Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of STUFF

I think this belief in a benign, ordered universe also encourages our belief in “Natural, Inalienable Rights”: the idea that rights exist as part of ourselves, and are as real and undeniable, as necessary for existence, as a vital organ – your liver or your kidneys. A world constructed so reliably to our benefit would naturally hold our rights in place, as we are products of the same natural laws. A failure to respect those rights would be a monstrous aberration.  

And if rights were as safe as guttiwutts, we wouldn’t need laws to protect them. We could live in a neo-libertarian’s paradise – like the internet![1]

To me, it seems self-evident that rights do not exist inherently in an individual, although human value[2] might. Rights are far too easily, and frequently, ignored. 

A lone consciousness floating in an empty universe, with no memory of society, would have no concept of rights. But we don’t live alone and we need to tolerate and co-operate with each other to survive. In this atomistic, egotistical existence, our singular consciousness is both a blessing and a curse. It allows us not only to be, and develop, ourselves, but also to totally ignore the self in others. We are sealed into our own individuality, but compelled to make contact with each other.

Life is naturally unfair. People are not biologically identical, or equal in abilities, so what is to stop someone claiming that naturally occurring rights, also, are unequally distributed? Should more able groups have greater rights and freedoms to exercise their greater abilities simply because they can, or for the good of man – sorry, human – kind: men, say, or white people or Christians…? 

This unequal distribution would turn rights into privileges. Objecting to such privileges demands an acceptance of a universal moral system.  Otherwise we’d merely have conflicts of interests resolved by brute force. In an unregulated society, you aren’t going to get a reassertion of human autonomy and thus human dignity, you’re going to get exploitation and oppression. 

Luckily, no-one has a monopoly on the shared spaces of existence.  There, we can make a pact to try and make life fairer. A discussion of “rights” is an attempt to come to an agreement on the basic ground-rules of co-operation. It’s an acknowledgement that, if society is to function, we must all agree to treat each other with equal care. Otherwise, we’d descend into all-out war, as we battled for scant resources and the security that only total victory would bring.  

So, thinking of “Rights” as “belonging” to people is an unhelpful way of talking about a sort of social contract, an obligation. Rights are an invention. But a good one. It’s a promise we make to each other.

And the opportunities derived from this promise are particularly precious because they are so fragile. They are not even gifts; they are liberties that have been lent to you by the those with the power to grant them, and they can be withdrawn, permanently, with a gesture, or the flexing of a trigger finger, or an off-hand command. They could be subtracted from whole societies just as easily. 

We must protect them. 


[1] I once read an article by Tanya Gold, suggesting that we would have to put up with even the most repugnant trolling because “The internet has changed everything”. I don’t see why this should be true. Social media platforms are publishers, in exactly the same way as the publishers of books, only more prolific and without editors. They produce and disseminate texts. This has been clear and undeniable since the earliest days of the internet. They have the same responsibilities to their society. They should have exactly the same legislation applied to them as book publishers do, and should have had it applied since the earliest days of the internet. We wouldn’t say that, because you’ve produced the world’s fastest car, the rules of the road shouldn’t apply to it. The failure to apply the law; the resistance to it, seems to demonstrate older lawmakers’ inability to intellectually process new things, and thus their mystified awe of them. Unfortunately, older people rule the world (and adore youth.)

[2] which, for me, means “human consciousness”

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