The Incoherence of Rationalistic Rights
Posted by Jerry on November 29, 2007
I’ve been thinking about Christine Korsgaard’s article in defense of animals rights (I have a printed copy, but the link is inactive). Korsgaard employs a radical reinterpretation of Kantian duty ethics to mount her case for animal rights. This is unique because Kant himself was explicitly against granting rights to non-rational beings, i.e., animals.
Korsgaard’s article is lengthy and technical, but her reversal of Kantian ethics in support of a position Kant himself was explicitly against is impressive. Briefly, Korsgaard argues that human rights are derived from our nature as living organisms who seek to pursue things that are good for ourselves; further, she argues that all living organisms that pursue the good for themselves are acting as ends-in-themselves. Humans are different in that not only do we pursue the good, but we pursue it out of choice and reflect upon our choices. We ascribe value to our pursuits of the good and protect it (legislate it) in the form of rights.
Korsgaard argues that this ability to legislate our pursuits and protect it is not a sufficient condition to retain rights exclusively for humans, because we do grant rights to those humans who cannot legislate and protect the good for themselves: for example, little infants and the severely disabled cannot demand or legislate their right to pursue the good, yet we extend the protection of pursuits (i.e., rights) to them. Likewise, women and slaves at one point were not allowed to legislate for themselves and demand protection for their pursuits–yet society extended certain protections (rights) to them.
Therefore, the criteria for having rights–Korsgaard argues–is not our ability to reflect upon our pursuits and protect them by legislation but our ability to pursue the good which is necessary for our survival as living beings. Korsgaard argues that this necessity is a common feature among all living things–whether or not they are consciously aware of their acts in pursuit of the good. She admits that such an argument may result in an absurd reductio whereby the rights of even microbial organisms and plants would need to be recognized. However, she does not consider this a weakness of her argument, rather a matter for us to grapple with, to reexamine the alleged foundations and nature of our concepts of rights.
In my post Veals Are Not Innocent, I responded to philosopher Joel Marks’ defense of animal rights, which is based on utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer’s argument of minimizing suffering in the world; particularly, eliminating the unnecessary suffering of sentient beings.
Korsgaard’s approach is unique because it makes no appeal to the philosophically murky notion of suffering as the standard of morality. However, the problem with her approach is its rationalism–dropping the context of reality.
The problem with rationalism–of the philosophic kind–is that it can be put to argue any position that is deductively derived and logically consistent: for rationalism, reality is hardly a contraint to an argument, only logic is. Afterall, it’s noteworthy that Kant believed his ethical system did not permit the extending of rights to non-rational beings, and yet, it is precisely the Kantian ethical system that is used by Korsgaard in her logical argument for animal rights arising from the nature of living entities as ends-in-themselves. What does this say about the Kantian ethical system or the rationalistic method it employs?
By situating itself solely in the abstract realm of logically deductive analysis, rationalism perpetuates the false dichotomy between deduction and induction, analysis and synthesis; the price it pays for appearing to have mathematical precision is the context of reality.
Objectivism is fundamentally a reality-oriented philosophy: From empiric observation, Objectivism extrapolates its general principles in conformance with the laws of logic. Note that Objectivism is not identical to Empiricism, just as it is not Rationalism. Objectivism does not deduce from a set of first principles nor does it generalize from any number of empiric instances. It does not look at how many times a certain event by an entity has occurred in nature to form a general principle of the event or the entity.
Objectivism integrates empiric observation with logical and deductive principles in non-contradictory fashion to examine the nature and quality of the event-causing entities. The validity of a principle is not in how often it appears in reality but in its fundamental nature and adherence to the laws of logic.
Thus, induction is not merely a matter of extrapolating a principle from a large number of unfalsified observed instances; it is a matter of discovering the nature of causality of the event by ascertaining the identity of the entity (i.e., applying the law of Identity and its corollary the Law of Causality to the context: An entity acts only according to its identity).
In the context of reality, granting rights to animals is an undeniably incoherent position if you discard rationalism: if rights are intended to protect one’s pursuit of necessary values for survival, how does one safeguard the rights of one animal from being violated by another animal? For example, whose rights should one enforce–that of the prey to its life or that of the predator to its food as a means of survival? Reality offers no room for contradictions; therefore, our epistemic policy should also be to permit no contradictions in our formation of concepts, principles, and knowledge.
Likewise, to highlight the weakness of empiricism, just because we observe that human pursuits of the good are routinely and rampantly violated or thwarted by governments, dictators, societies, and other individuals across the world, we cannot legitimately conclude that rights do not exist or that human rights inherently conflict with each other or that rights are artificial constructs relative to cultural norms.
Only Objectivism offers the most robust foundation and defense of human rights–not on rationalistic or empiric grounds–but on objectively valid and universalizable grounds. For Objectivism, rights do not exist in a vacuum; it is not intrinsic to living entities; it does not exist on a platonic realm; it does not apply to a lone man on a deserted island. Rights arise from a specific existential relationship between man–because of his identity–and other men in his surroundings. What this results in is a notion of rights that is coherent, logically consistent with other rational principles, valid in reality, and universally practicable without conflict.