KNOW YOUR RIGHTS

Lynne Kiesling

A good way to kick off the Independence Day holiday is to have a philosohper, Aeon Skoble, give an introductory talk on rights. So yes, geeky as it sounds, I’m liveblogging it.

What are rights? We talk about two categories of rights, positive and negative.

Positive rights: claims to some good or action, which imposes a corresponding duty on other people to provide or relinquish that good or action to you.

Negative rights: liberties, which impose a corresponding duty on other people not to infringe on or interfere with that right.

Where do they come from? In a Lockean natural law context, such as the context in which the Declaration of Independence was derived, rights are “endowed by their Creator”; they do not arise from mutual agreement between two individuals. In a sense, natural rights are pre-political.

Aeon draws the contrast between natural rights and artificial rights, where artificial rights are an artifice of human design and human interaction (for example, your right to see your personnel file as part of your employment contract; note that this is also a positive right). Artificial rights are granted through a political process. Historically, think of this process as coming from the king dispensing rights, because the king has divinely-given authority.

Locke argues that because we are all moral equals, it follows that no individual can naturally have authority over anyone else. So if rights are pre-political and natural, they cannot come from the king. Natural rights conceptually precede the authority of any political entity. Locke uses this natural/artificial distinction as a justification for authority. What backs this justification is the consent of the governed. Governments are institutions that are human artifices that justly exist to protect these natural rights, and when governments fail to protect those natural rights, then citizens have a right to rebel against that government.

The innovation that Locke provides is to argue that rights are natural and governments, as institutions of human design, are artificial. This is a break from arguments about the natural origins of government authority, as found in Hobbes.