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  • Writer's pictureCrone


I mentioned rights yesterday... and here delve into the subject a little more deeply...

There's been for some years a call for animal rights. The philosopher Tom Regan makes a strong case, using a similar framework (but far more effectively) to that I argued in an earlier post. I'm kind of persuaded by it but then I retreat. Not because I don't think non human animals should have equal consideration to humans (take into account the unjustifiability of speciesism plus the the sentience of other creatures and the fact that some will have greater cognitive abilities than some humans, so that one cannot draw a dividing like of ethical significance based on smarts or suffering), but because I don't like the language of rights.

'It's my right!' Sounds to me like a spoilt adolescent.

Now, I don't find the calls for group rights totally objectionable. Workers' right, say. But I think that the reason I don't find that obnoxious is that there is a contractual arrangement and it seems appropriate in a system where there is a a power differential in a contractual arrangement for the side with less power to have recourse to protection. One could say that women, minorities, children, animals are all at a power disadvantage and that right for these groups as groups act as some protection. Yes, OK, fair enough. One could say that. Though the passive status inherent in 'having a right' actually, to me, seems kind of demeaning rather than empowering. But I can see how those who have been at the receiving end of abuse might stand in need of such a framework.

And then one could say, 'Yes, but individuals are at a power disadvantage compared to the state and so individual rights are valid too.'

Well, this is where I start to feel antsy. Rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Then free speech, equal treatment before the law, opportunity to engage in the democratic process, education, health care. I believe all people should indeed have these things. It seems that people also have the right to have a family. I think I should have the right to a husband, but there we go.

What I object to is not that people should have these things (all of which, of course, Regan is not advocating that animals should have because they don't currently join political parties and require votes nor commit crimes and require a fair trial) but that the direction of obligation is interpreted as being one-way. That people want these rights like gifts with nothing in return - and without even necessarily caring that much that others have them. Indeed, some seem to have little concern about restricting some rights for others (notably free speech).

Are rights embedded in the fabric of the universe? I suppose a moral realist could make some claim for the intrinsic value of a life and thus the concomitant right not to be killed and so on. But does the universe determine between baby seals and killer whales? Or does the universe only care about humans? If so, does the universe allow killing in war? Or as part of a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis? Capital punishment? Abortion? Has the universe got some complicated moral code that, if only we keep on fretting over the narcissism of small differences in philosophical papers, we shall find?

Let's assume for the sake of argument that we shall not read in the tapestry of nature a list of proscriptions and rights. Let's assume that we, the humans, dealt these out. First to educated white men and then to other folk - and even women. I should be grateful to have finally got on that particular Christmas card list. I should wave my rights about with pride - and boo-hoo to anyone who tries to take them away. I'll protect my rights with my life and my voice and my type. That's a full time job, mate - you'll have to fight for and protect your own.

You see, it seems to me that this rights language plays into our self-regarding tendency. It plays into our sense of being atomised selves*. It pushes us apart.

That's not to say that the Civil Rights Movement in the States wasn't important and beneficial and brilliant. It was. Because societies were not doing what they should. And, to an extent, they're still not. And it's not to say that in that period, those fighting for rights sequestered their concerned in limited identity groups unduly, though there were factions among both feminists and groups fighting for Black Americans. But now the fragmentation has made the rights movements or campaigns almost self-denying. Identity groups fine tuned down to identities so specific and so antagonistic to their fellows that it's more circus acts than civil rights.

So I think we need something that binds us together.

Perhaps a better framework would be for us to think in terms of duties.

The state has duties to its citizens - providing protection from foreign states, education, health care, universal basic income, democratic processes, a fair judicial system, protection from crime and discrimination and so on.

Employers and institutions have duties, of course.

And, crucially, citizens too have duties - to obey the laws, to vote, to protect the environment, to respect the freedom and dignity of others.

The gifts we get are not given as rights, they are given as a result of the duties of our fellow citizens, our institutions and our societies.

This might be acceptable to a community of people who regarded the interests of others as relevant to themselves, as in an 'intimacy' culture, but where the view is staunchly individualistic, the concept would be far from attractive.

But how do you change a cultural stance? Jeremy Lent in The Patterning Instinct suggests that the history of Western thought from Plato onwards has led to a certain perspective that shapes the way we think and how we interpret the world. But we are not fixed in that state, we can change. I think it would have to be top-down, though, because there is not enough motivation on an individual basis to instantiate bottom-up evolution.

My friend Richard told me that in one of his online philosophy classes Dan Fincke talked about the difference between concepts of 'beings' and concepts of 'becomings'. This seems to map across a very general Western/Eastern distinction: whereas 'beings' consider selves as fixed, whole and independent, 'becomings' recognise the flow, the unfinished-ness and the interdependence.

Where we are being increasingly self-interested and polarised, maybe we need to become more connected, integrated and aware of others. Where we are being passive and demanding 'rights', maybe we need to become responsible and act on duties.

Maybe, just maybe, we need to be willing to give and to do before we demand.

So, here's my call: 'What do we want? Duties! When do we want them? Now!'


*Recall from an earlier post: [A] quote from a Jewish sage, Hillel, who says, 'If I am not for myself, who will be for me?' but immediately continues, 'If I am only for myself, what am I?' Notice that Hillel said 'what', not 'who' - the individual who is out only for herself ceases to be a real person.

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