Wrong About Rights

The concept of human rights is one of the most significant achievements of civilization. I believe I speak for liberals generally when I say that. But I also think the concept of “rights” generally has been considerably degraded.

Awhile back the the late Ronald Dworkin, who was a professor of philosophy at New York University, compared the exercise of individual rights to playing a trump card. “Individual rights are political trumps held by the individuals,” he said. “Individuals have rights when, for some reason, a collective goal is not a sufficient justification for denying them what they wish, as individuals, to have or to do, or not a sufficient justification for imposing some loss or injury upon them.”

The problem is that we seem to have assigned trump status to some rights even when a greater good would be served by denying them. And here’s an example.

Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist and gaming critic, pulled out of a speech she was going to give at the University of Utah. She had received threats of a “Montreal Massacre style attack” if her speech wasn’t canceled. The anonymous email continued, “feminists have ruined my life and I will have my revenge, for my sake and the sake of all the others they’ve wronged.”

The University and law enforcement decided the threat wasn’t serious enough to cancel the speech. Sarkeesian insisted on heavy security, including metal detectors at the doors.

But here’s the kicker: The University decided that people could carry a firearm into the auditorium as long as they had a permit for it. In other words, the right to carry trumped the safety of the speaker and the audience. Sarkeesian not unreasonably refused to give the speech.

Yesterday I ran into an argument over a right to health care. Naturally some guy trotted out his libertarian trump card, saying he had a right to not be obligated to pay for somebody else’s health care.

Where health care is concerned I am less interested in theories about rights than the practical matter that (a) getting more people insured really is controlling cost (b) providing access to health care is part of a reasonable national strategy for controlling infectious disease. In other words, somehow providing health care to most citizens is a positive for everybody. If we make it an argument about rights, however, we just have people slapping down their cards and arguing about which one trumps the other.

And a “right” to liberty doesn’t mean much if you are incapacitated with untreated medical problems.

Lately we’ve had some disagreements over the “right” of individuals to keep loaded assault weapons strapped to themselves everywhere they go. You’ll remember there was an episode in which restaurant staff and patrons hid in the cooler because they couldn’t tell if the men with guns were criminals or just gun nuts. In Georgia awhile back, a man waving a firearm around in a public park caused Little League parents to hide their children in a dugout while the parents stood guard and called the police. But the police didn’t arrest the guy, because he had a “right” to wave his gun around in a public park. Guns trump children.

Around the country the Fetus People are still pushing “personhood amendments” which amounts to assigning trump cards to fertilized eggs. In Alabama, a pregnant minor who can’t get permission for an abortion from her parents must go to court, where the fetus (but not the minor) may be represented by a court-appointed lawyer. A fetus trumps the minor child.

Our assignments of “trump” values increasingly is just about which interest groups are most persistently belligerent and whose lobbyists get the ears of politicians; any sense of “greater good” is left out of the conversation.