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What are rights?

  1. May 14, 2004 #1
    What are rights? Most people in western society have had the words, "right" and "rights" thrown at them from a very young age. People from other cultures might not understand this concept. Perhaps we don't understand what we say exactly. How, exactly, would you define rights?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 14, 2004 #2


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    Rights are a beneficial delusion shared by the bulk of civilized people. They are thought to be an intrinsic part of being human, inalienable, is the word usually used to describe them. They are actually a tacit agreement by people to treat eachother decently. We all sign on to this agreement when we benefit from the decent treatment of others (at birth). While not inalienable, it is a good idea to treat them as such. It is such a good idea that it is one of the few, perhaps the only one, that it is good for people to believe though it is wrong. Someday, we may be able to handle the truth about rights, but not now. Besides, there are many other truths to be learned, this one can wait.

  4. May 14, 2004 #3


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    What you said, Njorl, except that they are enshrined in our law codes for convenience, and in accordance with the social compact you describe they are made difficult to change. Difficult but not impossible as society changes.
  5. May 14, 2004 #4
    I view 'rights' as my freedoms. i am free to pursue happiness, free to seek justice, etc etc

    unfortunately, the term has become extended to include 'entitled to'. this is where a society begins to break down. a right does not mean that you will be happy or experience justice, etc. BUT, you are free to work for or toward your goal.

    love and peace,
    olde drunk
  6. May 14, 2004 #5


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    While I do question the origin (like Njorl), I take a much more scientific approach: rights are principles that when applied to a society result in peace, stability, prosperity, happiness, etc. Simply put, they are what works.

    Slightly differently from Njorl, I believe rights are inalienable not because they were handed down by God (they could have been, but I don't really know), but because we have defined them to be.

    The specifics of rights are the same as any other theory: you tweak the theory until the results match the hypothesis. For example:

    Hypothesis: Outlawing alchohol will reduce alcohol related crime, accidents, etc.
    Experiment: Through the 18th Amendment, the right to drink is removed.
    Data: Crime goes up due to smuggling.
    Result: Hypothesis discarded, 21st amendment gives back the right to drink.

    Like all theories though, theories on rights require some assumptions...
    This is an important point. Though my knowledge of eastern philosophy is admittedly a little thin, individual rights aren't a concept that is as developed there as it is here. I believe that is a large part of the reason why democracy has yet to take hold in eastern countries. From what I understand, some of the leaders of China were confused by the negative reaction we in the West had to the Tienamnen Square massacre because in their culture, the good of the country is what is important.
    Last edited: May 14, 2004
  7. May 15, 2004 #6


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    I think rights, in practice, whether considered as social contracts or moral obligations, have a fundamental place; they are of the highest, *equal* priority, and so cannot contradict each other.
    For instance, if I consider protection from theft as a right, I cannot consider philanthropy a right. I don’t want people to steal food from each other, but I also don’t want someone to let another starve if they have plenty to spare. I cannot satisfy both without contradiction. So I make one a right and the other a virtue (or whatever you want to call it).
    There was a case where (IIRC) the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a certain religious group, who sacrificed animals as a main part of their religious ceremony, was in violation of Florida’s animal cruelty laws and could not continue this practice. The US Supreme Court overturned their ruling, citing the First Amendment. (I actually came across this case while searching for the legal definition of “religion”, which I never found.)
    Happy thoughts
    P.S. I don't know why I said "I" above, but I'm too lazy to change it now- or look up that case :tongue2:
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