Mises Wire

Home | Blog | Empathy and the Source of Rights

Empathy and the Source of Rights

September 6, 2006

I often tire of people asking (usually in a self-contradictory, petulant tone, more demanding than asking), "Okay, so what is the source of rights?! Where do they 'come from'?!" My reply is usually that the questioner either respects my rights, or he does not. If he does not, he can go to h*ll—I'm not wasting time talking to an uncivilized thug, any more than I would treat with a rampaging elephant, bandit, lion, or hurricane. And if he does respect rights—then my stance is: how dare you demand of me that I justify your own views? Look inside—and figure out for yourself why you believe in such and such.

Second, I point out that to ask for a "source" of rights is scientistic and positivistic. It presupposes someone or some "thing" "legislates" or "decrees" rights. Even the natural law advocate who says legislatures don't "decree rights" seem to move it back a level—to God, or to Nature. But rights don't really "come from" anything. When it is demonstrated that 2+2=4, this is a truth, a fact. Does it make sense to ask what is the "source" of this "truth"? Where does 2+2=4 "come from"? This is just nonsense. And it is similar with normative propositions—with moral truths.Values and norms is that they are not causal laws. They are not self-enforcing; they are prescriptive. This is a crucial insight: it shows that even the best proof of rights—even the Ultimate Natural Law Proof handed down by God Himself can be disregarded (is not this the lesson of the Ten Commandments?). Or, as Hoppe argues here,

no deviation from a private property ethic can be justified argumentatively ... [T]hat Rawls or other socialists may still advocate such ethics is completely beside the point. That one plus one equals two does not rule out the possibility that someone says it is three, or that one ought not attempt to make one plus one equal three the arithmetic law of the land. But all this does not affect the fact that one plus one still is two. In strict analogy to this, I "only" claim to prove that whatever Rawls or other socialists say is false, and can be understood as such by all intellectually competent and honest men. It does not change the fact that incompetence or dishonesty and evil still may exist and may even prevail over truth and justice. [last emphasis added]

Or, as Hoppe explains here,

To say that this principle [underlying capitalism] is just also does not preclude the possibility of people proposing or even enforcing rules that are incompatible with it. As a matter of fact, with respect to norms the situation is very similar to that in other disciplines of scientific inquiry. The fact, for instance, that certain empirical statements are justified or justifiable and others are not does not imply that everyone only defends objective, valid statements. Rather, people can be wrong, even intentionally. But the distinction between objective and subjective, between true and false, does not lose any of its significance because of this. Rather, people who are wrong would have to be classified as either uninformed or intentionally lying. The case is similar with respect to norms. Of course there are many people who do not propagate or enforce norms which can be classified as valid according to the meaning of justification which I have given above. But the distinction between justifiable and nonjustifiable norms does not dissolve because of this, just as that between objective and subjective statements does not crumble because of the existence of uninformed or lying people. Rather, and accordingly, those people who would propagate and enforce such different, invalid norms would again have to be classified as uninformed or dishonest, insofar as one had explained to them and indeed made it clear that their alternative norm proposals or enforcements could not and never would be justifiable in argumentation. [emphasis added]

What this means is that any norms that are abided by in society are necessarily norms that are self-undertaken by a community of people who share that value.

In the case of civilization, you can envision two types of individuals: civilized people who want to live in peace and harmony and prosperity; and criminals or outlaws, who do not care about this. This latter type are animal-like; even the "best" argument or proof of rights can and will be disregarded by them (see Hoppe's comments quoted above). What do the former people have in common? I suspect that it is the trait of empathy. Only by placing some value on others' well-being—for some reason—can one value respecting their rights; and it seems to me that it is empathy that is at the root of this other-valuing, almost by definition. In my view, evolution is probably what led to this trait, as a psychological matter, but that is not that significant to me. So, in a sense, if we must find a "source" of rights, I would say—it is empathy.

Update: Discussion extended in The Division of Labor as the Source of Rights; see also Mike Masnick, Rethinking Bullying: Kids Don't See It As Bullying (discussing empathy).

Follow Mises Institute

Add Comment