What bears rights?

2011-05-09

in Geek stuff, Law, Politics, Psychology, Science, Writing

Arguably, the fundamental right of any entity that has rights is the right to have its interests taken into consideration. That is the rational basis for the Harm Principle (described recently). Entities with interests that we consider morally irrelevant do not have any other rights. For instance, we don’t feel the need to take the interests of a hammer or a clump of dirt seriously when making moral choices. At the same time, it is the right to consideration borne by some entities that forms the foundation upon which claims to any other rights (rights of free speech, to possess property, etc) are based. In order to treat an entity according to a higher-level moral principle such as fairness, it is necessary first to recognize that they bear the right to have their interests considered at all.

Humans as rights-bearers

Generally speaking, humanity grants the right to consideration to all humans. Exactly what that consideration requires can be hotly contested. For instance, someone who is unable to communicate but suffering terribly from a terminal illness might be granted consideration in radically different ways – some people would advocate doing everything possible to keep them alive, despite their suffering. Others might say that the way their interests can be best served is to let them die. Either way, the interests of the person themselves are part of the discussion.

It is also possible that there are objects that are human beings in a certain technical sense, but which do not deserve to have their interests taken into consideration. For instance, this category could include embryos at an early stage of development (or even perhaps at any stage), living bodies that have had their brains completely destroyed, or even frozen corpses at some future time when their re-animation is technically possible.

Non-humans as rights-bearers

We do not apply such a right of consideration to all living things. Rather, we treat many of them simply as means for serving the ends of entities that we do consider to be bearers of rights. In some cases, that is unobjectionable. Nobody can reasonably object to a person shaping a piece of stone into an axe head, without giving any consideration to the piece of stone. Similarly, we have no reason to think that people are unethical when they fail to take the interests of carrots or lettuce into consideration when deciding how to treat them.

When it comes to animals with rich mental lives, however, I think it is quite possible that human beings have inappropriately ignored the right they have to consideration. In slaughtering whales or putting gorillas into cruel circuses, we are behaving extremely callously toward animals that quite possibly have mental lives that possess a similar richness to our own. Arguably, we are also failing to recognize a legitimate right to consideration on the part of animals like pigs, when we pack them together into astonishingly cruel factory farms.

Being a rights-bearer just starts the moral discussion

To be a bearer of rights is to have a claim to consideration recognized by the entities around you that undertake moral reasoning. As such, the question of which entities rights are accorded to says more about the level of ethical conduct of the reasoners than of the subjects. We can choose to ignore what we know about the common characteristics of physical and mental life among animals, and thus treat pigs and gorillas and whales like we treat carrots or stones. In so doing, however, we might be revealing ourselves to be seriously lacking in moral character.

The science fiction author Orson Scott Card describes a moral hierarchy that distinguishes between ‘ramen’ with whom communication is possible and ‘varelse’ with whom it is impossible. While it can certainly be questioned whether communication potential is really the most important factor distinguishing between the ethical status of different beings, he does usefully recognize how the level of consideration accorded to a being may reflect the level of ethical sophistication of the being making the choice, rather than the subject of that choice:

The difference between ramen and varelse is not in the creature judged, but in the creature judging. When we declare an alien species to be ramen, it does not mean that they have passed a threshold of moral maturity. It means that we have.

That said, it does not follow that the most ethical course is to grant moral standing to everything in the universe, from dust mites to clouds of interstellar gas. For one thing, there are very often conflicts between the legitimate interests of rights-bearers. If we inappropriately accord a right to consideration to an entity that really doesn’t deserve it, we may force legitimate rights-bearers to needlessly sacrifice their own interests, in order to protect the meaningless or non-existent interests of that entity. That said, we should be cautious in saying that an entity has no rights whatsoever. Acknowledging that an entity is owed a duty of consideration is not the same thing as saying that it deserves any particular form of treatment, or that its interests should always be favoured.

Just as the ethical conclusions flowing from recognizing a human as rights-bearing can be hotly contested, so too are those for animals. It is possible that we can take the interests of animals seriously and still do things like kill them, experiment on them, eat their corpses, and even make them fight one another for our amusement. We take the interests of human beings seriously, but it is nonetheless potentially defensible in some circumstances to do all of these things: kill them, experiment on them, eat their corpses (say, when they have died naturally and as an alternative to death by starvation), and enjoy watching them fight. Whether the subject in question is human or not, recognition that they bear the right to some sort of consideration does not automatically mean that they must be treated in a particular way – it just starts the conversation about what the ethical way to behave toward them is. It establishes them as part of the moral universe, such as we understand it.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

anon May 10, 2011 at 6:26 pm

It is also possible that there are objects that are human beings in a certain technical sense, but which do not deserve to have their interests taken into consideration. For instance, this category could include embryos at an early stage of development (or even perhaps at any stage)

What is the moral distinction between a fetus five seconds before birth and a fetus five seconds after birth?

anon May 11, 2011 at 4:44 pm

“Arguably, the fundamental right of any entity that has rights is the right to have its interests taken into consideration. ”

Why not make an argument?

anon May 11, 2011 at 4:46 pm

I don’t believe there is a strong connection between the idea of rights, and the harm principle in the history of thinking about “rights”. The major figure associated with the harm principle, J.S. Mill, actively chose to not make use of the idea of “abstract right” in his writings on Utilitarianism. Subsequently, the harm principle is generally associated with anti-realism about rights. Arguments that take the reality of rights seriously (i.e. Dworkin) try to describe what rights are and how they originate out of social-ethical life.

Milan May 11, 2011 at 6:02 pm

The kind of right I am describing is deeply related to utilitarianism. The right to have your interests considered is what puts you inside a utilitarian moral universe.

anon May 12, 2011 at 6:12 am

How does such a “right to have your interests considered”, exist, other than as a concept in your writings? What relation does it bear to conflicts over rights? In what sense, if any, does it exist when it is not respected? How has this idea of right motivated human action as individuals or in groups?

anon May 12, 2011 at 6:14 am

“What is the moral distinction between a fetus five seconds before birth and a fetus five seconds after birth?”

The moral distinction is (potentially) in a custom which recognizes one as life and the other as empirical matter. In peasant Russia it was common to draw the line between empirical matter and a human life not at birth but at the age of 3 years, proving there is nothing essential about the moment of birth to moral considerability.

Milan May 12, 2011 at 8:12 am

How does such a “right to have your interests considered”, exist, other than as a concept in your writings?

It exists insofar as it contributes to human behaviour. It may not have deep ontological status, built into the fabric of the universe, but ethics is ultimately mostly a matter of what people choose to do and why.

What relation does it bear to conflicts over rights?

It establishes whose rights get weighed. If I want to eat human being or gorilla, the interests of those animals should probably be taken into account. If I want to eat tree bark or grass, there is probably no such need.

In what sense, if any, does it exist when it is not respected?

It exists in relation to rational criteria, though not everyone will agree on what they are. Still, the rational arguments are probably going to be based on factual claims that are verifiable to some degree, such as whether an animal has a ‘rich mental life’.

How has this idea of right motivated human action as individuals or in groups?

The expanding scope of moral consideration is an important feature of the moral history of humanity. Progressively, decent societies have recognized the importance of the rights borne by former slaves, women, the disabled, etc. There are also laws on animal cruelty.

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