Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

What is a right?

  1. Jul 2, 2003 #1


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    DrDeath started a good thread with "What is a sin?" and that inspired me to ask "What is a right?".

    In the USA we have the famous Bill of Rights, and Europe and the UN have their Declarations of Human Rights. And the philosophes in France and the founders in the US believed that there were inherent rights of human beings.

    But modern thinkers are not so sure. How do rights come out of evolution? Hume would have said they couldn't; no combination of statements of the form "X is so" can ever amount to a proof that "X ought to be so".

    So what do the PFers think?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 2, 2003 #2
    I think rights are formed when we want some treatment for ourselves, and realize pragmatically that for us to have them, we have to extend them to everyone else too. You'll notice that many people are perfectly happy taking away rights that they don't plan on needing.
  4. Jul 2, 2003 #3
    Good question. First, for those who don't know, let me say that I am a naturalist/materialist/humanist/atheist (just trying to cover many of the various terminologies people here use hehe).

    That being said, despite my love of philosophy, ethics, and evolution, I don't see any connection whatsoever between defining ethics and evolution.

    Sure, there are evolutionary reasons as to why ethics exist, but when we sit down at the table to decide what our ethics are or should be, we don't need to look at or consider evolution in any way, shape or form. In fact, if we had no knowledge of evolution (and no knowledge of gods or religions either for that matter), our ability to define ethics would not be negatively impacted in the slightest.

    Instead, when determining proper ethics, the questions should be things like: what effects will such behavior have?, how workable is such a principle?, will this help people or harm them?, is this principle good for humanity and individuals?, and so on. In short, the question is "What kind of world do we wish to build?" It's simply a matter of consensus and choice as a people, and the only thing needed to justify it is that, as an act of sheer will, that's what we want.

    Knowledge about how and why we have these desires is what evolution addresses, but has no role in us acting on them. As you mentioned, IS does not imply OUGHT. Evolution decides "IS", but WE decide "OUGHT".
  5. Jul 2, 2003 #4
    Oops, Sorry but I forgot to conclude my point as it relates to your question on rights. I meant to add that I consider the concept of a "right" to be an ethical one, and so human beings decide what rights we'd like to have in our society - that makes it a right in my view.
  6. Jul 2, 2003 #5


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Greetings !

    In my opinion rights are the foundations of any social
    order. Rights dictate the laws - limmitations of rights
    that allow a society to exist. If enitially I can do anything,
    in which case an organized society is impossible, then the laws limmit me to certain rights in order to maintain social order.
    (Despite their inspiring name they are still just what we
    have left after being limmited.)

    Live long and prosper.
  7. Jul 3, 2003 #6
    I think that whole justification for the idea of rights comes from the existence of feelings. Some feelings are bad (unpleasant), and some are good(pleasant). Some actions cause bad or good feelings, and therefore are bad or good. A bad thing (which could be a denial of a good feeling) should not be done to someone, so a person has a right to not have bad done to him/her.

    This affords freedoms to people, but obviously, in order to not be self-contradictory, this imposes limits on what a person has a right to do.

    You may ask, well how can you say that a feeling is "bad" or "good"? I can't reason to you how chemical interactions result in feelings being bad or good, but I can't reason to you how chemical interactions result in feelings in the first place, so I can't break it down any further. The only way you can gain knowledge of feelings is through experiencing them, and so you experience feelings to know the badness or goodness of them.

    I have described what I would call elementary rights.
    And then there are institutional and practical freedoms that we call rights, because we have no better way to protect elementary rights.
  8. Jul 3, 2003 #7


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    I pretty much agree with you Dan about what we feel our rights ought to be. I am interested in what you call institutional rights.

    Here's a question. Can rights be granted by a government or international body? Could it be that there was no right to free speech in the US until the first amendment to the Constitution (which protects freedom of speech) was passed?

    Or could some religious figure, the Pope or the Dalai Lama, grant us rights beyond what a nation could?
  9. Jul 3, 2003 #8


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Greetings !
    I think you're missing the point, as I made it in my post.
    Rights are the result of limmiting total freedom. You can
    still do things you've not been "granted" a right to do,
    but then it falls outside the rights zone - the law violation
    zone, and you get arrested. :wink:

    Live long and prosper.
  10. Jul 3, 2003 #9


    User Avatar

    That's very interesting drag. DO you say then that we have a society where things are not generally allowed unless there is a specifically declared right to it, contrary to libertarianism?
  11. Jul 3, 2003 #10
    I would say that the rights we have identified as basic rights have always been a part of society, community and civilization... but, being the labelists that humans are, they had to categorize each of these basic rights... (these are laws that define a civilization to some degree}

    It seems true that, in early times, we had no idea what we had until it was taken away...... say by the Pharoahs or the Summerian kings.... each individual had developed a set of "rights" or preferences that enabled his or her society/culture/civilization to function and when this stucture was dismanteled by an overlord looking for slaves... perhaps the idea of rights was born or identified.

    The freedoms and the restrictions involved in comprising a civilization that "lasts" are many. They resemble the laws involved in any physics experiment. This goes here so that happens... this stays there when it does... keep this away from that before this... etc...

    The Hebrews developed a system that seems to have maintained the rights of individuals. The 10 commandments quite simply read as a manual describing how to constructively behave in a nomadic, community/society.

    Thou shalt not kill. (Translated as a right it would read: You have the right to live your life.)

    Thou shalt not steal. (Translated as a right it would read: you have the right to ownership.)

    Maybe you get the idea now.

    It seems as though mutual and self respect are acting as a kind of quantum glue which holds together the concepts of individual rights.
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2003
  12. Jul 3, 2003 #11
    For example, look at the 5th Amendment:
    I wouldn't say that this is a basic right, but rather it is a system that we use to make sure that people are not persecuted or otherwise unfairly discriminated against (personal vendetta or what-have-you). There could possibly be other ways to accomplish the same goals, but this is an institutional right granted in the United States.

    It was Winston Churchill who said something like "Democracy is a horrible system of government...but it's the best thing that we've tried."

    Following this, one might say that the right to vote is an institutional right, but not an elementary one. It is to safeguard people against oppressive governments that would infringe upon their elementary rights. There could possibly be other systems, for example, if you had a super-intelligent, benevolent god to rule over you, or, if you could somehow figure out how to have a computer make nearly flawless decisions, and let the computer make governmental appointments and other decisions.
  13. Jul 4, 2003 #12


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    That may not be a very plausible way to look at it but
    basicly it is correct when it comes to the main issueso of

    Live long and prosper.
  14. Jul 4, 2003 #13


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    So Drag, you apparently think that a right is just something a government lets you do, and they could take that right away just as easily as grant it?

    A lot of times it seems that way, especially lately, but because the US government got established with an emphasis on rights (with which we are said to be "endowed by our creator" and which are described as "inalienable" - Happy Independence Day all!), there could be more to it.

    Here's an example out of the latest news. Last week a majority of the Supreme Court of the US held that an Alabama law against homosexual acts was unconstitutional. And in the majority opinion Justice Kennedy wrote that this was based on a right to do what you wanted in the privacy of your own home. Now the majority seemed to find that right in the constitution (especially in the 14th amendment), but the minority, including Justices Scalia and Thomas who wrote separate dissents, didn't think there is any such right.

    Here is a government arguing within itself about what is a right and what isn't. The notion of rights seems to have become embedded in the very culture of the US, beyond the government, and the government is at least partly constrained by the culture.
  15. Jul 4, 2003 #14


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Greetings !
    No, I'm saying that "rights" are illusions created because we
    had to have laws to keep social order. Laws are limmitations
    that allow social order while rights are the things the laws
    do not forbid.

    Nobody has to give me the "right for free-speech" because I can
    speak freely anyway. If somebody doesn't like it or says I can
    not I can take a gun and blow his brains out - that is no longer
    my "right" but it doesn't mean I can't do it. The laws are there
    to allow social order and the rights are what's left.

    Peace and long life.
  16. Jul 4, 2003 #15
    This is shown to be false by the existence of the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is a set of laws that prescribes certain rights, therefore, rights aren't just what's left over when laws are accounted for. Some laws affirm rights.
  17. Jul 4, 2003 #16


    User Avatar

    Hell, time to toss in my idea of rights.

    A right is a generalised allowance that is axiomatically agreed to by a given society, nation, or the world as being something that guaranteed as a matter of principle.
  18. Jul 4, 2003 #17
    What is a right?

    There are imposed rights and innate.

    Innate or "universal" rights do not exist at all whatsoever.

    Imposed rights are the result of someone using their position of power to force others into slavery. Every citizen of a government is a slave to some degree, to those who are above all rights and laws.
  19. Jul 5, 2003 #18


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Greetings !
    Nope. It's a publicity trick.:wink: Second, there's always a
    possibility that the laws will fail to limmit something so
    the rights are eventually there not just to tell you specificly
    what you can do and the laws do not limmit(to make it easier
    to understand for everyone :wink:), but also to make sure
    that you do not do the things that are not specified in them
    and the laws do not, yet, limmit.

    I do not quite understand what we're arguing here about. Does
    anyone here deny the fact that a state - the social order
    organization that we are part of, is that which limmits
    our basic freedom to do anything by laws ? To do that and
    then define "rights" and say these are the things we CAN
    do does not mean that before the rights were defined those
    were things we COULDN'T do. Does anyone disagree on this
    simple fact ?

    A right is basicly a strict definition of a specific action,
    just like a law, with the difference that the society allows
    us to do this action rather than forbid it as laws do.

    Live long and prosper.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?

Similar Discussions: What is a right?
  1. What are rights? (Replies: 5)