I’ve decided to start what I envision as an ongoing series of posts here at PoT, called “Rethinking Rights.” A couple of posts have already implicitly discussed the topic: Though I focused on the “traffic ethics” angle at the time, part of the point of last summer’s series on honking at a dangerous intersection was to re-think how the concept of rights applies to noise-based nuisances. Rethinking rights is also related to Gordon Barnes’s post on the freedom fetish, and to my posts on self-defense and local government, among others. Though I meant it as a joke, my recent post on noisy neighbors was arguably on the same topic. There are probably some others as well. Since rights and freedom/liberty are on some accounts closely related concepts, feel free to regard the series as in principle extending to the topic of freedom/liberty as well. (I just happen to know a PoT reader chomping at the bit to become a PoT blogger and write on that topic.)
While any authorized PoT blogger can contribute to the series (and any approved commentator can comment on it), my own personal motivation for rethinking rights is that I find the issue overridingly important, but find myself dissatisfied by the conceptions of rights I’ve encountered in the philosophical literature and in ordinary discourse. The Objectivist conception of rights strikes me as either too narrow or ultimately indeterminate. The libertarian conception is on some accounts even narrower, but also problematically deontic. (Yes, I regard a commitment to deontology as a problem.) The standard left-liberal conception, which (on some accounts) includes a strong version of positive rights, and (on others) includes “collective” rights to ethno-national self-determination, strikes me as too broad, and problematically collectivist. (Yes, “collectivism” is a problem, too.) More radical conceptions of rights, which confer rights on embryos, fetuses, non-human animals, and non-living things, strike me as much too broad. Conceptions of rights drawn in positivist fashion directly from blackletter law strike me as arbitrary and insufficiently focused on moral essentials.
And yet I don’t want to let go of rights-talk, either: I don’t, for instance, buy the Benthamite, Burkean, Marxist, or MacIntyrean rejections of the concept of rights. I don’t even buy communitarian claims about the supposed excesses of rights talk. I’m convinced that there’s an account of rights “out there” that avoids the pitfalls of the existing accounts while bypassing the objections of rights-skeptics. It just needs to be worked out in an explicit way. (On PoT.)
My aim in the series (which need not be the aim of any other contributor) is to (begin to) work out a conception of rights that’s broader and more determinate than the Objectivist/libertarian conception, narrower than the left-liberal conception, and more focused on specifically moral essentials than the sort of account you’d get by perusing a standard textbook of criminal, tort, or business law. A further constraint on the theory is that it has to cohere with a recognizably Aristotelian conception of human flourishing and moral virtue. An aspiration of the series is to think about topics, or spheres of life, that go relatively (or completely) undiscussed in the Anglo-American analytic literature.
I don’t imagine that I can work out a theory of rights in a series of blog posts, even a few years’ worth of them. My aim is a bit more modest: to rebut some defective ideas; to sketch some promising new lines of thought; to uncover previously hidden areas of inquiry worth probing; and so on.
I have a first post in mind, which I’ll post sometime this weekend–most likely after I announce the publication of the new issue of Reason Papers (Spring 2015, volume 37.1).