Human Rights, Virtue, Stoicism: An Exchange

by Dr. Jan Garrett

This page last revised on November 1, 2001

On Tue, 30 Oct 2001 06:16:01 -0800 (PST) B. (a member of the International [Stoic] Forum) . . . writes:

My objection to the ideology of human rights is actually not based upon the notion that there is no objective morality but rather that these are properly seen as obligations or duties. It seems to me that the notion of human rights has given an entirely different, and much inferior, tone to post-Enlightenment society (i.e. modernity) than the notion that we must strive for moral excellence, this latter idea being found, not only Stoics like Epictetus, but in Confucious, Maimonides,and others. I find the classical ideas more convincing and more noble.

My response:

The classical Stoics had a notion of duties, or appropriate actions, as the term "kathekonta" is sometimes translated. These duties were obligations that the person making progress would respect, long before he reached virtue, even though at best the "kathekonta" are preferred or advantageous things and not true goods. Learning one's "kathekonta" is a preliminary step toward learning what virtue is. As the Stoic speaker "Cato" says in Cicero's On Ends, the process of moral development is somewhat like what happens when one person with whom you are already a friend introduces you to a second person, and you come to value the second person more than the first. Implicit here is that if had you not been introduced to the first you would have never met the second. Why cannot a notion of human rights, and the prima facie (other things equal or for-the-most-part) duties associated with them serve that role in the approach to virtue?
-- On Wed, 31 Oct 2001 06:01:53 -0800 (PST) B . . . rejoins:
It seems to me that the notion of human rights has not, in fact, proven to be an effective pedagogy in virtue, whatever its theoretical possibilities (and I a far from conceding any, actually). Societies that (and I am not idealizing them) more consciously, consistently, and effectively emphasize the importance of the attainment of moral excellence (e.g. orthodox Judaism) are not rights-based at all, so far as I am aware. I think that the debasement of the contemporary West is, to a good extent, due to its focus on rights, which often makes any discussion of virtue suspect because of its supposed threat to "freedom." As I said before, the tone is all wrong: my rights as opposed to my cultivation of virtue that is a pattern of exellence for homo sapiens, not simply my idiosyncratic choices.

My response:

I suspect you understand rights [narrowly] as what are technically called non-interference or negative rights (e.g., rights not to be killed or assualted, rights not to be enslaved, rights not to have one's legitiimately acquired property taken without consent, etc.). Now, technically, one could construct a notion of virtue as a disposition to respect other persons' "private space" and thus you would have a notion of virtue entirely corresponding to negative rights.

I myself would find this a pretty lame conception of virtue, as I find the ethics of [rights limited to] negative rights to be woefully inadequate. Nonetheless, there are other, richer conceptions of rights, such that our duties to respect and promote those rights bring us much closer to what the ancients would have called the complete and harmonious system of appropriate actions, consistent respect for which constituted Stoic virtue. I have in mind a notion of "substantial freedom rights," which you could also call "real opportunity" or "capability" or even "empowerment" rights.

The notion of substantial freedom or capability comes from Amartya Sen (in his book Development as Freedom) and the notion of substantial freedom rights is my interpretation of Martha C. Nussbaum's idea (from her book Women and Human Development: A Capabilities Approach) that there should be a threshold in substantial freedom (real opportunities) below which, so far as possible, no human being should fall. (See Substantial Freedom Ethics.)

One problems of rights talk in our time is that the rights about which many talk are defined in such a way that only weak duties, non-interference duties, are entailed by them. From such weak duties it is probably impossible to generate any very demanding or "noble" order or consistency of appropriate actions.

A second problem with rights talk is that defenders of the purely negative rights approach to ethics (normally called libertarianism or sometimes neoliberalism) often rhetorically assault any more demanding conception of rights as "rights to a handout"--which is linked to the (often racist and sexist) image of the "welfare mother" taking from the state (and the labor of others) and not contributing anything in return, in general, not taking responsibility for herself (the libertarian substitute for sin). This rhetorical strategy, on the one hand, gives non-negative rights a bad name, and on the other hand, it reinforces the position of libertarianism (or neoliberalism) as the only rights-based show in town.

But substantial freedom rights, or capability thresholds, if you like, would cut across such simplistic dichotomies. They insist that we are our brothers' and sisters' keeper in some respects; we are not required to *make them happy* (which would be impossible anyway, for reasons that any good Stoic could explain), but as citizens we are morally required, to the extent possible consistent with material, social and political assets, to see to it that they have certain real opportunities (e.g., access to education, health care, etc.). It is still "up to them" what they make of these opportunities, but our duties amount to more than "just leaving them alone."

In other words, I do not think that we can fully solve the problem of what is missing in the dominant rights discourse today merely by reverting to ethical theories of the distant past. Surely the latter have much to teach us, but perhaps they lost their influence for good reason. Not of course meaning any disrespect for the old Stoics, whose relevance I have spent and expect to spend much effort defending. My point in that provocative phrase is simply that one reason that Stoicism has not been able to regain the intellectual position it once held among literate and reasonable people may be this: the complexities of life in a more truly cosmopolitan and much more rapidly changing world demand intellectual tools for reasoning, say, about distributive justice that were not needed, or were much less pressing, in the world before 300 C.E. In addition to, not as a substitute for, the insights of the old Stoics regarding moral development, the passions, the classification of values, etc.