Friday, November 21, 2008

Banalizing Rights.

There was a time in civilization when the only person who had a formal notion of "rights" was the king, but limits were imposed even there. Magna Carta is a major landmark in Western civilization where rights were negotiated between Barons and the King. With the US Declaration of Independence, we see an expansion of the notion of rights. Although not directly derived from Christianity, many of them were influenced by the Bible. For the most part, rights were considered few and precious, but this has been changing in recent times.

Some of what we inherited as a notion of rights is actually an inversion of moral logic. For example, (Saint) Patrick fought against slavery in 5th century Ireland, but his emphasis was that it was wrong to enslave people, but wronger(!) to sell a young Christian girl into slavery to a non-Christian society. I don't quite know where along the time line of history this got flipped around to the notion of a right not to be a slave, but that is the way it is now. Curiously, although today's San Francisco is world famous for rights, it is also notorious for the sex slave trade. Somehow there is a disconnect, but apparently the right to buy and sell young girls and the right to buy their services is also important to a large sector of the city.

What inspired this post was Ecuador's recent constitution which establishes "rights" for nature. The Los Angeles Times says that the new constitution provides for the right to "exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution". Huh? Eventually eating a hotdog is going to become a hate crime against mother nature. When does this get silly? The main thing to note here is that every time a new "right" is contrived, the value of the former rights is necessarily diminished. If the new rights conflict with and have higher legal standing than the former rights, then the former rights are downgraded if not fully eliminated. Rights of the environment, for example, conflict with property rights. Another curious feature, however, is that nature seems to be preserved best where property rights are respected. Communist countries are some of the worst offenders.

It will be interesting to see where this process leads next. Society seems to be getting increasingly disgruntled. The right to solve a grievance by demanding what you want, or maybe just violently taking isn't far from where we are at now.


Delirious said...

This is a great post! And it makes me ponder the question of whether or not the rights of the few should supercede the rights of the many? There is also a moral judgement call about which rights should come first if there is a conflict between two. In my mind, there are some rights that can't coexist. Then what do we do? I would say we would go with the desires of the majority. But I bet a dollar the Supreme Court won't see it that way.

Natural Bunc said...

I do thnk you have a point on this one.
For me I think it only makes sense to talk about people having rights and not inannimate objects or non-sentient eco-systems etc.

I think that with things like "nature" it makes more sense to look at things from our perspective and talk about those duties we have in respect of the natural world. eg a duty not to exploit ecosystems in a way which causes their destruction. Or a duty not to exploit a species and cause it's extinction. etc.

We have a duty not to over exploit natural gifts like oil and gas in one generation to the extent that a future generation cannot exploit these gifts.

Expressed as duties I think these are better guides to action and we dont fall so easily into the situation of completely conflicting rights.

Personally I do have a problem with the christian notion of man having "dominion" over nature - this risks being interpreted as giving us everything by way of power over nature and little by way of a duty of stewardship.

Livingsword said...


So what about natures “responsibilities”? What about when it invades your property and attacks your life?

Looney said...

Yes, I think the notion of 'responsibilities' is the one that we really need to focus on more.