What are General Moral Rights?

  1. Definition: A right is a moral claim to freedom of action.
    What is freedom of action? The ability to do anything which you are entitled to do, so long as it does not negate the freedom of action of others. (Note that "entitled" assumes some underlying system of property rights.)

  2. Rights trump other moral considerations.
    Freedom of action precedes (is a necessary condition for) living your life as you choose, i.e. human production and living a good life.

  3. A set of rights must be internally consistent.
    One right can not contradict or violate another right. There can be no "trade-offs" with or among rights.

  4. Rights address the jurisdictional issue: Who should decide?
    Rights are not an answer to all moral issues. Rights only address what people should be allowed to do, not what they should do. "The right to do wrong," is a difficult concept for some, but it really does make sense.

  5. Who do rights protect against? The State, and also private criminals.
    Rights do not address or protect against natural constraints on humans, such as the need for food, clothing and shelter, nor do they address undeniable needs such as education and a decent standard of living. Rights do protect freedom of action in addressing such needs.

  6. What is the ultimate - most general - right? The right of freedom of action.
    All other specific rights are examples of freedom of action.
  7. Cf: Moral Rights and Political Freedom by Tara Smith

"Since men can think, feel, evaluate, and act only as individuals, it becomes vitally necessary for each man's survival and prosperity that he be free to learn, choose, develop his faculties, and act upon his knowledge and values. This is the necessary path of human nature; to interfere with and cripple this process by using violence goes profoundly against what is necessary by man's nature for his life and prosperity. Violent interference with a man's learning and choices is therefore profoundly 'antihuman'; it violates the natural law of each of man's needs." - Murray Rothbard
"The concept of a "right" pertains only to action - specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men. Thus, for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive - of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights." - Ayn Rand

Comments about Disenthrall's Conception of Rights

"Rights" is a contested term, and can be defined in other ways. In fact, various conceptions of rights have been offered, some of which have little to do with ethics or morality. This is the reason we specify general moral rights. We want to emphasize that we are not talking about special or conditional rights, such as property assignments or contractual arrangements. Often, we will explicitly label a right as a general moral right or a special right, if there is a possibiity of confusion.

Another conception of rights, which Disenthrall has discussed in his podcast, is a purely descriptive notion:

right (descriptive) - a mutual reciprocal understanding between sentient beings

A very good thing about this definition is that it allows the use of all the wonderful arguments in Jan Narveson's contractarianism. As Disenthrall says, the descriptive definition succeeds in refuting some mistaken notions about rights, such as (a) that government grants them, (b) one can lose them or someone can "steal" them, and (c) they are automatically enforced. Obviously, rights are intangible, not property, so cannot be stolen or "possessed" literally. It should be noted that the general moral rights definition also addresses these reification fallacy issues. E.g. Obviously a mere claim cannot enforce itself.

While one can of course use the descriptive definition of rights logically, there is a significant risk of drawing illegitimate conclusions if one is not very careful. Why? Because the term "right" is, in political discussions, most often used in a normative manner, as a reason that one moral claim is more important than another. Using "right" in the descriptive sense has no such implication, but it is suseptible to being used either accidentally or unscrupulously as a (normative) argument.

Example 1: In Marxist theory, "exploitation" is defined descriptively as employers collecting the surplus value of their employees' work, aka "making a profit." Even though technically "exploitation" is a descriptive term, in most Marxist propaganda and conversation, it is used implicitly in a normative sense. Most people hear the word "exploitation" as a bad thing.

Example 2: In Curt Doolittle's Propertarianism [sic Reciprocism] theory, "property" is defined descriptively as any interest (individual or collective) which people are willing to defend and have invested in. Even though technically "property" is a descriptive term in this stipulated case, in standard usage it is a normative concept. Most people hear the word "property" and believe that implies that it is morally right to defend it, even using violence. Thus Doolittle can call such things as feeling safe in your neighborhood, not having untrustworthy foreigners nearby, and a community with above average IQ as properties, implying that violence is justified to e.g. prevent immigration.

In both examples cited, the rhetorical trick was to take a normally normative term, stipulate a descriptive definition, and then try to leverage the stipulated definition into something it is not - a normative argument.

This is my concern with Disenthrall's definition. I think it has the same problem as Marx's and Doolittle's definitions - the appearance of being descriptive along with a clear connotation (from the normal definition) of normative import. I won't say that this is dishonest, since such stipulated definitions can be used validly. But I do think that it is extremely difficult to do so, and that most readers or listeners will indeed make the faulty normative association, just as most communists and socialists adopt the faulty normative implication of "exploitation."

I have a right of free speech, which by the normative definition means that others should not forcibly prevent me from communicating in ways that I am entitled to communicate. A descriptive right is basically a (perhaps implied) contractual right, without any moral import. It could be "a right to fuck Sue." It may not be universal; on the contrary, it could apply only to two people. It could also be frivolous, like some of Doolittle's "property," e.g. a right to not see ugly people, or a right not to be around black people. Narveson, in his contractarianism, avoids this problem by specifying that rights are only those agreements that virtually all rational people would agree to, e.g. "I won't murder you if you don't murder me." My concerns with Disenthrall's descriptive definition are:

Thus, if I had my preferences, I would call Disenthrall's conception of rights "reciprocal understandings" and Doolittle's conception of property "demonstrated interests." And I would call Marx's conception of exploitation "utilization," or simply "profit."
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