Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Is it right to do what you have a right to do?

A common argument form, at least in the American context, goes like this:

  1. I have a right to x.
  2. It is right to exercise one's rights.
  3. Thus, it is right to x.
  4. A right that is not exercised may disappear.
  5. Thus, I should x, on pain of losing the right.

For sake of illustration, substitute the following for x: "carry a firearm into Chipotle," "use a racial/sexual/national epithet," "express the opinion I have formed without any evidence or reflection," "ridicule people with beliefs I take to be irrational," etc. It's left as an exercise for the reader to find other substitution instances. 

We have all heard arguments of exactly this form when someone obnoxiously and pointlessly does something he may very well technically or legally have a right to do. "But, I have a right to!"

I don't think we are the only ones who argue this way, or at least implicitly accept this argument form. In fact, I think it occurs in any culture that has taken rights to be the central category around which morality revolves and upon which society rests. That may mean that all of us who live in a post-Enlightenment world will tend to find this sort of argument sympathetic. 

Insofar as we make this type of argument or find it compelling, we are dooming ourselves to a non-civil society. And, maybe we are providing a reductio of the (centrality or primacy of a) notion of rights.

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