Explaining Rights to Libertarians (e.g. Bill Glod)

Bill Glod has a video called “The Nature of Rights” on the libertarianism.org website. He explores two views of rights.

The “consequentialist” view determines rights according to their consequences. If the consequence of racial slavery is egregious harm to black men, women, and children, then there should be no right of one race to enslave another.

The “deontological” view, on the other hand, relies upon the shared norms of the culture. For example, if racial slavery is the norm, as it was in the old South, then the deontological view would conserve the current norm. Bill points out that shared norms are embedded in the culture and result in “moralized emotions”, like resentment. And southern whites at that time truly resented having to sit near black people. And they closed down their schools rather than allow black children to sit beside their children in school. This was the morality they felt in their gut (see Colbert).

So which view does Bill recommend? Oddly, Bill favors the deontological view.

To be fair, Bill chose examples that he thought would support his view. He did not try to apply them to slavery in the old South. But let’s take a look at Bill’s examples.

In Bill’s first scenario, Kenny is a healthy young man with a menial job in the hospital where he works. A doctor looks at Kenny and thinks of the five important patients whose lives he could save by harvesting Kenny’s organs. Bill suggests the consequentialists would favor this, because of all the good that those five important people could do. But Bill is only looking at the immediate consequences.

It is important to keep in mind that means become ends. If we decide to allow doctors to select unwilling organ donors, what are the real consequences? Any person, you or any member of your family, could be harvested on demand. And that would be an intolerable way to live. Because of those consequences, we allow no such right to doctors.

Bill stumbles onto the correct answer when he says the phrase “buy into the bad consequence that come from it” and then changes quickly, replacing “bad consequence” with “bad implications”. The correct analysis would impair his argument.

In Bill’s second scenario, Kenny is now a different guy who sticks a fork in your neck while you’re waiting for the bus. At this point, Bill asks you to examine your moralized emotions of blame and anger. This is where he goes into detail about the social norms you have internalized and that set the ethical standards that you use to judge Kenny’s behavior. “How dare you do this to me?!”, you think to yourself. And that is all fine and good.

But Bill overlooks the source of the cultural norms. He suggests something as automatic as natural selection. Cultures with the best rules survive and prosper more than those with inferior rules. In other words, the social norms arise as a consequence of their beneficial effects upon society.

Ultimately, it is about consequences. We left slavery behind, fighting against the cultural norm, because of the physical and psychological harm inflicted upon others among us. It is not enough to seek good only for ourselves.

All practical rights, and the rules that secure them, arise from agreement. Moral people, who seek the best possible good for everyone, seek the best rules to achieve that goal. Sharing the same goal, we eventually may resolve our differences. And, as our moral sense evolves, so do our rights and the rules that secure them. This is something to keep in mind as we face new issues like gay marriage and the 20 week abortion rule.