The Privilege of Rights

This is the final installment of a series of three mini-essays on privilege. The first two are here and here.

As western society has evolved, it has declared a certain set of freedoms and entitlements to be called rights. The United States' Declaration of Independence proclaimed, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

As the US government evolved, the Bill of Rights was written, setting out a number of familiar rights: freedoms of speech and assembly, the right ro bear arms, etc..  Further amendments to the constitution have been added since, many of which included some concept of rights.  Other western countries have similar concepts reflected in their relative governments: there is the British Bill of Rights of 1689, the German Grundgesetz of 1949, and Title 2 of the Swiss Federal Constitution, among others.  Furthermore, the United Nations' International Bill of Human Rights was passed 1948.

When it comes to rights, there is a lot of disagreement.  Contemporarily, the LGBTQ community is fighting for the right of same-sex couples to marry in the US, though they are free to so in other countries.  China is known for limiting some freedoms we take for granted in the States.  Several international human rights organizations condemn North Korea for being brutal to its people.  Philosophically, there is a distinction between legal and natural rights, the latter being along the lines of the "unalienable rights" mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.  The problem is, like in all things philosophical, there are differing opinions of what natural rights entail, thus countries have varying degrees of freedoms and individuals are proponents of a wide spectrum of diverse sets of rights.

Rights, however, are merely privileges clothed in legal or philosophical disguises--privileges that we should have, for whatever reason.  As individuals, we can be aware of the history of these privileges and of the current legal climate, domestically and internationally.  We should formulate our own opinions and theories about natural rights.  If we see these rights being violated, we can defend them.  Rights are privileges that are not necessarily finite--you can't run out of freedom of speech--and so supporting and sharing these privileges can cost very little.  And as always, we can be grateful for the privileges we possess.


Anonymous said...

An important feature of rights in the legal sense is that the government is not permitted to violate them, no matter how great the apparent benefits of doing so. Of course, adherence to that definition varies, and it inspires endless wrangling about the scope of the right. Nonetheless, it theoretically constrains the set of rights to be non-conflicting: by definition, more people can have a right without anyone having less of it. Thus, negative rights like "free speech" and "freedom of religion" are possible, while positive 'rights' like "free healthcare" aren't. ("Marriage" is a complicated one, being a negative right at its core, with a host of positive inducements tacked onto it.)

Similarly, in the natural sense, I submit that there is a real difference between a right and a privilege. A right is an innate measure of freedom, endowed by God, or derived from the fact of sapience. It can only be infringed by others' action, not inaction, and infringing actions are never justifiable. A privilege is granted by other people. It may be well-earned, intrinsically unjustifiable, or anyplace in between. Thus, it may be morally justifiable to deny a privilege, either by action or inaction.

I agree that for practical purposes, rights often operate like privileges. The difference is that people who operate them that way are doing wrong. Gratitude for rights respected is well and good, but anger over rights denied is also appropriate.

ajbc said...

As a disclaimer, I am obviously no expert in political or legal theory, nor do I have any training in philosophy outside of just thinking about the world.

In response to the legal sense distinctions, I'd argue that privileges can be non-conflicting. As an example, having knowledge is a negative privilege. Similarly, having wealth would be a positive privilege. So in this context, I think that the right-privilege comparison holds with the relationship that the set of rights is a subset of all privileges.

As for the natural sense, I was trying to argue that rights are privileges that we charge with moral rhetoric and societal expectations. Again, I turn to an example: most Americans would say that killing is wrong, and yet we have a military, consider killing in self-defense to be appropriate, and have the death penalty. In such cases, we tend to argue that if others are violating our rights or the laws of the land, we can violate their rights. Your rights are taken away when you don't play by society's rules, which in some sense makes them privileges.

Lastly, I agree that anger over rights denied is appropriate. I think it's important for individuals to fight for the rights they think are important, both for themselves and in the global community. However, I think anger over privileges denied can be appropriate in certain circumstances as well.

I think that legally and philosophically the commonly understood distinctions between rights and privileges are useful and good. It reflects societal evolution in a good and moral direction, but I also think it's important to question the definitions we take for granted in order to more fully understand and appreciate them.