Sunday, October 08, 2006

Wiki propaganda watch: Rights

The wikipedia article on rights is badly in need of a rewriting to present a clear overview and index to the subject.

For a start, it does not address the fundamental difference between moral and legal rights. Moral rights are claims, can multiply like angels on a pinhead, and can conflict willy-nilly. Legal rights are claims that are enforced, and where they conflict they need to be resolved lest enforcement conflicts (battles) ensue.

In addition, it's entirely missing the Hohfeld taxonomy of rights, which emphasizes that every right creates an obligation (duty) for others.

But the annoying thing is this grotesque paragraph viewing rights through the ideological lens of positive and negative rights:

The conception of a right to something that implicitly creates an obligation on someone else to provide that thing (a positive right) is widely challenged. You can not enforce your wish for something (under the auspices of a right) if it implicitly constitutes an obligation on another to do something for you. However, one person's right to something creates a negative right in that you have the right for that thing not be interfered with by another, and that other is obligated not to interfere with your right to it. The obligation test is widely used to determine what constitutes a right. To illustrate: You have the right to own an axe, but you do not have a right to an axe. If you do own an axe, others have an obligation not to steal it.

This isn't a description of rights: it is an application of a libertarian theory of ethics to rights. In first world societies, positive legal rights abound, ranging from rights to jury trial to social welfare rights.

Revising the whole rights page would be a great deal of work: perhaps we should start small and address this one paragraph.


Mike Huben said...

Funny thing: I just looked at the Talk:Right page, and there were pretty much the same criticisms.

Ricardo said...

The first paragraph has bias:

if one is granted by society a right to a free public education, this would impose on someone else participating in that society an obligation to pay taxes in order to pay the costs of that education

Debatably true, but why mention it in the first paragraph apropos of nothing? It's a thinly disguised attempt to trojan a libertarian point about negative rights into the article intro under the guise of neutrality.

John said...

The whole concept of "negative rights" has been a bane of communitarians of all stripes -- who (oddly) are taken in with the argument that libertarian or laissez-faire ideology is conceptually incoherent because every "libertarian" right generates a countervailing obligation upon others (enforced by the power of the same government libertarians hypocritically detest, it is argued) to respect zones of immunity that turn out to be no different from any other government enforced entitlement structure.

It's an abysmally stupid argument at the margins (rape, murder, etc.) that is only more plausible in the face of straw-man hypotheticals (Bill Gates owning the planet earth).

At its core, however, there is an internal consistency and coherence to the argument that the idea of "negative rights" is a misnomer. Towards that end, the argument undermines natural rights justifications for a libertarian worldview - supplanting utilitarian justifications which are far more persuasive anyway.

Ricardo said...

John, we all understand the Libertarian perspective even if we disagree with it, but what have you comments got to do with the neutrality of the Wikipedia article?

John said...

Well, i didn't really intend to take up for the "neutrality" of Wikipedia as much as point out that their premise is not some kind of libertarian conspiracy.

Obviously, rights do not exist in a vacuum. To create a right in A is to impose a correlative duty on another person. Within a system of negative rights, the correlative duties stress forbearance and noninterferance. Systems of positive rights contemplate the use of force to redistribute wealth. To the extent that the author of the Wikipedia article recognizes this distinction, he recognizes the obvious in a world in which individual autonomy, property rights and freedom of contract are considered vital social institutions.

Even if you believe that those institutions should be modified to satisfy egalitarian ends, those who would chastise the distinction between positive and negative rights as a distinction motivated by those who seek to "apply libertarian ethics to rights," I should say, border on a diagnosis with clinical ideological paranoia.