The Ethics of Human Rights (79): A Right to Do X ≠ X is the Right Thing to Do

comments 6
ethics of human rights / philosophy
Santa wagging his finger

Santa wagging his finger

I’ve argued before that human rights and morality are at best two partially overlapping domains. Many human rights imply a right to do wrong: free speech includes the right to insult and to break promises, two things which most reasonable accounts of morality would consider wrong. A lot of what is prohibited by morality is protected by human rights. Most would consider systematic lying – as opposed to lies of convenience – a breach of elementary moral rules, and yet the liar is protected by his or her free speech rights.

The other side of the coin: zealous pursuits of moral goals – even universally accepted moral goals such as justice and fairness – often lead to violations, sometimes gross violations of human rights. Think communism. Strong convictions about good and evil can lead to violent coercion of others who don’t conform to these convictions. FGM is another example: one of the reasons why people engage in female genital mutilation is the fear that if women are left unmolested they won’t be able to restrain their sexuality and will likely act immorally.

People often think as follows: given that they are convinced that X is the right thing to do (morally speaking) they conclude that they have a right to force others to do X. Needless to say that this conclusion is not acceptable. Life would be a hell of permanent coercion if it were.

However, it’s not impossible to imagine cases in which the morally right thing to do should be done even if it leads to rights violations: the ticking time bomb case comes to mind.

Of course, rights and morality do overlap in a lot of cases: murder is morally wrong, and there is a right to life that should be respected. I could cite literally hundreds of examples. Many things are morally wrong and at the same time violations of rights. If you have a right to do something, often you’ll also do the right thing; or better: if someone has a right to do X or a right to X, then others will be forced to do the right thing, which means acting in ways that respect that X.

A handy summary in visual form:

human rights and morality

More posts in this series are here.

6 Comments

  1. Since we don’t have a universally applicable set of moral rules, we need to create the liberty for individuals. 20th century communism and nazism seems indeed a good example of how an authority makes a set of moral rules and force them upon people. Obviously, nobody wants this anymore. And yet, I’m often doubting whether a complete liberty is preferable. Aren’t there any universal moral laws at all that we should enforce?

    • “…Since we don’t have a universally applicable set of moral rules, we need to create the liberty for individuals…”

      “It’s immoral initiate force” and “it’s immoral to steal” are the only two moral rules we really need to apply in order to achieve freedom/ civilisation. If we just applied those two consistently and universally then 99% of the world’s problems would be solved.

      “..20th century communism and nazism seems indeed a good example of how an authority makes a set of moral rules and force them upon people…”

      Strictly speaking, no government (communist, fascist, whatever) has ever forced moral rules onto the people. What they all do (current governments included) is they impose and enforce their own monopolistic legal right to VIOLATE moral rules. They get away with this by pretending to be imposing and enforcing moral rules onto society.

      Here is an example of imposing/ enforcing moral rules onto society….

      “Nobody in this village is allowed to steal, murder, torture, coerce, kidnap, assault or defraud, and we – the elders of the village – shall enforce these rules!”

      Here is an example of imposing/ enforcing a monopolistic right to violate moral rules onto society….

      “Nobody in this village except us is allowed to steal, murder, torture, coerce, kidnap, assault or defraud, and we – the elders of the village – shall enforce these laws!”

      A subtle, but profound, difference!

      A *rule* implies universality. Statism (of any kind, including ‘democracy’) is actually a social system with no rules! If the government were to start enforcing even the most basic ‘no brainer’ moral RULES (such as it’s immoral to assault, coerce, murder, defraud and steal) then it would immediately have to arrest itself for committing those immoral acts all the time and thus violating those moral rules.

      In a statist society we have ‘laws’ instead of rules. A rule is a condition which applies, or is applied, universally. A ‘law’ is just an opinion with a gun. A law certainly can reflect a moral rule, but it doesn’t have to. Thousands of current ‘laws’ blatantly violate basic moral rules.

      For thousands of years morality has been used as a weapon by the ruling classes to control and exploit the population…. basically to get themselves a a free lunch at our expense.

      The bottom line is….

      1. Universal moral rules and rule by force (statism/ monarchy etc) cannot co-exist at the same time.

      2. 1. Applying universal moral rules universally (ie to everyone) would inevitably and naturally lead to a state of anarchy …… and civilisation, at last! :)

      • “Strictly speaking, no government (communist, fascist, whatever) has ever forced moral rules onto the people. What they all do (current governments included) is they impose and enforce their own monopolistic legal right to VIOLATE moral rules. They get away with this by pretending to be imposing and enforcing moral rules onto society.” I think that’s a bit too cynical. The new enforced laws were really based on what they consider morally right. This might make their actions even more disgusting. Killing Jews because it’s considered morally right, instead of killing them because the law forces you to. I guess if it were the latter, they wouldn’t have been so ‘successful.’ What you call “pretending” is, especially in these two extreme cases, probably honest conviction.

        Otherwise you would need some really mentally ill people in order to push those laws, knowing that they are morally wrong. To kill a massive number of people, it has to be considered the morally right. Secondly, all your citizens (or at least the vast majority) has to lack any kind of courage if they can’t stand up against laws they consider morally degrading.

        So the difference between moral rule and law isn’t so much the rulers who except themselves, but the aspect of any type of enforcing at all. Making a moral rule officially the correct way to live (which makes it a law) is already some way of push one idea of what is morally correct.

        “In a statist society we have ‘laws’ instead of rules. A rule is a condition which applies, or is applied, universally. A ‘law’ is just an opinion with a gun.” This is a very sharp distinction. Here, rules are universal and not just an opinion. Laws are mere opinions, whether they are moral are not is irrelevant and they are heavily enforced. It seems to put moral rules on a level that might be to high and lacks some respect for laws. Because sure, we can follow the very limited set of moral rules that you proclaim. And you might say that they are universal, but that doesn’t hold back others of having different moral rules, also claiming the same universality. The idea of enforcing even the simplest moral rules gives the opportunity for a clash, since others can disagree with your rules.

        • Yes I agree many people fall for the pretence, and that can include people in government. The general public are subjected to 1500 hours of propaganda starting at age four which tells them over and over that the government (AKA ‘democracy’) is inherently moral and must be supported no matter what it does.

          The people who are most brainwashed by this propaganda are also the most likely to end up in government or working to support government (police, army etc). Wars, persecutions, oppression and other evils are only possible when the majority of the population is brainwashed into placing the actions of ‘government’ automatically above moral rules, to the point that the government can literally ask you to start murdering children (or fund others to murder them on your behalf) and you will happily do this and believe it is somehow morally acceptable or even virtuous.

          Of course in reality ‘government’ does not exist, only people exist. The idea that the people in the group calling themselves ‘government’ should be exempt from the moral rules which apply to everyone else is more brainwashing. If anything they should be more closely bound to moral rules than the rest of us, given the fact that they have guns, tanks, nuclear weapons etc.

          But the main point was that all governments impose and enforce their own monopolistic legal right to VIOLATE moral rules. That is just a fact. If murder is morally wrong and I murder you and steal your wallet, does it really matter whether or not I believe my actions were morally justified?

          “…Otherwise you would need some really mentally ill people in order to push those laws, knowing that they are morally wrong….”

          Most leading politicians (currently and throughout history) exhibit a total lack of empathy (ie sociopathy / psychopathy). A lack of empathy is all that is required to oppress a nation or commit genocide. Think of a computer running a program – without empathy every decision it makes is as cold and calculated as the rest. This is how psychopaths operate.

          ‘…To kill a massive number of people, it has to be considered the morally right….”

          This only really applies to the general public and lower level politicians. That’s why so much propaganda is required in schools, in the media, at sports games etc. This propaganda is mostly designed to create that reflex association between ‘government’ and ‘virtue’ – irrespective of what the government is actually doing (such as waging an illegal war). The decision to support government is drawn out of people from age four and reinforced throughout life. Having already conditioned the public to unthinkingly support government (regardless of the immorality of their policies) they only need to add a bit extra propaganda for specific policies. If they want to start a war for example, they just put out lots of racist propaganda while simultaneously encouraging ‘patriotism’ (ie unquestioning obedience to government and racism towards other nations).

          “…This is a very sharp distinction. Here, rules are universal and not just an opinion. ….”

          Yes a rule has to be universal otherwise it is not a rule. “No swimming in this lake” is not a rule if redheads are allowed to swim in it.

          Moral rules definitely CAN be opinions, but to be qualify as a rule those opinions MUST be universal. For example I can have the opinion “eating cheese is immoral”. But I cannot claim that as a moral RULE unless I agree that eating cheese is immoral for EVERYBODY. If I claim eating cheese is immoral for everyone except me and my friends then it’s not a moral rule. It’s just me trying to impose a monopoly on the right to eat cheese.

          Likewise, if a government claims assault, coercion, theft and kidnapping are immoral for everyone except government then they are not imposing a moral rule. They are imposing their monopoly on the right to assault, coerce, steal and kidnap.

          A ‘law’ just means the willingness to use force. That’s all it means! A ‘law’ has no inherent moral value. Each ‘law’ must be judged separately as to whether it is immoral, moral or neutral.

          We are trained to ‘respect the law’ AS IF every ‘law’ was automatically moral. Having the public trained to automatically ‘respect the law’ is precisely what has led to every tyrannical regime, every act of mass persecution, genocide and every war.

          If the public had been taught to asses each law individually according to basic moral rules (initiating force is wrong, theft is wrong etc), and if the public had been told it was OK to disobey any law which is immoral (in fact it is your moral duty to disobey any law which is immoral!), then all the wars, genocide, persecution and fraud perpetrated by governments over the last century would not have happened.

          “…It seems to put moral rules on a level that might be to high and lacks some respect for laws. Because sure, we can follow the very limited set of moral rules that you proclaim. And you might say that they are universal, but that doesn’t hold back others of having different moral rules, also claiming the same universality. …”

          I’m not saying any moral rules ARE universal. I’m saying that to be considered a rule it must be applied universally….. otherwise it is NOT a rule, but an attempt at achieving a monopoly on the right to do X.

          99.9999% of the population ALREADY accepts that theft is immoral and initiating force (assault, rape, murder, kidnapping etc) is immoral. Ordinary society is ALREADY structured according to those moral rules. If you steal or try to initiate force everybody agrees you are behaving immorally and have no problem with appropriate force being used to stop you.

          There is a difference between being prepared to steal, rape, assault, coerce or murder and actually trying to claim these are morally defensible activities. If you try to claim theft is moral then you’re basically saying everyone should be allowed to steal – which means you won’t mind if people steal your stuff too! That is why universality is the key to morality. We can test any moral rule by applying it universally. Initiating force and committing theft can never be universally preferable, therefore they must be immoral.

          A moral rule + the willingness to use force to enforce that moral rule = the essence of a ‘law’ against theft or rape or assault etc. That’s all a ‘law’ is ….. it’s just the willingness to use force to enFORCE a moral rule. Any law which strays from that definition is tyrannical.

  2. Pingback: Best of the Summer | P.a.p.-Blog // Human Rights Etc.

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