Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Why do Persons Have Rights? A reader asks...

A reader emailed me with the following question: Why does a person have rights?

First of all, it's not clear they do, in the absolute cosmic sense. But if rights exist at all, then persons are the things that will have them, by definition.

Persons I define as moral agents, beings who are capable of having interests, acting upon them, and who may be said to have moral obligations in some sort. Rights are a form of moral obligation; if you have a right to life, I have a moral obligation not to kill you. If I have a moral obligation to treat you with respect, you may be said to have a right to be treated with respect. And so on.

(I'm distinguishing moral obligation from prudential reasons to do something, here. It might be in MY best interests to treat you with respect or not to kill you, but the fact that I'm better off by doing something is not what creates moral obligation.)

Now, this doesn't answer the question as to why persons have rights, or why non-persons don't have rights. I may have a moral obligation not to burn the Mona Lisa; doesn't that translate into the Mona Lisa having a right not to be burned? Well, no; I'd rather say that everyone else has a right to keep the Mona Lisa in existence, and it's that right I'd be violating, not any right the painting itself has.

So why do persons have rights? I think it goes hand in hand with the notion of personhood and moral agency, or the exercise of autonomy. We make choices base on what we feel to be right, whatever that means, and while we may not know what right is in all cases, we still have to choose. And it's autonomous agents, PERSONS who much choose. So in a practical sense, it's persons who determine what matters and what doesn't.

Your choice between chocolate or vanilla is an exercise of your will and your determination that one or the other flavour will better satisfy your interests. I presume that the satisfaction of interests is ultimately what we're interested in as choosing beings, and since persons are the seat of interests, I believe it follows that we have an obligation to defer to others with respect to their own determination of their interests. Hence it's not for me to decide whether you should have chocolate or vanilla, when it's you who are better situated to identify your interests.

It gets complicated with interests clash, and that's where rights come in. I may actually have an interest in your eating chocolate and abstaining from vanilla for some reason. (For something like this, it's probably an irrational reason, but who cares? I don't want to beg any questions about what constitutes a valid or an invalid interest. Maybe I think God hates vanilla or something, or maybe I'm deathly allergic to the presence of vanilla byproducts in the sweat of people I might shake hands with.) Rights are the way we try to balance conflicting interests, by identifying a systematic priority of interests. So there's core interests we all have in common, which we agree to treat as paramount. My right to believe God is pleased that you don't eat vanilla is, presumably, less central to the protection of my autonomy than my right to choose what flavour I eat myself, and so I must recognize that YOUR autonomous right to eat what you want trumps my pleasing-God interest. But if I'm deathly allergic to vanilla byproducts, my right to remain alive might well trump your choice of ice cream in contexts where it might make a difference.

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