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I continually run across arguments where people fail to understand that morality is not always and automatically about rights per se, and particularly not necessarily about the intellectual equivalent of legal rights, which immediately create contradictions and presume an adversarial stance for their resolution.

What schools of philosophy have criticised 'rights' as an inadequate moral or political framing, and what are the best approaches those alternatives suggest for framing moral interaction?

I would like to avoid framings obsessed with conflict and control, since I think this is the most counterproductive aspect of most rights-talk. But any clear alternative framework would be interesting.


To forestall further attempts to explain rights to me, I have an understanding of their purpose and use, which you are probably not going to talk me out of.

In my picture of the world, rights are a completely secondary manipulation to get people to act morally. They simplify the communication of moral intent, but they have nothing, intrinsically, to do with what is or is not moral. That needs to be established by some other underlying perspective.

If you have the right to raise your children as you wish, that does not mean all ways of raising children are equally moral. Your right to free speech does not mean that whatever you say to me is never evil, and you have no moral reason to be civil. In such situations, rights are an excuse to look no further, and a barrier to genuine ethical inquiry.

Also as a manipulation, they have to be open about their intent, which they never are. People retrench into their own sense of their own rights as if they are the actual content of the ethics. So they do not realize when their defensive position contradicts the moral motivation for the right itself.

  • I wouldn't choose to dislike or like rights. I like to look at this way. Rights are like a set of rules. Rules are restrictive. If not obeyed, punishedment is layed upon. It is extra motivation to behave a certain way. Some communities require rules (restrictions) or otherwise they fall apart in chaos. (Childeren in kindergarten e.g.) Only mature enough communities can have fewer rights (rules=restrictions) as the members know AND feel how to behave. So in that sense, I even think that rights (e.g. human rights) is a good thing on the path of growing our worldwide community. – Mike de Klerk Aug 25 '15 at 15:58
  • @mike de Klerk: the crux of the question is suggesting that morality or ethics is not always and solely about rights. – Mozibur Ullah Aug 25 '15 at 16:07
  • @MoziburUllah I understand that. I was aiming at the title of OPs question. I was trying to add some nuance to it. I know its off-topic to OPs question. – Mike de Klerk Aug 25 '15 at 16:16
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    One often has the right to act immorally. Decisions about what to say can be very morally complex, while the right to free speech is relatively simple, so it's clear that morality encompasses more than rights. Rights exist in order to allow individuals as much freedom as possible in making moral choices, without reducing other's ability to do the same. They're very important, but they are a consequent of morality, not a primary. – kbelder Aug 25 '15 at 16:23
  • I think what you and people in the West refer to as human rights are individual rights - which is a Western conceptualization of rights. In the East, most people (and societies consequently) see societal rights as human rights and are of greater importance than individual rights. – Swami Vishwananda Aug 27 '15 at 10:11
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Alasdair MacIntyre is a famous critic of rights. See his book "After Virtue":

The truth is plain: there are no such [i.e. human] rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and unicorns.

The best reason for asserting so bluntly that there are no such rights is indeed of precisely the same type as the best reason we have for asserting that there are no witches and the best reason we have for asserting that there are no unicorns: every attempt to believe that there are such rights has failed. (p. 69)

To evaluate the cogency of MacIntyre's claim goes beyond what can be done in an SE answer--you'd need to read his account of those attempts and decide for yourself whether his negative evaluation is warranted.

edit: also generally marxist theorists are critical of human rights discourse, seeing it as a bourgeois ruse to deny equality to the proletariat.

  • In your edit, are you talking about real marxists? Or so-called postmodernists? – Rodrigo Oct 20 '17 at 4:50
  • I mean people like Chairman Mao. If he’s not a real Marxist, I don’t know who is. I don’t have a citation from Marx himself though. – shane Oct 20 '17 at 13:00
  • Have you read Mao's Red Book or any other? Where is Mao saying he is critical of human rights discourse? – Rodrigo Oct 20 '17 at 13:02
  • digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu/cgi/… starting on page 3, describes various official statements from ministers of Mao’s administration denouncing “human rights” as capitalist/imperialist justifications for interfering with the internal affairs (i.e. annexation of tibet, or the intentional starvation, brutalization, and repression of its own people) of socialist states. More to the point, do you really think of the man who presided over the state sponsored genocide of 45 million of his own people as a proponent of human rights? – shane Oct 21 '17 at 1:04
  • Do you know the difference between genocide and hunger caused by errors when trying to centralize an economy in a country with more than a billion people? Most people that love to paint Mao as "the enemy" or as "a monster" don't know, or pretend they don't know. Annexation of Tibet? Right, so if England had colonized only Ireland, then I think both would be at the same level. But they're obviously not. So Europe colonized half the world, stole all our gold, enslaved thousands of peoples, and today live large on its profits, and want to accuse others of "human rights violations"? Don't kid me! – Rodrigo Oct 21 '17 at 1:10
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In addition to the Simone Weil and Alasdair MacIntyre (and communitarians in general), we could add two further types of critiques:

  1. Confucians and Chinese philosophy more generally. The volume Confucian Ethics edited Kwong-loi Shun and David Wong contains several articles that spell out Confucian objections to rights talk. More broadly, rights talk is not a feature of any classical school of Chinese philosophy or thought.
  2. Plato. Rights are not a major feature in his account of the polis.

It's a little fuzzier for pre-Modern thinkers in general for that matter. While some speak of rights, the idea of universal human rights does not become a major concept in ethics until much later, having a strong origin in law in the Medieval and Roman traditions. But even in those, it's not entirely clear if they mean something like the modern notion that people just have rights rather than meaning something like rights in virtue of title or ownership.

for one obvious example, the Magna Carta, while clearly invaluable in the genealogy of rights, is about the rights of a certain class of nobles against King John rather than a document granting everyone rights. And it's a document that has legal force in part due to the complex interactions of states and the Roman Catholic Church at the time.

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Simone Weil was a critic of the notion of rights in her essay on The Human Personality; she wrote:

The notion of rights, which was launched on the world on 1789, has proved unable, because of intrinsic inadequacy, to fulfil the role assigned to it.

For:

The notion of rights is linked with sharing out, of exchange, of measured quantity. It has a commercial flavour, essentially of a legal claims and arguments. Rights are always asserted in a tone of contention; and when this tone is adopted, it must rely on force in the background, otherwise it will be laughed at.

Against the notion of right, which she notes originates from Roman law (and is personal); she compares the Greek notion of justice (which is impersonal).

To put this in colloquial but aphoristic terms: justice is the spirit of the law and not its letter; rights are the letter of the law and not its spirit.

To connect this Weils above; note that the letter can be measured - it is written; and the spirit cannot - it is unwritten.

It's this dialectic that informs Sophocles Antigone; she standing for the the unlettered custom, ie positive law; and Creon, for sovereign law.

Another way of thinking through this concept is through Schmitts definition of sovereignty in his Political Theology where he securalises a theological concept of sovereignty:

Sovereign is he who decides on the exception

One can then ask what is that decides the exception - the exceptional case - that in some part lies outside that of the written law; it cannot be the law itself - thus it would be Justice; there is then a scale of values in which Justice stands above that of Rights; it is sovereign, and cannot be assimilated to it.

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