Human Rights Don’t Exist

Listening to Michael Brendan Dougherty explain to Zack Beauchamp why he doesn’t believe in human rights put me in mind of Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument in After Virtue that “there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns.”

Human rights, says Dougherty, are assertions, cultural artifacts, but not something real.  MacIntyre called them fictions “with highly specific properties” that purport to provide objective and impersonal moral grounding, but fail because “every attempt to give good reasons for believing that there are such rights has failed.”

Assertions that people possess them are not self-evident, whatever the Declaration of Independence says, and appeals to intuition get us nowhere.  According to MacIntyre, “the introduction of the word ‘intuition’ by a moral philosopher is always a signal that something has gone badly wrong with an argument.”  Not until after about the year 1400 did the precise word “right” emerge: until then “the concept lacks an means of expression in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or Arabic, classical or medieval.”  The existence of human rights simply cannot be demonstrated, anymore than we can demonstrate the existence of witches or unicorns or the horizons of my humility.

I’m basically on the same page.  Rights language has its uses (as does language about witches and unicorns and other mythical entities), but it’s much more abstract than, say, the concept of virtues (habitual dispositions toward the good) or the concept of moral obligations that arise in certain circumstances and situations.  You can at least point to what those concepts refer to in the real world; you can’t show me a natural or human right.  I’ve been known to make use of rights language when it serves my purpose, but I wouldn’t shed a tear to see it become a dead language.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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85 Responses

  1. BlaiseP says:

    MacIntyre should take the trouble to learn them before opining on them. Hebrew has a word for intuition, it’s tavun and its root construct is viyn. As opposed to the words for knowledge, da’ath and yadah which carry more of a sense of what-is-learned, tavun implies a sorting-out, an examination and consideration.

    Arabic, same tiresome story, H-D-S, cha-da-sa, intuition, to surmise, also carries a meaning of improvisational thinking. Very ancient.

    As for Latin, MacIntyre has completely disgraced himself. Latin tueri, to guard, to watch over, to inspect.

    It’s rather like that long-disproven nonsense about how the Eskimo have umpteen words for snow.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      That’s my bad. MacIntyre was referring to “rights,” not intuitions. I revised the sentence to clarify.

      • BlaiseP says:

        He’s wrong there, too. Deuteronomy 23: Do not deliver to his master a slave who has escaped from his master. He shall dwell in your midst with you, in the place he shall choose in one of your gates, where it is good for him; you shall not oppress him

        For a Torah scholar, that’s the equivalent of the Fourteenth Amendment, you’ll hear it in every discussion about rights, it’s one of the first bits of RamBam (Maimonides) you’ll get if you start studying him. There’s loads of Torah which goes on about how the people of Israel shouldn’t do this and shouldn’t do that, slavery is a fact of life, the Torah has plenty to say about it, too, how even slaves have rights, but this chunk of Torah is one of the few times where Israel is enjoined not to obey property law in favour of human dignity.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          But are these rights spoken of in the Torah translatable into the natural rights posited by Enlightenment thinkers?

          • Murali says:

            I dont think that’s quite the point. The concept of rights is far older than any particular enlightenment conception of rights.

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            It may be a point worth making if the different conceptions refer to two different things.

          • Murali says:

            It is like with justice. The concept of justice is very old even if particular Rawlsian or libertarian conceptions of justice are much more recent. That current conclusions about the subject (of what rights we have) are radically different from our ancestors’ doesnt mean that we are not talking about the same subject.

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            Maybe, but I think we’re world’s apart when speaking of rights as social rules versus rights as natural and attached to human beings as human beings.

          • BlaiseP says:

            I hope this isn’t answerable via Betteridge’s Law. The Torah is a contract. It obligates. Man is created from dust and given life from the Breath of God, not by commandment, as is all else in nature. Woman is likewise created from man. ha-nefesh, the human soul, is of God. Dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return. But before he was man, he was dust. The difference between Man and Dust is what truly matters in Torah. God walked with man in the garden, God loved man and loves him still. That is a statement of human rights in the Torah’s story of human origins.

            The Rights of Man are the logical inverse of what religion had formulated over the centuries. Instead of obligations, as the Torah had done, the Rights of Man began from the other end of the logical argument. Rather than a contract with God, Locke said our contract was with our fellow man. If Locke said man was reasonable and the Torah said that man was sinful, Locke was forever obliged to explain the need for human government to counteract man’s unreasonableness. Ultimately, the Enlightenment’s view of human dignity and the rights of man arrives at the same conclusion: that man must be governed by Law. Locke called it the Law of Nature, the Torah calls it the Law of God. They’re both completely without foundation in the real world, where we are governed by men.

  2. Tod Kelly says:

    It’s interesting, but I’ve never quite understood the choice when this question comes up.

    Are rights something that are manufactured by men and culture out of experience and the desire to better themselves morally, or are the real?

    I never see why they can’t be both. I believe human rights to be entirely artificially constructed, and yet I believe *in* them with all my heart.

    Is this an agnostic thing?

    • Glyph says:

      For me ‘human rights’ a lot like ‘free will’ – I often fear that no such thing *actually* exists.

      Yet I *must* believe in it – because without it, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for me to imagine a set of rules that will allow humans to exist together with a minimum of conflict and a maximum of (the potential for) happiness.

      • Kyle Cupp says:

        But has rights language really succeeded at allowing “humans to exist together with a minimum of conflict and a maximum of (the potential for) happiness”? Seems to me its been the cause of much conflict and ethical confusion.

        • Glyph says:

          Sorry, this was not here when I posted my reply below – hopefully my reply below is still relevant. Short answer – I think it’s better than most anything else we have yet seen and have not yet seen anything that can replace it to my mind.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      You could say they’re real in the sense that fictional entities are real. As fictions go, however, I’m not sure they have a stellar history. For an invention that was supposed to give us a firm moral criterion, they’ve been sometimes bad for both religious and civil ethical discourse (e.g., the “self-evident” assertions in the Declaration of Independence and the national mythology that’s followed) and caused a fair amount of confusion and conflict (e.g., are there positive rights or just negative ones?)

      • Tod Kelly says:

        Hmmm. Is love real, or is it more like a fictional character?

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          Depends on how you define love. I’d say it’s as real as anything can be, but maybe that’s just because I’m in love with the idea of love. Or maybe not. To love is to desire, to will, and, to the extent one is able, to work for the good of another and for union with that other. It’s an act.

          • Love is, in a sense, the opposite of Freedom. If one Loves another, they are willing to surrender their autonomy, their freedom, as one gives his or herself to another in devotion. However, most Love is not, in fact Love at all. At least, not yet.

            I believe there is a difference between Love and Infatuation: Love is permanent while Infatuation is temporary; yet the two really only differ insomuch as their states. That is, Love is Infatuation that merely hasn’t finished “curing” (i.e. as a glue or otherwise adhesive).

            There is no doubt that Infatuation is wonderful, spectacular, and elevating, yet it is also both mesmerising and deceptive—if not, altogether, complacent. To put it another way: It presents itself as the destination when, if fact, it hasn’t even gotten in the cab.

            Returning to the glue analogy, imagine that you’ve just heard about love; about what it is, what it does, what creates for you. And what you’ve learned is something magnificent, something that will make your life that much more rich. So over time you ask around, and you get ideas of the ideal model, and eventually start collecting the pieces, all you need now is that one piece from that special someone. And then you find it.

            Now, imagine you have stayed up all night, tinkering and assembling this magnificent artifact. And the final stage, right before employing this artifact is gluing together all of its components. Now, the glue might need to cure for a few hours, possibly even days.* Yet, for some reason, either you are too impatient or otherwise unaware of how long it takes for glue to finish curing, so you put your artifact right to work. And, for a few short moments, it works splendidly— better than you’d hoped or imagined! But then, all of a sudden, for reasons beyond your comprehension, your design appears to have failed as it falls into pieces right before your very eyes. (The horror and dismay that befalls you!) And, to add insult to injury, as they say, now it’s not only all over the floor, it’s all over you. And worse, you can’t seem to shake it off. Yet, instead, with great grief, you have to try and rip it off; dried remnants of that glue all over you, still, that lasts for days.

            Later, after you have collected yourself, you may try again, reusing many of the same pieces from before, except that the old glue is still there. You try scraping it off, but you dare not try too hard, because you want to minimise any obvious scratches, and you still want this model to be perfect. So you try to applying a fresh, wet layer over the dry one, but it just doesn’t fit as well.

            I suppose what I am trying to say is, because we are so eager and impatient to test the tensile strength of these new bonds before their finished bonding, we have the tendency to make a mess of ourselves. Therefore patience is something I highly condone, as it is just so much simpler in the end, and far less time consuming.

      • Glyph says:

        Ah, but myths can be useful. The lies we tell ourselves are important, because they show us what we wish we are – and without that wishing, we’ll never even start to get there. And for all our flaws, we went to the freaking MOON. I hope we’ll go farther yet.

        So I tend to come down on the side of saying that even though they may well be fictions, they are largely good and necessary ones, and the conservative part of me fears throwing them away without any clear superior replacement.

        We don’t have to (personally) believe in them to be afforded protection under them, so long as enough people do believe. You want to be the one convincing enough people they don’t exist? Talk about playing with a loaded weapon.

        As far as believing in things that are potentially fictions, they seem a darn sight better at facilitating human harmony & progress in the here and now, than the religious beliefs they resemble (and are largely derived from.)

      • Fnord says:

        Fictional in the same sense that the state itself is fictional, not in the sense that Harry Potter is fictional.

        As for the rest of it, that’s an empirical question.

  3. Murali says:

    I’m basically on the same page. Rights language has its uses (as does language about witches and unicorns and other mythical entities), but it’s much more abstract than, say, the concept of virtues (habitual dispositions toward the good) or the concept of moral obligations that arise in certain circumstances and situations. You can at least point to what those concepts refer to in the real world; you can’t show me a natural or human right

    I’ve got a few points.

    1. I always think that it is ridiculous when teleologists like MacIntyre say that deontological concepts are unsupportable and yet they hold on to their own ideas of virtue and the good. In fact, ideas of any objective good are even more problematic than deontological ideas because at least the latter can be derived from ideas latent in the grammar of moral discourse. (e.g. ought implies can, that moral imperatives are universally valid, that morality talk presupposes a certain notion of autonomy.) Could I derive a system of rights from such foundations? possibly. The argument would have to be made, but at least we can roughly see how we might go about deriving such rights.

    By contrast, teleological moral theories need to presuppose some conception of the good. But the thing about conceptions of the good is that it is not sufficient to show that certain things are universally desired. You must show that those things ought to be desired, and Hume put to rest any possibility of showing the latter.

    2. The fact tha rights are abstract have nothing to do with their plausibility. Rights, in a way are obligations. For me to have a right to a property just is for you to be obligated to not to appropriate or use my holdings without my permission. Rights are just social rules that describe certain kinds of obligations we have. In particular, they are obligations to not advance certain kinds of claims on others when they advance certain other kinds of claims.

    3. It is also amusing to note how people suppose that their beliefs about obligations in particular cases can be legitimately stronger than their beliefs about the principles in virtue of which those obligations are to be justified.

    • Murali says:

      To add to the second point, all sorts of things like the good and obligation are just as abstract as the notion of rights. Virtue is slightly less abstract because it points to particular dispositions, which are just mental states. Buttalking about dispositions is not enough, you have to say why those dispositions are ood, which still brings you back to abstract notions of the right, human rights, the good, etc

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Again, as I suggested above, I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing here. The rights I say don’t exist are not the “social rules that describe certain kinds of obligations we have,” but rather “natural” rights that are supposedly attached to human beings qua human beings.

      • Murali says:

        but rather “natural” rights that are supposedly attached to human beings qua human beings.

        But even these nosense-on-stilts kind of rights is just as mysterious as any notion of objective or intrinsic value.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          They may be just as mysterious, but I find them more troublesome. They seem to muddle more than they clarify (this is probably a topic for a separate post.)

    • Chris says:

      You must show that those things ought to be desired, and Hume put to rest any possibility of showing the latter.

      How’d he do that?

      • Murali says:

        Hume showed that oughts cannot be derived from is. (or at least that normative statments are not reducible to descriptive statements)

        In order to show that something ought to be desired/ done etc, we either show that it is presupposed by the notion of ought or that it flows from some other ought claim.

        We cannot argue from descriptions of states of affairs to value claims because any argument which would seemingly prove such a conclusion would have to include a premise either explicit or implicit which contains some kind of ought. But such a premise would be the kind of thing which we were trying to prove in the first place.

        One option is to do a conceptual analysis of the word ought and then try to conclude that it refers to some conception of the good. But, it at least seems to be that any attempt to do just that would be question begging.

        • Chris says:

          Hume showed that oughts cannot be derived from is. (or at least that normative statments are not reducible to descriptive statements)

          No he didn’t. In fact, what you follow with isn’t really Hume at all. I don’t say this just to be pedantic (even if partially so), but because it’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine, particularly when it’s clear (given your education) that philosophy programs screw this up when educating bright young students.

          • Joe Adams says:

            The is/ought distinction is more the work of A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth, and Logic, resulting in what MacIntyre describes as ’emotivism,’ which is the weak foundation upon which claims about right emerge (cf. buttalking below). MacIntyre used to joke about impugning someone properly. Rights claimers are thusly impugned as buttalkers par excellence as proposing imaginary powers having no practical use except as a rhetorical flourishes to otherwise preposterous statements. The Adams corollary is that I can say everything that I need to say about morality without depending on the use of the word ‘right’ as referring to a principle of some sort, for clarification or explication. If that is true, then the concept is superfluous.

  4. Sam says:

    Much of this conversation goes on above my ability to understand it – what is this academic term “buttalking” that I see above? – but I do have these scattered questions:

    1. What activates rights at age 18? If we all have these things, and these things are so important, what triggers that importance at 18 and not 16 or 12 or 8 or 4 or birth? (I know the obvious answer to that: society has decided that is what’s best. But that answer suggests that society is exerting control, which lies in opposition to the idea that these things are naturally occurring and inherent to all of us, doesn’t it?)

    2. If humans have a natural right to property, why aren’t there huge movements to honor agreements signed (and predictably broken) with various indigenous populations throughout the United States? Does that right to property stop mattering simply because it would be horribly inconvenient for the power structures that we currently have? (Hint: yes. But again, that suggests a societal and not godly control.)

    3. What good are rights when they’re not being honored? Their real value is when they’re being respected by the person who would otherwise oppress you; I suppose there is also inspirational value in the idea that one day oppressors will respect the notion of rights. We do see movement on such issues too, but that doesn’t give people their time back.

    • Jaybird says:

      which lies in opposition to the idea that these things are naturally occurring and inherent to all of us, doesn’t it?

      Not necessarily. If you see them as emergent properties, it’s not difficult to see certain rights as emergent once certain criteria are met. While “driver’s license” isn’t exactly in the same category of “rights” as we’re talking about (indeed, a right to a driver’s license does strike me as a societal construct), let’s pretend it’s in the same category as “right to not be raped” for the sake of argument:

      Does a blind person have the right to get an 18-wheel Truck Operator license? If not, why not? Is it a violation of his rights to prevent him from flying a plane?

      If you see rights as emergent properties that grow from our humanity, it’s fairly easy to see how a person who can see may end up with more “rights” than someone who cannot.

      What good are rights when they’re not being honored?

      What use is a baby?

      • Sam says:

        The fact that we say to the blind, “Sorry, this right doesn’t apply to you…” is yet more evidence that rights are nothing of the sort. They’re privileges extended to some, but not to everyone. This violates the very notion of the idea, doesn’t it?

        • Jaybird says:

          “Sorry, you can’t watch The Godfather, you can only listen to it.”

          Erm, no. There are some “rights” that are emergent properties. If the foundational properties aren’t there, the emergent properties won’t show up. That’s how emergence works.

          • Sam says:

            So there are some rights that only apply to some people? As soon as we start making those distinctions, that’s the end of the idea of human rights. Either we have them universally or we don’t. Either they’re a societal construct, extended to some but not to others, or they’re not.

          • Jaybird says:

            You keep using the phrase “apply to” where I would use the phrase “emerge from”.

          • Sam says:

            Who determines what has emerged? If it is a societal determination, then right never existed in the first place. It was always a privilege.

          • Stillwater says:

            If the foundational properties aren’t there, the emergent properties won’t show up.

            When you say this, does “emergent” mean that rights get analyzed in terms of the physical properties they emerge out of? That is, are they analyzed in terms of the physical properties of beings like us in interesting contexts, or are they abstract properties that literally emerge from a physical substrate, and attach to beings like us?

            Personally, I don’t think speaking of rights as emergent properties answers the arguments against a more robust conception of rights as abstract, sui generis, self-evident, self-justifying, intrinsic properties of human beings.

          • Jaybird says:

            Who determines what has emerged?

            This is the wacky thing, Sam. If a right has emerged and society doesn’t acknowledge it (or even violates it), I’d say that society has not acknowledged a right (or has even violated it).

            What’s your argument? That the person just never had it?

            When you say this, does “emergent” mean that rights get analyzed in terms of the physical properties they emerge out of?

            Among others, yes. “Myelination” is one physical property that comes to mind.

            I don’t think speaking of rights as emergent properties answers the arguments against a more robust conception of rights as abstract, sui generis, self-evident, self-justifying, intrinsic properties of human beings.

            It doesn’t answer all of them, no. But one of the things that bothered me was a case that involved the sterilization of a young woman who had a genetic disorder that, among other things, resulted in mental handicap. Her parents, the caretakers, said that the girl might engage in sexual relationships but should not have a child (the child would have the same genetic disorder).

            What bothered me was that I was less bothered by this than by the famous Buck v. Bell case.

            I wondered why.

            The emergent properties answer explained why I would be for the one but not the other. So I’m running with that until it loses explanatory power.

          • Sam Wilkinson says:

            Can we speak specifically about some particular right? You can choose. I’d just like something concrete to work with, because I can’t keep track of this level of abstraction when it comes to a right. In my mind, if society doesn’t acknowledge the right (or worse, violates it) then the question should be: what does that right matter? It’s not doing anybody any good if it’s being either ignored or violated. So what’s the point?

            If you’re not interested in going more concrete, I’m afraid I have to bow out, because I fear we’ll just end up talking past one another.

          • Jaybird says:

            Would the “right for two guys to marry each other” be okay?

          • Sam Wilkinson says:

            That works well for me. My opening is simple: that isn’t a right, as evidenced by the fact that two guys can’t marry each other in most of the country.

          • Jaybird says:

            My argument is simpler: Two guys walk into a unitarian church, they say their vows, they are married.

            Whether you acknowledge that has little to do with whether they’re married.

          • Sam Wilkinson says:

            But if the state treats their marriage differently than it treats my marriage, then they have no functional right to the same thing that I do. Thus, it is nothing more than a privilege extended to some but not others.

          • Jaybird says:

            Denial of, say, hospital visitation is a violation of their rights (according to my argument). If the State passes a law enshrining this rights violation, this makes the violation of rights even deeper of one.

          • Sam Wilkinson says:

            The right that you’re ascribing to them in this situation is hardly doing them any good though, is it? Why? Because a larger segment of society has decided that this “right” isn’t to be extended to gay couples. Which means that it isn’t a right at all; it’s a privilege to be extended by the majority to the minority on the majority’s whim.

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            My opening is simple: that isn’t a right, as evidenced by the fact that two guys can’t marry each other in most of the country.

            Would you say, Sam, that it should be a right? If so, where does this “ought” or “should be” emerge?

          • Sam Wilkinson says:

            I would prefer that the law recognize the marriage of two men in the same way that it recognizes the marriage of a man and a woman. That preference though doesn’t indicate the existence of a right; it indicates dissatisfaction with the way in which the political majority is currently operating.

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            So you would appeal to the principle of equal treatment (e.g. under the law). I agree that makes more sense than speaking of an inherent natural “right” to marry.

          • Chris says:

            How do they emerge? That is, through what process(es) do we go from having certain relationships as a result of both our makeup and the makeup of society (even at its most basic — rights themselves ultimately become part of the makeup of society once instituted, or emerged) to the emergence of rights? Is it a social process, a result of discourse, tradition, and reason? Or is it something that, as your own version of what rights are seems to imply, comes directly from the individual, independently of all others, once he enters into social relations? And if it’s the latter, how? Where? Why?

            To take your driver’s license analogy: driver’s licenses “emerge” because cars are invented and people need to get from point A to point B, so society sets up a system through which it is possible to allow people to do so when they are physically and mentally able, and assuming they don’t abuse the privilege (by, say, drinking and driving or driving recklessly on a crowded street). This privilege is caused by discourse, reason, tradition, and the reality of human beings and driving in a particular society. It has emergent properties, to be sure, but the privilege itself is not emergent in any meaningful sense.

          • Sam Wilkinson says:

            That’s the argument I would make.

          • Chris says:

            Jay, as I said on the main site, marriage is a bad analogy unless you believe that two people are married if one person says they are. Otherwise, marriage is actually more of an example of what we are saying: if I don’t agree that you and I are married, there is no sense in which we are married. Rights are like a marriage between everyone in society: if only one party thinks we’re all married, that party is deluded.

          • Jaybird says:

            The right that you’re ascribing to them in this situation is hardly doing them any good though, is it?

            The right doesn’t come from me. It’s not about “doing them any good”.

            It’s like standing over a victim of a crime and pointing out that, hey, their right to not be (violated) didn’t do them any good.

            It’s not about “doing them any good”. If it can be said to exist, it can said to have been violated. If it can’t be said to exist… then what? We get to say that we feel emotions that inspire a fight/flight response that we sublimate through our culturally trained filters to cause us to communicate empathy and make jokes about how Republicans don’t care about people like that and Democrats are better because they do?

          • Jaybird says:

            Jay, as I said on the main site, marriage is a bad analogy unless you believe that two people are married if one person says they are.

            I would respond instead go back to my original example of two guys saying that they’re married and asking exactly how much your opinion on whether they are married changes anything. Now let’s add a person with your same opinion. Now let’s add another. Is there a point at which your opinions matter?

            My argument is that short of killing these two guys, you can’t make them not married.

            Your opinion is that their marriage, like all marriages really, is a social construct that exists because of a group consensus (like currency or food taboos)?

          • Chris says:

            Jay, what does it mean to be married? It means that there is an agreement between two people do behave in a certain way, does it not? What is a right, then?

          • Jaybird says:

            I’d hope that we could at least hammer out exactly how your opinion on the marriage of two guys influences whether they are or are not married and whether we can meaningfully say that their rights have been violated if we deny them hospital visitation, first.

            I mean, I was asked to provide an example for us to explore. Have we tapped this example out?

          • Sam Wilkinson says:


            I do not see any reason to ignore the way in which our society seems to actually function. We can say, “those two men have the right to visit one another in the hospital!” but if they can’t actually do it because the majority prevents it, then that right we have alleged that they possess is meaningless and valueless.

          • Jaybird says:

            It seems to me that, instead, their very valuable rights were denied and infringed.

            Ceasing to ignore their rights is a valuable first step in respecting these rights.

          • Chris says:

            Since marriage is an agreement between two people, the fact that they agree is largely unaffected by the status I accord the agreement (though “married in the eyes of…” changes depending on whose eyes we’re talking about). Rights, if they are an agreement, have to be an agreement between someone, right? If you simply decide that you have a right to play poker in the nude in the town square on every 3rd Tuesday of the month, do you have such a right? Or does at least one person have to agree that you do? And if the latter is true, can it still be maintained that rights issue forth (entirely) from the individual?

          • Jaybird says:

            While marriage is an agreement, a right to get married is not an agreement.

          • Chris says:

            But the right to marriage isn’t a right at that level. That is, the only thing that makes it possible or impossible for me to agree to a marriage with you, between us only, not considering the role of the state or god or any other human being, is your and my ability to agree. If this is what a right is, then my ability to shit gives me the right to shit anywhere, and my ability to kill gives me the right to kill anyone, and my ability to take your property gives me a right to take your property. The right comes in after the ability to agree: it comes when the marriage becomes a contract that affects those outside of it, and to that extent, our recognizing or not recognizing a pair’s marriage definitely affects them. To take simple examples: you don’t have the right to marry a cow, or a pre-adolescent child, or your sister. Why? You can make an agreement with them (well, at least with your sister). Why don’t you then have the right to marry her? You can decide you’re married to her, and live as though you are, but it is not because you have a right to do so.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      By natural or human rights I mean rights attached to human beings as human beings; i.e., not rights granted by civil society. It’s these that I say don’t really exist but are just fictions. Within this fictional language, I would say that the rights of indigenous populations were violated in U.S. history, but in so saying, I am not defining their rights in terms of social acknowledgement, but as a creative way of explaining why they were wronged. Really, though, I’m appealing to an invention of language and not something that people really possess.

      • Sam Wilkinson says:

        Well, my response is simple and mostly in agreement with you: natural/human rights are a fiction, and civil rights are a joke. There is only what the law does and doesn’t allow, and what people can and can’t get away with.

        When it comes it indigenous populations, I think the point is clear: if human beings are endowed with a right to property (or better still, a right to contract), then those populations have the right to get their property back. But of course that would horribly inconvenience modern society and so we simply argue that rights matter now but not then. It’s a neat trick.

        • Glyph says:

          Sam – no wonder politics are so depressing to you. 😉

          I am not disagreeing per se with what you are saying (see above w/r/t ‘fiction’) – but where does that leave us? What is a better system?

          To get Kantian, if everyone believes this way, don’t we just end up with ‘might makes right’ (which, granted, is where we usually are anyway, but at least with ‘human rights’ talk we are dreaming of a world in which that does not have to always be so?)

          • Sam Wilkinson says:

            A better system? I have no idea. Indifference?

            Meanwhile, might does make right. I don’t like it, but that seems to be the truth. The key I think is shifting majorities toward better might, but that takes time, and what happens in meantime is often cruel. And the fact that the majority’s preferred might will never fully satisfying the minority.

          • Creon Critic says:

            Sam Wilkinson, Dag Hammarskjöld said “the United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell”. I’d argue the same goes for human rights. So yes, the fact that human rights are not universally observed and violated in all sorts of ways is deeply troubling – indigenous populations’ dispossession is highly unlikely to be resolved by a return of their lands, more likely apologies, affirmative action, and possibly reparations. But the fact that we fall short of the mark in realizing human rights does not undercut their normative force (or their political utility).

            For instance, the core human rights conventions are widely ratified and a useful tool for eliciting compliance from states with the underlying notions of fulfilling, realizing, and protecting human dignity. Also, the discourse in the state system has, thankfully, change radically from “might makes right” or as the brutal principle was far more poetically expressed in the Melian dialogue, “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

            Human rights are part of moving away from that brutal arrangement of relationships and towards law-governed, human dignity respecting arrangements. I can only imagine life in a world where such efforts weren’t underway as Hammarskjöld’s hell or Hobbes’ “nasty, brutish, and short”.

      • Glyph says:


        To: Kyle
        From: Linda at the front desk

        Message: Chief Leaping Badger called at 12:02 PM, would like to request new representation.

  5. Rodak says:

    It would seem to me (and time doesn’t allow me to read all of the above comments right now, so maybe I’m repeating something already said), that if “rights” have no objective basis, then neither does “the good” to which Kyle compares the concept with regard to its abstraction. Didn’t Nietszche make an argument to the effect that “the good” is whatever those who can enforce their preferences say it is? I’m not saying this is right; only that it’s arguable. The good is no more patent than are rights.

  6. Stillwater says:

    Nice post. I’m withya on this Kyle.

  7. Citizen says:

    Are you studying language, people or behaviour?

  8. Citizen says:

    If you could identify the specific part of the brain that is active when human rights are at issue, that specific area could be harvested. What you would have would be the bio electrical/chemical programming of what that individual possesed as human right.

    If you did this repeatedly, you could obtain 10 pounds or so of the stuff. This would be more than the pounds of sunlight that hit the earth in a second.

    As a follow up you could attempt to remove this area of the brain and keep othe person(s) alive to observe how behaviours/beliefs may have changed.

    • Tom Van Dyke says:

      Typical materialist. Boy got no soul.

      • Citizen says:

        Materialist, yet another label thrown on the pile. Kyle pulled the trigger on “real world”, the assumption the abstract would be beat to fine aggregate has thus far proven itself.

        • Citizen says:

          There is light so powerful that it shines through a mans body. I find it a subtle irony that we don’t see that light.

  9. Joe Adams says:

    One of the best critiques of MacIntyre’s position on rights is Bill Browring’s “Misunderstanding MacIntyre on Human Rights.” To summ up, MacIntyre takes Aristotle’s notion of “right by nature” as the ground for dismissing modern assertions that are supposed to carry moral weight. They are Nietzschean darts about Enlightenment principles that we shoot at each other in the current state of affairs (See Section 335 of the Gay Science for a better description of the weight of those principles and the Enlightenment itself). The better moral question is: What is the best or right way to behave toward another person that enables that person and ourselves to flourish? If we can’t answer that question, focusing on abstractions doesn’t really help.

    • BlaiseP says:

      MacIntyre is that most wretched of creatures, a lapsed Marxist. I’ve known more than a few of that sort. To compound his problems, he’s converted to Catholicism. Lost in the twilight where reason meets faith, he’s been hurling cardboard thunderbolts at both Liberals and the Enlightenment ever since.

      He should read his Aristotle a bit more closely, especially Nichomachean Ethics, where he would learn of phronesis, the wisdom of experience, practical stuff, the product of education, trial and error. To confine myself to Aristotelian terms, MacIntyre thinks human rights derive from ethereal nous wisdom. If they did, he would be correct to call them nonsense, best consigned to the mythical bestiary of Witches and Unicorns. Such vocabulary is unbecoming a good Catholic, an institution which over time have consigned more than a few witches to the flames.

      That was a cheap shot, perhaps. But Human Rights arise from phronesis, the wisdom of experience, the sorting out of the world such as we see with three children in the back seat of a car, squabbling over a few millimetres of space. “Mom! She’s touching me!” It’s very aggravating, to be sure, but anyone who’s had his personal space invaded on an aircraft knows the sensation immediately.

      Phronesis, the wisdom that evolves. When MacIntyre attacks the more vituperative exponents of human rights such as Dworkin, decrying the claims for “rights which are alleged to belong to human beings as such and which are cited as a reason for holding that people ought not to be interfered with in their pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.” (MacIntyre 1990, 68–69), he might have tread more carefully. Those pursuits are only goals, not destinations.

      Life is a rich pageant, constantly changing. As life changes, so the need for changes to the social contract arises. We cannot legislate liberty but we can abolish slavery.

      It seems important to note that MacIntyre has foreshortened the phrase “Pursuit of Happiness” to mere Happiness. He must have known “Pursuit of” would destroy his case completely. Happiness can only be perceived in retrospect, never in the moment, though at turns we’ve all stopped and smelled the roses and noticed how happy we were. Happiness is a well lived life. Aristotle taught us that.

      Goals are always abstractions. Yes, it’s important to behave correctly to other people, Aristotle’s arete, but without those abstractions, we should be forever lost in the moment. In the words of Ephesians: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;

    • Tom Van Dyke says:

      McIntyre and Maritain are both Thomists. [Jacques Maritain helped draft the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.] It seems there’s a lot missing here.

      I’ve been meaning to get to McIntyre, as I adore Aquinas. And this is rather Leo Strauss-like:

      “For MacIntyre, liberalism’s claim to provide, in virtue of its ostensibly neutral stance toward particular conceptions of the human good, the most free, and hence best possible milieu for individuals to determine, pursue, and secure their own particular conceptions of the human good is false. Liberal social orders do indeed promote and even impose a particular conception of the good, and it is one that enslaves rather than liberates. ”

      As for meself, without getting into the tall weeds of who said what, “non-foundational” human rights [ignoring their origin, like from a creator, are a fiction to me as well. Or as Jefferson put it:

      “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? ”

      Bold face mine.

      • Joe Adams says:

        Jefferson knew he was writing political rhetoric, not philosophy.

        Thanks for posting that piece from First Things. I detect disappointment in MacIntyre’s direction that finds expression in the apolitical polis. In conjuring up a new mode of community, he turns away from his Aristotelian roots to more of a Platonic idealism (nice comparison with Strauss on that). Maybe it’s his age, and trying to reach a conclusion (Hegelians are always tempted to do that, cf. Eric Vogelin). His seems to be closing his system, approaching tautology with a well-ordered community (polis), providing access to intrinsic goods through shared values and teleologically considered practices and traditions (See Virtue and Politics). His vision is a village of artisans from the late middle ages, which is what he has praised for many years – the moments prior to the collapse.

        For 20 years I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to fall, but I think he’s abandoned the idea of providing a practical alternative to modernity. He seems to be wistfully imagining another kind of post-Marxian utopia, while acknowledging the corrupting influences of institutions that threaten intrinsic goods (like Roberto Michels did). That’s why the details really don’t matter and are not much discussed.

        A politically irrelevant political theory is disappointing. Despite his criticisms of Enlightenment ideals, he has only a bare outline of the Benedictine alternative to the Nietzschean chaos we live in, with few, if any, adherents ready or capable of adopting a course of action, whatever that may be. I don’t see his adherents colonizing modern society (only a few philosophy students really get what he has to say), though people occasionally use one of his points to jab and poke, Nietzschean-style, at their contemporaries. Until we find a way to dislodge or neutralize the managers (the barbarians he notes in After Virtue) who govern major organizations, we’re stuck. I am not aware of any politically relevant champion carrying his ideas forward. Instead, we have to listen ad nauseam to Ayn Rand’s acolytes discuss applying her dismal vision to our lives. To say that you don’t believe in ‘rights’ is political suicide. Atheists have a better shot at making a dent.

        • Tom Van Dyke says:

          You have my rapt attention, Mr. Adams, and welcome to the LoOG environs. Pls do rock on.

          I find thoughts far more interesting than thinkers, although I’m more pleased than dismayed when my very close friend Aquinas errs. His errors are always in the favor of humanity, as they should be.

  10. Joe Adams says:

    On rights, I wholeheartedly agree with MacIntyre. It’s an absurdity easily destroy by one word: Why? Once you give a reason, the ‘right’ is no longer the basis.

    My collection of MacIntyre’s work started in the summer of ’85, before I started grad school. I had three of his courses at Vanderbilt and watched him bounce around ideas for Whose Justice, Which Rationality (my paper on Reagan’s rhetoric of symbolic politics disinterested him). His teaching of Aquinas was stellar and he’s the only professor I’ve ever seen receive a standing ovation from undergraduates (yes, he’s that good). He’s still a Hegelian in his thinking, though tempered with a Thomist perspective, and still a Marxist in his sociology. In all that, he’s very predictable. I almost know what he would say next when I see him give his lectures, and I’m rarely surprise except for his witticism, but I don’t see a concrete programme of any sort. His criticism of individualism falls on deaf ears, except to a very small, very elderly caste of do-gooders. Most of his work is too difficult and requires too much work to engage younger audiences seeking quick truths. Americans are too accustomed to filling in the blanks with their own prejudices to hear what he’s saying about traditions, practices, or intrinsic goods. The Aristotelian vice of pleonexia is completely lost on the culture, as it is a fundamental assumption of modern economics – monotonicity – more preferred to less infinitely (I enjoyed the previoius discussion of phronesis.). That deafness speaks directly to the notion of rights. They are limitless in that regard. Freedom with regard to acquisitiveness is considered almost sacred, whether it’s guns or money, there’s no inherent limit. In After Virtue you see that in the evolution from ‘ought’ as a moral concept embedded in social relationships which have been broken. Rights without obligations are licenses to whatever one desires. That’s where Nietzsche’s Section 335 of the Gay Science is applicable. That’s what he means when MacIntyre says “Nietzsche is the moral theorist of the present age.” It’s not a compliment. Substitute ‘rights’ for the categorical imperative and you have the culture we live in.

    • Tom Van Dyke says:

      I disagree, Joe.


      Blowing town for a couple days. Hope to seeya when I get back. Wonderful stuff, finest kind.

      Pleonexia, although a real phenomenon among the acquisitive, isn’t what drives the farmer. To look upon a barren field then make it bring forth plenty, now there’s where the action is, what it’s all about. Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, Warren Buffett. Mitt Romney.

  11. GordonHide says:

    I agree with MacIntyre. Rights are just human concepts like other human concepts, creatures of the human mind. Therefore like other human concepts such as scientific hypotheses, they gain legitimacy as valuable concepts by their utility in facilitating human thriving.

    Hypotheses gain legitimacy through their explanatory and predictive power. For a human right the road is more rocky. There is no easy way to determine whether a human right contributes to human wellbeing in the long run.

    What we can do is look at the relative success of those societies that have adopted human rights compared to those that haven’t. In my view this is our only real guide to their legitimacy.

    In terms of moral decision making human rights have the merit of being a comparatively straightforward list, similar to the ten commandments. Where some form of consequentialism may have the potential to produce better moral decision making, none of us can calculate all the consequences of our prospective actions in any but the most trivial of cases.

    For a consequentialist human rights stand as markers to warn that a course of action needs to be re-examined for a better solution.