After Rights, Then What?

After Rights, Then What? January 8, 2009

Radical Catholic Mom’s response to my post on sweatshops put me in mind of an old quote by Edmund Burke:

What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or to medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In that deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor of metaphysics.

It is all well and good to tell people they have a right to eat more than one meal a day, or to live in better housing, or to receive higher wages, an education, clean water, and so forth. Simply declaring that people have a right to such things, however, accomplishes very little. You can’t eat a right. You can’t sleep in it, drink it, wear it, or use it to protect you from the elements. Having the right to eat more than one meal a day is not the same as being able to eat more than one meal a day, and it is a fallacy to assume that declaring that people have a right to something will bring them into possession of that thing. Calling something a human right, a natural right, a fundamental or basic right will not change this, nor will writing the word ‘right’ using all caps.

In fact, if you’re not careful declaring that people have a right to something can even impede their possession of it. After all, if something is yours by right, then it hardly seems right for you to have to pay someone else to provide it to do, or to give them something of value in exchange. Yet the profit motive can be a great motivator for people to get needed goods and services to the people who need them, and if we cut off this motivation we should not be surprised if people end up with less of what they need. God help us if we are dependent for our subsistence solely on the altruism of businessmen.

This is not to say, of course, that rights-talk is completely worthless. It can and often does serve a useful purpose in focusing one’s attention on a particular aspect of a social problem, or on its general importance. But it is at best a beginning to the conversation, not an end to it. Even if we decide that something is a basic human right, this will not settle the question of how best to secure people in possession of that thing. And that question, being a practical one, cannot be settled simply by appeal to moral principle, let alone to moral sentiment.

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