May 25, 2007

Mr Dillow's Rights

Chris Dillow posts his usual interesting musings on the recent news, today he has taken on John Reid's arguments about rights- which Chris points out in a polite way, without actually saying it, are completely incoherent and make no sense. As Chris says 'rights' only make sense if they aren't something granted to you by Parliament but are something independent of leglislation and if they override other claims particularly those of circumstance. Chris is of course right- it makes no sense to have rights separate from the law without them trumping the law and being in some sense above the law.

Chris is right but what the moment illustrates is something rather serious about our political culture. I'm often rebuked, by Matt Sinclair amongst others, for being over academic in my analysis but I think this illustrates it. Mr Reid is not a great philosopher- the interesting thing though is that lots of far more intelligent people than Mr Reid often say similar things about rights- that there is a tension for instance between rights and security has become a commonplace of the intellectually barren. So what is the confusion?

Well lets turn to Chris Dillow's discussion- its obvious that people don't really know what they mean by the word, right. Furthermore though we often discuss rights, human rights and other things of that nature, we very seldom turn in the newspapers or the news to what rights are. Often it strikes me that most who use the term and ferociously argue about it have different definitions of the word, right, but because noone defines that term persist in thinking that they should agree and can't really work out why they do disagree.

Perhaps in this one area- a bit more discussion of what we actually mean by words might help in elucidating where arguments are going.


chris said...

What you say of rights is true of other categories - justice, liberty and efficiency. Incoherence afflicts almost all popular thinking about moral and political philosophy. The question is why?
MacIntyre said it was because we have inherited multiple, conflicting traditions - a sociological fact as much as a philosophical one. Was he really that wrong?

Not Saussure said...

It makes no sense to have rights separate from the law without them trumping the law and being in some sense above the law.

There's something wrong there. It makes no sense, rather, to talk about rights unless they're enforceable, to my mind, and the only people who can enforce are the courts.

That's where Dr Reid goes wrong when he talks about 'the most fundamental of all rights—the right to life and to protection of that life.'

Well, no. That's completely meaningless, since there's no way anyone can enforce it. I've got a right not to be executed or tortured by the state, certainly, just as I've got a right not to be imprisoned without a fair trial.

What that means in practice is that -- to Dr Reid's evident frustration, at times -- the courts can, and will, tell him that certain laws he proposes to pass, or measures he wishes to take, in his attempts to secure what he takes to be 'the right to life and to protection of that life' are illegal.

They can only do that by enforcing laws (including the common law) that over-ride any particular law HMG might pass, surely?