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Conservative Tenet # 8

Before the server crashed, Your Humble Blogger was picking up the Conservative Tenets where we left off, with:

8. The rights of man as something earned rather than given.

This involved defining the Rights of Man (Human Rights or Natural Rights), detailing how one would earn them, and who would decide whether one had earned them or not, and who would give them and whether they could be taken away.

OK, I didn't do any of that.

I did talk a bit about Human Rights, which is a topic I've been thinking about for a couple of years, now. I have a lot of trouble defining Human Rights in any way that is coherent and consistent, and also fits in with my instincts of what Human Rights are or ought to be. If I want to list them, I can make a stab at it: dissent, religious freedom, education, health care, due process, and equality before the law, along with the negatives (things that you are protected from others doing to you), such as murder, torture, false imprisonment, and slavery). I'm missing some I had typed in on Monday but which aren't coming to mind now, and I'm probably missing others that I didn't think of either time.

The question is how I know that these are Human Rights. The tricky part is when a new item is proposed (and please, propose new ones), how to judge whether is belongs. Criteria. Preferably, criteria arising naturally (thus Natural Rights) out of what it means to be human, and what it means to have a right.

One of my magnificent correspondents (Chris, actually) was swift enough to respond before the original note was removed, and pointed out that (in his view, and a good one) Human Rights are of divine origin, and thus bringing them into the policy sphere is only a way to secure, rather than confer those rights. I also, on the whole, think that humans are endowed by their Creator with certain rights � I just don't know what they are, or even how to know what they are.

Still, that's enough to reject Tenet 8. Whatever the rights of man are, they are, by their nature, inherent in humanity, and cannot be earned or removed. Given, or, if you like, simply there, the way the universe is (or, if you like, given the way the universe is).

Thank you,


i don't know if those ideals that can or do get gathered up as "human rights," which seems to be a play against the "divine rights" of royalty, necessarily comes from the same place as divine rights, but i would say that some of the ideals predate civilization (meaning i guess that they are natural resource allocation politenesses worked out over generations, region by region) and some don't (meaning they are fundamental training steps toward participation in modern life, a raising of the bar for happiness beyond basic survival).

i think i might be disappointingly pragmatic about this. i seem to distrust any universal truth that is pulled down out of the sky, or up from the past. i like scholars but i don't like priests, and i don't want to base an understanding of what makes a person real, which is i think the core of the trouble (which things can you specifically say, without this, there is no dignity?), i don't want to base that understanding on something that is not also apparent to people without divine guidance.

hmm. that first paragraph needs serious untangling.

i do think that you have to reach a certain level of high resources and aesthetics before some part of your population, large enough to consider itself a majority, can decide that god requires only internal submission, and change the definition of a person based on that understanding of the contract.

i see the base problem behind "human rights" as one of, basically, the theory walking all over the reality. the pretty theory here is that people are heading upward and forward all the time. the reality is that a person's "full potential" is sort of like that of a rock. in the hands of a sculptor, the rock could become a statue. in the hands of a mason, the rock could become part of a wall.

seeing that this rock is actually a person, a "who" not a "what," or rather that the person is both raw material and an infinite variety of apprentices eager to work that material, then human rights would sort of need to delineate those aspects of a person's life into which other people are not allowed to intrude, to avoid enslaving or terrorizing the individual, but without demolishing a functional social structure....

There's a lot worth talking about here; I'm going to try to start by working on one corner of the matter -- the historical emergence of an idea of natural or human rights -- and see where it goes from there.

David suggests that ideas of the sort that we now call human rights emerged as a codification or perhaps a theorizing of the politenesses necessary for the functioning of competing communities, and later, complex societies.

I see some truth in this. I would aver, however, that, prior to the emergence of modern scientific intellection, this sort of codification took place primarily through religious discourse and understanding. The recognition of the dignity, the worthiness, of other beings has been intimately connected to the experience of the Divine as present in the world. In Taoist terms (if I understand them at all), this means respecting the being of things, rather than the use to which one can put those things.

So this story about the development of politeness customs, articulated through an experience understood as religious, lands us in the seventeenth century, which is the point where the discourse of human rights as we now have it begins. Human rights emerge philosophically out of a legal framework. With the monarch, or the state, gaining unprecedented ability to regulate, or intrude upon, the lives of its subjects, what limits can be placed upon the power of that state to intrude? Answer -- whatever limits the subjects of that state can force the state to abide by, of course, which is a balder way of restating Conservative tenet #8. But that's not a sufficient answer, because it doesn't set a limit on the swings between totalitarian control and anarchy. So the idea of the "human right" codifies the limits on the state's intrusions into the lives of citizens by defining certain "just claims" (a term I learned from V.'s first, lost message) as conferred by God (drawing on the earlier religious discourse), rather than being conferred by the state's own legal systems. Therefore these just claims are not subject to change by the powers that control the legal apparatus, and citizens are justified in opposing or changing the state when it attempts to abrogate such just claims.

So, where does this story leave us? With an idea of human rights in which politeness customs, religious teaching, bare-knuckle power politics, and legal theory & practice are all tossed in together, to be sorted out (and I'm sure this answer will please V.) by the persuasions of political rhetoric.

I've told my story to try to open up the place of religious insight in the discussion in a non-threatening way. I believe strongly in human rights as concepts that not only need to be legally secured against state intrusion, but that need to be actively affirmed and lived by individual persons in their daily relations with others, and I think that sort of commitment to daily practice is developed in many (though by no means all) people through religious experience (true for me, anyway), which I distinguish from religious teaching or religious authority. Training in the customs of politness is also excellent, but it is a less useful preparation for respecting the rights of others whom one never meets but who are affected by one's actions (a regrettable condition of the modern global economic arrangement).

Turning to the rhetoric of our conservative theorist, I note that he substitutes "earned" for "secured" in his explanation of the rights of man, which confers a sense of dignity upon the individuals who manage to secure those rights, thereby trying to make us think less about the poor folks who haven't earned them, as their not enjoying these rights can be justified by their failure to have earned them. His case also implicitly elevates "property" as a central, "earned" right of man, for what better way to defend property than to equate one's earnings with one's rights? This is a view of rights that is a recipe for aristocracy and plutocracy, both of which seem to me to be bad ways to organize a the power structure of a society.

Well, that's more than enough from me. Thanks!

huh. hmmm.

first let me say when i said politenesses i was meaning something heavier than "etiquette." chris you got that i think.

it's interesting that the idea of human rights is hard to discuss without looking at european history. i wonder if it's as much a christian construct as that makes it appear.

martin luther posted his theses in 1517. groundwork. anything before that in europe?

chris all that's buzzing in my head. i want to say "secured against group or institutional intrusion" instead of "secured against state intrusion"...

as for "earned" versus "secured" in the tenet, what's amazing to me is how much closer we've moved toward including every living homo sapiens (and some cats) as a member of humanity, even since those tenets were written. i don't know if this is progress, because i think "humanity" still means in some ways "those people who most resemble the rich." i think it is a good change, though.

on the other hand, which living person hasn't said "convince me" at some important decision point in their lives? isn't that the core of "earned"? i mean i realize that the trouble with the phrasing here is the implication that the status can be conferred or denied by heredity, and that "convincing" from one class to another can be and is often ugly, brutal, greedy.

Another point, just to muddy the (excellent) discussion further: Led by Chris' point, I suspect that Rossiter is talking at least somewhat about property rights as the "rights of man," the right to have and hold what is mine. I can't manage to accept property rights at all in my conception of natural rights, but once I started thinking that way, the conservative idea of earning those rights becomes clearer to me.
That is, does every human have a right to eat, or is that right earned (by working for the money to pay for food)? Does every human have a right to shelter, or is that right earned (again, with money)? Does every human have a right to due process, or is that right earned (presumably by being a "law-abiding" or just as likely property-owning citizen)? Does every human have the right to dissent, or is that right earned (by education, information-gathering, or even being within the pale of mainstream thought)?
That, I now think, is what Tenet # 8 is getting at, and now I disagree with it more than ever. Whatever rights are, they are not earned. If they have to be earned, they are not rights. There are, there must be, things that are innately human, and therefore are not to be transgressed without incurring moral harm.
As for the history discussion, I'm interested to keep reading it, but I don't know enough about it to contribute. I would, ultimately, prefer my concept of natural rights to be a construct of logic, derived from my ethical system, as well as a construct of my own perceived universe. In other words, I'd prefer the concept to be as ahistorical as I can manage, while understanding that both my perception of the universe and other humans' is deeply affected by history.

Thanks for the great conversation,

Fascinating stuff, especially Chris's note about "earned" and property. I guess one thing that always nags at me in discussions of rights: where do the physical manifestations of those rights come from? In particular, if we're talking about the right to food or the right to shelter, those things are, in our society, owned property; which means that if you don't have them, and someone else does, but you have a right to them, then the someone else must give them to you. And suddenly we're talking about my rights having a direct and explicit property cost to others. (In a way that my right to speak freely, for example, doesn't.)

And that sort of sneaks in sideways toward my more basic concern about the notion of fundamental rights, which I've always had a hard time articulating, but here's one sort-of approach: if you don't have something that you deserve as a right, how do you go about getting it? How do you even know which things you do deserve as rights, and which things would just be nice to have? As I understand it, lots of places don't legally guarantee the right to speak freely (am I right in thinking this is true in the UK?), or, say, to bear arms, but some of them are happy functioning democracies anyway.

...I just went and looked up "inalienable"; it doesn't mean what I always thought it meant. Apparently it means "incapable of being surrendered or transferred." Does that mean an inalienable right is one that is yours even if you say you don't want it?

None of the above is sarcastic, btw; a mix of musing, wondering, uncertain, and possibly missing some obvious answers.

the rights of man! i didn't even notice that, i was talking to the blogger. who is this "man" and is he still around today? i think he might be dead, or never have been born: built, more like. or appropriated, since tons of his capacity come from everybody just trying to get by.

there is a lot of wiggle room in #8, including the possibility that "given"/"earned" is not necessarily being proposed as a duality but sort of a flavor. what if it means "rights aren't given to you by anybody, they're something you just deserve"? what if it means "others may claim that you owe them allegiance for your strength, but the truth is you grew into it and were going to regardless of their assistance"?

since we don't know who the "man" is i think that also means we don't know how things are "earned" (or from whom, if applicable), then how do we continue talking about this. there's nothing solid in it. i mean we can make "earned" versus "given" mean nearly anything we want. unless this is intended to focus scrutiny on the applicant, away from the process or the bureaucrat, but then, this guy sounds like he'd discard an application based on the penmanship...

jed: i think one has already moved past a significant hurdle in human affairs when one can ask, "how do i get this thing that is my right?" the declaration of rights speaks to everyone. to the have-nots, it opens new possibilities, or rather, reminds of existing authority. to the haves, it reminds of fraternity, it recommends balance and harmony. overall i think it tries to supplant fear with consideration, patience, reflection, determination, maybe.

re: inalienable, sounds somewhere between "instinct" and "in our chaotic system, i can't figure out the source of this, so it must be fundamental."


The physical manifestations of rights is something that bothers me as well. That, in fact, is why I'm starting to lean towards a definition of rights that is entirely negative, that is, natural rights are actually restraints on governments (or other institutions, thank you David), rather than entitlements of individuals. The problem with that is that there are things that my gut tells me are basic human rights which do not fit that model (food, clothing, shelter, and medicine). So I'm left with a coherent model that doesn't fit my instincts.

Second, in here, is that you pick up on the asymmetry of moral obligations and entitlements, which is a topic that I've also been trying to wrap my head around. That is, if I am morally obliged to feed the hungry (and I think I am), does that mean that the hungry are entitled to be fed? Or is my obligation not to the hungry, but to Gd? or to myself? In which case, the hungry really don't enter into it at all. Which doesn't sound right either. Feh. This coherent moral system stuff is harder than it looks.

As for inalienable, yeah, I think that rights are not something you can waive. That is, even if you choose not to use them, they still restrict other people. And even when, by your actions (say, killing a bunch of people) you require me to abrogate your rights (say, to freedom of movement outside a prison), those rights are still yours, and there is still moral harm incurred by infringing them even when it's the right thing to do. I think.


The idea of rights as restraints, rather than entitlements, is a very libertarian one. Look out! (grin)

I would make the case that rights -- universal, legal, human, natural, or otherwise -- are indeed entitlements. When one has a just claim to something, one is entitled to it. If one has the right to live, then one is entitled to enjoy all the qualities thereunto appertaining. So it is also with liberty, to stick to the most basic of rights for now.

The laws that secure those rights, however, must be articulated as restraints upon others: they can hardly tell you how to enjoy your rights without infringing upon them. The law places a restraint upon others so that their actions will not impinge upon your freedoms.

It's a confusion of categories to see the rights themselves as negative. Clarity arises when you distinguish between what the right is, and how it is secured.

Challenges arise when rights and restraints come into conflict with one another, which is why lawyers get rich.

But look, if there's an inalienable right to life, then there is a consequent right to food and shelter whenever those are necessary to preserve one's life. If a man is starving and steals food to eat, can you blame him, and say he has no right to steal this food, which was my property? If rights are only defined negatively, then the starving man has no right to take food if he must, the freezing man has no right to get out of the cold however he can, and so on.

Fortunately, not many people are starving and freezing in the United States, so we don't face these kinds of rights-based moral challenges much on our daily lives here. But the principle still holds, and needs to be remembered.

Where do restraints upon rights/entitltements come from, then? Moral teaching shows us how to enjoy our rights wisely so that we do not destroy them in the very exercise of them. In a flourishing society, moral teaching will not need to be supplemented by laws that coerce people into not enjoying their rights in destructive ways. Our society is not, by this definition, flourishing.

Sorry for any doctrinaire tone in this post, but these matters seem to me to be basic, clear, and important.


I agree that these matters are important, and basic, but not that they are clear.

To start with, I can't logically accept a right to life. After all, I'm going to die, and I certainly don't have any moral, ethical or spiritual right to not die. Sure, I have a right not to be murdered, but the definition of murder is actually fairly complicated (is my right to life violated by pollutants which put me at a low, but significant risk of developing life-shortening illness? You say yes, of course. I say, er, I'm not sure). To me, liberty is a much easier concept than life; I've never been jailed and hope never to be, but I will die.

My problem with including entitlements in with rights is that, rather than clarifying (for me) a difference between the existence of certain rights and the enforcing of those rights by the state, it muddies the patterns by which the state actor must decide, case by case, what takes precedence over what.

I'm looking, ideally, a way for me, or for the person acting for the state can say, "These are rights, if I violate those, I need a really compelling reason, one involving rights. These over here are moral obligations, I need to try to fulfill those, insofar as I can without violating those rights. These on this side are Good Outcomes, which I will try to reach, insofar as they don't involve violating rights or reneging on moral obligations."

I'll take your hypothetical of the starving man stealing food. Is his claim on my food justified, and therefore a right? No. Is there an obligation to feed him? Of course. Does maintaining my claim on the food (a potential good outcome) have precedence over his survival (a potential good outcome) or, even higher, my obligation to feed him? No. Therefore, by stealing the food, the starving man is acting correctly, despite his not having a right to the food.

This is terribly long-winded, especially as I am not actually convinced that the negative definition is correct, but I'm arguing for it as it does have the appeal of consistency, and if it fails, I want to know where and how. I've changed my mind on this twice in the last few years, so you may well change my mind again.


since we are people and not deities, when we talk about rights, we are talking about rules that we have or will set for ourselves, not about essential or intrinsic needs; we will always be extrapolating both the "essential" and the ways to reach it.

to me, the most basic individual right, that thing which separates one person from another, is the right of refusal. when an individual or group is imprisoned, starved, killed, or deported in response to a refusal, as stated, this has harmful consequences for both parties. like i said, to me, the declaration of rights is a call for balance in human affairs.

as to earned, given, entitled, or restrained: to say that many hungry, sick, homeless, uneducated people in your group signals a bad situation, or to declare people free to dissent or refuse because no proposal can possibly be 100% right, that doesn't require deciding how the particular social changes necessary to recognize these realities will be executed, or even if the changes can be proposed or controlled from the same level of society as documented the needs.

to me the need for sympathy or restraint becomes clear as the situation plays out and rights as written should allow for the imbalance to be addressed as best fits the situation.

wow this is like how i am in a live discussion. something i wrote didn't come out right...

i think i might be disappointingly pragmatic about this. i seem to distrust any universal truth that is pulled down out of the sky, or up from the past. i like scholars but i don't like priests, and i don't want to base an understanding of what makes a person real ... on something that is not also apparent to people without divine guidance.

the whole thing with "like" and "dislike" was supposed to be part of the "i seem to" idea. "in this context," i thought i was saying, "religious teachings feel less trustworthy than observation and understanding." because religious feeling is so hot, too hot to base a human contract on between peoples of different faiths. that was not what i ended up saying. that said i hope my ineptitude didn't piss anybody off too badly.

For those who noticed the blank comment from me yesterday, this is the comment that I intended to post but failed to do it properly.

The conversation on rights is running along two trains now; I'm going to go back to the subject of positively or negatively defined (or recognized) rights.

Let's look at arguments for the right to life, both to consider this right in itself and as an example of how a right should be recognized.

1) Argument from the authority of sacred texts. It says so in the Declaration of Independence. Therefore we should assume, unless we can mount a compelling argument against a right to life, that there is such a right.

2) Argument from personal experience. My conviction, when I think and feel about my own life, is that I am made to live until I wear out. There's nothing in me, aside from being worn out, that is not directed towards the end of living. I may choose to risk my life, or to sacrifice it, but the right to direct my being towards the goal of living, in this body, is inalienable. Accidents happen, diseases, and so on, but those sorts of events don't keep me from trying my best to live if I choose, though my best efforts may be overcome. In short, when I reflect upon the matter, I feel that I have a right to life.

3) Argument from historical example. All sorts of actions by individuals or institutions that infringe upon what we might identify as the right to life provoke strong resistance or discomfort, even if they are legal. Examples include murder, military conscription, judicial execution, slavery (the right to liberty is also at play there), clandestine poisoning by the release of pollutants (see _Erin Brockovitch_), the maintenance of unnecessarily unsafe working conditions. The fact that these sorts of actions are so broadly resisted, so broadly perceived as dead wrong or at least ethically problematic, suggests that they infringe upon a common right. Does it make sense to say I have a right not to be murdered, not to be forced into military service, not to be poisoned by pollutants, but not to say that all of these particular rights are implied by each person having a right to life? If one wants to avoid rights discourse altogether, one can take the step of saying that these are all identifiably bad outcomes, which should be avoided and replaced with good outcomes whenever possible. Then all one has to do is define good and bad . . . But if one is going to talk about rights, it seems to me that the history of human behavior suggests that there is a right to life. Certainly human legal practices, when people have the power to use their governments to secure their rights, tend to show the progressive development of means for protecting the lives of human persons.

Which, if any, of these arguments seems justifiable or compelling? Why?

4) Argument from practice. Here I move more towards raising my own questions, rather than making an argument, circling back to David's comments. What are the consequences of various ways of recognizing or defining rights for the systems of social practice with which they are involved? If we recognize rights as positive, what are our moral obligations to others and to ourselves? I add that last part because I do think that rights are about entitlement, that they help us to understand when we are justified in taking action on our own behalf. There's been significant skepticism about entitlement in this discussion, but let me say that there's a lot to be say for entitlement, as well as a lot to be said against it. I'd like to hear more about what you all think you (and people in general) are entitled to, and why.

argument from sacred texts, argument from history, argument from personal experience, argument from practice (i.e., for the sake of argument?).

maybe also "argument from nature." tonight! 15 rounds! no referee! darwin-win-win versus-sus-sus JESUS-sus-sus! ONLY on pay-per-view!!!

for instance the argument i was about to make about entitlements. certain parties would have me believe that i am an inheritor of the greatest civilization that ever existed. (which is to say, the best work anybody could have done, done repeatedly; which is to admit, it is subject to overrating.)

no but for entitlements, for something of an understanding of society, i've been drawn to plants. this is a kind of inherited idea. i suddenly saw trees one day as a standing history of their young efforts at capturing the sun effectively. tracing branches back from leaf to trunk, each bend is like a change in social direction, sort of, and was very important to the success and growth of the tree. this is why there are/were so many trees, they are good at growing.

without a doubt, the society of trees civilized the brutal earth and made our lives possible. not a radical green statement, just a thought, because in part this discussion is one of debts, and i'm hip to this jive, i'm not going to declare a new debt in a weird direction without a purpose.

thinking about entitlements and restraints, i think they are together, one piece. entitlements are sort of a fallback, a future restraint, i guess. even as this conservative tradition argues that restraint makes beasts into people, it frames this restraint to allow significant exceptions, allowing the restrained to decide who can and can't move up.

entitlements seem to pop out of the fact that we have shown a tendency to grow beyond natural or social restraints, indeed that many of the societies have staked a claim that people are more important than anything, ever, except the divine, and even that faith is shaking... there being strength in numbers, after all...

so in a sense, restraints create little pockets of beautiful activity all over the place, and perhaps it's entitlements that cushion the collision of two or more such pockets. no no, they can do that, they're entitled. such collisions being inevitable as everybody grows.

adding to that, america is a gorgeous example of the kind of ecological imbalances an invasive species can cause. maybe one day kudzu-beings will have debates like this too!

ah! right! so maybe the sense of the importance of entitlements becomes less clear as the society becomes more complicated and restraint systems intermingle. we've already agreed not to bump into each other.

snort! of course she's entitled to that, she's my brother's wife! what a dumb law!

of course the reason entitlements were put in place was that restraints can be overgrown. after thinking you know everything, then comes some catastrophic misunderstanding, and something like 9/11 from it, drawing everybody back into the debate.

okay, done.

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