30 November 2012

from Lawrence, Sunday PhiloMadrid meeting: Do we have a right to anything?

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: Do we have a right to anything?

During times of economic and political turmoil we can easily agree that we do have rights; and
whilst this maybe useful politics, it does not automatically immunise us against the philosophical
issues we might encounter in a discussion on rights. In my few comments below I might give the
impression that whist we know where our destination, and that we'll arrive there safely, we still
have to cross the minefield successfully!

Best Lawrence

PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao

Thursday's Open Tertulia in English
Important Notice: From December 1st, the Tertulia will take place at O'Donnells (ex-Moore's) Irish
Pub, c/ Barceló 1 (metro Tribunal)

Do we have a right to anything?

To even speak of rights assumes that we have progressed from a zero sum game natural environment to
a win-win environment. Rights imply that we share with others and that we do not share at the
expense of others.

And although rights have certainly vexed philosophers for millennia, it was maybe the concepts like
the social contract and property rights that we find the germ for the modern concept of rights.
Maybe in the last month of 2012 we might speak of a right to an internet connection in the same way
as, for example, the French Revolutionaries spoke of the right to free speech. Hence, for all
intents and purposes we can assume that rights do exist, and that we do have rights.

Politically, this might settle many issues, but I suspect that philosophically we might not be so
lucky. Indeed, philosophically speaking, we don't want to rush into what at face value might seem
clear cut solutions. Maybe philosophical investigation is not meant to make life easy for us now,
but rather to prevent us from making life hard later on!

And the first issue we might want to consider is this: if we don't have rights to anything, what do
we have? I mean if we don't have rights, then surely to speak of duties does not make sense as well.
And yet we normally speak of rights as well as duties. And if we don't have rights who is
responsible to make sure that we don't have rights? But this is a bit circular, if someone is in
charge to make sure we don't have rights then upon what right do they have that job?

There might be an issue with the idea or concept of rights because of some implied meaning of the
word right. Somehow the word right implies a process of giving entitlement; i.e. being granted the
right. And in the twilight zone of the meaning of rights we come across the idea of merit or deserve
to receive or be granted a right. But deserving to be granted a right is different from having a
right simply because of an accident of nature that we were born human beings.

But this language of merit to receive a right or a rights being an inherent property we have for
being born a human being is not new. We first come across this idea of inheritress of some property
purely because we were born a human being in the teaching of some religions about the original sin.
So it not surprising that after the dark and middle ages we begin to find the idea of possessing an
inherent human property of something good for us personally; that is all of a sudden we have rights
to things, after millennia of servitude, slavery and class exclusion.

As for the idea that rights are somehow bestowed on us, it is no different from the idea that
eternal life is bestowed on us by some deity if we are good. Again after millennia of human beings
living under the model of hierarchy and master servant mentality of reward, it would make sense that
in an age of enlightenment we personally have something good (a right) not because of our parent's
station in life, but by virtue of the fact that we were born at all. Or to put it in another way,
now all parents bestow a privilege on their children by virtue of giving birth to them, and not by
virtue of class status.

So although rights are supposed to be a modern and revolutionary idea, in reality, at least in the
twilight zone of the meaning of rights, we find a reactionary language to millennia of human
survival based on zero sum games – I win, you lose – I'm master, you're slave, I'm god you're dust.

But as I have suggested earlier, rights might also suggest merit: we have a right to owe something
might mean we deserve to owe something. Thus do we have a right to anything, might be equally
interpreted to mean: do we deserve to have something.

Maybe we can understand this idea of merit, which is basically a value judgement, by suggesting that
it is very easy to mistake a right to something to mean I must have what I want. On the one hand, of
course, we cannot expect that everybody does an analytical philosophical analyses between what
rights they have and what they are entitled to have because they want it.

Hence, we don't expect the pensioner this morning at the GP's to have made a conscious analysis
between rights and wants, when this person insisted that they have their blood pressure taken by the
nurse, even though it was pointed out to them that their appointment was for an other day. And of
course there was no suggestion that this person was feeling unwell or anything; sadly, the reality
was that this person might be suffering from the ravages of old age on the brain. (They got their BP
taken plus some other attention not planned!!)

So there is a good chance that some people might insist on what they think are their rights, when in
reality they are insisting on something they just want to have, just because they want it. And human
beings, being human beings, we cannot help ourselves and judge others when they insist on getting
things because they simply want it.

Maybe when we do an audit of our rights, we shouldn't just make a tally of the instances when
something was our right and we wanted to available ourselves of that right, but rather we should
make a tally of when we have a right for something, an it was intentionally withheld from us for no
justifiable reason.

To illustrate my point, maybe my right to free speech does not equate to insulting and abusing other
people. But rather how many times have I been prevented from expressing my opinion on things I
disagree with because I believe they are not for the good of everyone. Thus being prevented to
criticise those in power because of suspicious policies is not the same as insulting people who
paint their toe nails green because I feel like it and I want to just insult them.

Best Lawrence

from Lawrence, Sunday PhiloMadrid meeting: Do we have a right to anything?

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