Rights

John Dunn

  • Natural Rights Theories by Richard Tuck
    Cambridge, 192 pp, £10.50, December 1979, ISBN 0 521 22512 4
  • Natural Law and Natural Rights by John Finnis
    Oxford, 425 pp, £15.00, February 1980, ISBN 0 19 876110 4
  • A Discourse on Property by James Tully
    Cambridge, 208 pp, £10.50, July 1980, ISBN 0 521 22830 1

Robert Nozick begins his clever and implausible study Anarchy, State and Utopia with a confident pronouncement: ‘Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).’ Among Americans it is a claim which only a committed utilitarian is likely to wish to dispute. Americans suppose themselves to have many individual rights and, after their respective ideological fashions, take rights extremely seriously. At the level of pure hypocrisy their allegiance is far from distinctive in the modern world. Every member state of the United Nations, for example, is a signatory to a Declaration of Human Rights. But in many countries today (Kampuchea, Burundi, Paraguay, Haiti, Ethiopia) it is hard to imagine either government or people expressing themselves spontaneously quite in Nozick’s terms. The question therefore arises whether Nozick is indeed correct or whether he is simply American. If individuals just do have rights, what gives them these entitlements, or, if this is thought a tendentious way of putting the matter, what makes the claim that they possess them true? In the Declaration of Independence, the most famous and eloquent expression of the American theory of rights, what endows human individuals with such rights is, intractably enough, their Creator. All human beings are created equal and it is because they are created equal that it is correct for them to regard themselves and each other as endowed with certain inalienable rights. Not merely is this true: it is self-evidently true (and you cannot readily get truer than that). Nozick himself keeps his cards close to his chest on the matter of what (if anything) does make his initial claim true. But it is a safe inference that his views on the question diverge from those of Thomas Jefferson.

What, if anything, does make the claim simply true must be the rationally-interpreted place of human beings within the order (or disorder) of nature. If all human beings do simply have rights, that is to say, these rights must be natural rights. The simplest alternative which takes seriously the idea that human beings possess any rights at all assigns these essentially to the idiosyncrasies of historical expectation. Rights derive, not from the objective properties of nature, but from socially-invented conceptions of appropriate conduct. On this view rights are not natural but cultural. At first glance, this seems an admirably sharp dichotomy. But on closer reflection it tends (fortunately or unfortunately) to blur. The range of cultural invention is restricted, on any view, by the objective properties of nature; and, more guardedly, its acceptable range is likely to be further restricted by canons of logic and perhaps even of evidence. Even if the truth about what makes right and wrong for human beings right and wrong is simply that that is how human beings have invented them, human individuals severally (and perhaps even human societies severally) cannot reasonably be accorded the entitlement to invent and reinvent them with utter whimsicality. At the very least, some principles of consistency will be a feature of any cognitively-defensible ethics, just as they will of any pragmatically-coherent mathematics. By the same token even if conceptions of what is self-evident in the realm of human value are not today likely to be reversed by the passage of the Pyrenees, we certainly know enough about human historical and cultural diversity to be sure that what is universally evaluatively self-evident to human beings is unlikely to offer even theoretical protection to many human interests which are under direct practical threat.

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