There are three common bases for moral reasoning that drive me crazy: capacities, rights, and essences. They bug me because they don’t, and can’t, work even though they dominate the popular discourse. They are different in most ways, but I believe their appeal is what they have in common. I will look at each one in turn before coming to their commonality.
Rights are social constructs. I’m not saying that in any kind of dismissive way. Often, when people say that something is a social construct, the implication is that it is not real. I’m not saying that at all. Rights are real, powerful, and important. But they are not the kind of thing we can use as a moral foundation. And that is because they are social constructs.
In other words, there is no such thing as universal rights or basic rights. All rights are necessarily embedded in a culture. In the United States, we have the right to bear arms. That’s just a fact. It’s not a fact that I like, but it is true. It’s also true that our Second Amendment right is a root cause of an ongoing moral catastrophe. Funny, isn’t it? That just goes to show that not only are rights not a basis of morality, but rights are not even necessarily moral.
Supporters of rights-based reasoning may protest. They may say that the right to bear arms isn’t a real right or something like that. It’s a legal right in the US, but it’s not of the same standing as freedom of speech or free association. But what’s the difference? I approve of free association and disapprove of guns, but that’s awfully flimsy. Many people feel the opposite. We need something deeper than feelings and opinions to base our morality on. The only way to get there with rights is to look at them as some sort of Platonic ideal. This runs into the same problems as every other kind of Platonism, though. Where are these rights? How do we discover them? If someone claims to have discovered a right, how can we verify it? There aren’t a lot of philosopher kings running around as far as I can see.
By all means, keep arguing about rights in the court rooms and legislatures. That is where they belong. Just, please stop trying to use rights to justify a moral position. They can’t because that’s backwards. We need our moral positions to justify rights. Like I said before, whatever the UN says, there’s no such thing as universal rights. Morality may be universal, but only because it is deeper.