Saturday, July 07, 2007

L&S: Why Rights?

Jan asks, "Why do people recognize rights?" He offers three possible answers: 1) People have an innate moral tendency or capacity to do so; 2) People are socialized to recognize rights; or 3) People can see the benefits of recognizing rights and act accordingly.

Jan dismisses 1) as irrelevant or "awfully dodgy," and 2) as too vague. He opts for 3), arguing that people can see the net benefits of buying into a regime where everyone's rights get equal respect.

I'm not wholly convinced. For one thing, I don't know why we have to choose between these reasons. They might all play some role in explaining why people respect rights. Indeed, I can imagine other reasons that we might add to Jan's list. Rights offer functionally useful social coordination devices, for instance, in a way that mere appeals to utility do not.

For another thing, Jan's third and favored reason surely cannot alone suffice to explain why people respect rights. In that event, the poor would have tend to have less respect for property rights than the rich, and even the rich would tend to steal whenever they could get away with it. Though I recognize it as a question of fact, I don't think that the available evidence supports that result. Rare malefactors notwithstanding, most folks appear to take rights pretty seriously.


Glen Whitman said...

"Rights offer functionally useful social coordination devices, for instance, in a way that mere appeals to utility do not."

Why would this social coordination be desirable, except that such coordination enhances utility?

Tom W. Bell said...

Glen: First off, enhancing social utility counts in my book. It's not the only thing that matters, natch, but it does count.

Second off, because useful coordination devices *survive* in the rough-and-tumble competition between social systems. Even if we don't care about why different approaches to life work, the ones that do tend to beat the ones that don't. So we might have ended up with rights for no other reason than that they help the people who respect them to survive and thrive.

Glen Whitman said...

"Survive and thrive" = produce greater utility, in my book! There's not much utility to be had in a society that does not exist.

Jan Narveson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jan Narveson said...

(1) I didn't intend that the three ideas be mutually exclusive. I did intend that if we are looking for the most fundamental one, then the third is preferable, for the reasons stated.

(2) That rights offer socially useful social coordination devices is indeed what I do want to say, but I take this to be part of the general story under the third option, that of recognizing that there are good reasons for having rights.

(3) I don't see why the third account should have the effect Tom says, in any distinctive sense. It is a general problem with morals, since morals is a quintessential public good: its benefits are indirect - my being moral is a good for you. The social contract indeed is due entirely to this: when we have that kind of a good to make it pay off we MUST have an "agreement" that is there muyst b reciprocity. This will involve some sort of reinforcement activity. (But one of the subjects of discussion in the trade is whether the longer-run coordinative advantages of rights should not itself be reinforcing to intelligent people. I am inclined to think so, but of course that doesn't solve all problems. It does, however, contribute greatly to the general philosophical solution to the problems that morals addresses. ...

David Friedman said...

Part of my explanation of rights can be found at:

I don't think it fits comfortably into any of the three categories.

David Friedman said...

That URL seems to have gotten truncated; here it is wrapped: