Since presumably 'rights' are social(-legal) constructs, if someone believed something blatantly anti-social, such as 'good is evil', would this violate anything conceptually in the social construction of the idea of what constitutes a right?


Wikipedia - First-generation_rights

First-generation rights, often called "blue" rights, deal essentially with liberty and participation in political life. They are fundamentally civil and political in nature, as well as strongly individualistic: They serve negatively to protect the individual from excesses of the state. First-generation rights include, among other things, freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, (in some countries) the right to keep and bear arms, freedom of religion and voting rights.

  • I wouldn't say so; not everyone's views, for example in Hume or Rawls Social Contract Theory must be taken in equal account; it's the role of the Legislator or Impartial Spectator that legislates - not anyone individual. Apr 5, 2015 at 16:46
  • 1
    And besides; we are not free to believe what we wish in an absolutely arbitrary way in the same way we cannot speak in an absolutely arbitrary way - language is public; even when used for private purposes. Apr 5, 2015 at 16:48
  • According to the wiki, the right to belief is protected if it's in a religious context, which shifts the emphasis on one aspect. Apr 5, 2015 at 16:50
  • 1
    In your question you have defined rights as a social (group) construct. Good is evil in your example is anti-social and therefore outside the defined rights of your social construct. Being outside the accepted construct means it would violate what is a right. What a person believes is not relevant. What is relevant is what is accepted as the agreed upon social construct. Apr 6, 2015 at 14:32
  • 1
    As long as a person holds the belief within himself then it does not fall within the purview of the social construct and therefore does not violate the social construct. An old monk told me years ago "Dress to please others, but eat and drink what you like." In other words, follow the outward social constructs, but what you absorb into yourself is up to you. Apr 7, 2015 at 4:11

3 Answers 3


Even with that definition of "rights" the answer is not clear.

Consider The Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, which is an alternative to The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights used in select Islamic states where the UN version was deemed in conflict with Islam.

Under the Cairo declaration, there are plenty of behaviors which are not provided as a "right." For example, it declares that belief in "true religion" is protected, but does not specify what that phrase means (which seems like a very sage balance given the strong religious opinions which permeate the cultures that drafted the document).

  • While it may be wise to not exactly define "true religion", the phrase seems so unclear as to empty it of any substance. Maybe I'm misinterpreting, but it seems to say having religious beliefs are a protected right only if they are true. So one cannot claim the right to believe in the existence of the gods of the Greek pantheon, since obviously they do not exist. This would be tantamount to saying religious beliefs are protected as long as they agree with those of whoever is judging them. Apr 6, 2015 at 13:28
  • 1
    @MarcvanLeeuwen I think it serves as an excellent example of why terms like "rights" are so tricky. I am not a Muslim, nor a Islamic studies professor nor an Arabic culture professor. However, from my dabbling along the sides, I have got an inkling that, in that culture, the concept of "true religion" is actually clear and full enough of substance to be useful. It is the English translation that becomes unclear and empty. The end result of this claim I am making is an example of just how relative word choices are to the culture, which makes a discussion of "rights" and "beliefs" murky.
    – Cort Ammon
    Apr 6, 2015 at 14:46
  • I simply don't think there is an easy answer. The mere fact that entire countries were willing to refuse to sign the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and chose to sign the Cairo Declaration suggests that they believe there is something important in the wording shifts. This implies that they could have a different opinion regarding the original question which we could easily overlook if we were not careful.
    – Cort Ammon
    Apr 6, 2015 at 14:48

To really ask the question, one needs a position on the meaning of 'believe'. The most straightforward definition of 'believe' is 'act as if'.

Clearly, if you take this position on believing and acted as if evil were good, and consequently chose to maximize evil, you would shortly decide to do something evil, and it would probably be illegal. We would not defend that right to belief on those terms.

If you do not go for the 'damn the torpedos' approach to your belief that 'evil is good', and consider the social contract you are in, you might constrain your actions on that belief to thoughts and limited speech acts.

But then it is ambiguous whether this is a true belief, or a mere abstract notion. At this level of belief, where the belief itself is a mental and verbal construct rather than a guide to action, in a liberal society, such as he U.S., with its First Amendment, we defend your right to hold and express whatever abstract notion you wish.

We might limit your access to the impressionable, but we will not make you dismiss your thoughts or eat your words. On the other hand, for some postures of belief, that is not really belief, it is only considering belief valuable, not really holding it.

The whole middle ground is a battleground. If you demand the right to openly espouse your beliefs, and to act on them, we must consider the consequences for others. The U.S. decided in the 60's that segregationist beliefs could not lead businesses to deny service to those whom the believers did not feel comfortable touching.

But we won't make a band play your gay wedding. If it involves direct participation that makes you uncomfortable or exposes you to a threatening environment, you can opt out. Recently the State of Indiana has extended this latter notion selectively and decided that such beliefs can allow someone to refuse service if it would even indirectly constitute participation in a context they disapprove of or communicate acceptance of it. For instance, someone can refuse to print invitations for that same gay wedding.

So there is a complex boundary to be negotiated around belief that attempts to avoid pressure to act against your beliefs while others are allowed to act for their opposing beliefs.

  • "First Amendment ... defends your right to hold and express whatever abstract notion you wish" and the state reserves the right to section you? ;-) Apr 5, 2015 at 19:51
  • +1 Interesting point that the right to free speech is akin the right to belief, since one generally thinks and says what one believes, (although not always, obviously). Apr 5, 2015 at 20:02
  • These are two different parts of the First Amendment. The rule against establishment of religion has been construed to allow free exercise of conscience, which defends your right to hold whatever abstract notion you wish, the freedom of speech defends your right to express it. The 'free exercise' of religion is the hard part.
    – user9166
    Apr 5, 2015 at 23:24

Believing in something and acting upon it are two separate things. Belief is the acceptance of something as true, whether or not it can be proved. Most rational people generally only act on beliefs that they feel strongly about, either because they're compelled to demonstrate them, or because they feel someone else is opposing them. A person is likely to have a number of beliefs they hold to be true that they take no discernible action over. Although a belief may subconsciously shape an individual's world-view and influence their behaviour.

Personally, my belief (here we go) is that everyone has the fundamental right to believe in whatever they wish. I accept that as true, although I can't prove it. However I would be prepared to question anyone's right to act upon their beliefs or impose them on others, and likewise have someone challenge my right to do so.

Is the issue about the right of someone to act in a particular way (according to their belief), or is it about the right (or obligation) of others to curtail or prevent someone from exercising their beliefs (legally or morally.) It seems to me the rights of an individual are defined not so much by what they can do, but by what they aren't prevented from doing. Theoretically, in a system with no laws, morals or restrictions, everybody would have the right to do anything they pleased.

Are we are enabled by that which doesn't constrain us? For most people their conscience and a reasonable moral framework limit their behaviour to acceptable norms, this is then further reinforced by the social contract within which they live. Limits imposed internally and externally on how we act, if not necessarily on how we think.

That presupposes that the constraints of society placed against an individual are justified and accepted as being for the general good. Perhaps then there are two notions - the fundamental right to do (or not do) something and the actual tangible 'right' to attempt something without censure or prohibition. In an oppressive regime for example, the fundamental rights of the individual may be repressed by the state as it exercises the perceived right (or beliefs) of the governors in restricting the freedoms of the governed.

Deciding which rights qualify as fundamental is a thorny issue, particularly when one set of rights comes into conflict with another. What seems like a reasonable belief for one group of people to act upon may not be seen as such by another.

A contentious example (from a Brit): in the U.S. many hold that the 2nd Amendment exercises the right to a belief that individuals can bear and keep arms for self-defence, and to maintain the capability to rise up and overthrow oppressors (subject to interpretation.) This comes into conflict with the right (or fundamental belief) that your children should be safe at school from homicidal maniacs wielding readily obtainable firearms. Such gun-wielding maniacs would also have been exercising their personal beliefs when they carried out their deplorable acts. Deciding which beliefs people have a right to act upon isn't always straightforward.

Another more facetious example: here in the U.K., proselytizing religions enjoy exercising their right to try and convert people to their beliefs, often by going door-to-door. A householder may believe in the right to form their own opinion on faith, they may also believe in the right to privacy in their own home, free from interruption by others trying to impose their beliefs. Thus the householder may exercise their beliefs by ignoring the knock on the door and waiting for the faithful to move on. Were they instead to pour a bucket of paint out of an upstairs window on these callers, then by their actions, their beliefs would bring them into conflict with the laws of the land, which frown upon such activities.

Clearly the right to act upon a belief can be challenged. But does the lack of a restriction on what you can think, qualify as the right to think it? I'd say so, if for no other reason than it is not currently possible to know with certainty what someone is thinking, if they keep those thoughts to themselves. If it was, then homicidal maniacs would be prohibited from owning firearms, since that would arguably be a reasonable restriction to place on someone, based on potential acts they might be thinking of doing. But based purely on someone's beliefs - their thoughts - not by actions they haven't (yet) committed, can you decide what rights that person does or doesn't have?

As things currently stand (as far as I am aware) an individual cannot be prosecuted solely for the inner workings of their mind, however controversial, distasteful or contrary to the accepted social contract or code of laws these thoughts and beliefs might be. Providing they don't act upon on them.

"There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." - William Shakespeare (Hamlet Act II, scene ii.) I would amend that to say instead ".. acting makes it so." An 'evil' thought is neither good nor bad until it is acted out.

It's the right of someone to act on their belief (as if it were acceptable) that's debatable. One could also argue that the right not to act (or to be forced to act) as a result of a belief is an issue. I'd suggest that we're probably more inclined to support the rights of another not to act against their beliefs, than we are to uphold the fundamental right of someone to act according to their personally accepted truths.

  • 1
    We generally like answers to reference to philosophical doctrines. For example, your idea that rights depend on what you're not prevented from doing, not on what you are allowed to do. That's a rather controversial idea. Where did you get it? Please improve your answer by providing references for this and your other unsupported statements.
    – user2953
    Apr 6, 2015 at 7:22
  • Re. "Theoretically, in a system with no laws, morals or restrictions, everybody would have the right to do anything they pleased." I don't think there would be any such things as rights in this circumstance. A moral code would be necessary for rights to be created. Also see Wikipedia: Rights Apr 6, 2015 at 9:34
  • Apparently the right to freedom of expression is curtailed in a couple of ways in the UK, i.e. by the offence of incitement to religious hatred and "where justified in the public interest". Ref. Human rights in the UK. Is the former also curtailment of the right to freedom of belief? For why should such a right be granted if the right to expression is not. Apr 6, 2015 at 9:52

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .