Jump to content
Objectivism Online Forum

Positive Rights

Rate this topic

Recommended Posts

I'm trying to get a better understanding of rights, which I understand pretty well as it is, but I think my understanding of the illegitimacy of positive rights is relatively weak.

For anyone who doesn't know, negative right is a freedom from something, such as freedom from government censorship of books or from being prevented having an abortion. A positive right is a freedom to have something such as Internet access or health care.

The need for freedom is in part the requirements of achieving a good life. Presumably, there are stuff that makes for a good life, such as music, eating at a fancy restaurant, being healthy, etc. It is also part of a good life to be able to use those things as one chooses, since after all, being unable to use the things that make life good makes having something pointless. If I have possession of a computer but I can't use it, the computer is effectively useless. That's where the value of negative rights comes in, because it specifies exactly how far your right to do something extends, namely, the initiation of force.

That's all well and good, I don't think I need to elaborate further for anyone on this forum. But that doesn't do anything to refute positive rights. Most of what I'll say here on out is basically as a devil's advocate.

While negative rights are good, what if you don't have any of those goods to begin with? I understand that lacking the means to do something doesn't mean I'm unfree to do it; I'm still permitted to have my ideal job even if I can't attain it at this point in time. But certainly that is a prevention to me having a good life to the fullest extent. What use is my negative freedom if I am unable to have the stuff that makes for a good life – a nice job? Wouldn't it be terrible to work in a sweatshop that I know is terrible, while knowing there are no other options right now? For the sake of even having a good life just for myself, I'd certainly strive to go beyond that level and would never gladly accept poor working conditions in comparison to industrialized countries that the company I work for is from.

I don't want to say I'm unfree to have a better job, but there are obvious barriers to a good life that originate from other people. Other people choose the conditions they set at a workplace, and they can also set nice conditions. Many companies choose less-than-ideal conditions and I'd need to put up with it, making my life also less-than-ideal. A rich person may enjoy the ability to have a pool of ideal jobs to choose from, due to negative freedom. For them, of course negative freedom is the ideal; much more is ALREADY available to use.

For me, positive freedom would be fantastic, because that gives me the stuff so I can begin to have a good life. It would seem that people lower on a quality of life scale would be entitled to having certain things by right, if a good life is the objective anyway. Being provided with a job with nice working conditions is really just a demand for a reasonable condition to seek out the stuff that makes for a good life. A terrible job in a factory may be a slight step up from working in a corn field in some central American country, yet there is still no way of having the equivalent of an industrialized country's jobs. I have bare sustenance, but how am I any better able to achieve a good life?

Of course, if I have a right to a job with nice working conditions, someone has to provide it. Negative rights would say that since someone has to provide it, somewhere along the line something has to be taken against consent, force an action, thus making this idea improper. However, there are things that are required for me to have a good life in general, the stuff that anyone in a better off conditions enjoys and values. Things like the Internet improve quality of life. Why would it be bad to take a little of something from a rich person if they'll still be just as able to attain a good life as before, while I am exponentially better able to attain a good life?

There seems to be a point where I primarily need positive freedom, and a point where I need negative freedom. The answer would be between figuring out what is attainable in the world as it is now, and the life of bare sustenance. Positive rights seem valuable to anyone who doesn't have much, and taking from the better off in a limited way is worthwhile for my pursuit of life. I'm not saying the rich should be altruistic, just that like any person, I want to enable myself the conditions needed to attain a good life, like anything in Objectivism that shows the need for government. It wouldn't be improper if all I'm doing is identifying general categories of stuff I need in order to have a good life, just as, even more broadly, people need property. To demand that you can't use your fireworks so you don't put my house on fire does not come across as similar to saying you can't use your factory to provide conditions that don't help me go beyond bare sustenance. So, what's all that bad about positive rights?

(As I wrote this, I have lots of ideas to refute myself, but I'd like to see what other ideas anyone else has.)

Link to post
Share on other sites

For me [a poor person], positive freedom would be fantastic, because that gives me the stuff so I can begin to have a good life. It would seem that people lower on a quality of life scale would be entitled to having certain things by right, if a good life is the objective anyway.

This would be my first objection. It is too simplistic to simply say that 'a good life' is the objective of rights, in that if we ever found that violating rights would better serve the pursuit of this good life, we should advocate violating rights. Tara Smith explains this well in Moral Rights and Political Freedoms when she characterizes rights as 'consequence-based but not consequence-bound:'

Rights are consequence-based insofar as they are grounded on the premise that recognition of rights is necessary for achievement of the sought end [a flourishing life]. Desired outcomes are the source of rights' authority. Rights are not consequence-bound, however, because the actual or immediately projected outcomes of our actions are not the decisive test of whether rights should be respected on a given occasion... The obligation to respect [negative] rights is unwavering because freedom is not a cause of well-being, but its indispensable precondition."

This can be explained further if we delve into exactly what type of thing we mean when we say 'good life.' Tara Smith again:

...observe that a good life is not a thing, but a condition. It consists not in holding some complement of material possessions, but in living one's life in a certain way. There is no commodity (or assortment of commodities), possession of which assures a person a good life. As Aristotle held, while eudaimonia may require the support of external goods, their possession should not be mistaken for eudaimonia itself... Still further evidence that rights' telos must be self-generated is the fact that it is not transferable. Eudaimonia cannot be handed from one person to another. If eudaimonia were a commodity or property packed into certain things and equally valuable to whomever gained hold of it, then gives from others could increase one's share. But a good life is not attainable in that way... My claim that rights' telos must be self-generated means, then, that each individual must actively acquire it for herself. Because life is not an object but a process, and because it is the process of acting, it must be earned for oneself, by oneself. Insofar as a good life consists of activity, it must be self-generated, because others cannot do your living for you.

The argument is basically that because each individual's life is ultimately inextricably tied to their own actions, rights intended to promote people's pursuit of 'the good life' could never be called upon to justify forcible transfers. Even though physical goods are obviously transferable from one person to another, an individual's pursuit of the good life inevitably requires them to be self-supporting over the long term. Thus, institutionalized goods transfers can never serve the objective in question. So rights should be understood as a necessary condition of human well-being, but not a sufficient condition. We cannot expect rights to actively enhance an individual's well-being, because long-term sustainable well-being must be self-generated. This is fleshed out in greater detail in other parts of the book, but that would be the basic gist of my response, drawing from Smith.

Link to post
Share on other sites

I actually finished that Tara Smith book a few days ago, and this was one of two areas I had the most difficulty with integrating into what I know.

I get the idea that eudaimonia is not transferable, and a great way to understand that altruism cannot provide happiness to anyone. Whatever I do won't *make* anyone happier.

The only issue I was having is about certain things allowing for a good life. Having a career isn't a metaphysical requirement for existence, but it's surely important in having a good life. When people are in a relatively nice condition, like in an industrialized country, negative rights are quite applicable. The stuff that allow for a good life are available. Sort of like how in the book you referenced, positive rights in this sense are about being able to have the goods in which to make use of negative rights. That's quite short-sighted, I know; historical evidence suggests that an environment like in the industrial revolution (when workers for the most part had even less provided for them than today) brought about the ability to attain a better life at a faster rate and within a lifetime than in any other time period.

But wouldn't in some way the idea of positive rights be valuable to those in the worst conditions (not caused by dictatorship)? Would it not be possible and desirable to find a way to secure the goods I need, to guarantee the goods I need? This may just be a place where the best option is to study history. Also, the context of a good life is significantly wider than the stuff that makes it up. Positive rights put the focus on a purely materialistic aspect of existence.

Yet admittedly, it is harder to attain eudaimonia when you're poor. Money can buy happiness (and so could having something like a job of nice conditions). If anything, the next question to ask is if negative rights as a primary do make it MORE difficult to attain eudaimonia. The answer is no, and it relates to the facts of what are required for someone to be able to provide the things I need in the first place; I can't take something that doesn't exist. The necessary conditions for production of any kind include the ability to use your mind however you see fit, provided you allow others to do the same. Force is the only way to prevent use of the mind.

Link to post
Share on other sites

...When people are in a relatively nice condition, like in an industrialized country, negative rights are quite applicable. The stuff that allow for a good life are available...

But wouldn't in some way the idea of positive rights be valuable to those in the worst conditions (not caused by dictatorship)? Would it not be possible and desirable to find a way to secure the goods I need, to guarantee the goods I need?

If you think about what types of society have those 'worst conditions' you're referencing, where working in a sweatshop is a relatively good job that people compete over, these are also precisely those societies which lack a significant number of super-rich people who could be taxed somewhat without even really noticing it. Once there is enough wealth at the top of society so that we could tax the rich lightly and have more than a few pennies per person for the poor, we find that the sweatshops have already disappeared and the standard of living has risen for all involved. So I would start here by objecting to the possibility of finding a way to secure the goods one needs through redistributive taxation; once there is enough wealth at the top so that this 'providing goods for those at the bottom without significantly harming those at the top' argument applies, there's enough wealth at the bottom so that we don't see people in abject, horrible conditions anymore.

EDIT: Not exactly a principled philosophical argument, but that's what I got :thumbsup:

Edited by Dante
Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

  • Create New...