Sunday, June 1, 2008


Rights exist not as entities in their own right but only within minds. But it does not follow from this that right are arbitrarily granted by "society". Society is, after all, an abstraction, and there is no guarantee that members of a society will agree on any particular question. But the fact that there is as much agreement as there is on questions of rights indicates something.

Rights cab exist in the mind in two very different ways: a person may regard himself as having a right, or a person may think some other person has a right.

If a person has a right in his own mind, he will generally feel obligated to enforce that right and punish at cost to himself. For example, a victim of theft may be more concerned with punishing the thief than with retrieving his stolen property. This is particularly true if the violation is public, but a person may seek vengeance for a violation of his rights even if the violation will never become public knowledge, and sometimes even the revenge will take a form that it will never become known.

Concern over the violation of rights of others tends to be much weaker. A person may give some aid to an aggrieved party or at least refuse to deal with an agressor, but generally he will do no more than what the social mores of his community demands of him. The two main exceptions to this are when the realtionship between the victim and some third party is such that injury to the victim becomes an insult to said third party, or when the agression is used as an excuse to inflict damage upon or pillage the resources of the agressor.

The process of aquiring rights in the eyes of society may begin with boldly asserting that one has said rights, but the idea that one has such rights will only be accepted if their nature is in accord with the general idea of one's society's ideas as to what sorts of rights it is possible to have. For example, a person may feel he has an absolute right to ownership of a piece of land (inlcuding the right to exclude all others), whereas someone else might maintain that a general right of easement exists, that is, that no person has the right to prevent some other person from simply crossing his property if the the crosser is doing no damage. This kind of disagreement cannot be resolved with pure reason.

Rights may or may not be transferable. Economic efficiency arguments say that it is generally better if they are, but a right cannot be freely transferable if, for example, the right to perform some function must be tied to a demonstrated capability to competently perform said function, or if the right is accepted by society primarily because of the right holder's demonstrated personal ability to enforce said right.

The difference between a right and a privilege is that a privilege is granted by some authority, and can be arbitrarily revoked by the same authority. Even if a right was originally required by a grant, a right holder will reject a claim that his right has been rescinded.

1 comment:

AMcGuinn said...

if the right is accepted by society primarily because of the right holder's demonstrated personal ability to enforce said right....

I like that. I came to a similar conclusion recently here.