Equality and Rights

Timothy Sandefur is spooked by my recent post on positive rights and nationalistic discrimination. The source of his fear is an argument made by Anthony de Jasay - an argument which, unfortunately, I do not fully understand. I got about halfway through Jasay's Justice And Its Surroundings before I got sidetracked with other projects. I do intend to return to Justice, and a number of his other books and articles when I get a chance, but I have not yet read the chapter in question. Jasay is one of the most important libertarian thinkers writing today, and he deserves much more attention than he is presently given. Unfortunately, while his arguments are novel and far-reaching, his writing style is complex and difficult. I have difficulty wrapping my head around half the stuff he writes, even though I'm intimately familiar with the subject matter. This is not a book you want to recommend to a novice.

Although I don't really understand Jasay's argument as described by Sandefur, and I have not yet read the chapter he references, it does sound vaguely similar to Will Baude's criticism of Rawls' "Veil of Ignorance." Both Baude and Jasay are criticizing moral theories on grounds of generality and specificity. In both cases, if a rule is too general, it has no force; if a rule is too specific, it has too many exceptions.

Be that as it may, I'd like to restate my argument and see if Sandefur still believes it is subject to Jasay's criticism. This time, I'll try to avoid any mention of discrimination and instead focus only on individual human rights.

Negative rights are pretty easy to respect. It takes as much energy for me to refrain from murdering my next door neighbor as it takes to refrain from murdering some guy living in Timbuktu. Negative rights are easily universalizable. My negative right to life imposes an obligation on every other moral agent in the world to refrain from killing me. In a world of only negative rights, I can easily fulfill my obligation to refrain from violate everyone else's rights simply by doing nothing at all, so long as I have not created prior positive obligations for myself through contracts or (some would argue) by bearing offspring.

Positive rights are different. If I have a positive right to, say, food, every other moral agent in the world has an obligation to provide me with food if I need it and if they are capable of giving it. Your obligation to provide me with food does not end simply because lots of other people refuse to fulfill their moral obligation. After all, if lots of other people decided to violate their obligation to refrain from committing murder, that wouldn't let you off the hook. Similarly, your obligation to provide me with food does not end simply because you have given more to charity than the average person. In both cases, your obligation to provide me with food does not end until I am provided with food, regardless of who does the giving.

Thus, positive rights are difficult to respect. Every new child born into the world brings with him new obligations for everyone else. We live in a world where, unfortunately, the vast majority of people are much worse off than anyone reading this blog. These people all need food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education, and protection from aggression just as much as we do. If any of us truly believed in positive rights, we would willingly deprive ourselves of all of the luxuries we enjoy daily and live a life of near-poverty in order to fulfill our ethical obligations to those much poorer than ourselves. But few, if any of us actually do this, which makes me skeptical when anyone claims to believe in positive rights.

Now, if people want to say that things would work a lot better if we remain inconsistent in our enforcement of positive rights, by focusing only on our fellow countrymen or local communities, I have no major objection. But one should recognize that this is no longer an argument concerned with rights, duties and obligations (deontological), but one concerned with efficiency, pragmatism, and consequences (teleological).

If my argument is sound, then the only consistent theories are consequentialism of any variety, deontological anarchism, or deontological one-world-government communism. Pick your poison, or remain inconsistent.

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Very well put Micha. In my

Very well put Micha. In my mind, this contrast is vital to the very definitions of negative and positive rights (though I prefer to call "positive rights" what they are, 'privileges'):

A right obligates only inaction, and can therefore be enjoyed by everyone simultaneously. Furthermore, a consistent set of rights can ALL be thus enjoyed without conflicting.

A privilege obligates action, making it subject to scarcity (thus it probably cannot be enjoyed by everyone simultaneously, at least not without violating other rights and/or privileges)

I consider any discussion of positive vs. negative rights to be shockingly incomplete unless it touches on this distinction.

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