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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Book Review - Human Rights: Fact or Fancy

This week I finally finished reading what has been perhaps the most formative book for me, in terms of my political philosophy, I’ve ever read. I’ve been working slowly through Human Rights: Fact or Fancy by Henry Veatch for some time now, and with my semester ended I finally had time just to sit down and finish it. And I’m so glad I did. It has been an immense pleasure. As with everything else in life, this book is imperfect and I don’t agree with every word Veatch writes, but he has continued to confirm and clarify my conviction that any ethical justification of liberty must be of a distinctly Aristotelian sort.

Veatch’s argument is subtle but not terribly complicated. Veatch categorizes most attempts to justify ethics into two categories: teleological or deontological. And both of these fail. Teleological ethics pursue a goal, some desired end. The structure of such ethics makes perfect sense. There is a goal, whether the greatest good for the greatest number in the case of a utilitarian scheme or one’s own satisfaction in the case of an egoist scheme, and good actions simply pursue these goals. Veatch argues, and rightly so, that such ethics have no basis in reality. There is no reason to decide what ends to pursue. The ends pursued by such teleological systems aren’t pursued because they are really good in themselves, but because they are desired, and this cannot be the foundation of any real ethics rooted in reality. Deontological ethics, on the other hand, firmly reject desires and say that we simply ought to do what we ought. We have duties, regardless of our desires. But deontological systems, so bent on the importance of duties, never seem to give a workable account of why such duties exist or are binding. Deontological systems refuse to ground duties in some pursued ends, but as a result fail to ground to duties altogether.

Veatch goes on to suggest that a natural law ethic of an Aristotelian sort escapes the problems of the other ethical strategies he criticizes. Such an ethics is teleological in form, that is, it has an end the pursuit of which is virtue, but, unlike most contemporary teleologies, the end is grounded in more than mere desire. The end pursued by such an ethics is the flourishing of a human being according to its essential nature. A good human does well the things human beings by their nature do.

Furthermore, such a task, of acting to fulfill one’s natural function, is what Veatch repeatedly describes as a “do-it-yourself job.” No one can make anyone else fulfill his own duty to act according to the essential rational nature of human beings. From this fact, that virtue is a do-it-yourself job, it follows that one ought not to act in such a way as to interfere with another’s duty to actualize his own potential to fulfill his human function. And this is the basis of the only rights we have, rights against interference. Such negative rights are the facts of the book’s title, while other rights, so-called positive rights, are the fancy of the book’s title.

I will make it no secret that I think that Veatch is simply right. The correspondence of Veatch’s claims to reality, however, is only one of many things I appreciate about Veatch’s writing. Perhaps most of all, I enjoy Veatch’s constant attention to potential counter-arguments. His habit is as follows: Make an argument at length. Constantly subtly highlight a particular claim in that argument. Conclude argument. Point out that the highlighted claim, essential to the previous point, is in some way questionable or still needs support. Support said claim. Rinse and repeat. Several times while I went on for several pages, angry that Veatch’s arguments were built on an unsupported premise only to find that the next section addressed precisely my concerns about unsupported claim. He is quite aware of the problems and tensions in claims he makes and does his best to deal with them. And such self-awareness is perhaps the greatest virtue of good philosophical writing, and one of the primary reasons I strongly recommend reading this book.


  1. I've never read Veatch, but agree entirely with his assertion that the only real rights are negative. So called positive rights are in actuality privileges. Privileges granted voluntarily by the owner of the right associated with that privilege are legitimate, while privileges granted by a third party,(such as the state), by violating another's negative rights, are illegitimate. A perfect example is, "You have the right to an attorney..." That is absolutely true, however having the state steal, (tax), the funds for the provision of that attorney from others is illegitimate privilege.

    Here's a piece I wrote on my blog concerning rights:

    Peace, liberty, justice and prosperity,

  2. Thanks for your comment! I agree, it's sad that the concepts of positive rights is so ingrained in our political culture. I'm afraid many people simply fail to consider distinctions like those between positive and negative rights, or, as you put it, rights and privileges. Such distinctions are much needed in a society where claims to positive rights are becoming more and more prevalent every day.