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The key reason I have turned to MacIntyrean tradition-based inquiry is to make progress on the ethical inquiries that have proved very difficult to resolve. So far, too many of those inquiries have turned out to be cliffhangers. But by taking the approach I have, of identifying the collection of Aristotle, Buddha, Hume and perhaps historicism as at some level the best story so far, it is now possible for me to move closer to concrete conclusions of at least an early and preliminary kind.

I see this point as I reexamine a particular cliffhanger from last year. I posted a fourpost series on human rights, and yet by the final post I had still not advanced a substantive theory about them. I said we need reasons for rights, but was not willing to say anything about what those reasons are. I articulated Leif Wenar’s distinction between instrumental and status theories of rights, but did not take a stand on which kind of theory would provide a better kind of reason.

That has changed. It is not that I have the full answers. Some things are still quiet hazy to me here – for to the extent that an Aristotelian, a Buddhist and a Humean would have reason to speak of rights, their reasons would be quite different from each other’s. And yet there is one thing that they all have very much in common. Namely, they would agree that rights are instrumental, in Wenar’s sense. They do not have any higher status.

That is to say: none of the ethical traditions that make sense to me assert that human rights are a basic feature of human nature according to natural law, as John Locke does, or that respect for rights is a necessary consequence of our rational sense of justice, as John Rawls does. So: Rights are not a deep and fundamental part of our being as human individuals. I can now say that with some confidence.

Nevertheless – as a historicist should point out – the idea of rights is now a fundamental feature of worldwide moral and political discussion as it happens to exist today, and that fact matters. The idea of “human-rights violations” calls our attention to misconduct that all of the three traditions have interests in preventing – for different reasons.

Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, for example, that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” In practice this has meant that when people are arbitrarily killed or wounded, especially by governments, then organizations like Amnesty International will censure this act as a “human-rights violation”, and try to prevent it. People from different traditions can agree that this act is wrong, and use the language of rights violations to explain why they are working together to prevent the act from happening. I would submit that from the perspective of any of these traditions, that is typically a good thing.

This was Jacques Maritain’s rationale in the Universal Declaration: one can use rights as a means to achieve certain political ends that one believes are goods, without achieving agreement that they are goods. The idea of rights does not help us understand anything, but it is likely to help us accomplish something that we are already confident is good, for reasons that have nothing to do with rights. I have criticized Maritainian arguments in the past on the grounds that “the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, the American Academy of Religion and this blog are not intended as fora for pragmatic political compromises”. Indeed they are not, and neither should be a document entitled “To speak the truth”. But of course some places – such as the United Nations – are intended as such fora, and there, doctrines of rights have a place.

A Humean (who is often a utilitarian) will object to killing people because of the suffering it will inflict on the victim, and the lack of life opportunities the victim will later have. A Buddhist also sees killing people as causing suffering; for some Buddhists, like Śāntideva, the suffering inflicted on the perpetrator is more serious than that inflicted on the victim, but preventing the act of killing remains important. So too, an Aristotelian will likely see an arbitrary killing as an unjust act of tyranny. These are different reasons to prevent such an action, but they all are reasons to prevent such an action. To simply deny the existence of rights as a confused pseudo-concept (as MacIntyre does in After Virtue), or even more so to try to eliminate rights-based institutions like Amnesty and the Universal Declaration, could encourage actions that all of these would want to prevent.

So if these different traditions can agree that many rights violations are wrong, does it still matter that they disagree? Or at least, does it matter in practice? It does. It is the underlying reasons that allow us to think about which violations are wrong – which is to say, what rights actually are rights in any real sense. Does the fetus have a right to life or does its mother have a right to an abortion? (Or is there some way to say both without falling into hopeless self-contradiction?) That question is not so easily answered, any more than any other substantive ethical or political question.

But where such substantive questions will not be adequately answered is in discussions of rights as such. While all of the traditions at issue here, in the context of the 21st-century world, have reason to endorse and protect some rights, none of them actually believe that rights as such are a real thing, a meaningful feature of human life in the way that virtues or suffering are. Rights are not ends in themselves.

I see this as genuine progress in my understanding of rights beyond the previous set of posts. But readers may have noted that there still remains a great deal unsettled here: I have not decided between Aristotle, the Buddha, Hume or historicism, on those points where they do differ (and there are many). But that decision is a far more difficult question, very much part of the twenty-year project. So I am still left on a cliffhanger of sorts – but perhaps I have found a firmer foothold.


I will take a short break from posting as my wife and I have just left for a vacation in Morocco. Love of All Wisdom will return at the end of March.