Top to Bottom Notes for April 12

Our discussion today was largely methodological. How do we settle whether rights must incorporate “waivability”? Should we begin from abstract premises about what rights are? Or should we start from the way the word “right” is used in our time, drawing on documents such as the UDHR for evidence?

I think that the strongest case for thinking that rights must be waivable is made by going from the top down, that is, by starting with very abstract points about rights.

The strongest case against thinking this goes from the bottom up. Is torture simply wrong? Most of us think so and so we are led to think that the right against torture need not be waivable. That isn’t the point of having such a right.

Ah, but I find both the top down and bottom up methods appealing. I start with the relevant beliefs in both cases. There’s the rub.

I doubt that there is a way of settling this problem in a general way. We do have to be sensitive to both ways of doing moral philosophy, however. We could insist on an abstract set of plausible sounding moral principles and, from there, go on to show that most things that people believe about morality are false. But it won’t follow that we’re right. All that follows is that most things that people believe don’t follow from the abstract principles.

The error might be ours. Maybe we started in the wrong place. At least, it would be presumptuous to insist that others accept our conclusions.

Thanks for pressing me so hard.

Oh yes, the article I referred to is: Judith Jarvis Thomson,”A Defense of Abortion.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1 (1971): 47-66. It’s available through JSTOR, or on paper at a fine library near you.

This page was written by Michael Green for Topics in Social and Political Philosophy: Human Rights, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2007.
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