I recently finished a fascinating book, Moral Tribes, that argued, believe it or not, against rights. Specifically, he argued that “rights” are really words that we hide behind. I think there is some truth to that.
Abortion is wrong because all humans have a right to life. Abortion is okay because all women have a right to choose. Gay people have a right to marry. The government has a right to define marriage. We cannot kill one person to save five because people have a right to life. Whether it’s carrying a gun into the library, burning a flag, or not vaccinating your children, we love to use “rights” and “duties” when talking about moral issues, when making moral judgments, or justifications, or rationalizations. Rights do all the heavy lifting, they are the argument; we hide behind them, they sound objective, smart, impartial, universal.
But what if the word “right” is nothing more than a fancy way of saying “I don’t like it.” In other words, “I don’t like abortion, it feels wrong.” A feeling, a gut reaction, an emotion, subjective. Everything else – all the arguments, justification, rationalization – is extra, meaningless, scaffolding. “I like when mothers can choose.” Same thing. First comes the feeling, then comes the argument to justify the feeling. If you keep asking why, you eventually get to feelings, intuitions, and gut instincts.
It reminds me of working in the Law Library. Patrons many times come in asking about “their rights” on any number of subjects. But sometimes what they really mean is this: I want x. Does a “right” exist to allow me to get x. In other words, please give me a fancy legal term that will magically get what I want.
Well, overall I think this is a negative, simplistic, reductionist view of human beings, similar to the “boo-hiss” theory that reduces all moral reasoning into simple emotions, so I don’t buy it for those reasons. I apply it to myself (which everyone should do), and I do find some truth in it.
Here’s the point. The argument tends to stop when you throw the R-bomb, and that’s really the worst thing. I believe in a right to life, you believe in a right to choose. Let’s go our separate ways, right? Wrong. It’s not that simple. Public policy needs to be written, and these issues bear directly on laws that influence our lives. So politically at least we cannot ignore each other. Also, we might kill each other (people have killed for much less). Therefore, we need another solution.
Joshua Greene’s solution is to reduce rights talk into Utilitarian calculations. How much suffering does abortion cost overall? How much happiness does gay marriage promote? And let’s go from there.
Sounds promising. Does it work? Well, sadly, according to what I read in his book, it doesn’t. His utilitarian solution to abortion, for example, the only problem he tackled, was horribly complex, speculative, long-winded, not mathematical, and ultimately not convincing…it ends up being pro-choice, which is fine, but it leaves the reader scratching his head as to how the argument got there and how smart you have to be to engage in moral debate for God’s sake–do we all have to go to Harvard to think correctly about these issues? Greene takes nuanced thinking to a whole new level here, to the point of meaninglessness. Maybe I will stick to my “rights talk” – much simpler and people get my meaning. In fact, the same old arguments against Utilitarianism rears its’ ugly head – it’s very very hard to actually calculate suffering and happiness.