Is There A Biological Basis For Human Rights?

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Biological Basis for Human Rights

In 2003, law professor Hugh Gibbons and attorney Nicholas Skinner wrote an article called “The Biological Basis of Human Rights” after a more than 30 year philosophical journey to find the origin of their field. They had noticed that the idea of justice appears in every society and seems to be universal — for example, an unprovoked attack is always wrong everywhere — and decided to see if they could find the biological basis for this phenomenon.

They begin at Descartes’ proposition, “I think therefore I am,” to conclude the existence of consciousness. They would say our mind clearly exists, from Descartes proposition, and our brain clearly exists from science. The relationship between the two is what Gibbons and Skinner use as the biological basis for consciousness.

They do so with the caveat that, if it turns out that we find something else is the biological basis for a mind, then that would be the foundation of this argument. However, they have the assumption from Descartes that, if there is such a thing as biological things, there would be a biological basis for consciousness, something which ties it to physical reality, because the life of thought exists.

They summarize this argument into their first point, “Brains cause minds.” The existence of the brain is the cause for the existence of a mind.

According to Gibbons and Skinner, “Possessing a brain that has the potential to cause mind is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for legal personhood.” In other words, it is not necessarily true that all animal species with brains have minds sufficient to apply.

Instead they define this consciousness as having a mind able to experience how it is responsible for causing change with its actions. Your brain is the biological basis for your sentient mind, for the understanding the impact you have on the world.

This brings them to their second point, “Minds cause wills.” Minds can cause changes in the world. The mind imagines the world differently, acts on those imaginations, and experiences the act of producing those imaginations in reality.

Gibbons and Skinner define “will” as the experience of being the one who is acting. In other words, if you are being acted upon, the experience of responsibility will not be present. In a world where mind control exists, if you are mind controlled you would not feel the responsibility of your actions. Without the feeling of responsibility, you would not have had a will which causes those actions.

Elsewhere Gibbons explains, “Until animals can speak for themselves regarding their experience of the sense of responsibility, humans will have to speak on behalf of animals.” He leaves open the possibility that they have such sentience, but, for the ease of argument, proceeds with the assumption that this sentience, experience of responsibility, is unique to humans.

When we are acting, there is the will, but “when we are being acted upon the experience of causing (the will itself) is absent.”

The will holds the source of an individual’s actions. The source of a person’s actions is not an abstraction of his actions. The will of a person is not fabricated after the fact to justify why something occurs.

Instead, a person formulating a desire and undertaking actions to make that desire happen causes the actions to come to pass. Your will makes actions happen and, with that, you become responsible for those actions.

When your will does not cause those actions, you do not have responsibility.

Thus, they conclude, “Wills cause undertakings,” where undertaking means “a purposive action intended to produce change in the world.”

When you have a sentient mind, aware of your ability to change the world, and you have a will, the desire to and experience of changing the world, you have undertakings, the desired and actualized actions you take in the process of changing the world.

Gibbons and Skinner clarify that, “From a biological perspective, all undertakings are the same.” All undertakings “are simply an effort by a person or by a group of people to change the world from one configuration to another.”

Gibbons and Skinner use the word “flat” to describe this equality. “All undertakings are ‘flat,'” they say, meaning all undertakings regardless of their justification – be it individual or federal – are equal in the eyes of nature. The undertakings of a policeman and a farmer should both be judged in the same way, because undertakings are flat.

Undertakings are caused by the will, the experience of your responsibility for actions. As a result, undertakings are “the smallest unit of willed action to which legal responsibility can attach.” All legal arguments find at their heart of conduct an evaluation of undertakings.

Gibbons and Skinner next argue, “Undertakings cause risks.” The risk that some undertakings carry with them is the risk of “a reduction in the victim’s ability to pursue his or her purposes, a reduction in the range and vitality of that person’s will.”

In legal language, they call this “a diminution in the person’s freedom” or “dimming their prospects.” It means that ways that one individual changes the world may take away or limit the ability of another person to change the world.

Another way Gibbons and Skinner say this is “our actions change the conditions under which others are pursuing their own ends.” Some undertakings benefit others and some detriment others. In both, the mind with the will that caused the undertaking has responsibility.

That’s why next, Gibbons and Skinner claim, “Risks cause duties.”

There are two facts they build this claim off of: one of social biology and the other purely factual.

The first fact is that we are a willed species that can use willed actions to diminish the will of another, but that we, and all vertebrate species, have “some level of cooperative interaction.” We vertebrates have “excitatory processes that… ready to fight and kill… matched with inhibitory processes that suppress the impulse to use those powers on members of the same species.” We seem to biologically want to not harm our own kind.

In another paper called “Of Humans and Squirrels,” Gibbons expands this idea. He explains watching squirrels on his back deck gather up scattered peanuts. Each squirrel is careful to pause and evaluate if going for the peanut in his sights will provoke a fight with another squirrel. They misjudge sometimes but are clearly trying to minimize the cost while still satisfying their desire for a peanut. They are “rational” and “other-regarding.” Gibbons concludes from this:

Homo economicus, the economist’s model of the rational actor, is sometimes regarded as a mad dog of self-interest, the mindless consumer who is intent upon getting his own way at any cost. But Scuirus economicus, the rational squirrel, makes it clear that rationality requires that an actor be other-regarding. Other members of the same species are an omnipresent source of potential costs. Any purposive actor must take their responses into account in order to achieve its own purposes most effectively. Being other-regarding, to put it crassly, is good for business.

However, just because the squirrels are trying not to fight doesn’t mean that they have a duty not to fight. As Gibbons says, “It appears that while the process of acting with care for others is an irreducible part of purposive action, the duty of care and its correlative right are not.” The squirrels can act with care without having a duty for it.

However, biologists find the human biological basis for duty in “the emotional processes underlying the human response to the breach of duty.” Gibbons retells the story of 18th century French physician Jean Itard and the feral child he found. Apparently, the feral child showed anger in response to unfair punishment, even though he did not have any language.

Gibbons concludes, “It appears that the emotional response to the breach of a duty, or to the breach of an expectation, is pre-linguistic, suggesting that the sense of justice is, at a basic level, universal among humans and not culture dependent.”

In “The Biological Basis of Human Rights,” Gibbons and Skinner say on this topic, “even the most hardened violators may act with respect toward some others — their friends, family, association, ethnic group — suggesting that the impulse [of respect] is at work, but the range of those who are entitled to respect is constrained. In fact, the history of law and nations is the history of the slow opening in the category of those who are entitled to respect.”

Thus, this first fact of social biology is that not only do humans tend to cooperate with one another, they seem to both have a universal sense of justice and duty as well as a definition of who is entitled to respect that only grows as the species evolves.

Their second fact is that there is “no durable basis upon which to prefer the will of one person over the will of another.”

In the same way that undertakings are “flat,” wills are “flat.” Each person has one will and no one person is more worthy of having their will done. Gibbons and Skinner explain:

This is the sense in which all men are created equal. Every person has purposes and each person has nothing more than the ability to act to bring about those purposes. We may characterize some purposes as more lofty than others, or more clever, useful, or entertaining, but that does not alter the irreducible unity of will itself in each person. These truths are self-evident.

Because there is no natural or biological basis to judge which will is the most important, all wills must be held equally important. There is no biological basis to choose one will over the others.

So because we have a natural, biologically given sense of duty and there is no basis by which we can prefer some over others, we are biologically built to give respect to our species and have no natural basis to exclude some set of people from that definition.

Thus, Gibbons and Skinner claim that duties emerge from this proposition: “You must act with respect for the will of others because there is no basis upon which you can prefer your own will over the will of another person.”

With no biological basis to choose one over the other, if we were not guided by some sense of cooperation, it would be the impulse of our will to bring about the processes we want regardless of our harm to others. However, it is built into us, as rational beings just like the squirrels, to be other-regarding.

We are biologically driven to care about respecting others. This is the sign that there is a biological basis for duty.

Gibbons and Skinner go on to define duty. They say, “Duties come into existence only when one commences an undertaking that exposes another to risk.”

In other words, I have a duty to you only when I am “engaged in an undertaking that might serve to diminish your will.” If my undertakings were not accompanied by risk, I would not have duty. However since undertakings cause risk, many of my actions are colored by duty.

Gibbons and Skinner summarize this idea saying, “duties constrain both the purposes that the person may pursue (harming others is unacceptable) and the means that she may use to achieve ends that don’t dim the prospects of others (stealing the money to pay law school tuition is likewise unacceptable).”

Thus, they say that, “the primary duty is foresight,” because each person much know the effect her actions will have upon others prior to acting in order to further know what duties are due to those around her.

Gibbons and Skinner then define three approximations of implicit duties.

First, they say that “the will of each person is entitled to respect.” This is what they’ve been saying all along: that the autonomy of every other person must be respected by avoiding the dimming other people’s prospects.

Second, they add the principle of cooperation. By this, they mean that if the autonomy of another is risked by your actions, you must “gain the willing acquiescence” or consent of those people. They go on to talk about the power of consent for managing responsibility in situations of risk. For example, the violence of football would be considered serious crimes if it were done without the consent and cooperation of the players.

As Gibbons and Skinner says, “Within the context of our willing acquiescence we can agree ex ante to assume [the responsibility for] the risk for any injuries we may suffer as the result of another player’s actions, if they are incurred within the bounds of the agreement.” Now, even in football there are the ideas of felonies in order to mandate the duty of respect still be met as well as the third duty, which we haven’t explained yet, of care.

If the people whose autonomy may be risked by your actions cannot be identified or their permission is not gained, then you must fall back on the duty of respect and the third principle, the duty of care. This third case is the idea that you have a duty to act with “due care for their well-being.” This is for the case where, although you cannot get their permission, the risk to their autonomy may be able to be largely avoided if your action is undertaken with care. Although, like the squirrels, you may misjudge your actions, you still have a duty to proceed with care for them and caution.

Then, finally, Gibbons and Skinner conclude, “Duties cause rights.” They explain:

Rights emerge from the breach of duties. The person who strikes another with a stick has breached the duty of due care, unless that person had first breached the duty of due care owed him by, for example, threatening to stab him with a knife. The initial breach of duty creates a right in the person threatened. The right created relaxes the duty of care and the duty to gain willing acquiescence. Where the right is created, it empowers the one in whom it lies to use coercion to redress the violation.

The “right” that is created by the breach is nothing more than the right to use coercion to redress the wrong. Those who have the right to use coercion are, to that extent, “sovereign.” We find it useful to think of the breach of a duty as creating sovereignty in the victim that allows a use of coercion to an extent proportional to the wrong.

Thus, in Gibbons and Skinner’s argument, you have a duty to respect the autonomy of other people and either gain their consent and cooperation to your actions or undertake actions with care.

If you violate another’s autonomy without gaining their consent, you give them the right to violate your autonomy in order to protect their own autonomy. This is a view of human rights solely defined by our autonomous freedom to act combined with our duty to respect the autonomy of others. Failure to respect results in the right of others to deal a fair punishment.

Gibbons and Skinner explain the value of this view of human rights, saying:

The biological view also has far less trouble accounting for the emergence of new rights than the conventional view. Human rights emerge automatically from the breach of duties; whatever the breach, a correlative right springs into existence to redress it.

…As you undertake an action you must act with respect for others. That duty applies to any human actor at any time, to the postal worker backing up his truck, to the designer of a time travel machine, to those who evaluate new drug tests for the FDA, to all. Rights are simply whatever is needed to address a breach by any actor of the universal duty that applies to willed actors.

Their final conclusion is that “Rights cause laws.” The laws that we put in place are just trying to enumerate scenarios where the duty of respect, consent, or care are violated and what actions are permissible while still respecting the autonomy of the perpetrator.

Gibbons and Skinner note that “Rights-based rules often have the quality of being discovered rather than invented,” because scenarios arise where we realize a duty has been violated. They conclude:

Human rights do not emerge as a result of constitutional amendments and legislative enactments, or what the courts or God say they are. Rather, they emerge as a result of things we do. What we do are actions produced by the mind. The conscious state that causes actions — the experience of acting or the experience of causation — is called the will. …Our will is the source of our undertakings. Undertakings are biological processes that emerge as the human mind reshapes the world to satisfy desires it is experiencing.

However, these biological processes cause risks, risks that may undermine someone else’s will or diminish his freedom. But to survive, humans must act anyway. As they do so they have a duty to gain the willing acquiescence of those who will be affected by their actions or, if it is not possible to do that, to act with due care. Failure to conform to that duty creates rights in those who are thereby put at risk. The person who creates rights in others acts outside of the justified realm of human freedom. Within the set of that person’s anticipated actions—that is, within that person’s experience of freedom — lie actions which create human rights and are therefore not justified biologically. They are actions that, if undertaken, will diminish the will of another human. This is the biological basis of a legal “wrong.”

Therefore, law that emerges to enforce human rights arises according to the seven causal steps we have outlined.

More of the relevant work of Hugh Gibbons and Nicholas Skinner can be found at BiologyOfLaw.org. They have some very interesting papers, including the two papers referenced in this article: “The Biological Basis of Human Rights” and “Of Humans and Squirrels.”

David John Marotta and I wrote a companion article to this one called “Natural Rights: Is the Only Moral Code Legal Entitlement?” which I encourage you to read.

 

Photo used here under Flickr creative commons.

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Megan Russell has worked with Marotta Wealth Management since 2005. She loves to find ways to make the complexities of financial planning accessible to everyone. Her most popular post: The Complete Guide to Your Washing Machine

9 Responses

  1. Marvin Edwards
    |

    Hi Megan,

    Reading through the article “Is There A Biological Basis For Human Rights?”, my first impression is that Gibbons and Skinner are playing an intellectual prank.

    For example, it is common knowledge that (a) the nervous system is the seat of the mind. It doesn’t take 30 years of research to discover what is already known.

    And by common definition, those actions we do consciously (versus autonomic actions like breathing, etc) involve (b) acting willfully.

    And it is commonly understood that (c) a person may be held accountable for their actions.

    But then you say that they make the outrageous and false assertion that “From a biological perspective, all undertakings are the same.”

    All undertakings are clearly NOT the same! Not from a biological perspective, and most certainly not from any moral perspective!

    They compound this error by suggesting that all undertakings are equal in value (“flat”). Certainly the undertaking of selling arms to terrorists is different in value from an undertaking to arbitrate a peace treaty.

    The moral fact is that the will to do unnecessary harm is a bad thing. This too is common knowledge.

    So why are these guys attempting to tell you that interfering with someone who intends to do harm is somehow wrong? Why are they saying, “You must act with respect for the will of others because there is no basis upon which you can prefer your own will over the will of another person.”

    That position is immoral.

    While it has no moral validity, it does give high fives to Libertarian claims that they ought not to be forced into doing anything against their will (like paying taxes or serving a black man a cup of coffee at the same lunch counter as everyone else). But isn’t that the claim of a teenage boy? “You can’t make me do this!”

    Their definitions of responsibility and duty and rights are also in error. Let me know if you want the correct answers.

    Marvin

    • Megan Russell
      |

      When Gibbons and Skinner say that “All undertakings are ‘flat,'” they are doing so from a biological perspective. Like they say about human wills:

      This is the sense in which all men are created equal. Every person has purposes and each person has nothing more than the ability to act to bring about those purposes. We may characterize some purposes as more lofty than others, or more clever, useful, or entertaining, but that does not alter the irreducible unity of will itself in each person. These truths are self-evident.

      I think they would also say about undertakings. Clearly arbitrating a peace treaty is a more lofty goal than selling arms to terrorists, but from a biological perspective both of these undertakings are just humans affecting the world. There is no biological basis, they would say, to differentiate between them.

      However, clearly, they go on to prove, from this biological beginning, that there is a moral code. By the end of their article “actions that, if undertaken, will diminish the will of another human” is the “biological basis of a legal ‘wrong.'”

      Because of this, I don’t think their position is immoral. They do not promote licentiousness nor do they encourage violating moral principles. Instead, they summarize moral ought into a single command: Do not dim the prospects of others without due permission, care, or respect.

      Their argument can feel unsatisfying because it is coming from such a limited focus. They are talking about the biological basis for human rights. They do not address any other potential basis nor do they generalize to more lofty bases. Obviously many others have written about the metaphysical, theological, or even just practical basis for human rights. But when people don’t buy the justification for your human rights, that’s when your rights will be violated.

      For Gibbons, the biological argument was the most powerful.
      For our founding fathers, it was the theological basis:

      We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

      It sounds like you have yet another justification. But the important part is that human rights seem thoroughly justified.

      • Marvin Edwards
        |

        But “Do not dim the prospects of others without due permission, care, or respect” suggests that we should not interfere to prevent a terrorist from bombing the marketplace, or a thief from stealing, or a child from doing something self-destructive without first obtaining their permission. And it immorally asserts that all intentions are due the same respect.

        I prefer “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. If I were so misled that I was about to do something really wrong, I would want someone to stop me. So I’m free to stop the terrorist, the thief, and the self-endangering child.

        The guidance for intentions is to love good, and to love good for others as you love it for yourself. All rules and rights are judged by how well they objectively accomplish this effect. (See Matthew 22:37-40).

        Liberty, of course, is a good and desirable thing. But it cannot be absolute. There is no freedom to steal, for example, or to commit fraud, or to refuse access to commerce in the marketplace based on race, religion, etc.

        Do you disagree?

        • Megan Russell
          |

          On your point about the Golden Rule, even Hugh Gibbons agrees with you! As he says in a bullet point summarizing document, “The Core of the Biological basis of Law”:

          The person who is anticipating an action has a duty that is defined by the risks caused by that action. The duty arises out of the risk. The duty is dependent upon the context of the action. The universal duty is to use “reasonable care”—that level of care that a reasonable person would exercise under the same circumstances. Put in terms of the Golden Rule, the duty is to treat others as the actor would have them treat him. Where it is feasible, the duty of care requires the actor to gain the willing acquiescence of any who will be put at risk.
          — The duty of care is universal.
          — The duty of care requires the actor to gain the willing acquiescence of any who will be put at risk, if that is feasible, and to act with reasonable care for those who will be put at risk if willing acquiescence is not feasible.

          Furthermore, Gibbons and Skinner’s argument hinges upon the idea that there are times when the prospects of others are rightfully dimmed. As they write:

          The initial breach of duty creates a right in the person threatened. The right created relaxes the duty of care and the duty to gain willing acquiescence. Where the right is created, it empowers the one in whom it lies to use coercion to redress the violation.

          The very definition of their human rights lies in defining the cases where the autonomy of another person is allowed to be violated. Their definition of human rights lies in the liberty to do that which does not violate the liberty of another.

          Their argument is very nuanced and their very careful in their initial to not make any outrageous claims either in what people can get away with or in what people have to submit to their actions to duties. They seem to leave all of that discussion for another article called “Justifying Law: An Explanation of the Deep Structure of American Law” where they try to build a system of law from the their biological basis of human rights up.

          All that being said, I want to repeat again that Gibbons and Skinner’s argument is a biological one. I think that biological arguments are very satisfying for a lot of people today, which is why we’ve shared this piece. But clearly the intention of a Creator is a more powerful claim than the description of creation.
          As David John Marotta and I write in this post’s companion article “Natural Rights: Is the Only Moral Code Legal Entitlement?”:

          Many religious traditions argue that humans have been created with these rights because they have been made in the image of God as morally responsible agents. And one person is morally responsible not to infringe on the ability of others to act as moral agents.

          Although we agree with this theological reasoning, it is equivalent to arguing that you can tell we have these rights by looking at the biological way in which we have been created. The theological argument adds a religious moral certainty, and the biological argument suggests there is no other moral code consistent with treating all wills as equally important.

          For me, the impressive thing about Gibbons and Skinner’s argument is that they have crafted a biological argument in a field that has previously only been won by theological arguments. They argue for a nuanced morality from “I think therefore I am.”

          • Marvin Edwards
            |

            The fatal flaw in Gibbons and Skinner is their attempt to nuance their way from a neutral (amoral) biological perspective into a moral perspective. It serves neither biology nor morality.

            They assert that “from a biological perspective, all undertakings are the same” and leap with no connecting logic to “The undertakings of a policeman and a farmer should both be judged in the same way, because undertakings are flat.”

            They’ve given you two obviously good person, a “policeman” and a “farmer”. But all you have to do is add one or more bad actors, perhaps a thief or murderer, to see how easily we are lead astray.

            When I complained, your response was “When Gibbons and Skinner say that “All undertakings are ‘flat,’” they are doing so from a biological perspective.”

            And that is like a bait and switch. First we have two morally neutral biological organism (might as well be goldfish) and then we are expected to see policemen, farmers, robbers, terrorists, etc as all having morally neutral “wills”.

            The wills of the players are not morally neutral. We may need the permission of the farmer to pick his apples, but we do not need the permission of the robber to stop him on the spot from robbing someone else’s car.

            Yet Gibbons and Skinner imply that we do. Why?

            The point of their exercise is to support the Libertarian principle of non-interference or non-coercion (non-initiation of force). But this principle, as applied by libertarians is flawed. For example, Ron Paul thinks the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a bad idea. It required restaurants to take down the “whites only” sign and to serve black customers. Libertarians don’t like this because it interferes with what they think is a “property right” of the owner. But owning a restaurant that operates in the market place can never confer a right to discriminate base on racial prejudice.

            I disagree that Gibbons and Skinner proved their thesis. I believe they started from their desired conclusion and traced an arduous path (hard on the truth) back to some trivial fact that they might hang it upon.

          • Megan Russell
            |

            Marvin, you say:

            The wills of the players are not morally neutral. We may need the permission of the farmer to pick his apples, but we do not need the permission of the robber to stop him on the spot from robbing someone else’s car.

            Yet Gibbons and Skinner imply that we do. Why?

            The point of their exercise is to support the Libertarian principle of non-interference or non-coercion (non-initiation of force).

            But I think that’s where you’re confused.

            Gibbons and Skinner don’t think that you need “the permission of the robber to stop him on the spot from robbing someone else’s car.” (If they did mean that, you’d be right. What a bad system of law!) Instead they clearly say:

            Rights emerge from the breach of duties. The person who strikes another with a stick has breached the duty of due care, unless that person had first breached the duty of due care owed him by, for example, threatening to stab him with a knife. The initial breach of duty creates a right in the person threatened. The right created relaxes the duty of care and the duty to gain willing acquiescence. Where the right is created, it empowers the one in whom it lies to use coercion to redress the violation. One person, by threatening a physical trespass upon the person or property of another, breaches the duty of care toward that person, generating in her a right. This right is no abstraction. It is the right to use coercion to redress the actor’s breach of a duty. Under the biological view, rights emerge from the breach of duties and exist only to the extent necessary to redress the breach of duty. The right thus created provides the conceptual framework upon which a rights-enforcement apparatus can be based.

            Even in their examples, simply threatening to trespass was sufficient evidence of a breach of the duty of care, thus relaxing the duties in the threatened and allowing them to use coercion.

            Gibbons and Skinner are arguing for a system of law where agents are allowed to interfere with one another, rather than against. They end up submitting human action to a moral code founded in our biological basis.

            Second, you say:

            First we have two morally neutral biological organism (might as well be goldfish) and then we are expected to see policemen, farmers, robbers, terrorists, etc as all having morally neutral “wills”.

            But I don’t think that by “flat” Gibbons and Skinner mean “morally neutral.” Instead, they mean “equal.” Undertakings are flat in the sense that biologically they are equal. There is no biological standard by which you can distinguish which is superior.

            This is important because later they derive a MORAL standard by which you can distinguish which is superior. That’s the entire conclusion of their argument… human rights and moral wrong.

            They start with biological flatness, derive evidence for a moral code of duties, and then conclude in human rights and moral wrong. By the end of the argument, Gibbons and Skinner believe an almost Christian moral code.

    • John Gallagher
      |

      It sounds to me like Gibbons and Skinner ultimately agree that not all undertakings are the same. At the point you’re quoting, Marvin, they just haven’t gotten that far in their argument yet.

      In making a purely biological argument, they have to first assume that there is no objective moral ground for preferring one person’s actions over another – both people simply are affecting the world. To object by saying that isn’t compatible with common morality is to jump the gun because Skinner and Gibbons have only finished describing their starting point. Again, they only temporarily argue that all undertakings are of equal moral value – they conclude by saying there are indeed some situations where undertakings must be stopped by force; some undertakings are morally wrong:

      “The person who strikes another with a stick has breached the duty of due care, unless that person had first breached the duty of due care owed him by, for example, threatening to stab him with a knife”, and again:

      “If you violate another’s autonomy without gaining their consent, you give them the right to violate your autonomy in order to protect their own autonomy.”

      Even the clear-cut example you use to prove that some undertakings are right
      or wrong is not quite so clear. To the British perspective, the American revolutionaries were probably terrorists, yet most of us would probably say selling arms to us was good. And further, arbitrating a peace treaty between two violent warring nations so that they can together plunder a third weaker nation is probably a bad peace treaty to negotiate. These complexities of life make it seem to me like having respect for the will of others is a good default, again, obviously trumped by a need to act in cases of things like unprovoked aggression.

      Again, they conclude by saying that interfering with someone who intends to harm is good. The important point is that they say that it is good precisely because the aggressor has already refused to respect the will of the threatened party.

      You’re making a straw-man argument by attacking their middle premise as though it were their conclusion.

  2. Marvin Edwards
    |

    But why is it so contorted, Megan?

    The normal moral reasoning is that one person may not harm another without just cause (the colloquial maxim is that “one man’s freedom to swing his fist stops at another man’s nose”).

    The normal moral reasoning for self-defense is that one may use reasonable force to protect oneself from an assault (any unjust harm inflicted by another).

    Why do Gibbons and Skinner believe they have improved things by positing rights that magically appear at the point of injury? In the paragraph you quoted, they claim that “rights emerge from the breach of duties”. What is the point of such nonsense? (he asked rhetorically)

    They are trying to “prove” the Libertarian presumption that ownership of property is paramount, and that all other rights arise from the right of ownership. That’s why Libertarians refer to something called “self-ownership” rather than simple personal rights. That’s why all harms are viewed as trespass of property.

    And that’s why in 2004 Ron Paul voted against the bill celebrating the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act required restaurants to take down their “whites only” signs. Libertarians sided with the restaurant owner, claiming that the black man who calmly sat down and ordered a cup of coffee had “initiated force”, and could be forcefully removed.

    I pointed out to them (back when we used bulletin boards and newsgroups) that a town full of “whites only” signs was actually the initiating force, because it deprived the black man of the ability to participate in commerce. If you can’t get a job to earn a living, and you can’t buy lunch, then your life is effectively threatened. But the Libertarians refused to abandoned the claim that the property owner had a right to exclude blacks.

    There is something wrong about a philosophy that refuses to allow an unjust harm to be stopped.

    My impression of Gibbons and Skinner, from what I’ve read here, is that they present a long narrative bespeckled with interesting facts and using contorted logic that fails to prove anything. It is self-serving to the Libertarian perspective, but offers nothing that furthers a rational discussion of moral issues.

    Marvin

    • Megan Russell
      |

      I’m not sure where the heart of your misunderstanding is. It seems that you’ve approached Hugh Gibbons with a whole set of presumptions that are making you color his argument in a much different light than I think Gibbons intended.

      Your first “normal moral reasoning” of just cause is not only found in Gibbons and Skinner’s argument but largely is their argument. They argue that it is only when you have been given just cause (a violation of your rights) that you may use coercion to redress the wrong.

      Your second “normal moral reasoning” of reasonable force is what Gibbons and Skinner mean by “only to the extent necessary to redress the breach of duty.”

      As for your questions, Gibbons and Skinner aren’t trying to add new “moral reasoning” to the discussion of morality in this paper. They are trying to provide a new argument for the justification of such morals. They are arguing for a biological basis of human rights — hence the title of their paper.

      They use the word “duty” to refer to what one man owes to his fellow kind. They use the word “right” to refer to when one man is granted sovereignty to perform an action which would otherwise violate his duty. I think that this language is rather confusing and takes getting used to — and could be one source of your confusion — because Gibbons’ “duties” sound more like what I mean when I say “human rights” and his “rights” sound more like what you mean when you say “reasonable force” or “self-defense.”

      To say that Gibbons believes that human rights magically appear when a violation occurs is, as a result, misleading. He believes every man has a duty of respect, care, and cooperation for his fellow man, and these three duties together encompass all the important parts of most declarations of human rights. However, he does believe that your right to violate these duties is temporary and situational. For example, you don’t always have a right to punch a man in the face, you only have that right when this man has violated his duties to you.

      Again, Gibbons and Skinner’s description of morality does allow unjust harm to be stopped. That, in fact, is one of the main points of their conclusion.

      I’ll say again that the work of Gibbons and Skinner is an argument for the biological basis of human rights. The source of their argument does not lie with “self-ownership,” as you suggest, but rather with Descartes and the existence of the mind.

      strong>There are many ways to arrive at the conclusion of human rights. Gibbons and Skinner contribute a purely biological one. The hope is that this will be helpful in protecting human rights in the mind of the biologically inclined.