Wednesday, September 16, 2009

There are no such things as "Inalienable Rights"

One idea that has been circulating around the blogashpere is that health care is not a natural right of man, so we shouldn't feel obligated to offer every citizen health care.

This got me pondering what constitutes a "natural right". After many arguments with many people a premise begin to arise that there are certain rights that are "natural" to man based upon them being inherent by man's existence,and health care just was not one of them.

But I believe we as a society decide what rights should belong to the members of our society. I fail to see how any one right is due any one individual by virtue of being born man. And therefore, I fail to see why health care could not be considered a right of society, the same as "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

The following discourse is why I reject the premise that only certain rights are "inalienable" or "natural" (forgive me if long winded)

In the natural state of Man there are no "rights"

The first point of contention I have with the premise that only certain "rights" are natural is the choice definition of a "natural right" as being something one is inherently born with. In order to understand why this is a point of contention for me, you have to understand my frame of reference for man's "natural state".

Natural State of man refers to:

State of nature is a term in political philosophy used in social contract theories to describe the hypothetical condition of humanity before the state's foundation and its monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force. In a broader sense, the state of nature is the condition before the rule of positive law comes into being, thus being a synonym of anarchy.

Essentially what this means is man is born into a state of anarchy, and because of his capacity for reason moves towards society. Man in his natural state is void of morality he is driven simply, as classical psychologist like Freud would put it, by id (aggression). In that state there is no consideration for anything but one's own self preservation. You are hungry you eat. It doesn't consider the source of the food or the morality of how it is acquired.

Liken it to a lion in the jungle. When it is hungry it kills and eats a gazelle. It doesn't stop to consider "Is it just to the gazelle?". In nature only thing guaranteed by virtue of being alive is death. I guess one could argue that in a natural state one has ultimate right only confined by one's ability. I could concede that ability = right in that scenario. However, I prefer to think of it as absolute freedom, since freedom to do something and the privilege to do so are different. I will come back to that.

A common rebuttal to this "natural state" is that it is purely a hypothetical condition and man naturally moves towards society. While I think it is observationally true man does move toward societal existence, I don't think one can say absolutely that 1) the natural state doesn't exist as a precursor to that movement and 2) even if there is natural movement towards society the path is not universal. Therefore the constructs used to define and govern society aren't "inalienably" natural. These are important points elaborating on them will bring me to my second point

Rights(privileges) are arbitrary social constructs

First, I should clarify: by arbitrary I don't mean randomly assigned, but rather, arbitrary in the sense that what constitutes a right in a certain society may not be considered one in another. And different societies use different values and mechanisms to establish what is a "right" in that society.

The purpose of society is to achieve in the collective what would be difficult to achieve as an individual. Earlier I equated ability with freedoms. In nature you are "free" to do what ever you have the "ability" to do. In order for the collective to move forward the individual sacrifices some of these freedoms to the collective in order for the collective to move forward. Pretty basic social contract stuff.

In surrendering our ability to do whatever we want, pure freedom, to the collective; we gain order. As a collective we decide 1) what personal limits on freedom are acceptable 2)what we expect to get from the collective in return for accepting those limitations. These two things ultimately result in what is permissible and expected of a society, and they are determined by the majority consensus of that society. Therefore they are dynamic, evolving, and malleable, but not inherent, nor universal.

One criticism against this premise has been that accepting the philosophy behind the social contract meant conceding that the government dictates rights, not the people. I would argue that depends on how a society constructs it government.

In a monarchy, dictatorship, or theocracy(possibly) it would be true that the government decides what is a right. But this is not so in a democracy or a republic. If the argument was as Americans there are certain rights we as Americans should hold as "inalienable", I might be inclined to disagree less. However to state that privileges of one society should be ubiquitous to every society by virtue of humanity, is a more contentious point. And one I feel leads to imperialistic beliefs on how other societies should behave.

The last point that I wanted to touch on was the notion that because man is moral certain rights are innate.

Morality can be a basis for a right, but is not the right itself

What constitutes morality or a sense of right and wrong is dependant on culturally learned experiences. Take a two year old. Those who have children will tell you a two year old has no sense of possession everything is "mine". There is no sense of right or wrong about stealing until that is explained to them. The two year old is neither amoral or moral until experiences carve out a value system. Morality can serve as the basis for establishing a privilege, but is not an absolute that predicates one.


Health care can be a "right" of Americans if we all say so

Perhaps the whole reason I like the philosophical and nearly esoteric discussion on rights is this: We as a society decides what should or shouldn't be a right in our society. We should base these decisions on what is good for the whole of a society. Because when society fails to act on the best interest of the collective, the individual gaining nothing from society, rejects it limitations on personal freedoms and anarchy ensues.

Makes common sense to me.

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