A Tricky Thing about Rights

I have been thinking about rights a lot lately because of some units I teach on ethics and politics.

There is something very tricky about rights, and most of us (including me) often don’t consider it.

I became aware of this issue years ago when I first read a quote by Voltaire that goes something like this: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

A portrait of Voltaire, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Upon reading this quote, I thought, “Well, that’s extreme. Why would you defend to the death someone’s right to say something with which you disagree?” Voltaire’s view is not one that most people hold.

Most of us tend to care strongly about our personal rights and the rights of our tribe. (By tribe, I mean people like us.) But we often don’t care much about the rights of other people, especially those different from us.

But Voltaire is, in fact, very right about something. To understand his point, let’s imagine for a moment what it would be like if we lived in a society in which people did not have any rights.

This would likely be a society in which a ruler decided everything for everyone. For instance, the ruler would likely decide what people could believe, what they could say, how people could dress, whom people could marry, and what people could teach in schools.

It has been common all throughout history for rulers in countries with few rights to make such laws. Here are five examples from history:

Example #1

In medieval Europe, when the Church ruled every aspect of society, a man named Peter Waldo argued that scholars should translate the Bible from Latin into the common language so that everyone could read it. Waldo believed that anyone could understand the Bible and share it with other people.

This was contrary to the teachings of the Church at the time that only priests could understand and preach Scripture. Waldo criticized this power structure. Consequently, the Church branded Waldo and his followers (Waldensians) heretics and tried to kill them.

The Vulgate, the Latin Bible translation, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Example #2

In ancient times and possibly even in medieval Europe, nobles, priests, kings, and lords could demand sex with any of their female subjects, against their will, on their wedding night. This practice is often referred to as Prima Nocte.

(Note: There is some disagreement among scholars as to how widespread this practice was. However, references  to it and practices like it do occur in ancient and medieval documents.)

Example #3

In Medieval Europe, rulers regularly made Sumptuary Laws, which were laws restricting the kinds of clothes that people in lower classes could wear. Such laws mandated that only the aristocracy could wear more expensive fabrics.

The goal of such laws was to maintain strict class distinction and to reinforce the notion that some people (the aristocracy) were better than other people (those in the lower classes).

Example #4

In the United States before People of Color had rights, there were laws in most states prohibiting marriage between people of different races. Such laws were called anti-miscegenation laws, and couples who disobeyed these laws could suffer imprisonment and suffer the annulment of their marriage.

Surprisingly, some U.S. states still had laws punishing interracial marriage well into the last century. In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the last anti-miscegenation law in landmark Supreme Court case, Loving vs. Virginia.

Example #5

The government in apartheid South Africa banned Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a book by Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire that teaches people their worth as human beings and helps them to change their society through loving dialogue and non-violent resistance.

South Africa knew that if Black South-Africans understood they were as worthy as  their white South African rulers, they would demand an end to apartheid practices.

Paulo Freire, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I have a special interest in this book because it inspired my dissertation and helped inspire this blog.

You can purchase Pedagogy of the Oppressed at your local bookseller or on Amazon

You can read more about Paulo Freire’s book here.

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Chapter One

The Point of These Examples

I share these five examples because practices like the ones I mentioned in these examples have been very common all throughout history when people did not have a strong concept of rights. In fact, the notion of basic human rights is a fairly recent view and only gained significant traction in western civilization in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In the absence of a strong concept of rights, various rulers (secular and religious) viewed their subjects as property. And because they viewed people this way, rulers thought nothing of dictating every aspect of people’s life, like their sex lives, reading material, and beliefs.

In addition, most rulers throughout history believed they had received their authority from God. Therefore, they did not tolerate any disagreement from their subjects, as they believed that all their thoughts and actions were divinely inspired. This belief was called Divine Right, and it was common through most of history.

How Things Changed

But eventually people’s views of rulers and their subjects began to change for several reasons. First, people realized that rulers were human beings. As such, they could make mistakes and act with selfish and evil intent. Therefore, people realized that rulers needed checks and balances on their power and that rulers could not do whatever they wanted to their subjects.

Louis the XIV of France, who definitely believed in Divine Right. Picture, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

That is, people realized that absolute power inevitably leads to corruption, and so the people of a country must check the absolute power of rulers.

And as people realized that rulers could not do whatever they wanted to human beings, people also began to develop a concept of human dignity and rights. As such, people realized that human beings aren’t just objects or tools that rulers can use how they please. Rather, humans are valuable in themselves. They can live according to their conscience and live a good, moral life.

In doing so, they bring more goodness and justice into their corner of the world. And when people do this, they create a strong society in which all the individual members flourish and also contribute to the flourishing of the whole society.

What the Concept of Rights Entails

And this is why we developed the concept of rights. Countries started granting basic rights to people like the right to religion, free speech, mastery over their body and possessions, and the right to bear some sort of arms.

Such rights are important because following one’s own conscience and living a good and just life requires that people have the opportunity and freedom to do so. And that entails that they have basic freedoms like religion, speech, mastery over their body and possessions, etc.

For instance, if a ruler dictates every aspect of your life to you, mandating your beliefs and controlling your body and possessions, that’s a condition of slavery, partial or total. And a slave lives out someone else’s conception of the good life—and often a bad conception—not their own.

People can only become good, moral, and just people if they have true freedom to make choices. Rights give people the freedom to make good choices. But of course, true freedom entails the ability to make both good and bad choices.

Defending the Rights of People With Whom We Disagree

And this means that if we do in fact think rights are important, we must be willing–at least in some instances (not all, which I will address shortly)–to defend people’s right to make decisions with which we disagree.

To illustrate this point, imagine a scenario in which someone says to you, “I will give you rights as long as you do, say, and believe exactly the things I tell you to.” You would probably respond, “You don’t understand what rights are. A right is my ability to do, say, and believe certain things, even if you disapprove of me or disagree with me.”

And you would be correct. And that illustration reminds us of a very tricky thing about rights.

A Tricky Thing about Rights

As you probably know, it is extremely hard for people to defend people’s right to do things with which they disagree. Such a practice requires us to live with a degree of ambiguity: that we disagree with someone’s choices, but we defend their right to make bad choices (as well as good ones).

Most of us feel uncomfortable with such ambiguity. For example, many of us believe someone’s behavior is immoral, we should outlaw their behavior. And, on the other hand, many of us feel that if a behavior is moral, it should become the law of the land.

The Leviathan, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In addition, most of us are strongly convinced that all our moral beliefs are the right ones . As a result, most people defend their own personal rights vehemently, but they are generally unwilling to defend the rights of people with whom they disagree. And, in fact, many people are willing to negate the rights of people with whom they disagree.

I will call such practices ego-centric rights defense. When we practice ego-centric rights defense, we strongly defend our own rights and the rights of people like us (our tribe). But we are antagonistic to the rights of people with whom we disagree. If you are like me, ego-centric rights defense is your natural inclination. It is for most of us, I believe.

The Danger of Ego-Centric Rights Defense

But there are several dangers of ego-centric rights defense. First all, when we practice ego-centric rights defense, we set ourselves up as Divine Right rulers. That is, we tend to believe that our views are infallible and that they should be the law of the land, much like Divine Right rulers believed all throughout history. But in believing this, we in essence give ourselves absolute power, and absolute power corrupts.

To avoid the problem of absolute power (whether real or imagined), we need to check our thinking with people who live and think differently from us. This is one of the only ways we become aware of errors in our thinking. And all of us have such limitations and errors. (You can read more about this here: The Idols of the Mind: Common Thinking Errors.)

To drive home this point, consider this: Almost every ruler who did something bad, stupid, and immoral throughout history believed they were right at the time they did it. And if you think back on your own life, you are probably aware of stupid or immoral things you did when you were younger that you believed were right at the time. I can certainly think of instances like this in my own life.

Human Tendencies

Human beings are prone to stupidity (error) and we are also prone to believe in our own correctness. That is, it is hard for us to admit we are wrong. As you can probably imagine, these two human tendencies often lead powerful people to act in grossly unjust and immoral ways. Protecting the rights of people who think differently from us is one of the best ways we check our own power, as well as the power of our leaders.

And the problem of power leads us to the second reason we need to defend other people’s rights. The second reason we should defend other people’s rights is that the more one person or one group of people with the same view hold all the rights in a society, the more likely they are to commit grave injustices against minority groups in the nation.

Picture Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Now, if you are like a lot of people, including me, you probably feel like you would never commit a grave injustice against other people. However, we should observe that throughout history the people who perpetrated these injustices against others were often well-educated, seemingly moral, even Christian people.

For example, a variety of well-educated, moral, and Christian people in the United States championed practices like slavery and the forced internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. But interestingly, educated, moral, and Christian people were also some of the strongest critics of these unjust practices, and they protested them vehemently.

How to Not Act Unjustly

One reason that some people were able to see recognize immoral practices and others were not is that the first group of people had a strong view of rights. After all, if you believe that all people, even people with whom you disagree, have basic human dignity and rights, you are much less likely to condone their enslavement or forced internment.

So, another reason that it is important for everyone to strongly champion everyone’s rights is that it prevents us from committing grave injustice against other people, especially minority groups. It especially prevents us from committing injustices when panic tends to override our normal rational and moral thinking capacities, as often happens in a moment of national crisis like war.

Defending Our Own Rights by Defending Other People’s Rights

And lastly, by defending other people’s rights, you also defend your own rights. For example, if you defend the rights of people who practice a religion different from yours, you help to create a national culture that will defend your right to practice your own religion. And if you defend other people’s right to protect their body and life, you help to create a national culture that will defend your right to protect your body and life.

But some people will object, and with good reason, must we defend people’s right to do or say anything? Certainly, some people use the concept of rights to justify grossly immoral or inappropriate behavior. Surely we don’t have to defend such behavior.

Legitimate and Illegitimate Rights

This is a legitimate objection, and it raises the question of what constitutes a legitimate and illegitimate right. Although I would like to explore this idea, I will have to tackle that subject in other posts.

In closing, however, it is important to note that if we only ever champion the rights of people with whom we agree, and we are unable to defend the rights of people with whom we disagree, we likely have an underdeveloped notion of rights and human dignity. And we are probably practicing ego-centric rights defense.

In addition, if you would like to read more about the importance of defending a variety of rights in society, you might like John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty.

You can purchase On Liberty at your local bookseller or on Amazon.

You might also like these posts:

How to Be a Kind Person and How It Helps You

Is Your Morality Motivated by Love or Tribalism?

Should We Tolerate Everything?

 Why You Have Intrinsic Worth Today No Matter What


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