Nick wrote:I'm afraid I regard the use of the word 'rights' as largely unhelpful. Unsurprising, as they are of purely human construction.
But surely we human beings have constructed some
pretty helpful things.
Nick wrote: Worse, they are created, expanded and promoted by the vocal and ignorant in a desperate attempt to justify their own particular prejudice or bigotry. The 'right' of parents to educate their children in faith schools is a modern example (as demonstrated in Dawkins' recent TV programme).
On the other hand, they can be used by oppressed people in a desperate but sometimes successful attempt to defend themselves from prejudice and bigotry. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus, she was asserting her right to sit there. The bus company did not recognise such a right, but the civil rights movement demanded that recognition. By asserting that a (moral) right already existed rather than simply asking for a (legal) right to be granted, they placed the onus on the other side to demonstrate the moral rightness of their policies. The same applied to women asserting their moral right to participate fully in the democratic process on an equal footing with men. It doesn’t matter that the concept of moral rights is a fiction. It still works, on many levels. When groups of people are awarded legal rights that they didn't have before, it's not done purely out of largesse; it's done because a moral right is recognised, and that recognition is a vital part of the process, in my view.
I agree that sometimes the concept is misused, and when that happens it has to be challenged. Fortunately, it is quite easy to argue convincingly against the notion that parents have a right to have their children educated, at public expense, according to their own belief system, on the grounds of impracticality.
Nick wrote:We humans are supposed to have a 'right' to drinking water, and yet millions don't have access to [unpolluted] water. It's an aspiration, which I share, but it does nothing to call it a right.
I think it does an awful lot. People have a right to clean drinking water because it’s vital for health and survival. We might aspire
to live in a nice house with our own front door, or to have a well-paid job, or to drive a car, but we don’t aspire
to survive. And when resources exist that make it perfectly possible to arrange matters so that everyone does
have access to clean drinking water, it makes perfect sense to demand that access as a right. It then puts the onus on everyone else to either explain why that right shouldn't exist or to recognise it and uphold it.
Nick wrote:Likewise, how can new rights be introduced, except in a legal sense?
It is possible for people to grant moral rights on an individual or group basis, without legal recognition of those rights. That’s the beauty of fictional concepts; you can do pretty much what you like with them.
Nick wrote:If a right is withdrawn, it can't have been a right in the first place.
Nick wrote:And how can 2 rights conflict? Again, they can't both be correct.
No, they can't both be "correct". But rights are not absolute things that are either true or false. Different rights are differently weighted, depending on the circumstances. Let's just focus on two things: survival and reproduction. Suppose you take as a starting point the quite reasonable idea that everyone has a right to access whatever resources he or she needs in order to survive and reproduce. In a sparsely populated and generously resourced world, that should be relatively easy. As resources get scarcer and the population increases, it gets more difficult. (And if you introduce unlimited property rights to the mix, then it gets nigh on impossible, but that's another thread!) So if you want to hang on to the idea that everyone has a right to access whatever resources he or she needs in order to survive, then that has implications for rights to reproduce. Survival trumps reproduction.
Alternatively, let's start with the very popular idea that everyone has a right to do whatever he or she wants to do, providing it doesn’t harm anyone else, or significantly risk harming anyone else. (And it has an equally popular corollary: that no one has the right to stop someone doing whatever he or she wants if it doesn’t harm anyone else, or significantly risk harming anyone else.) I think a lot of people instinctively believe in such a right, or think and feel in such terms. I know I do. Where conflict arises, it’s generally because of differences in the way people understand the idea of harm, or risk of harm, or practical problems in measuring the risk of harm. So such a concept of rights is not concrete and straightforward and obvious. But that’s not to say that it's completely useless.
Nick wrote:IMO, talk of rights is just sloppy argument.
Despite what I’ve just said, I do have a lot of sympathy with your position. I think that “rights” language is overused, and inappropriately used. But I still think that at its core it is valuable. And I think that makes more sense to engage with those who use the language of rights to argue their particular case, in their own terms, rather than dismiss the whole thing because rights just don’t make sense.
Nick wrote:In answer to the original question, we, as humans, decide and change our relationship to animals, and, unsurprisingly, come to a variety of conclusions. As a humanist, I think we should consider our relationship with the earth and living things, and try to justify our conclusions, but to declare 'rights' is as unsupportable as declaring them to be the will of god.
Again, I have a lot of sympathy with this view. But I think that the notion that non-human animals, or some of them, have rights of some kind inevitably arises in opposition to the notion that humans beings have rights over
animals. And that notion is itself inevitable when non-human animals are seen as resources, which everyone has a right to access in order to survive and reproduce, rather than as “others” [---][/---] the ones we have to take into account when exercising our right to do whatever we want so long as it doesn’t harm others. But the Kantian idea that animals are simply a means to an end, and "That end is man", has lost a lot of ground over the years. Way back in the mid-19th century, Schopenhauer noted that Europeans were "awakening more and more to a sense that beasts have rights, in proportion as the strange notion is being gradually overcome and outgrown, that the animal kingdom came into existence solely for the benefit and pleasure of man." I suspect that where ideas about "man's dominion over the animals" remain strong, they are very much linked to religious beliefs.
Anyway, I don’t think we can get away from the idea of human rights; I think it’s too late to expunge them from our ways of seeing the world, even if we wanted to. So, when we consider our relationship with the earth and living things and try to justify our conclusions, we are bound to use the idea of our own (moral) rights in some way. And for that reason, I think we also need to consider the idea that sentient non-human animals may have certain moral rights, even if they have no sense of them, and no means of asserting them, and no ability to recognise the rights of others or carry out any duties towards them. There's no need to take it to ridiculous extremes, and give oysters the right to a fair trial, or sponges the right to vote. But there are ways of awarding limited rights to animals in the same way that we award limited rights to infants, and those who are severely intellectually disabled, and others who have no sense of their own rights, and no means of asserting them, and no ability to recognise the rights of others or carry out any duties towards them.
And yes, that could also apply to a foetus. In my view, the important question is not whether a living thing is a person, or a human, or an animal. It is whether, and to what degree, it is sentient. And in particular, whether, and to what degree, it can feel pain.