I’ve read, over the last while, a lot of strange internet commentary on rights.
Weird assertions like “You cannot vote about rights” and other delusional statements.
There seems to be a lot of confusion over what a right is.
I’ll paraphrase John Ralston Saul here (I believe this was from the 1995 Massey Lecture which was an adaptation of his book The Unconscious Civilization, but I’m a bit fuzzy there). You can have a right, or you can have a freedom. A right, must by definition, take away a freedom. If I wish the right to keep unwanted strangers off my property, then I must sacrifice the freedom to wander at my liberty. Heck, if I want property, then I give up equal access to everything. It is not the case that the loss of a freedom is negative or positive; if there are no laws, secular or social, then everything is permitted. The right to be physically unmolested by most strangers is a right enjoyed by many of us in the west, and we are happy to give up the freedom to molest without consequence as it clearly is a freedom worth giving up for the resulting protections. Of course, The State has mechanisms to supersede said rights, and even in the most enlightened of countries agents of The State, such as police officers, can violate almost every right they’ve granted you. Rights come at a cost, and it’s not an even playing field.
Rights are granted. They are NOT intrinsic, and a right must be conceived of before it is granted. Rights are granted to deal with emergent problems. I do not have the right to think about pink elephants, but I am free to think of them. It has never been the case where others have interfered with my ability to think of pink elephants and had an impact on my life. I could be granted this right, and a system can be set up to enforce this right, if I was successfully able to lobby to get it enacted. Rights are living things, some old ones disappear as they context of the world around them changes. No one would demand the right to have an expert phrenologist testify at a trial in their defence these days. New ones emerge as the world changes, you would now want the right for legal recourse from online crimes that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Rights are granted, and taken away, they do not have any inherent existence.
In an enlightened society, rights are always voted upon. They may not be voted on directly by the citizens by referendum, but are most certainly voted upon by the elected proxies of the majority of a population. There is no other way to assert a right’s existence since you need the consent of The State to enact it and to enforce it. In a less enlightened society rights are mostly dictated, but they remain a political and legal construct. They do not, under any analysis, have intrinsic existence.
If we accept, which I think I’ve argued, that all rights are a social and legal convention, then how do they have meaning? They can only have meaning through enforcement. Although there exist social mechanisms for rights and enforcement within a community or subculture, I hope you forgive me for not including them in the scope of my discussions. They are subject to the same forces, but I find it easier to discuss on an individual and State level. A right must be not only enforceable but when violated enforcement must take place. Many so-called universal human rights fall into the set of unenforceable rights. For example, Article 25 subsection 1 of the declaration of human rights says all people have a right to food (among other things whose supply are not necessarily within the power of anyone to assure. It also does not offer any protection from religion. Basically, I’m not impressed with the document, but I digress). This is unenforceable. Somalia is now in a famine, and there is not enough food to go around. Since this declaration of the UN does not cite force majeure as an exception nor does it say who shall supply these concepts and items, including food, the Somalis are clearly having their rights violated. Yet how can we talk about rights when there cannot exist a method of enforcement? A right that is declared and valued by the citizenry but is not enforced, either due to apathy of The State or in deference to a special interest group (such as the enforced servitude of women justified by religious dogma) then that right is without meaning. The right, inasmuch as it exists, is used as PR to the rest of the world and a carrot on a stick, that if the citizenry give up enough maybe they will be given actual protection the right seems to promise, but it has no functional meaning. All because a right exists doesn’t mean it’s existence has any meaning or consequence.
People approach rights like selfish children clutching everything they can and screaming “MINE!”. They claim rights that don’t exist, can’t be upheld or that crush other peoples freedoms in disgusting ways (such as so-called “anti-blasphemy laws”). Rights are not entitlements, they are hard fought for, and if you think they give you power, especially power over the state, I hope you never have to learn how wrong you are.
So, how is my head up my ass about this?