Toying with the idea of using your text as a send-off in the introduction to law course I teach at the beginning of September to put the start of their journey in perspective. Dunno if 1st year law students at my Fac have the capacity to grasp your text's implications, or just get over the shock from this "subversive" outlook and really start thinking about these issues. They're very young, and very north american. Looking forward to your next essay, maybe I'll get a better sense of how I can spin it.

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Thanks. Thought provoking as ever.I was not aware of the Spinoza critique.

You may have read Hannah Arendt’s great commentary on rights in Origins of Totalitarianism. She argues that the only right that really matters is the ability to transact politically to ensure your interests are protected. Abstract rights without that make no sense because they are arbitrary and their protection has often failed. She quotes the existence of all sorts of rights that allegedly still existed under the constitution in 1930s Germany but were all flouted.

Through this logic she ends up agreeing with Burkes critique of universal rights. He argues that rights divorced from context are equally meaningless. Is it good that a Highwayman is free? I cannot know without context. This also points to the importance of history and continuity. The French Revolution literally was an attempt to rethink the world from scratch. Both Burke and Arendt would argue that this can never work.

In our own era this explains too the ideological conflict we are seeing. People who have the woke definition of rights have a similarly defined universalist world view that they want everyone else to “enjoy”. Just as with the French Revolution this is a recipe for internal and external war. Which is what we are seeing.

The woke groups want the world to embrace and promote rights associated with acts that were even illegal just a generation ago even in most western countries. Perhaps the change will come organically but to try to force it across cultures is reckless in the extreme. China and Russia are far more the pragmatists in international affairs right now versus the west, which is ideological. Maybe the west has always been like that, just with different ideologies, but in the past it had power. Which takes us back to your essay. Creating rights is ultimately a power game!

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Jul 23, 2022·edited Jul 23, 2022

A key point you are making is that "rights" are paradoxical: more rights do not strengthen the individuals, but they simply arm whoever that has the power to assert such "rights" to justify their use of power over others. Beyond some point, creation of more "rights" paradoxically deprive people of "unspoken rights" that happen to be incompatible with them but just lack the power to enforce them. The vaguer (but more universal and "moral" sounding) the rights are, the more useful they are to the wielders if power. This is a paradox that entraps naive Liberalism: the concept of "human rights" probably did more to justify tyranny, death, and destruction certainly what the inventors of the notion could ever have imagined.

The only way to avoid this is to define rights, at least in practice, in a precise and constrained manner without reaching into (necessarily unlimited) moral declarations. This is the role of courts and the legal establishment. Whether this is "moral," it is not clear. The slavery question in early 19th century was kept at bay by treating the right to own and use "property"--in form of slaves--as something open to political debates that would precisely define its limits. Attempts by pro-slavery Supreme Court, among others, to declare it a "right" as often conceptualized today, imbued with moral and universal qualities, doomed the attempts to define its limits by politics. While slavery might be an odious example, it also does serve to illustrate competing notions of "rights," is it something open to politics and debates to constrain it, or is it something universal and unlimited that cannot be debated? The latter notion tends to be popular today and that seems at the root of the problem: wielders of power overreach and abuse, in the faith that the right justifies the might, and in so doing, the original "right" becomes discredited among it's victims. However, the extent of the discontent is not revealed soon enough, as the morality of the "rights" is beyond dispute. Only when the balance of power had swung so far in the other direction does the "debate" start and it can only commence with vitriol and violence for far too much anger was allowed to accumulate. This certainly was what happened with regards slavery in 1850s and the same fate may await a lot of "rights" that many people, especially in positions of power and influence, are sacrosanct. The only way to preserve (many of) them is to stay in contact with the opponents, those who bear the "cost" (in whatever form) and, even if informally, to constrain their practice. But this, of course, runs afoul of the popular notion of "rights," even if they know whom to talk to and are in position to both negotiate and impose limits on themselves and their "allies," which are hard to achieve even if possible.

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A fine piece, as always. Many thanks. However the concept of rights hails from classical Rome, and an overview of its early history would strengthen, I think, your basic points. A decent alternative to a rights based perspective might be a needs based one, Marxism being an example of it. It has its own problems though. Common sense is too weak a base for such issues, for example it allowed slavery not too long ago.

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Good, I eagerly await presentation of the some alternatives. Common sense comes to mind.

My 2c:

When someone starts in on their rights, or some abstract such as The Rights Of Man, I regret the absence of homes for those poor souls mentally unfit for living with the general population. IMO, the word right applies to what is done, or not, rather than to an abstraction owed one or owned by one, such as "my rights." It's all in the practice, not in the theory. A theory is neither right nor wrong, it is a theory. But a practice is either right or wrong. Put another way, everyone has the same rights, all of them, by virtue of being of the same divine origin, so whether one has this right or not is a trivial concern. We all got 'em all. But what we do, now there is where serious concern regarding right and wrong -- not rights -- is possible and even mandatory.

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