Natural Rights, Naturalized

Stop me if you've heard this one before...

Natural Rights Theorist: "The income tax should be abolished immediately because it violates my rights."

Positivist Consequentialist: "Whoa, back the truck up there: sorry, but you don't have a right not to be taxed. It's possible that you shouldn't be taxed, but then again maybe you should. It all depends..."

Natural Rights Theorist: "No, I really do have that right whether you acknowledge it or not. It doesn't depend on anything other than objective ethical reality."

Positivist Consequentialist: "Oh come on... look, no amount of table-pounding is going to magically grant you the right not to be taxed. I can demonstrate the existence of your right not to be murdered by the fact that men with guns will haul away anyone who tries to murder you, but 'natural rights' occupy about the same ontological status as magic fairy dust..." (etc.)

Thousands of fruitless arguments have begun along these lines, and most Catallarchy readers know how the story goes on: the NRT produces arguments for various rights based mostly on dressed-up appeals to intuition, and the unconvinced PC accuses him of talking metaphysical nonsense by positing unobservable entities ("natural rights") that have no explanatory power. This is tiresome not just because it's predictable, but because it obscures deeper philosophical differences behind semantic smoke.

Say you're an ethical consequentialist. Leave aside, for the moment, the (important) question of what your maximand is; whatever you're maximizing, there's a hypothetical world where [utility|freedom|other] is at a global maximum (i.e. it can't get any more maxed out). Call this Optimal Earth.

Optimal Earth will have a set of institutions which define a social order, in which people have certain rights. Let rights be defined as rules -- formal or informal -- governing who's allowed to do what when and where. Now: take the set of rights we have on Optimal Earth and the set we have in our current social order and compare the two. In a fit of ill-considered whimsy, call the first set "natural rights" and the second set "positive rights".

It's my contention that in the argument above, the NRT is using "rights" to denote natural rights as defined here, and the PC is using "rights" to denote positive rights, and neither thinks the other set of rights is "real rights" in any meaningful sense. Hence they talk past eachother, with the NRT assuming that the PC is denying the existence of natural rights outright and the PC assuming that the NRT must be talking about this world or else be talking nonsense. But now we have a sensible definition of natural rights which should be acceptable to any good consequentialist, thus providing a mutually intelligible framework that allows us to move beyond the specious opposition of "natural rights vs. consequentialism" and shift the argument explicitly to where it's really been at all along: a dispute over what sorts of consequences matter.

Of which, more later. (By which I mean sometime before the polar ice-caps melt.)

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