Too much of a good thing

Human rights are a good thing, but it’s possible to overdo them. There has been a trend to multiply human rights in Western society. At some point, rights discourse begins to do more harm than good.

I think most of us would agree that people have a right to life and a right to liberty. But even in the case of these two rights, serious disagreements quickly emerge. To take an obvious example, how early in the development of a baby should it be granted a right to life?

I started thinking about this topic when I read The Gun Post, part 1, on Scott’s blog.

Scott sets out to defend the right to bear arms, which is protected by the US Constitution. Here’s what he says about rights in general:

All men are created equally and with the same natural rights. Rights that can neither be given, nor taken by a governing State. They are indeed unalienable; they cannot be taken away, they can only be infringed upon. They are dependant on no other person to obtain, as the only requisite for having them is human DNA.

Understand that any time something is needed to obtain a so-called “right”, such as a permit, license, or the express written consent of Major League Baseball it is no longer a right at all, it is a privilege.

I agree with Scott’s general description of human rights. “The only requisite for having them is human DNA” is perhaps a bit strong (fingernail clippings have human DNA). But Scott’s point is clear, and I agree with it.

The specific “right” Scott wants to defend is the right to bear arms. There he and I part company.

In my view, it is usually more constructive to talk about “interests”, not “rights”. If human rights are inalienable — if they can’t be taken away by the state — then what happens when two rights come into conflict with each other? As I commented on Scott’s blog,

No right is absolute.

The Supreme Court of Canada often speaks of the need to balance rights. It is obvious, for example, that the right to liberty does not preclude the imprisonment of someone convicted of a serious crime. Rights frequently come into conflict with other rights. People make a terrible mistake if they suppose that any right is absolute, and need never be accommodated to other rights or valid social objectives.

The most fundamental conflict is between society and the individual. The right to bear arms may be in the best interests of a given individual, but if it comes into conflict with the interests of the broader society, the state (including courts) may indeed have cause to restrict that right.

There’s another example of the same debate in today’s Globe and Mail. The Government of Canada has just introduced a “no-fly” list:

As many as 2,000 people have secretly been declared security threats by government officials, including CSIS and the RCMP, and will be denied airplane boarding passes as a result of the Canadian no-fly list that went into effect Monday. …

Airlines are not permitted to print boarding passes for anyone with a name that matches someone on the list until that passenger proves he or she is not the person in question.

Critics claim that the list violates fundamental human rights. The Government responds by arguing, in effect, that this is an instance where competing interests must be balanced:

Critics say the list must be scrapped because it jeopardizes fundamental human rights to privacy, liberty and the freedom of movement. …

Faisal Kulty, who wrote a report for the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations that damns the list, said his group has identified at least nine different reasons why it should not be used. “They are actually putting people on a list, not telling them why, not having a hearing before they do it, and their Charter rights are being violated.”

There is a presumption of innocence that is being removed here, he said. “You are guilty without being given an opportunity for any kind of process.”

Transport Canada officials counter that privacy has been a cornerstone of the program and that constitutional rights, like those guaranteeing mobility and liberty, have been taken into full consideration. …

Those named on the list are believed to pose an immediate threat to air security. They must also have been involved, or have been suspected of involvement, in a terrorist group, or they must have committed a serious and life-threatening crime against Canadian aviation.

I can see the potential for abuse here. Anyone suspected of involvement in a terrorist group might find him- or herself on the list. Faisal Kulty objects that people are not told why they’ve been put onto the list, and they don’t receive any hearing. If his facts are correct, I suppose the law might be vulnerable to a court challenge on the grounds that it doesn’t respect due process.

In principle, however, I agree with the Government’s reasoning. Should freedom of movement be characterized as a “fundamental human right”? Even if it is, there may be valid reasons for the state to restrict freedom of movement:  not arbitrarily or for some trivial cause, but when it comes into direct conflict with another individual or societal interest.

These sorts of issues continue to arise in the post 9/11 context, and they continue to be hotly contested. What are your thoughts?

[Bill expresses his opposition to the no-fly law here.]

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14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. JewishAtheist
    Jun 19, 2007 @ 19:43:33

    “The right to extend your fist ends at my nose.”

    Obviously rights conflict with each other. The gun debate in America is interesting for several reasons. First, there is the issue of the second amendment. The founders clearly saw the right to bear arms as paramount, although obviously they couldn’t foresee assault weapons and the like. Second, there is the issue of pragmatism. With so many guns already in the country would it be feasible to get rid of them all or would we really just end up in a situation where only the outlaws have guns?

    Personally, I think the greatest danger for America regarding rights is the apparent willingness of the populace to give up rights for an illusory sense of safety. Terrorists have killed a few thousand Americans and, despite losing many more lives to car accidents, heart disease, cancer, etc., we happily go along with, e.g., the USA PATRIOT Act because the government tells us it’s the only way to make us safe.

    In my opinion, the no-fly list is absurd. If someone is dangerous enough that they can’t be trusted on an airplane, why can’t the government explain what they’re doing on the list? Why can’t people clear their names and get removed from the list? Why is the list so vague that anyone who shares a similar name to a suspected terrorist can’t be waved through after providing proof of identity?

    Reply

  2. Stephen
    Jun 19, 2007 @ 20:52:01

    JA:

    Although I think talk of a “right” to bear arms is absurd, I agree with your pragmatic argument. I said something similar on Scott’s blog (in a comment on The Gun Post, part 2):

    I think society has to take an all-or-nothing approach. Either the state should have a monopoly on the use of force (per Weber) or you’re forced to arm every citizen, as you [Scott] describe in Switzerland. A scenario where half the population is armed obviously lends itself to trouble.

    And that’s the problem with the debate in the USA, in my view. Too many people are already armed. There’s no way to collect all the weapons, even if there was political will to do so. And that’s why the pro-gun ownership, self-defence argument makes sense — it isn’t the ideal, but it is a logical response to reality.

    To be clear, I support Weber’s concept as the ideal arrangement: the state should have a monopoly on the use of force; and the state should use it to establish order so that people can live their lives as they see fit, in security. But policy has to respond to the world as it exists, not the world that might have existed if things had been done differently 200-plus years ago.

    The upshot is, I’m glad I don’t live in the USA (although Canada isn’t immune to such problems: “Toronto the Good” has seen an alarming increase in gun violence in the last few years.)
    😦

    Your other point is a good one, too. If the state is going to infringe on rights (or even interests), it ought to be able to demonstrate that there are benefits to society. If the no-fly list doesn’t pass that standard (I don’t presume to know whether it does), it’s bad policy.

    Reply

  3. JewishAtheist
    Jun 19, 2007 @ 21:58:16

    Although I think talk of a “right” to bear arms is absurd…

    Setting aside the Bill of Rights for a moment, what right is more fundamental than the right to defend oneself? Without the right to life, none of the other rights are even relevant. I’m not opposed to reasonable gun control (preventing violent felons, the mentally ill, children, etc. from owning) but I can’t see how government has the right to prevent people from owning a form of protection.

    To be clear, I support Weber’s concept as the ideal arrangement: the state should have a monopoly on the use of force; and the state should use it to establish order so that people can live their lives as they see fit, in security.

    Keep in mind that the U.S. was formed through a revolution. It was exactly because the state did NOT have a monopoly on the use of force that America even exists. Keeping that in mind probably makes the American gun thing make more sense.

    The upshot is, I’m glad I don’t live in the USA (although Canada isn’t immune to such problems: “Toronto the Good” has seen an alarming increase in gun violence in the last few years.)

    Wasn’t the whole point of Bowling for Columbine (which I did not see) that Canada has as many guns as we do but less violence? The point being that it’s not simply the presence of guns that accounts for the violence.

    Reply

  4. Stephen
    Jun 20, 2007 @ 07:03:01

    Keep in mind that the U.S. was formed through a revolution. It was exactly because the state did NOT have a monopoly on the use of force that America even exists.

    You don’t offer this point as a rationale for the “right” to bear arms, but let’s pause to examine it. At least some Americans defend the “right” on this basis, that the citizenry should always have the option of taking up arms against an oppressive government.

    Surely this history is part of the reason for the violence of American society. Whereas Canada achieved its independence from Britain gradually through an incremental process, the USA took up arms and staged a revolution. Some Americans don’t regard that merely as a historic event, but as a possible precedent for the future. As you point out, this is the origin of the “right” to bear arms.

    I note, further, that the USA is continually at war in one part of the world or another. Thus it seems that Americans regard violence as a useful way to fix problems. You’ll understand if both the history and the contemporary mindset strike me as profoundly regrettable: a contributing factor to many problems that have an impact far beyond America’s borders.

    As for your self-protection argument —

    As I said in the post, I believe the West makes a mistake by multiplying human rights. I begin with the right to life and liberty. It may be that we can extrapolate from those two rights to establish others, but I am suspicious that it’s virtually always a mistake to do so.

    Your argument goes like this:
    (a) We have a right to life.
    (b) Logically, then, we have a right to protect ourselves.
    (c) Logically, then, we have a right to bear arms.

    Where does that chain end?
    (d) Logically, we have a right not only to handguns but to automatic weapons, the better to protect ourselves.
    (e) Logically, we also have a right to own tanks.
    (f) Someone on Scott’s blog suggested, facetiously, that Americans must logically have a right to own nuclear weapons.

    The point is, we can’t assume that one step leads “logically” to the next. A right to, life, yes. A right to protect oneself? Maybe, but I would prefer to take a different approach. I would prefer to treat it as a defence in a court of law, if one is accused of murder, instead of regarding it as a freestanding right.

    The point of the post is, we can have too many human rights. It’s better to identify only a very few, and sharply circumscribe those.

    Finally, let’s return to my Weberian scenario, where the state has a monopoly on the use of force. It wouldn’t be necessary for you to own a gun for self-protection if you could reasonably assume that your neighbours didn’t own guns. I’ve already agreed with your pragmatic argument. But I can only regard that defence of gun ownership as a necessary evil, a concession to the fact that so many Americans already have access to deadly weapons.

    If we want to view it from the perspective of human rights, I propose this: the right to live in a place where my neighbours do not own guns.

    Reply

  5. Bill
    Jun 20, 2007 @ 09:19:34

    Stephen’s point “It wouldn’t be necessary for you to own a gun for self-protection if you could reasonably assume that your neighbours didn’t own guns” is the reason that Canada is a much safer place. While Canadians own a fair number of weapons most are concentrated in the hands of collectors, and many of these seem to be law enforcement types.

    As far as gun ownership in the US is concerned I agree the process of weaning the population off guns would inevitably be a slow one, because of the vast dispersion of arms. Why would the nation want to wean the public away from gun ownership? IMHO there are two reasons 1. Gun ownership for protection would be less necessary if fewer people owned guns 2. I believe that the world should be evolving away from violence not accepting it.

    Accepting guns a necessary means of protection implies humans will always be violent enough to use them. This may be idealist thinking that we will evolve past violence but if we don’t strive for the ideal we will never attain it will we. Look at the past. Following this logic socially, if we had accepted that social evolution was not possible we would still have Slavery.

    The best example of social change at the hands of the non-violent is the civil rights movement in the Southern US.

    Although the process went from non-violence to violence what history records as the most significant part of the fight is Martin Luther King Jr’s advocacy of Non-violence, that is what we remember when we think of that period. So socially non-violence became at least for a period of time the pre-eminent means to deal with social problems. Thus non-violence became positively viewed. The current trend to violent reaction to injustice to me, is a step backward. Thus I will never own a gun for protection. I respect martyrs over crusaders.

    Jewish Prayer for Peace

    Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, that we may walk the paths of the most high.
    And we shall beat our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into pruning hooks.
    Nations shall not lift up sword against nation – neither shall they learn war any more.
    And none shall be afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of Hosts has spoken..

    My addition

    – Shall we also melt our Guns to build Bridges of Steel?

    Reply

  6. Bill
    Jun 20, 2007 @ 09:32:09

    Stephen – FYI I crossposted the last comment on the Art of the RAnt.

    Reply

  7. JewishAtheist
    Jun 20, 2007 @ 10:49:37

    Surely this history is part of the reason for the violence of American society.

    I don’t know, that seems like a stretch to me, at least with regard to personal violence. It’s an interesting point regarding foreign policy, perhaps.

    Whereas Canada achieved its independence from Britain gradually through an incremental process, the USA took up arms and staged a revolution. Some Americans don’t regard that merely as a historic event, but as a possible precedent for the future. As you point out, this is the origin of the “right” to bear arms.

    Yes.

    I note, further, that the USA is continually at war in one part of the world or another. Thus it seems that Americans regard violence as a useful way to fix problems. You’ll understand if both the history and the contemporary mindset strike me as profoundly regrettable: a contributing factor to many problems that have an impact far beyond America’s borders.

    Oh believe me, I’m with you there.

    Your argument goes like this:
    (a) We have a right to life.
    (b) Logically, then, we have a right to protect ourselves.
    (c) Logically, then, we have a right to bear arms.

    Where does that chain end?
    (d) Logically, we have a right not only to handguns but to automatic weapons, the better to protect ourselves.
    (e) Logically, we also have a right to own tanks.
    (f) Someone on Scott’s blog suggested, facetiously, that Americans must logically have a right to own nuclear weapons.

    There is a big jump in scale between owning a gun and owning a tank. Tanks are unnecessary for self-defense on the person-to-person level. (One could actually pretty easily make the argument that tanks would be necessary today to fight the government and should therefore be legal, but I’d prefer not to take it that far.)

    The point is, we can’t assume that one step leads “logically” to the next. A right to, life, yes. A right to protect oneself? Maybe, but I would prefer to take a different approach. I would prefer to treat it as a defence in a court of law, if one is accused of murder, instead of regarding it as a freestanding right.

    What does the right to life mean if you don’t have the right to defend yourself?

    The point of the post is, we can have too many human rights. It’s better to identify only a very few, and sharply circumscribe those.

    Again, that’s the opposite of the American tradition. The Constitution enumerates certain rights and then specifically says that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

    Finally, let’s return to my Weberian scenario, where the state has a monopoly on the use of force. It wouldn’t be necessary for you to own a gun for self-protection if you could reasonably assume that your neighbours didn’t own guns.

    What about a small woman living by herself?

    I’ve already agreed with your pragmatic argument. But I can only regard that defence of gun ownership as a necessary evil, a concession to the fact that so many Americans already have access to deadly weapons.

    It’s a necessary evil in the way that police officers having guns is a necessary evil — there are bad people out there.

    If we want to view it from the perspective of human rights, I propose this: the right to live in a place where my neighbours do not own guns.

    We agree this isn’t realistic, pragmatically. I’d prefer not to live around guns myself.

    Reply

  8. Stephen
    Jun 20, 2007 @ 15:09:18

    What does the right to life mean if you don’t have the right to defend yourself?

    The primary purpose of rights is to provide protection against the state. The right to life means the state can’t arbitrarily execute me or, where the death penalty is in effect, put me to death without at least following due process.

    I’m sure it also has implications for one individual vis-à-vis another. But there, as I said, “I was only defending myself” could come up as a justification (defence of necessity) in a court of law.

    Reply

  9. Scott
    Jun 20, 2007 @ 16:25:29

    Wow, didn’t even see this till just now. Thanks for the referral.

    Stephen,

    It wouldn’t be necessary for you to own a gun for self-protection if you could reasonably assume that your neighbours didn’t own guns.

    This is an incredibly false statement.

    I’m wondering if you had the time to read this story I posted in the comments section on my second post. Guns aren’t for defense against other guns, they’re for the defense against any harm against your person or property.

    There is no such thing as a realistic State monopoly on violence, only a legal one. Yes, violence is inherent in man’s nature as a means of self preservation. The police can only REACT to violent crimes. Unless they are on the scene to start with, they cannot prevent them.

    As far as America’s violence is concerned, in the early 1930’s America noticed it had a problem. There was gang violence in the streets and innocent people were getting gunned down. Violent criminals were making money off of a black market. We put an end to it by repealing prohibition in 1933. We need to do the same thing today and end this stupid War on Drugs. Legalize them and put an end to 90% of the gun violence in America.

    Reply

  10. JewishAtheist
    Jun 21, 2007 @ 07:51:48

    We need to do the same thing today and end this stupid War on Drugs. Legalize them and put an end to 90% of the gun violence in America.

    Amen.

    Reply

  11. Bill
    Jun 21, 2007 @ 09:00:36

    Scott –

    Saying Stephen’s statement that “It wouldn’t be necessary for you to own a gun for self-protection if you could reasonably assume that your neighbours didn’t own guns,” ” is an incredibly false statement. ” is not really accurate. Level of violence needs to be taken into account, an upraised arm is an effective defense against a fist but a gun used against a fist fighter is murder even in defense and in most cases the law will support that. From a pacifists perspective ending a fight without death is to be prefered. You would have to go a long way to prove your statement that Guns are “for the defense against any harm against your person or property” to me it is false.

    If you look at the pacifists approach to violence you will know that many believe that “Violence is [may be] inherent in man’s nature as a means of self preservation.” but does not have to be, evolving above violence should be our aim.

    The problem with your argument is that it assumes violence is acceptable, if we begin by assuming it is not, then society may change.

    See – http://billarends.blogspot.com/2007/06/shall-we-also-melt-our-guns-to-build.html

    I agree with your final point that America should “end this stupid War on Drugs. Legalize them and put an end to 90% of the gun violence in America.”

    Reply

  12. Scott
    Jun 21, 2007 @ 10:52:49

    an upraised arm is an effective defense against a fist

    Here’s your upraised arm.

    Now that guy is a police officer, the very people who are ‘enlightened’ enough to be trusted with our supposed State monopoly on violence.

    From a pacifists perspective ending a fight without death is to be prefered.

    Are you speaking from the point of view of a pacifist? If that is your basis for being against guns then that’s fine for you, but what of the rest of society? If you were a vegetarian would you demand an end to all meat consumption?

    Human nature cannot be changed by force. We’ve got to drop this Marxian idea before it kills tens of millions again this century. If further evolution in humans is going to occur, it’s going to occur naturally.

    Reply

  13. Stephen
    Jun 21, 2007 @ 16:39:27

    Scott, JA:

    First, violence wouldn’t disappear even if all guns were somehow confiscated and destroyed. But it is obvious that guns increase the likelihood of death or permanent physical harm resulting from an act of violence.

    Not only is a gun a very efficient way to kill, but it is a psychologically easier way to kill. I can imagine myself shooting someone; I have a much harder time imagining myself throttling someone or stabbing them repeatedly. Guns kill at a distance, minimizing the up-close-and-personal element of the equation that might discourage someone from killing.

    For those reasons, I feel confident in asserting that if there were no guns, there would be fewer deaths by violence — even assuming that the human tendency to violence would not change.

    Second, I understand that smaller people are disadvantaged in a physical altercation, and this is particularly a concern for women. I might mention that I am only 5’6″ myself, so I guess that puts me in the “vulnerable” category.

    Why is it, then, that the most prominent supporters of the right to bear arms seem to be big men? Maybe that’s not true; it’s certainly my impression, though. If I surfed the web looking for pro-gun sites, how many of them would feature photos of men showing off their weapons? And what percentage of NRA members are male, I wonder?

    If there’s data to show that women advocate gun ownership at a higher rate than men, I’d be interested in seeing it. It would force me to reconsider some of my assumptions.

    Here’s one of my assumptions: I think people who are already disposed to violence and reliance on force to achieve their objectives tend to be gun enthusiasts; whereas people (including women) who necessarily rely on dialogue, persuasion and compromise to obtain their objectives tend to be anti-gun. If you can disprove that assumption, that would strengthen your “pity the vulnerable women” argument.

    Reply

  14. JewishAtheist
    Jun 22, 2007 @ 09:12:17

    Here’s one of my assumptions: I think people who are already disposed to violence and reliance on force to achieve their objectives tend to be gun enthusiasts; whereas people (including women) who necessarily rely on dialogue, persuasion and compromise to obtain their objectives tend to be anti-gun. If you can disprove that assumption, that would strengthen your “pity the vulnerable women” argument.

    I agree completely. But just because the most ardent supporters of a cause are nuts doesn’t mean the cause is wrong.

    I also agree that violence would be much less in a fictional U.S. without guns.

    Reply

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