Friday, January 21, 2011

Humans, the Government, and Eachother

Human Rights may be understood as confined solely to humans. Not only do humans rights only pertain to human beings, but conversely, only humans can violate these rights. Borrowing from the realist paradigm, we may also postulate that, as is the case with other limited resources, human rights are not unlimited, but an item of scarcity. Not everyone may do whatever he or she likes because often one’s actions involve others. For example, a person’s freedom to condemn homosexuality infringes to whatever extent on homosexuals.
The distribution of freedom or rights historically stems from various sources: the alpha male, nobility, religious authority, and finally the authority of the state. Despite such manifestations, these authorities have one thing in common—power. Rights distinguish the permissible from the impermissible. Unless power reinforces this distinction, it is nothing more then opinion. Force—whether it be imagined or instrumented—coerces action. In this vein societies have been lead to sanction various religions over one another, arbitrarily restrict personal freedoms, and even persecute and enslave other peoples.
Our founding fathers envisioned a nation that would provide the maximum freedom possible for everyone without infringing on the freedom of others. In my opinion, it is not the role of the government to enforce laws that are solely grounded on morality, for morality itself should be grounded in something more tangible and manifest. It is wrong to commit murder because murder is immoral. It is illegal to commit murder because murder infringes on the victim’s freedom to live. It is wrong (according to some) to be homosexual because homosexuality is immoral. Fine, don’t be gay. Homosexuality should not be illegal based on opinion.
In my hometown we are about to vote on whether or not to ban smoking cigarettes in restaurants. Smoking is unhealthy and, while sections are specifically designated smoking and non, it infringes (so the argument goes) on one’s right to not receive second hand smoke. But come, those for the ban clearly do not smoke cigarettes. As it is, citizens in my town have the freedom in certain dining establishments to enjoy a cig, only if they so choose, but no one is forcing them, nor is anyone forcing them to dine at such locals. Why must the people who have already freely chosen not to partake in cigarettes take it upon themselves to regulate the freedom of others? Yet this is often the case when it comes to human rights. When is the decision one of mere preference, and when is it one of rightness and wrong? Smoking may be harmful to the individual, but I say one’s health is one’s own business. Humans, in my opinion, would be much better off if they were left to determine for themselves (after a certain degree of education) how they prefer to live. Of course this is idealistic. But maybe if we allowed people to blow off their limbs or what have you, they (or at least others) might actually learn from experience. It is my hope that someday people may govern themselves righteously through their own use of reason to the extent that imposed laws are no longer necessary. I know this is a long shot, but who knows what a unified and well educated nation is capable of.


  1. When talking about homosexuality and murder, you make the distinction between moral and civil laws. I think this is an important distinction to make. You argue that some immoral acts should be legal because they do not infringe on the legal rights of others. I’m not sure exactly whether you are arguing that human rights are legal rights or moral rights. Do human rights come from the conventions of society, or is there a more fundamental justification?

  2. The point about personal governance is problematic for me. I realize that you are only bringing up one instance of social rights (cigarette smoking), but for me, without some sort of judicial mediation, society would crumble. If everyone were to drive at whatever speed they wanted in whatever lane they wanted, for example, chaos would ensue. I think that a distinction needs to be made between imposing laws against personal rights and laws made to protect the general populations' right to safety.

  3. Ben, in my opinion human rights equate to liberty, legal rights should be imposed by the government to maximize such liberty. Moral rights necessarily infringe unduly on liberty, and so should stem from another source (parent, teacher, church). These are helpful in developing a sense of morality--I find morality very important--but ultimately I think the self should be in charge of how he lives his life.

    Rush, I completely agree. Laws should be in place so that liberty my flourish. Speed limits are good because they keep jackasses in check. However, I recently had a discussion with someone whose against the seatbelt law. I must admit, I sympathized. Wearing a seatbelt is a great idea, but a law? So that you can get pulled over? Why would a people wish this on themselves?

    Laws infringe on liberty. The reasons better be freakin good.

  4. I agree that not everything that is immoral should also be illegal; however, I am not so sure that the distinction you make between moral concerns and legal concerns is entirely appropriate. In your post, you compare the moral reasons for not permitting murder to the legal reasons and conclude that they are different based upon the fact that murder is called immoral and is cited as a violation of another's right to life in the other. Perhaps you had something else in mind when mentioning this distinction, but I believe that an examination of why murder is immoral would leave you with the same reasons for why it is illegal. On the other hand, while it is debatable whether or not homosexuality is immoral, I agree with your point that the law is not suited to make the final judgement on this matter. Here, I think it is important to realize that rather than being separate from issues of morality, the law must be concerned with issues of morality in any issues revolving around human rights are concerned. Unfortunately, there are many conflicting moral and human rights notions that would have to be resolved in order to formulate a set of laws that did not conflict with any to them, so we must construct our laws to violate as few human rights and moral traditions as possible as well as protect the most fundamental of those rights and traditions. This may be why we some times consider our human rights laws as being independent of moral judgement.

  5. Cole, you said that morality should come from parents, teachers, or the church, then said the self should be in charge of how one lives one's life? Which is it? I agree with you that it is the person who is making the decision's responsibility to make his or her own choices. Having them come from somewhere else seems like they are given a special privilege because of some authority they bring.


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