Rights and Freedom

Janet Radcliffe Richards has an excellent chapter on moral relativism in Human Nature After Darwin, including this on pages 198-9:

Any set of moral standards must include, as part of those standards, criteria for the appropriate treatment of other people…This means there are necessarily conflicts, when some people think they should do what other people think they should not be allowed to do. And, indeed, the essence of what it is for people to have different moral principles is disagreement: if there were no disagreement, there would be no difference. And since there is disagreement, it follows that not everyone can be given the freedom to follow their own principles.

This is what I was talking about the other day in ‘Gain and Loss’. There are different moral principles; there is disagreement; there are different people with competing interests, wants, needs; they are inevitably going to be in competition with other people’s interests, wants, needs. My desire for quiet competes with your desire to mow the lawn (and loses, every time); I’m not free to make off with your lawn mower in order to prevent your making a noise with it. But, on the plus side of the ledger, you’re not free to sell me into slavery.

That’s the whole point of rights: to limit certain freedoms. Rights entail limitations on the freedom to mistreat people or to interfere with certain of their freedoms (but not others). They have to do that in order to be effective rights. That’s why the whole subject is difficult and why bills of rights are a new idea and not (to put it mildly) universal yet; that’s why they have to be codified rather than implicit, and that’s why they’re needed. The freedom to mistreat people, to exploit them and use their labour, to dominate and confine and impregnate them, to subordinate and segregate and revile them, is a highly prized one. Naturally rights aren’t something that just get granted with no problem. Rights amount to a recognition that, left alone, the strong will bully the weak (see the discussions in Plato’s ‘Republic’ and ‘Gorgias’), and after millions of years we’ve decided we don’t want that. The price is a limitation on the freedom of the strong. There’s no free lunch.

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