Brian Smith

Rights, moral claims, and immoral acts

232 posts in this topic

This argument concerning rights was presented as part of a larger discussion (spanning two threads) over at NoodleFood:

According to Objectivism, "A right is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context." There are two aspects of this definition that I want to focus on in making my point. The first is that a right is a moral principle. As such, like every other principle, it is contextual -- that is, it has a context in which it applies, and there are also contexts in which it does not apply. The second is that it is a "sanction to independent action." What this means is that a right is a moral claim upon the actions of others -- specifically, a claim that they not interfere with your exercise of independent action. I think it follows from this that because rights are moral claims upon the actions of others, that a violation of someone's rights is necessarily an immoral act.

Thus, it doesn't make sense to me to talk of a rights violation that is nevertheless "OK" because of mitigating circumstances. If you violated someone's rights, then the victim had a moral claim on you not to have acted as you did, and what you did was wrong; that's what I understand a right to mean. But if what you did was "OK" because of mitigating circumstances, then he didn't have a moral claim against your actions, under those circumstances.

I would be interested in hearing anyone's ideas concerning this view and/or the wider argument presented here: http://tinyurl.com/yf4q3n

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This argument concerning rights was presented as part of a larger discussion (spanning two threads) over at NoodleFood:

I would be interested in hearing anyone's ideas concerning this view and/or the wider argument presented here: http://tinyurl.com/yf4q3n

I understand a right to simply be the recognition that men must be free to act if they are to live as men. That is all it means. That means we draw up rules of behaviour that are in accord with this recognition in normal circumstances. In abnormal circumstances, our choices are limited and may indeed result in harm to someone else. This however, does not deny our recognition of the fact that his rights still stand. Circumstances don't determine rights, they only determine how well you can live in accordance with them.

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This argument concerning rights was presented as part of a larger discussion (spanning two threads) over at NoodleFood:

According to Objectivism, "A right is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context." There are two aspects of this definition that I want to focus on in making my point. The first is that a right is a moral principle. As such, like every other principle, it is contextual -- that is, it has a context in which it applies, and there are also contexts in which it does not apply. The second is that it is a "sanction to independent action." What this means is that a right is a moral claim upon the actions of others -- specifically, a claim that they not interfere with your exercise of independent action. I think it follows from this that because rights are moral claims upon the actions of others, that a violation of someone's rights is necessarily an immoral act.

Thus, it doesn't make sense to me to talk of a rights violation that is nevertheless "OK" because of mitigating circumstances. If you violated someone's rights, then the victim had a moral claim on you not to have acted as you did, and what you did was wrong; that's what I understand a right to mean. But if what you did was "OK" because of mitigating circumstances, then he didn't have a moral claim against your actions, under those circumstances.

I would be interested in hearing anyone's ideas concerning this view and/or the wider argument presented here: http://tinyurl.com/yf4q3n

I have two initial comments about your post. First, you don't seem to be presenting your position; the quote is someone else's position. This makes it difficult to know what your context and position are. How are you going to respond to a critique of someone else's point? Second, the referenced thread on Noodlefood is quite long, and there are some interesting back-and-forth comments that you and others make in response. It would be nice if you stated your position in context to the quote.

With that said, I have a question about what this means: "a right is a moral claim upon the actions of others -- specifically, a claim that they not interfere with your exercise of independent action." Does this mean if I want to take an independent action, such as stealing someone's money, that others cannot interfere with my action? Ayn Rand states,

Thus, for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive—of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights.
How does a "claim that they not interfere with your exercise of independent action" equate to "abstain[ing] from violating his rights"? These two points seem to be in conflict.

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This argument concerning rights was presented as part of a larger discussion (spanning two threads) over at NoodleFood:

QUOTE

According to Objectivism, "A right is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context." There are two aspects of this definition that I want to focus on in making my point. The first is that a right is a moral principle. As such, like every other principle, it is contextual -- that is, it has a context in which it applies, and there are also contexts in which it does not apply. ----------------

I would be interested in hearing anyone's ideas concerning this view and/or the wider argument presented here: http://tinyurl.com/yf4q3n

I have an additional issue. The only context that I am aware of in which "rights" do not apply is on a desert island or some such area with no interaction with others. So, I'm not sure what the point of this sentence is in the context of violating rights.

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I think the issue can best be seen in this scenario:

Suppose you are walking along your property line and you trip over your shoelace (which you didn't realize was untied). Brian can correct me if I am wrong but I think those on his side (including myself) are saying that you violated your neighbor's rights. Tony is saying that you have not violated his rights.

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I think the issue can best be seen in this scenario:

Suppose you are walking along your property line and you trip over your shoelace (which you didn't realize was untied). Brian can correct me if I am wrong but I think those on his side (including myself) are saying that you violated your neighbor's rights. Tony is saying that you have not violated his rights.

When you trip you fall on your neighbor's property.

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I read no further than this:

This argument concerning rights was presented as part of a larger discussion (spanning two threads) over at NoodleFood:
I think it follows from this that because rights are moral claims upon the actions of others, that a violation of someone's rights is necessarily an immoral act. (Bold added.)

I do not understand this claim. Can an act be immoral, even if the one who acts is not acting immorally? I have in mind a simple accident in which, say, another person's property is damaged. If the act was truly an accident -- not intentional and could not be reasonably forseen -- then the one who acts cannot be deemed immoral. Yet, surely the damage to the other person's property is a violation of that person's rights. To claim, then, in those circumstances, an immoral act, is to claim that the act is immoral even though the one who acts is not acting immorally. That I do not understand.

The only other alternative I can think of to make the quoted claim true, is to claim that such an accidental act that I described is not a rights violation. But I cannot see the basis for that claim. So, in either case, I cannot see the truth in the quoted statement.

In addition, there is an equivocation on the use of "moral" in the first part of the quoted sentence, and its use in the second part of the sentence ("immoral").

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The only other alternative I can think of to make the quoted claim true, is to claim that such an accidental act that I described is not a rights violation. But I cannot see the basis for that claim. So, in either case, I cannot see the truth in the quoted statement.

That is the argument from Tony and the entire point of his mini-essay.

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Stephen,

If I am understanding everything correctly and I believe I am, that would clearly put you on "mine and Brian's" side of the debate.

Matt, as I said, I read no further than the quoted part I responded to. If we view things the same, nice to know that there are two others. B) But, my plate is full and I have no time to read large threads on another forum, especially Noodlefood, so I have no idea about the general "debate."

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I have in mind a simple accident in which, say, another person's property is damaged. If the act was truly an accident -- not intentional and could not be reasonably forseen -- then the one who acts cannot be deemed immoral. Yet, surely the damage to the other person's property is a violation of that person's rights.

Actually I would argue otherwise. An unintentional act can be seen as close to a natural accident, e.g. a tornado or a hurricane. There is still the difference of responsibility, but that's a civil issue; it's when rights are violated than it rises to a criminal issue. One would not say that a tornado violated one's rights, and I would say that a driver having a completely unexpected and unpredictable accident that caused him to lose control and cause damage to another, has not violated that others' rights; he's simply caused damage just as the tornado has.

That does lead to the interesting implication, that I don't remember thinking before, that a rights violation must be done via conscious intent.

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First, you don't seem to be presenting your position; the quote is someone else's position.

Yes. This is indeed someone else's position, not my own. It appears my attempt to manually encode the identity of the poster as Tony Donadio failed for some reason. I did not even notice this fact until you pointed it out. Sorry for the confusion.

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Yes. This is indeed someone else's position, not my own. It appears my attempt to manually encode the identity of the poster as Tony Donadio failed for some reason. I did not even notice this fact until you pointed it out. Sorry for the confusion.

OK, but that's no big deal. What about the rest of my comments?

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--------

That does lead to the interesting implication, that I don't remember thinking before, that a rights violation must be done via conscious intent.

I'm not sure where you get this idea from. If a car crashes into my car, my rights have not been violated? Why would the other person be responsible for paying for damages? If the governement is taking my money to help other poorer people, my rights have not been violated because there is no conscious intent to violate rights?

The comparison between man-mad damage and natural damage is not valid. Once a driver pulls a car out of his driveway, he is supposed to be able to control the vehicle under any condition in which he is driving. If he encounters conditions that he can't control, he should pull the car off the road and stop driving. Obviously, most people choose not to do that. They drive in rain storms and ice storms, all sorts of conditions where there might be trouble, etc. That is their choice, and if accidents happen, they are responsible for the consequences.

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The only other alternative I can think of to make the quoted claim true, is to claim that such an accidental act that I described is not a rights violation. But I cannot see the basis for that claim. So, in either case, I cannot see the truth in the quoted statement.

That is the argument from Tony and the entire point of his mini-essay.

Okay. I was just guessing that as one logical possibility to make sense of the claim. I have not read his argument but I see that Phil addresses the issue in another post, so I will respond to it there. Admittedly I have never given this issue much thought before, but I just cannot fathom the basis for the claims being made.

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I have in mind a simple accident in which, say, another person's property is damaged. If the act was truly an accident -- not intentional and could not be reasonably forseen -- then the one who acts cannot be deemed immoral. Yet, surely the damage to the other person's property is a violation of that person's rights.

Actually I would argue otherwise. An unintentional act can be seen as close to a natural accident, e.g. a tornado or a hurricane.

To say "close to" is not to say "is." I think there is good reason that we hold people morally and/or legally responsible for the consequences of their actions, but not so for a non-volitional collection of matter.

There is still the difference of responsibility, but that's a civil issue; it's when rights are violated than it rises to a criminal issue.

I think this gets to the heart of the matter. For clarity, let's remove the accidental and consider instead, honest disagreements among men in contractual disputes. If these are honest disagreements then neither party in the dispute can be said to be acting immorally. But if the basis for the dispute does not involve an issue of rights -- more specifically, a violation thereof -- then what justification would there be for a government to act? My understanding of a proper government is that the philosophical basis for the protection and enforcement of contracts under civil law -- and, more generally, all law itself -- is the protection of individual rights. If rights have not been violated, either criminally or civilly, then on what basis would a proper government act in the legal realm?

That is why I think that a violation of rights act can occur without the one who acts being immoral, whether the circumstances are accidental or just honest disagreement. But, as I said previously, I have never thought much about this issue before, and the issue itself is far from my important interests or expertise, so I welcome any corrections to my argument.

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I'm not sure where you get this idea from. If a car crashes into my car, my rights have not been violated? Why would the other person be responsible for paying for damages? If the governement is taking my money to help other poorer people, my rights have not been violated because there is no conscious intent to violate rights?

The comparison between man-mad damage and natural damage is not valid. Once a driver pulls a car out of his driveway, he is supposed to be able to control the vehicle under any condition in which he is driving. If he encounters conditions that he can't control, he should pull the car off the road and stop driving. Obviously, most people choose not to do that. They drive in rain storms and ice storms, all sorts of conditions where there might be trouble, etc. That is their choice, and if accidents happen, they are responsible for the consequences.

But when the government is taking your money, it is not doing so accidentally. Now, my crashing into your car may be accidental, or it may be purposeful. I would say that in the former case I would be responsible for damages, and in the latter case owe damages, plus pay a fine or serve jail time.

If I accidentally bump into you while walking down the street, I have not violated your rights. If I intentionally do so, I have. (That is, assuming we are strangers, or enemies, and not friendly jesters.)

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But when the government is taking your money, it is not doing so accidentally.

But that was not the issue. The issue was if the government, or government officials, was intentionally and consciously doing it for the purpose of violating rights.

Now, my crashing into your car may be accidental, or it may be purposeful. I would say that in the former case I would be responsible for damages, and in the latter case owe damages, plus pay a fine or serve jail time.

In either case, the reason for your responsibility is because my rights have been violated.

If I accidentally bump into you while walking down the street, I have not violated your rights. If I intentionally do so, I have. (That is, assuming we are strangers, or enemies, and not friendly jesters.)

Bumping is a pretty mild case. I doubt if you intentionaly bumped into me that any consequences would result. However, if you bumped into me intentionally or not, and if I fell and banged my head on the ground, you have violated my rights and would owe for any civil or criminal charges that might be brought.

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Bumping is a pretty mild case. I doubt if you intentionaly bumped into me that any consequences would result. However, if you bumped into me intentionally or not, and if I fell and banged my head on the ground, you have violated my rights and would owe for any civil or criminal charges that might be brought.

Bumping is indeed a very mild case. But it still serves to prove the point that it is is a violation of your rights (however slight). It is an initiation of force against you. It is contact with your person or property without your consent.

This is why, when someone bumps into you , you may respond: "Hey. Watch where you are going." What you are telling the person is that his act was wrong. Your body is not his to dispose of . And that he should take care not engage in such violations in the future.

Of course, such a response is not the only one justice allows here. Given the context, one may consider the violation to be so slight that, to you, even the mere effort to respond is out of all proportion to the violation. But - regardless of the response you choose, the fact remains that it -was- a violation.

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Bumping is indeed a very mild case. But it still serves to prove the point that it is is a violation of your rights (however slight). It is an initiation of force against you. It is contact with your person or property without your consent.

This is why, when someone bumps into you , you may respond: "Hey. Watch where you are going." What you are telling the person is that his act was wrong. Your body is not his to dispose of . And that he should take care not engage in such violations in the future.

I see the situation somewhat differently.

Whenever you go out publicly or interact with other people, there are various degrees of implied consent, depending on the context. For instance, if you step onto a crowded subway in the rush hour, you are consenting to be touched or even jostled by some of the other passengers. If there are only two people in the train, you are not.

When you warn someone, "Hey. Watch where you are going," you are specifying, regardless of what may be reasonably implied consent in a given context, what the boundaries of your consent actually consist of. If he bumps into you before the warning, I would use the standard of implied consent, therefore no force. If he bumps into you after the warning, it is force.

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Actually I would argue otherwise. An unintentional act can be seen as close to a natural accident, e.g. a tornado or a hurricane. There is still the difference of responsibility, but that's a civil issue; it's when rights are violated than it rises to a criminal issue. One would not say that a tornado violated one's rights, and I would say that a driver having a completely unexpected and unpredictable accident that caused him to lose control and cause damage to another, has not violated that others' rights; he's simply caused damage just as the tornado has.

That does lead to the interesting implication, that I don't remember thinking before, that a rights violation must be done via conscious intent.

I see the situation somewhat differently.

Whenever you go out publicly or interact with other people, there are various degrees of implied consent, depending on the context. For instance, if you step onto a crowded subway in the rush hour, you are consenting to be touched or even jostled by some of the other passengers. If there are only two people in the train, you are not.

When you warn someone, "Hey. Watch where you are going," you are specifying, regardless of what may be reasonably implied consent in a given context, what the boundaries of your consent actually consist of. If he bumps into you before the warning, I would use the standard of implied consent, therefore no force. If he bumps into you after the warning, it is force.

Isn't there also implied consent to reasonable care? For example, if someone falls asleep at the wheel and kills someone, I agree with a jail sentence, particularly if the person had a historical tendency to be narcoleptic [word? for overly-sleepy, yes that's it; quick REM state entered...].

And what of reckless endangerment? Isn't that when "you should have known better"?

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Isn't there also implied consent to reasonable care? For example, if someone falls asleep at the wheel and kills someone, I agree with a jail sentence, particularly if the person had a historical tendency to be narcoleptic [word? for overly-sleepy, yes that's it; quick REM state entered...].

And what of reckless endangerment? Isn't that when "you should have known better"?

These are two separate issues:

1) What did the person whose rights are at issue consent to?

and

2) What caused the person to make physical contact with the person whose rights are at issue?

If a person gave consent, there is no violation of rights. If he didn't give consent then there was a violation of rights, but it may have been a civil wrong (such as breach of contract, accidental damage to a person or property, etc.) or a criminal wrong (deliberate violation of rights or gross negligence).

For a civil wrong, the person wronged has the option of seeking equity -- i.e., to be put back into the condition he was in before his rights were violated. If he proves his case, he is awarded "damages" -- an amount of money to compensate for his loss to be paid by the person who caused him the harm.

A criminal is a threat to the rights of all men and is prosecuted in the name of "the people" and punished with criminal penalties above and beyond compensation to the victim.

While I consider a criminal immoral, that is not necessarily so for civil wrongs. As long as the person who violated someone else's rights accepts responsibility for the (unintended) consequences of his action and properly compensates his victim, that's all that can reasonably be expected of him. It would be unjust to expect a moral man to be omniscient or omnipotent so accidents may happen. All he can reasonably do is exercise due care, buy liability insurance, etc. and do what he can to prevent accidents and deal with their consequences.

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I agree with Betsy that, in certain context, there can be a rational presumption of permission or consent. However, I would caution that it is just that: a presumption. It is not actual knowledge of such consent, because that consent has not been asked for and/or received (for -whatever- reason, practical or otherwise). Such a presumption means you are -knowingly- coming into contact with the person or property of another -absent- explicit permission to do so. There would thus still be an underlying question as to whether force had been used or not in any such -specific- instance (though the answer to that question will be much more obvious and much less debatable in some instances than in others, such as the subway example). And the answer to the question, as Betsy indicates, would ultimately have to come from the other person. Now, if it turns out that presumption was in -error-, I would say that an initiation of force did occur. But I would also say the -just- response to this mistaken initiation of force would necessarily take into account the rationality or irrationality of that presumption (ie the context of the presumption).

I would say that is the basic principle - though I can think of qualifications to it, just as I can think of qualifications to Betsy's basic principle: "If he bumps into you before the warning, I would use the standard of implied consent, therefore no force. If he bumps into you after the warning, it is force." However, for instance, if you are on that crowded subway, there may be no way for him to stop bumping into you, regardless of your explicit warning to him - simply due to the sardine-like nature of the circumstances. In other words, there may be instances where implied consent (voluntarily stepping onto a very crowded subway) trumps explicit consent (demanding not to be bumped by anyone in that very tight subway). Thus, in some circumstances, even if he bumps into you after the warning, it still would not be force.

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Below is Brian's post that initiated the presentation by Tony provided in the beginning of this thread. I'm providing this to give some context to Brian's request for comments. Although there were several back-and-forth comments between the two of them, does anyone want to comment on Brian's view of rights? To the best of my knowledge, Brian has not indicated a change in his view on this point.

Tony said: "if someone mistakenly thinks you're about to kill his wife, and shoots you to prevent it, he is NOT wrong, and has NOT violated your rights, *if the circumstances are such that his mistaken belief is objective and rationally justified*."

This assertion is, at best, only half right.

If force is initiated against an individual, his rights have indeed been violated. Whether a private citizen or an officer of the government is acting on the available evidence at the time does not change this fact. The only thing it changes is the proper response to that violation once it has been validly identified. In other words, depending upon the circumstances, it may be correct to say a man is "NOT wrong" to shoot because that is the rational response dictated by the evidence available at the time the wife supposedly needed immediate defense. However, it is incorrect to say that the victim's rights have NOT been violated by this act.

To use the example that was provided: a man shoots you. The fact that he mistakenly thought you were about to kill his wife does not change the fact that he harmed you by putting a bullet into your body. It does not change the fact that he had contact with your person without your consent. In other words, it does not change the fact that he initiated force against you.

That is a violation of your rights.

Lacking omniscence or infallibility does not exempt the shooter from the responsibility for his action once the error has been discovered. Nor does it change the nature of his actions. The fact that it was apparently a reasonable mistake does not change the fact that it -was- a mistake, that you had force initiated against you, and thus that your rights were violated.

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I agree with Betsy that, in certain context, there can be a rational presumption of permission or consent. However, I would caution that it is just that: a presumption. It is not actual knowledge of such consent, because that consent has not been asked for and/or received (for -whatever- reason, practical or otherwise). Such a presumption means you are -knowingly- coming into contact with the person or property of another -absent- explicit permission to do so. There would thus still be an underlying question as to whether force had been used or not in any such -specific- instance (though the answer to that question will be much more obvious and much less debatable in some instances than in others, such as the subway example).

There are many assumptions and common customs that are necessary in order to interact with other people that we take for granted. Almost always, they are generally recognized and adhered to and everything goes well. Occasionally, however, people come into conflict, someone thinks his rights have been violated and he has been harmed, so he presses charges and/or brings a civil suit.

The court then decides, using written law and the body of inductively derived principles based on past experience know as the common law, whether there was a violation of anyone's rights and, if so, how it will be remedied. For the most part, the law is remarkably rational (See Arline Mann's lecture available from the Ayn Rand Bookstore).

When I took Business Law in college, I was awestruck by the sensible and elegant solutions to so many sticky problems and borderline cases. With regard to the issue of consent, for instance, there are entire bodies of case law defining what is consent and how can you know it, when is consent implied, when must consent be in writing, what objective evidence must be presented to prove consent, who is able to consent and under what circumstances, how can you tell when someone is really consenting or just joking, etc.

Most non-lawyers have a good, commonsense grasp of the issues of rights, but when that is not enough, good law is the protector of everyone's rights.

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