When I gave up the mainstream left/right way of looking at politics, I started seeing the world in terms of natural rights instead. I’d always been influenced by the natural law/natural rights school of thought, but that became my lens for pretty much everything. I’m starting to wonder, though, whether we should re-frame issues in terms of choices rather than rights.
It’s not that I’ve suddenly stopped believing that every human being has rights. In fact, I firmly believe in my understanding of what rights are and where they come from. But that’s the problem. When we talk about rights, we’re all coming at it from radically different directions. We believe that different things are rights and we also have different explanations for where rights come from. It makes for interesting philosophical debate, but it’s pretty useless insofar as changing the world.
Doug Douma is a libertarian friend of mine who recently wrote an article asserting that the origin of rights is the Bible — the Christian New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament, which the Jews call the Tanakh. Even though I’m both a libertarian and a Christian, too, I didn’t agree with his conclusion, so even though we’re both Christians who believe in looking to scripture theologically, even we don’t agree on that. I offer this as one tiny example of how difficult it is to decide on where rights come from and what they are. If Doug and I don’t agree — and we both take scripture seriously — how can we expect people coming from entirely different philosophical points of view to have any chance of agreeing with us or each other?
Even speaking of something as broadly as “rights” means different things to different people. In libertarian and most conservative circles, it’s going to generally mean something based in some form of natural rights. For those on the modern left, it’s going to take the form of one humanist argument or another — and the resulting human rights are generally going to look very different. And let’s not even get started on the question of which rights are negative and which are positive. (Hint: The negative ones are the “good ones,” as far as I’m concerned.)
I’m not trying to give you a survey of all the different kinds of ideas about rights and where they come from. I’m only trying to quickly make it clear that almost nobody agrees. Even when people use the same words, they frequently mean very different things by those words. It’s easy to get people to agree that we all have “unalienable rights” — as the U.S. Declaration of Independence puts it — but trying to get people to agree on a definition of those rights and the source of the rights creates nothing but a logjam of people who are all convinced that they’re right.
We’re not going to change the world by trying to talk people into supporting our idea of rights. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that the people who will read this article will have a dozen different views of the subject, even the ones who generally come from a pro-individual liberty position. So why do we keep trying this? Isn’t there a better approach?
I’m starting to think we would be better to talk about allowing everyone to have a personal choice about which system he or she wants to live under. As long as we’re talking about rights, the discussion essentially seems to be an argument over which system everyone has to use. Why not agree that there can a number of different systems, even if we don’t agree with many of them?
Can we simply agree that we’re not going to agree about where rights come from? Can we agree to disagree about which things are rights and which things are not? And can we agree to simply allow people to have a choice about whether they want to live under your notion of rights or not?
If we frame the argument as a matter of individual choice, we don’t have to prove to anyone that we’re right. We also don’t have to convince people to change their minds. We just have to agree that it’s OK for different groups of us to go off in different directions and try our ideas and try to convince “customers” to live under our differing systems. Doesn’t that stand a much better chance of actually bringing about change than trying to get everyone to agree to the same set of rights? Isn’t it worth a try?