ISSUES IN APPLIED ETHICS: 7.1. Rights

ISSUES IN APPLIED ETHICS

7.1.The Game of “Who is Right?” – What is Right, and What are Rights Anyway?

People usually quote the saying “might is right” as a reproachful, resigned, or ironic comment to mean that it is not supposed to be. This constitutes a perfect example of the clash of the two contradictory codes and shows a recognition on the part of the speaker that Sunday-school morality and everyday mores run at cross purposes. It already pays at least token tribute to the principle of equality in a world ruled by violence.

That in past ages “might is right” could be asserted without even a touch of irony as a simple justification of privilege may be illustrated by another, this time Roman, proverb: “quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi,” by which understand that what is permissible for higher-ups is a no-no for the ordinary Tom, Dick, and Harry. In fact, the representation of Justitia holding a scale in her right and blindfolded to indicate the impartiality of the law, did not originally appear in ancient statuary; it was a later addition. And realistically the goddess would even today be more aptly portrayed peeping out from under her blindfold.

Traditionally, persons belonging to certain categories have been, as it were, constitutionally right no matter what they said; they shared rightness as a permanent attribute. In class societies the elite were right. In a feudal setting the serf had no recourse, no presumption in a disagreement to contest the word of the landowner. A given society may reserve the quality of being right to men over women, adults over minors, the educated over the unschooled, or vice versa, irrespective of objective fact. In the traditional family father knew best; some cultures still adhere to this, while in others the phrase is no longer even funny as a sitcom title. Members of a certain unfavorably perceived ethnic or other group should better forget it: their name might as well be Mr., Mrs., or Miss Wrong; they will never be right. In the courts picking the jury is crucial for lawyers, since they can take it for granted that jurors will find members of their own socioeconomic or other background credible. Not only do nationals of states or inhabitants of regions look down upon, and name dread diseases after, one another–gonorrhea and syphilis for example were commonly named mutually after natives of the neighboring state–but, not infrequently, townspeople in every single locality of a county will seriously propose that while they are generally upright and trustworthy citizens, folks in the next town are a bunch of chiselers, dope peddlers, and addicts. Blacks used to think it befitted their skin color to assent to whatever whites would say, preferring to mislead rather than disagree with them. Mislead is an important word. For ultimately it is the human community that is being misled.

In various Indo-European languages right, depending on whether it is used adjectivally or substantively, means “true,” “just,” “privilege,” as well as “law;” and this is no mere coincidence. The question of who is right usually spills over, as in all the examples furnished above, from the factual one of who has the correct information, into the moral sphere, influencing and becoming indistinguishable from the question of who is the worthier person, entitled to advantage. Power has usually entailed being right and having rights. In truth this power has been legitimated by falsehood.

As a kind of populist retort to (or equivalent of) inherited, aristocratic class privilege, in modern democracies a tendency has taken place whereby ordinary citizens see any opinion or action as rendered respectively infallible or morally irreproachable by virtue of the fact that it happens to be their own: they cannot be or do wrong, are simply incapable of it. Further, they believe that value refers to their own possessions, other people’s belongings being characterized as junk (to demonstrate that their neighbors’ property is garbage, they may be willing to wreck it). The junk part luckily might not have to amount to a great deal, since a kindred thesis holds that everything on earth, indeed in the solar system and galaxy, rightfully and by the decree of destiny, belongs to their nation or, to be more precise, to them personally and individually, to the actual exclusion of most of their compatriots who after all are not hundred-per-cent specimens of that nation. Some of this grew out of the attitude of the Westerner toward the indigenous population, but is part of a very fundamental tendency, a human tendency that in turn originates in a natural one.

We do not in any way wish to comment unfavorably on the concept of human rights, for they assert freedoms that all human beings should be accorded on purely consequentialist grounds. Yet when you posit rights as conferred on humans by absolute authority or given a priori and inalienably possessed, you invite the sort of skeptical stance that has actually been adopted by numerous contemporary philosophers. (But if all one means by inalienable is that they should not be violated, we emphatically agree.)

In section 6. 5. we referred to the difficulties inherent in the concept of equality as demanded by justice. A certain measure of equality as fairness was already recognized by the first legal codes known to us (cf. Hammurabi’s Code), thus we cannot assert that right was exclusively reserved for the powerful even in primeval times. It particularly played a role in Greek thought. Aristotle’s approach in the Nicomachean Ethics has been summarized as “treat equals equally, unequals unequally.” Various subsequent formulations throughout history show a development toward equality of opportunities, rights, even of outcome. Underlying this is the increasing awareness that unless human beings are treated as equal in some very fundamental ways, a great deal of calamity will eventually ensue.

While reason counsels peaceful mutual compromise–a social contract–privilege has to rely on force and falsehood, both of which provide risky, unsafe protection, causing as they do latent tensions: smoldering resentment on one side, hidden uneasiness and anxiety on the other. A great deal of lip service and empty conference-platform rhetoric laud equality, while its most fundamental premises are violated by the preferential practices of wide segments of probably every society on earth day by day. And so the game of mutual additions and subtractions goes on, perhaps less blatantly in some places than in others, on the whole less excessively with the progress of time, but still in our age, though its absurdities are becoming gradually more transparent and its articles of faith ever more untenable.

Even “treat equals equally, unequals unequally” could be interpreted so as to apply, in a very broad sense, to all cases of what today are called human-rights violations; but it could easily be used also to bolster up the most excessive claims to exclusive, oppressive privilege. That is why general formulas cast in nonexact language must be amply illustrated by concrete example. The instances provided above indicate some of the areas where the abstract term “equality” should apply, aspects from which the principle that all human beings are equal holds if desirable consequences constitute the criterion of value. When it is violated, in the long term it tends to make life miserable for everyone, yet it takes nearly superhuman strength in a community where they are deeply entrenched for any one individual to break out of them.

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