordinary person’s. Even if you can, then it's wrong to present yourself as busting Enlightenment myths.

    Sorry to go on so long. Hope all is well.

  3. @Bryan,

    I want to tackle one of your points now, and discuss some of the others later. You worry that the "argument" (and I don't really have much of an argument, I admit) against rights extends to utilitarianism. Not so fast.

    What I wanted the argument to be was as follows: first, we determine what there is. Then things that are are potential candidates for morally relevant things. But in the first pass we discover that we didn't need to posit rights, though we probably need to posit mental states. So utilitarianism is left unscathed by the argument as stated.

    You claim that the 'ought' relation is causally inert. But I see no reason to say that. In particular, if 'S ought to do A' is analyzed as 'were S to do A, then that would bring about a greater good for a greater number than were S to do anything other than A' and if counterfactuals are grounded by categorical facts about the world + the laws, then it looks like those facts are perfect candidates for empirical investigation.

  4. Hi Michael,

    Let's put some things on the table. We have this relation obligation. The minimal utilitarian says that you stand in the ought relation to an action always and only when your performing that action will maximize the good. The deontologist denies this. In particular, she thinks that some of the things we ought to do are influenced by our relationships to the people and things we will be doing them to, and their relationships to each other. Or, the deontologist might say that we also stand in the ought relation to some actions which fall under universal laws.

    So, as I see the issue, the debate between the utilitarian and the deontologist is over the extension of the ought relation. If this is right, then there's just as much prima facie conflict between utilitarianism and naturalism than there is between deontology and naturalism.

    I think you see the issue differently. You seem to see utilitarianism as a necessary first step towards an identification, or analysis, or reduction, or whatever of all moral terms into more naturalistically acceptable ones.

    I think that in my comment you were responding to I just wanted to point out that utilitarianism was not sufficient for such a reduction or identification. That is, one can be a utilitarian and hold that what you ought to do is merely (necessarily) coextensive with maximizing the good. She needn't hold the additional claim that they are identical. It's only if you make the additional move of naturalizing all moral vocabulary that you get out of the difficulty.

    But remember, two can play at that game. The deontologists have tried very hard to naturalize their own program. They have proposed identifying `ought' with different properties (say acting with a noncontradictory intention) which they may say are just as causally relevant.

    So it's not obvious to me that the debate can be resolved by considerations about positing causally relevant relations. It seems to me that overall theoretical considerations about which theory accounts for the data in a more coherent way are going to be needed to decide the issue. And I wouldn't wager on utilitarianism.


  5. @Bryan,

    Thanks again for commenting. I feel like I'm being unclear as to what my goal here was.

    My worry is solely the following: there are many people who believe that we have this or that right. Their epistemic access to these putative facts does not run through any observable or measurable feature of the universe. Rather, they have been brought up thinking they had certain rights, and they will dogmatically continue to believe just that, come what may. I think this is a less than perfect situation.

    I put up utilitarianism as an example of moral philosophy that was grounded on an acceptable moral epistemology. I did not at all mean to deny that any of many other ethical theories are not also well-grounded. But I was concerned to deny that ordinary people who fight for "rights" have anything but the most tenuous connection to facts. Maybe I'm empirically wrong there, but I was under the impression that most people think that rights are bedrock, and that they know directly what rights people have. That's what I was calling magic.

    Let's return briefly to something you said before. You said that someone asked to justify a rights-claim that one has the right not to be X-ed might respond: Because if I can do X to her, then she can do X to me. You're right that some people might say that (still, I'm doubtful), but notice importantly that this is a trivial restatement of the case in, say, the situation of the Afghani woman who wants to see justice. She wants it to be the case that if you can do X to her, she can do X to you. And yet the rights-side objects.

    And, a little more to the point, I'd never expect someone to say "Because if I could do X to her, she could do X to me... and if further I willed that everyone act under the maxim 'do X' then doing X would be conceptually impossible." And not only will people *not* offer that explanation, they can't even be rationally reconstructed as behaving as if they were obeying the Categorical Imperative. Surely "not bearing arms" can be coherently universalized; so can "repressing the views of the weak." All the professional normative theorizing in the world is insufficient to justify the unwarranted, dogmatically inherited views of almost everyone on the street and in politics. That's bad.

    For now, I want to dialectically abandon utilitarianism. I used the view only as an example, for those who might be reading and wonder "but how do we get by without Basic Human Rights?" My intended claim, and one which I still see no reason to back down from, is that most moral discourse in the public sphere concerning rights is disconnected from all fact and reason, and needs desperately to be overhauled... whatever naturalized ethical theory takes its place, I'm sure will be better than the present state of dogmatism.

  6. Michael,

    I’m still a little unclear. Maybe I’m just being obtuse. It seems to me that there are three claims that need to be sorted out.

    (1) Some rights claims are true.
    (2) Some rights claims are taken as (relatively) epistemically basic.
    (3) Rights, if they exist, are ontologically basic or irreducible.

    You seem to want to argue that either (2) or (3) are true. And then conclude from that that (1) is false. I’m not sure that I follow either argument.

    You sometimes write as though you’re arguing from the truth of (2) to the falsity of (1). The folk appeal to rights claims as reasons for their actions. They don't try very hard to justify their belief in the existence of these rights. I think you’ll concede that they try somewhat, and I’ll concede that they don’t try very hard. You want to conclude from this that their justifications for rights claims are relatively basic to their overall theory. But then you cry foul, since there’s no observational evidence for the rights claims. Does this capture your argument?

    If so, I must say I don’t see a compelling argument for (2). Consider the fact that I don’t try very hard to justify many of my mathematical beliefs (like that every number has a successor), nor do the physicists try very hard to justify their belief that the universe is expanding everywhere, and not just here. These beliefs are justified, if at all, only because of the simplifying role they play in the overall theory or practice in which they are embedded. They are not justified on the basis of their observable consequences.

    When I try to justify these beliefs, I often sound lame or vague or worse. It’s hard to articulate just what simplifying role these beliefs are playing. As a consequence, it can look to the observer like these are basic beliefs. But that needn’t be the case.

    Now sometimes a meta-theorist comes along and is able to articulate the theoretical role these beliefs play and how they are justified. But, these justifications all tend to be things that would be difficult for me – or the physicist – to come up with.

    Does this mean that I wasn’t justified in the first place? I doubt it. It seems that the meta-theorist is merely making explicit what justified me all along. They may even show that SOME of my beliefs on these matters were unjustified. But that, of course, doesn’t mean that all of them are, or that my beliefs need a complete overhaul. I don’t see why the case should be different from morals.

    Other parts of your argument look like they run as follows. If there are rights, they’d be irreducible or ontologically basic. But irreducible or ontologically basic rights are not naturalistically acceptable. So there aren’t any rights after all. In other words, (3) is true. Therefore, (1) is false.

    In my last comment I was trying to challenge the view that if there are rights, then they’d have to be irreducible. That is, lots of moral theorists have put forward diverse suggestions for naturalizing rights.

    Some of the things you say suggest that you want to resist any version of this strategy by arguing that these moral theorists are not talking about the same thing as the folk. The theorists have a more sophisticated theory than the folk and even disagrees with them at some crucial points. So, they can’t mean the same thing.

    But I don’t find this convincing either. The thermodynamics professor has a more sophisticated theory of heat than I do, and he could even correct me about a few things. But that doesn’t mean that we’re talking past each other when we discuss the stove.

    So, I think I'm still confused about what you’re up to.