Reason as the Leading Motive

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.


9 Responses to “The Incoherence of Rationalistic Rights”

  1. John Morales said


    I’ve popped over from your link in the comment you left on The Thinker’s Podium.

    I’ve read this and a number of your posts to get a feel, and I’m not convinced you understand the philosophy you’re espousing.

    For instance, you wrote (in bold) “Objectivism does not deduce from a set of first principles”, yet following the link you provided in “Learn about Objectivism” I find this:
    The base of Objectivism is explicit: “Existence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists.”

    Can you clarify how these axioms and assumption are not first principles?

  2. Ergo said

    “I’ve read this and a number of your posts to get a feel, and I’m not convinced you understand the philosophy you’re espousing.”

    Before making such a charge, did you bother to investigate the very substance of your objection? I get the sense that your grasp of philosophical schools of thought is not substantive.

    Deduction from first principles is the hallmark of the Rationalist school of thought. They have minor quibbles over what warrants the first principles, e.g., intuition, apriorism, infallible rationalism, etc.

    “Intuition and deduction thus provide us with knowledge a priori, which is to say knowledge gained independently of sense experience.”

    “Some rationalists take mathematics to be knowable by intuition and deduction. Some place ethical truths in this category. Some include metaphysical claims, such as that God exists, we have free will, and our mind and body are distinct substances. The more propositions rationalists include within the range of intuition and deduction, and the more controversial the truth of those propositions, the more radical their rationalism.”

    “Like the Intuition/Deduction thesis, the Innate Knowledge thesis asserts the existence of knowledge gained a priori, independently of experience. The difference between them rests in the accompanying understanding of how this a priori knowledge is gained. The Intuition/Deduction thesis cites intuition and subsequent deductive reasoning. The Innate Knowledge thesis offers our rational nature. Our innate knowledge is not learned through either sense experience or intuition and deduction. It is just part of our nature.”

    — Stanford Encyclopedia.

    Now, contrast the above approaches to that of Objectivism:

    “If existence is independent of consciousness, then knowledge of existence can be gained only by extrospection. In other words, nothing is relevant to cognition of the world except data drawn from the world, i.e., sense data or conceptual integrations of such data. There can be no appeal to the knower’s feelings [intuition] as an avenue to the truth; there can be no reliance on *any* [emphasis in the original] mental contents alleged to have a source or validity independent of sense perception.” — Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

    When Objectivism speaks of axioms as the base of its philosophy, it is referring to the heirarchical base of *knowledge*, since Objectivism is a set of principles that constitute our knowledge of the world. This knowledge is not exclusively *deduced* but *integrated* after a process of extrospection (e.g., observation) and introspection (e.g., logical reasoning).

    However, the axioms are neither deduced nor induced but *validated* by our senses and our reason, since the primacy of existence principle identifies a fundamental relationship between our cognitive faculty and existence.

    Now, John, said that you “read a number” of my posts to reach your conclusion that I didn’t seem to understand Objectivism. I’d like you to substantiate your serious charge by explicitly identifying the other posts that you read and the reasons for your impression from reading those posts.

  3. John Morales said


    First, I do appreciate the time you’ve taken to post that lengthy response. Unfortunately, as a clarification, it fails dismally. Or, in other words, it is a nice answer but not to what was asked.

    Let me try again.

    If you say “Objectivism does not deduce from a set of first principles”, and also have a link where it says Objectivism has
    a basis, then either you are being contradictory or “a basis” is not the same as “first principles”. More specifically, you are implying that axioms are not to be considered first principles.

    Am I incorrect? If so, how?

    PS Should I be flattered that you believe my opinion regarding your grasp of Objectivism may be less than you apparently believe is a “serious charge”?

  4. Ergo said

    If that’s all it takes for you to be flattered, go right ahead and be flattered. Now, get to the point. Substantiate your claim. Also, post your claims under the appropriate comment thread of the specific posts you claimed to have read in forming your judgment, not here.

  5. John Morales said


    I shouldn’t, but will comment on this paragraph, because it exemplifies that to which I refer:
    However, the axioms are neither deduced nor induced but *validated* by our senses and our reason, since the primacy of existence principle identifies a fundamental relationship between our cognitive faculty and existence.

    1. Perhaps our definitions of what an axiom is differ.
    2. Are you sure those axioms are validated? I think it would be more correct to say “not invalidated”.
    2a. YOu grasp the difference there, I hope.
    3. I take it that “primacy of existence principle” is not a first principle, since you’re earlier said “Objectivism does not deduce from a set of first principles”.
    3a. Since you claim it’s not, then from what is it derived?

  6. Ergo said


    When I refer to “first principle” and deduction therefrom, I am specifically referring to the rationalistic method. I already explained what “first principles” denotes according to rationalism. For Objectivism, the axioms are bases of all knowledge, but it is not derived from intuition, apriorism, or asserted on the basis of infallible rationality. These are the methods of rationalism. For Objectivism, the axioms are *validated* (not “not invalidated”) by the senses and reason, i.e., by human awareness of reality; however, the axioms are nonetheless implicit in everything–every aspect of human awareness and cognition, from ontology, metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and so on, whether you choose to recognize and acknowledge this or not. It is in *this* sense that the axioms are the base of all human knowledge–and constitutively, of Objectivism.
    Moreover, after the axioms are validated, it would still be wrong to claim that Objectivism then “deduces” its entire system from these axioms; that is simply not the case. You will realize this if you study the philosophy in detail.

  7. Vee Enn said

    I think all sentient beings have the right not to be hurt. All rational beings have a moral duty to refrain from causing avoidable hurt. In other words: moral beings have duties as well as rights; all other sentient beings have no moral obligations.

  8. evanescent said

    Hi Vee Enn, I’m not sure there is a right not to be hurt. Suffering is not the standard to judge morality. Life is not a free ride, it sometimes entails some pain and struggling to obtain our goals.

    I disagree that moral beings have duties. The proper grasp of morality eliminates any duty ethics. Morality is a code of values to guide our actions; it is not a duty that dictates us to perform in a certain way, whether for or against our will. By definition, any action committed against our will cannot be moral.

    The only “duty” imposed on rational beings is a negative responsibility, that is: do not violate the rights of other beings. But our standard for right and wrong is not suffering or harm, it is rational values.

  9. Ergo said

    Vee Enn,

    You said: “I think all sentient beings have the right not to be hurt.”

    Humans are sentient beings; and I have just been hurt–psychologically traumatized–by your comment. If I have the right to not be hurt, then you must be a criminal for having violated my said right. Therefore, I would be most compensated if you apologized or spent time in prison for violating my right.

    As a rational being, you have a moral duty to not cause avoidable hurt to bloggers like myself. Failing your duty makes you a criminal.

    If hurt is the standard by which the legality of actions are adjudicated, then I doubt that any of us are *not* criminals. Also, free speech goes down the drain then, cuz calling the prophet Mohammed a savage, brute animal surely would hurt–deeply afflict–the sentiments of Islamics.

    Contradictions do not exist. Where there are rights, there can be no duties. If I have the right to offend muslims, I have absolutely no duty to *not* offend them and their prophet.

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