Why Do Horrid People Have Rights? (Part I)

Neera K. Badhwar

Individual rights to life, liberty, and property protect our freedom from others’ interference. Rights are claims on others to refrain from initiating physical force on us or defrauding us. Having and respecting rights implies, for instance, that we have a right to buy a house for ourselves, but no right to throw out the owners of a house in order to make room for ourselves. To do so is to invade (in this case, both literally and metaphorically) the occupants’ protected space of freedom to own that house. Rights are boundaries marking the extent of our freedom to act as we please, and both government and individuals are morally bound to respect them. Force is justified only in self-defense or, in the case of government, in defending our rights. On the libertarian conception of rights and the limits of state power, governments may not force us to do or refrain from doing things in order to make us more happy, healthy, or moral. Rights prohibit governments from passing and enforcing paternalistic or moralistic laws and policies.

What is it about us that grounds rights, in particular, our rights to life and liberty?  Most philosophers appeal to our nature as rational, self-directed beings, beings with the capacity to act on goals we set for ourselves. We own our minds and bodies the way we own our property, and no one may use our bodies or property without our consent. Another way of capturing this thought is to say that we are ends in ourselves (see, for example, Nozick (CE*) and Mack), with ends of our own, not mere means to other people’s ends. No matter how noble the goal to which the government or society want to sacrifice us, if we don’t consent to being sacrificed, it is wrong of them to do so. Rights prohibit them from treating us as mere means through physical force or fraud – they protect our ends-in-ourselves-ship. This is why they are morally important and worthy of respect.  

The mere fact that we have ends of our own, however, doesn’t seem enough to justify the importance of rights in libertarian theory. After all, our ends can be banal, such as mindlessly watching sitcoms and eating popcorn all day long. Some philosophers (e.g., Rasmussen and Den Uyl-CE*) argue that rights are important because they create the conditions we need to pursue our ultimate goal as human beings and individuals: eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is happiness in a virtuous life,and we need to be left free to direct our choices as we see fit in order to achieve it. Without freedom of speech and action, we have little chance of achieving a mature understanding of right and wrong, much less of aiming at virtue and eudaimonia.

This argument, however, can’t explain why everyone who is commonly regarded as a rights-bearer ought to be so regarded. Most people are mixed in their character and actions. Although they don’t assault others, or steal their property, or defraud them (in a big way), many do engage in small dishonesties when they can get away with them (see Ariely). We are familiar with politicians lying to us in order to win votes or save face, and with businesses unjustly seeking favors from politicians in order to outdo the competition. There’s little reason to think that the rest of us would be much better if we were in their situation. The chief aim of many people is to avoid trouble with the law and get along with others. They are likely to be virtuous with those they love, and many earn their living in a worthwhile enterprise. But they are far from having the moral ambition to become better people overall, as they must to have rights according to the eudaimonistic argument.

The eudaimonist could say that if our rights are respected, at least some of us might improve morally, since we all have the capacity to do so. There is no way to tell in advance who will and who won’t. But this answer leaves out many categories of people.

Addicts who are incapacitated by their addiction do not and cannot aim for virtue. Indeed, they cannot even will to aim for virtue. Their natural capacity for doing so has been swamped by their ‘second nature’ – their addiction. Yet on the libertarian view, which the eudaimonistic philosophers share, they too have the right to act as they choose, so long as they don’t violate other people’s rights. Libertarians don’t think that it’s permissible for the government, or for the addicts’ relatives, to haul them off to an institution for treatment so that they can recover their capacity for trying to become virtuous. Again, children born with severe mental defects will never strive for virtue, and adults who develop dementia will never again do so.

Psychopaths, thought to constitute roughly 2% of the American population, are also a problem for the eudaimonist thesis. Full-fledged psychopaths are incapable of love or empathy, psychopaths inflict harm and psychological pain on family members, friends, and strangers, without guilt. They are rational in the sense that they can fit means to goals, and understand arguments for acting in certain ways and not others. But they are not rational in the sense that they can understand the significance of these arguments. Hence, they are not moved by their understanding. In other words, they have theoretical rationality, but not practical rationality. This is why the psychiatrist, Hervey Cleckley (CE*), who has seen hundreds of psychopaths in his practice, describes their appearance of sanity as a mask. Yet if they don’t violate others’ basic rights by assaulting, killing, robbing, or defrauding them – and many don’t – they are considered as having rights, and we are under an obligation to respect their rights. The same applies to other brands of trouble-makers, such as people with anti-social personalities. Extremely vicious, but non-psychopathic, individuals, whose aim in life is to create trouble for others, and who take joy in seeing others suffer, but without violating their rights, also pose a problem for the eudaemonist thesis. There is little reason to think that they can change for the better, and no reason to think that they can if they are close to death. Yet we don’t strip them of their rights as they approach the end.

Trying to justify rights on the grounds of people’s capacity to pursue eudaimonia implies that many people we think have rights, don’t. It seems that the more exalted our view of human nature and human action as a basis for respecting rights, the smaller the number of people we can justifiably regard as rights-bearers.  

In Part II I’ll consider a less exalted view of human nature as a basis for rights to see if it can justify ascribing rights to people who are excluded by the eudaimonistic justification. It will also become evident in Part II that the same justification does not work for everyone.

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