Sunday, November 29, 2009

Responding to Skeptico - on what rights should be/are

Apart from the length of time this has taken to write, I’ve been delaying this because I wasn’t sure whether to post it or not. I could have just let the Guns and Skeptics flame war rest where it did and let it die even though Skeptico’s closing comments were, almost completely, absolute bull shit. But then I decided I would be damned if I was going to let him have the last word.

He had his say and now it’s my turn. I apologise for the length of this post – it is easier to talk crap than it is to explain why what was said is crap.

Skeptico’s comments will be in blockquotes and you can find the full flame fest here if you feel so inclined. Unfortunately Blogger doesn’t let you link directly to individual comments, so I’ll refer to them by date and time where important. Skeptico’s latest comments from Nov 2nd will be in green, where I quote an older post it will be in red. Quotes from something I said will be in blue.

Nov 2nd:

You are confusing what rights actually are, with what we think they should be.
Of all the moves that Skeptico pulled this is one I really wasn’t expecting. The old “Oops, backed myself into a corner that makes me look foolish so now that it has been pointed out I’ll pretend I’ve always been talking about something else all along and it is my opponent that is confusing the issue – except for the one or two occasions where I can’t possibly bullshit my way out, there I’ll pretend I am confessing to those to make it look even more convincing” move.

In this discussion I have always been very clear about exactly when I am talking about what rights are, when I am talking about whether or not one particular thing is a right, and when I am talking about what rights should be (and this latter thread wasn’t very often and Skeptico simply ignored it). In particular, in response to the questions Skeptico is referring to here I have only been concerned with what rights actually are – that was the point of the questions! I didn’t ask 'what rights should be' but 'what are they'. If there has been any confusion, it has been Skeptico’s. I have been primarily interested in what rights actually are and whether or not one particular thing is a right, there has been no confusion on my part. That’s what I had been pursuing despite Skeptico’s attempts to dodge the issue. I had in fact tried extremely hard to nail him down on this position and get a straight answer, and I can show this quite easily.

I suppose he might come back and argue that is the confusion - you should have been talking about 'what rights should be' Jimmy Blue. And I say bollocks to that. What rights 'should be' is nothing but personal opinion, and we'd be fucked if we left the definition of rights up to personal opinion. Atheists wouldn't have the right to be atheists in the US if rights were left up to personal opinion here. What was central to that discussion was what rights are and whether one particular thing is a right, not what one individual thought all rights should be.

Sorry for the upcoming repetition – some things are worth stressing more than once and I want to make the point absolutely clear. Skeptico is wrong.

I asked over at Bronze Dog's, right at the start of all this:
Until someone can satisfactorily explain why gun ownership is a necessary right, why is there any debate?
That is not 'should gun ownership be a right?' or ‘what should rights be?’ but 'is gun ownership a right?' That was my initial question. It was not a question about what rights should be and was never intended to be. There was no confusion about what I was talking about. Skeptico’s answer was simply that we should have the right to do anything which doesn’t hurt others. He answered a question about “Is this a right?” with “Rights should be..” he started out with the confusion he is accusing me of.

Skeptico answered a question about whether one particular thing was a right with his personal opinion on what rights should be – which does not answer the question and introduces the confusion he now accuses me of. What he thinks rights should be, even if it is the definitive answer to that question, still does not explain why one particular thing is claimed as a right by someone else anymore than someone’s thinking 2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee Overlands should be reliable and well built vehicles explains why I claim they actually are, in fact, worthless piles of crap. What explains my claim is the evidence I have to justify it and the reasoning behind it, not what anyone believes or thinks should be the case.

In my original post I wrote:
I am asking "Is gun ownership a fundamental and/or necessary liberty and can someone explain why?"
Not should it be but is it. I’m still not confusing the issue, I know what I am asking and I know why I am asking it.

I continued in a reply to Techskeptic:
No-one has yet been able to show that firearms ownership IS a moral right. If you can't show it, stop claiming it.
Not whether it should be but whether or not it is one. Again, I am perfectly clear about what I am talking about, no confusion on my part – I want to know whether one particular thing is a right, not what all rights should be or even if one thing should be (although in my original post and afterwards I put forward some of my reasons for why I don’t think gun ownership should be a right). If Skeptico can’t tell the difference, the confusion is his. If Skeptico answered one question with the answer to a different one, he is clearly the one who is confused about the issue. His attempt to suggest otherwise is obvious for exactly what it is. Desperate.

From early on, with James K first bringing this up I think, I had been talking about what rights ARE (property of the Universe, social construct, something else?), not what I think rights should be. I wanted to talk about what rights ARE, not what rights should be and that is what I was talking about regardless of what Skeptico was, or thought he was, or now claims he was.

Then I asked Skeptico:
What is a right/liberty? Is it:

1. A property of the Universe or reality that just is, like gravity?
2. An idea that has been explained, justified, supported, defined and accepted by the majority of a given society as a necessity for a 'free' life?
3. Something else entirely?
This is not a question about what should be a right or more importantly what rights should be, but about what they actually are and where they come from. This is the question that Skeptico kept ignoring after attempting a half-arsed answer, where he a least agreed the answer isn’t 1. This is the question I kept prompting him on - where do rights come from and what are they? This is the question that he claimed was a rhetorical trick. This is the question he refused to answer. This is the question he said makes no sense. This is the question that he now answers as if it was obvious that he had agreed with me all along and that he claims I am confused about! This is not a question about what rights should be and never was. If he answered it at any point by talking about what rights should be, then he was confused.

No confusion on my part – I was asking what rights actually are and where they come from for very specific reasons. Dependent on the answers given, I even had some ideas about what I would say next. I was not asking about what rights should be nor confusing the issue – I was not talking about what rights should be nor did I want to when I asked the question. What rights are is central to the point I was trying to make, that’s why that is what I have stuck too. If there was confusion, then Skeptico was the one confused. We’re going to see just how ‘confused’ shortly. And just for grins – see if you really think these answers make more sense or are more compelling if you give Skeptico the benefit of the doubt and assume he is talking about what rights should be as he answers my questions.

Nov 2nd:
Rights that actually exist come from somewhere – society, law, government… But we are not debating what rights actually are, but what we think they should be.
This hypocrisy (or should I say confusion?) is simply breathtaking. The latter part is also bullshit. I asked Skeptico what rights are, the question he is referring to was about what rights are – I was not talking about what rights should be with that line of questioning. Elsewhere I have talked about that topic, but not with the question he is referring to here. Since he wants to play semantics, I can’t stress this enough.

This statement of Skeptico’s means one of two things – either he is flatly contradicting much of what he has said in the past few weeks or he was the one who all along has been confusing whether we were discussing what rights are or what they should be. I have, in regards to this, always been discussing what rights are since I asked the question.

I asked the question I quoted above and said it seemed Skeptico at least did not think rights are number 1. He agreed to this in a post on August 30 at 8:53pm. The question was not what rights should be, but what they are. The question was about what rights actually are (remember, he is now saying that we weren’t talking about what rights actually are, even though that is exactly what I asked about at the very beginning and he seemed content to, sort of, answer). If not 1 then he clearly thinks rights are one of the other two choices.

However, he then goes on to assert that rights have always existed, in a couple of different places. He asserted that free speech is a ‘basic human right – period’ (in the post I mentioned above). I said this must mean he thinks it has always existed and asked him to correct me if this was not the case. He did not. This is, again, about what rights actually are and nothing to do with what they should be. In response to something I wrote, he then wrote in a post on August 31 that:
Not “make it a right”, or “decide it was going to be a right from now on.” But “demonstrate that something was a right” all along.  [my emphasis]
Rights have existed ‘all along’. This is about what rights actually are, not what they should be. He then wrote shortly after this:
I know those rights weren’t recognized – people in power took them away. That doesn’t mean they weren't actual rights.
So these rights existed but weren’t recognized and people took them away – so either human rights have always existed or he believes that at some point in pre-history they were dreamt up and accepted by humanity and then taken away again to be reclaimed later. This is about what rights actually are, not what they should be.

I said that ‘[rights] didn’t just pop into being. They haven’t simply always existed waiting for us to come along and enjoy them.’ Note, I did not say ‘what rights should be has not always existed’. His response was:
Yes they have. Strictly speaking, they always existed, waiting for us to take them back from the douche bags who took them away.
If rights have always existed, as Skeptico argued, then they cannot possibly come from society, law or government since these have not always existed. In fact, for something to have always existed it must be a property of the Universe or reality. But he agreed that rights are not properties of the Universe or reality. We were talking about what rights actually are here, not what they should be. If Skeptico was talking about what rights should be here then it was indeed him confusing the topic and he also never said that this was the case, so you could argue he was also being misleading. Even if he was then what he wrote makes even less sense anyway - what do you mean 'what rights should be' has always existed and douchebags took that away and we had to reclaim it?

To sum up so far, if Skeptico has been talking about what rights actually are in these quotes then he is either saying:

1. rights have always existed and therefore rights cannot come from society, law and government (which have not always existed) and his earlier statements contradict this latest one. Or
2. rights have not always existed and rights do actually come from society, law and the government and his latest statement contradicts what he had said earlier, as well as large parts of his subsequent arguments against things I have been saying.

But then Skeptico now says:
I’ll admit that, reading back, I have worded my arguments so as to confuse these two myself, a couple of times.
Now isn’t it convenient that he never mentions precisely where the confusion occurred on his part? So we don’t know exactly when Skeptico was talking about what rights should be and when (or even if) he was talking about what rights are. Which just adds more confusion to his arguments. All of a sudden Skeptico can argue there is no contradiction because he was talking about what rights should be not what they actually are whenever someone raises an inconsistency in his statements. Not only do we not know which of the two positions Skeptico is now arguing, we now don’t know which of his earlier statements are about what rights actually are and which are about what rights should be. But he wants everyone to think it is me who has been confusing things. He is basically trying to retroactively frame all the previous discussion in a way that he can use to subsequently paint his arguments in a better light and deflect criticism.

Let’s continue. I asked later on in the discussion why Skeptico wouldn’t answer my questions about when and where rights came from and whether or not they are more than ideas – this is the question about what rights actually are that I started with. This is the question that Skeptico gave part of an answer to originally (always existed but not properties of the Universe or reality), then ignored for a time, and that now he wants us to believe he has always thought the answer to was ‘from society, law, government’.

He answered in a post on September 13 at 11:11am:
Because the question makes no sense. Where do rights come from? Fucked if I know.
So, Skeptico originally says that he doesn’t know where rights come from. But now he is telling us that they come from somewhere and tells us what that somewhere is - society, law, the government. Maybe he was confused? He said the question about what rights are makes no sense, but now he answers it like it was obvious all along.

Then he says:
Why does it matter? We should have the right to be free to do what we want as long as we are not hurting someone else
So he immediately shifts to what rights should be, even though we are talking about what they actually are. He is confusing the issue but treating the two different threads like they are one and the same.

In response to Skeptico’s asking me whether or not someone had to justify wearing a baseball cap or drinking beer etc I said this was a no-brainer for us today – no-one today has to justify it as a right but technically yes they should if they claim it, it's just that the general work has been done on justifying rights in the past by social contract theorists. His response was:
Please show me where the rights to own a dog, drink beer, own a green shirt, own an SUV, wear my baseball cap backwards, wear my baseball cap sideways… are liberties. Show me in each case where the work was done, where each thing was argued and accepted as a liberty … So, if it’s been done, show me where, for each case.

Here he is clearly scoffing at the idea that these things have ever been discussed or accepted as rights by society or even originated within society – remember, he thought originally that rights just existed all along but never said (even avoided saying) from where, when or how – he is rejecting the idea that these rights came from somewhere (and I made the point that I didn’t think Hobbes et al were specifically talking about green baseball caps etc but related general rights).

But hang on. Skeptico now says that, ‘Rights that actually exist come from somewhere – society, law, government’ The right to own a dog, drink beer, own a green shirt, own an SUV, wear a baseball cap backwards or sideways are rights that actually exist, aren’t they? I certainly never disputed this and obviously neither did Skeptico.

If these rights actually exist, then according to Skeptico now they must have come from somewhere. But he initially said this wasn’t the case and rights just were, and he rejected the idea that they came from somewhere when I suggested it. Why did he reject it? Because if rights that exist come from society, law or government then yes the work must have been done in explaining, defining and justifying them to everyone else otherwise society wouldn’t accept them as rights – which is the point I was repeatedly making all along. Rights haven’t always existed – people had to come up with the ideas for them and then justify and explain them to society and then society had to accept that they were indeed rights. This is the point that Skeptico rejected and keeps rejecting throughout the discussion until the end, when he sees where his position is taking him (or rather, after I pointed out where it was taking him). This is the point he now wants us to accept when he says it, as if he had agreed with me all along.

Skeptico even wrote:
please explain where the following liberties were argued for, justified and adopted:
And lists a bunch of rights that actually exist. Fucking cheek given what he is now saying. Perhaps I should now turn this back on Skeptico. Since you say that rights that actually exist come from somewhere Skeptico, please explain where and when the liberties you list came from? Saying what you think rights should be doesn’t explain where they actually came from. It wouldn’t be, and isn’t, an answer to the actual question I asked.

I again tried to explain to Skeptico that yes, societies have over time set out the reasons why certain rights and liberties can be enjoyed – in general and over long periods of history.

His response was:
So the rights to wear a baseball cap backwards was set down in general and over time since people started thinking about rights in the days of Ashoka? Don’t be stupid.

So, now we can turn this back around to Skeptico: since the right to wear a baseball cap backwards actually exists and therefore came from somewhere, where did it come from and when? Again, talking about what your opinion of rights should be doesn’t answer this.

Again, in a post from September 16 at 10:01pm, Skeptico attempted to mock/reject the idea that rights come from somewhere:
Those are just examples - not trying to force a false dilemma - feel free to explain exactly what right you think society has decided I have, that allows me to do the things I mentioned. And then please show where and how this happened.
Since you also now assert that rights that actually exist come from somewhere Skeptico, why don’t you answer this for us? You do know the answer, don’t you?

Then there is an interlude where other things are discussed, including the section where I actually do address some of what Skeptico writes about what rights should be and how they are determined – and he ignored most of it completely.

Then we are back to what rights are. Skeptico on October 18 at 9:11pm:
We've had plenty of rhetorical tricks - where do rights come from?

Now all of a sudden questions about what rights actually are become rhetorical tricks, according to Skeptico. Remember, everyone involved but Skeptico agreed rights are social constructs and so asking where they come from is a key part of asking about what they actually are. Skeptico’s position is now that rights actually are social constructs after all, before it was something else entirely. I am not asking here where does ‘what rights should be’ come from, but where do rights come from. Skeptico says this is a rhetorical trick, yet eventually answers it like he never had a problem with it all along and I’ve been the one confusing the two. Don't take my word for it, go read what he wrote.

Then later on, October 21 7:25pm:
Asking where do rights "come from" is just rhetorical, since as I explained I don't think right "come from" anywhere.

Not ‘I don’t think what rights should be comes from anywhere’ but ‘I don’t think right [sic] “come from” anywhere’. No doubt this will be one of those times he wants us to assume that he meant something different to what he wrote, rather than see that he is contradicting himself now.

From the latest post about rights, November 2:
What rights should be don’t “come from” anywhere, that I can think of.
There he goes, re-framing earlier answers. This is also nonsense anyway. He’s saying that what he or anyone else thinks rights should be doesn’t come from anywhere. Apparently this just sprang up out of nowhere independent of culture, philosophy, personal opinion etc. This is really no better than when he was saying that rights don’t come from anywhere.

Now, after I had pointed out the obvious point that clearly rights come from somewhere (despite what he said originally and repeatedly), he switches to “Oh I meant what rights should be doesn’t come from anywhere, you were confused Jimmy Blue.” Which really is no less stupid a thing to say. Especially since right up until a post I made on October 29 I have been asking about what rights are and have never deviated from this unless I made it explicit (in the posts he ignores).

Christ, even though he now makes a claim that rights that exist actually come from somewhere and mentions society, law and government – in other words that rights are social constructs - he didn’t think to correct me when I said “You obviously reject the idea that rights are social constructs…” I wonder why.

One would have thought that if he really had always thought right from the beginning that rights actually are social constructs that might have been something worth correcting.

Are rights social constructs or not? If they are, why did he spend so much time arguing and trying to prove that they are not? If they are social constructs, in what sense can he argue that they have always existed?

But what the hell. Since we’ve come this far anyway let’s humour Skeptico and look at what he thinks rights should be, again.
I believe that in a free country we should have the right to do anything we want that does not hurt someone else.
Sounds reasonable. At first. I even agreed with it. At first. But I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about it since then and have retracted my support of what Skeptico thinks rights should be – in some responses that he conveniently ignored and dismissed without giving any justification.

Note that throughout the discussion in the original thread Skeptico switches between two different definitions of what he thinks rights should be – anything that doesn’t hurt others is the most commonly used one, but he also uses another definition a couple of times – anything that doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.

Equivocating between the two as he does is pretty piss poor since the two clearly do not mean the same thing. You can infringe on someone’s rights without hurting them, so the two definitions do not exclude or include the same things and so switching between the two is sloppy, uncritical and highly misleading (and what was the point of my original post again? Oh yes.) They aren’t the same thing, but Skeptico treats them like they are. Regardless, I already went into detail about why I didn’t agree with the ‘infringes’ definition, but haven’t really touched on the ‘hurt’ definition (although I briefly brought it up with James K over on Bronze Dog’s or early on here when he talked about pleasure versus harm).

Who defines what the ‘hurt’ is in this definition? –The person who claims the right or the person who might be hurt? Why? How do you determine who might be hurt and when is this done? How is it determined whether or not someone is or was hurt, or is it just assumed that no-one is or was until shown otherwise (the whole universal negative thing Skeptico claimed was my problem, by the way)? What if someone is found to be hurt afterwards – Skeptico said that doing something you don’t have the right to do will lead to you being arrested, so should you be punished or not? Is it just physical hurt, or are we talking about mental hurt as well? What about economic or material hurt? Since hurt is a subjective term, what kind of concrete definition should we use in society and why? Who determines this? When was/is it determined? How was/is it determined? Is there a threshold for the hurt, or is it any level of hurt? Are we talking about the potential to hurt someone else, or only hurt that would be 100% likely as a result of the claimed right? Apart from the probability, why draw a distinction? Apart from probability what is the distinction here? Has he thought about what this rules out or does Skeptico honestly think it rules out nothing of importance? Would Skeptico try and worm his way around possible objections by making it ‘directly hurt others’? How is ‘directly’ determined? Why would indirectly not be a problem?

Let’s examine this free society where people have the right to do anything as long as it doesn’t hurt somebody else, shall we?

In this society people can clearly have any kind of consensual sex. Oh, apart from anything involving the infliction of pain anyway (unless you have some definition of pain that doesn’t involve hurting someone). So, sado-masochism is ruled out. Do free societies often interfere in people’s sex lives? I’m a consumer in this society and I have bad service and terrible food at a restaurant. I want to complain to my friends so they don’t go there. Of course, since complaining about the poor service at this place could be considered an attempt to do financial harm to it (I don’t want other people to go there after all) then I don’t actually have the right to complain to my friends about it under Skeptico’s definition (hey, he’s the one who hasn’t defined hurt). Especially if it is possible that I could hurt (there’s that word again) the restaurant’s employees if my complaints force the restaurant to close. Say you want a divorce but your partner still loves you – asking for a divorce would hurt them, wouldn’t it? So you don’t have the right to a divorce under Skeptico’s definition. Abortion? Now that’s a touchy one wouldn’t you say? There’s the thorny issue of the spanking of kids of course – where does this free society stand on parenting rights? And clearly no-one has the right to be a boxer or participate in any other violent or contact sport in this society. What about the right to abuse your own person? That can hurt other people around you, can’t it? Alcohol abuse might not be the right choice for a person, but you have the right to choose it don’t you? Not under Skeptico’s definition. And assisted suicide, where does that fall under Skeptico’s definition of rights? How about the medical decision to end life support – does anyone have the right to make that choice?

Here’s my ‘favourite’ though – if I don’t have the right to do anything that hurts someone else then I don’t have the right to self-defence. If you can think of a way to defend myself or someone else from a violent attack that doesn’t involve the attacker getting hurt, please let me know. I guess you could say that you can run away, and you have the right to do that under Skeptico’s definition at least. I would imagine that wouldn’t be much comfort for anyone who, for whatever reason, can’t run away though. What kind of free society restricts the right for a citizen to defend themselves? Isn’t that one of the most basic rights – to defend yourself and others from attack and harm? I’ll take that right over the right to wear my baseball cap sideways any day of the week.

Skeptico has repeatedly argued that the only way (in his opinion) for a free society to approach rights is to assume that anyone has the right to do anything which does not hurt someone else – yet this definition rules out many things that we consider you have the right to do in our society today. Gosh, could it be there is something wrong with this definition? Of course, he could add a host of addendums and caveats to his simple definition in order to start getting round these problems that arise. But doesn’t that then sound suspiciously like justifying, explaining and defining individual rights explicitly? Why Skeptico says that is ‘absurd’ (his word) because that is, after all, the argument he says I’ve made. The one that he has been raging against this whole time. So I guess no caveats or addendums then.

As soon as you start creating reasons for something to be included that makes individual exceptions to the definition Skeptico gives, you are justifying individual rights. Skeptico has no way to include the things we call rights now that his definition excludes, since he flat out rejects the idea that individual rights need to be explained or justified under any circumstance.

Now, if only there was some other way of looking at rights. Some way that took a historical perspective and understood that rights evolve, that they have progressed from people just doing things as they felt like doing them or needed to do them; to emerging societies making allowances for those things and arbitrarily restricting others; to increasingly sophisticated, educated and literate societies examining whether or not certain things should be allowed and restricting those things they didn’t think should continue; to societies with highly educated individuals or groups who began to argue that certain things never thought of as rights before might actually be rights and indeed who first express the idea of the existence of rights in the first place; to societies where rights could develop as citizens argued for, justified and defined them, where new rights could emerge as long as the society accepted the arguments in favour of them. If only someone had been suggesting something like that…

But we don’t need that kind of understanding of rights, we have Skeptico. Clearly Skeptico’s definitions of rights are the only way to do it in a free society (he says so after all), and certainly they are well thought through and there are no problems with them. There could never be any problems with simply assuming that generally, within some arbitrary and very general limitations, you have the right to do anything you want until someone tells you otherwise. If they can. And that these rights have come from something somewhere as if by magic. Since the dawn of time.
I have tried to get you to think about this by asking how you think how certain rights (eg baseball cap backwards wearing) came about …You continue to evade these attempts behind “where do rights come from” types of arguments.
I am not evading them at all, Skeptico just can’t see that the questions I’ve been asking go right to the heart of what rights are and how we as a society have developed and adopted them over time and what this means for the argument I have been making, and yet all the while he proclaims that he has the definitive and only correct way of determining what rights are and should be in a free society and yet he can’t see the obvious and inherent problems with his own position – in fact, he simply ignored them. But best of all, if Skeptico really does think that what rights actually are comes from society, law, government - that they are social constructs in other words -  then he now has all the problems he thinks I had and he has made no attempt to answer them. In fact, it doesn't even appear that he understands the implications of what he is now saying.

The short version of all this? He’s talking utter bollocks.

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