Tony Donadio on the Violation of Rights

 Posted by on 19 November 2006 at 9:50 am  Uncategorized
Nov 192006

In response to some of the discussion about rights on this comment thread, Tony Donadio posted the following mini-essay in the comments. I agree with Tony’s view. Since I appreciated his manner of approaching the issue, I thought his comment worth reposting on NoodleFood itself. Here it is, with some HTML-ish formatting changes:

Fred Weiss recently wrote the following:
Tony said: “if someone mistakenly thinks you’re about to kill his wife, and shoots you to prevent it, he is NOT wrong, and has NOT violated your rights, if the circumstances are such that his mistaken belief is objective and rationally justified.”

Brian’s reply to this was correct. It is a violation of rights, but the motivation and intention based on the error can constitute mitigation… In any event, whatever led to your action, you have violated the victim’s rights. Your context of knowledge or motivation doesn’t change that fact.

I briefly stated that I think this analysis implicitly rests on a mistaken understanding of the nature and justification of rights, and one that is inconsistent with the Objectivist view. I’ll defend that position in the following post. (Warning in advance: to treat this issue properly, this post will have to be long.)

Let me preface my remarks by saying that of course I do not intend that statement as an attack on or a disparagement of anyone — neither Fred, nor anyone else who may agree with him. I would have thought that would go without saying, but if it doesn’t, then by all means let me say it. I certainly wouldn’t take it as a disparaging reflection on myself if someone turns out to be able to argue that it is my understanding of this issue is in error. That is entirely possible, and it wouldn’t exactly be the first time that it has happened. :)

Let me start by positing two nearly identical scenarios. You are armed, and you witness a man you do not know behaving erratically, brandishing a toy gun, and shouting about how he is about to kill your spouse — who is well within firing range, and with no cover. You have your weapon aimed at him, when he begins to raise his gun toward your spouse’s head. You fire, and kill him.

The two scenarios are identical, except for the following, single difference:

Scenario 1. You know that the man’s gun is a toy.
Scenario 2. You do NOT know that the man’s gun is a toy.

I would argue that in Scenario 1, you have at the very least committed manslaughter, if not murder — since there was in fact no real threat to your spouse’s life, and you knew it. In that case, I would agree that you have violated the man’s right to life. In the second scenario, by contrast, you were acting entirely and legitimately in self-defense. You were entirely justified in believing that your spouse’s life was in danger. In an emergency situation, if the police are not present, you have a right to act in self-defense, and there is no legitimate argument to be made that you ought not to have shot him. Had the gun in fact been real and loaded, no rational jury in the world could (or should) convict you.

Fred states explicitly that: “…whatever led to your action, you have violated the victim’s rights. Your context of knowledge or motivation doesn’t change that fact.” On that premise, I see only three possible positions to take with regard to these two examples — since the only difference between them lies in your context of knowledge.

1. In both scenarios, you have violated the victim’s rights, and are morally culpable in the victim’s death.
2. In both scenarios, you have not violated the victim’s rights — irrespective of your knowledge or lack thereof about the gun.
3. In both scenarios, you have violated the victim’s rights, but in scenario 2 that violation of rights is somehow “OK” or “justified” by the mitigating circumstances.

From my reading of your objection, Fred, I’m assuming that it is position 3 that you would defend. I state the others just for the record.

(To anticipate one objection relevant to argument 2: I do not think it is legitimate to posit that by his actions, the man has forfeited his right to life in both scenarios. The fact that you have the right to use force in self-defense, and in an emergency situation, does not entitle you to use force when you know that your self-defense does not require it, and when you know that you are not in an emergency situation. Doing so would make you an objective threat to the lives and safety of others, who would be justified in treating you accordingly.)

Why do I think that position 3 is wrong? This is where I think the Objectivist definition and defense of the nature of rights comes in. According to Objectivism, “A right is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.” There are two aspects of this definition that I want to focus on in making my point. The first is that a right is a moral principle. As such, like every other principle, it is contextual — that is, it has a context in which it applies, and there are also contexts in which it does not apply. The second is that it is a “sanction to independent action.” What this means is that a right is a moral claim upon the actions of others — specifically, a claim that they not interfere with your exercise of independent action. I think it follows from this that because rights are moral claims upon the actions of others, that a violation of someone’s rights is necessarily an immoral act.

Thus, it doesn’t make sense to me to talk of a rights violation that is nevertheless “OK” because of mitigating circumstances. If you violated someone’s rights, then the victim had a moral claim on you not to have acted as you did, and what you did was wrong; that’s what I understand a right to mean. But if what you did was “OK” because of mitigating circumstances, then he didn’t have a moral claim against your actions, under those circumstances. That’s why I think that position 3 entails a contradiction. It’s one thing to argue (as an earlier poster did, and I would agree) that mitigating circumstances mitigate the severity of the moral breach involved in a rights violation, and thus the appropriate punishment. It’s another to say that mitigating circumstances somehow make the rights violation “OK.” In order for that to be the case, you would have to have stepped outside the context in which the moral principle in question (the right) applies, and thus you would not be talking about a rights violation at all — in that context.

I think it is helpful in trying to identify whether something is or is not a rights violation to always ask the question: “What did the victim have a moral claim against the perpetrator not to have done?” — in other words, “What ought the perpetrator to have done differently?” When I apply that question to the second scenario above, I can’t see a legitimate answer. The man can’t have a moral claim on you to hold your fire, given that you have legitimate cause to believe that someone’s life was in immediate danger. To say that he does is to ask the impossible — namely, that you divine causelessly (by “noumenal insight,” so to speak) that the gun was fake. A rational and objective view of rights cannot be based on moral claims that demand the impossible.

I think that most of us (myself included) were probably raised (thanks to the influence of religion) with a view of rights that is colored by an intrinsicist perspective. Certainly I think that is the predominant mindset within which most people understand the meaning of rights. In that mindset, rights are a kind of “inalienable possession” that all of us “have” as part of our natures, and which others violate or “take away” from us by certain actions. This is a mindset that I’ve specifically had to work to overcome over the years, and one which I’ve found tended to lead me to certain errors in thinking about rights. One of these was to lose sight of the issue of rights as moral claims, and instead to focus on the loss of something that one is “entitled to by right” as the defining element of a rights violation.

I don’t want to ask anyone to wear this shoe if it doesn’t fit, but it seems to me that something like this is implicit in statements like “…whatever led to your action, you have violated the victim’s rights.” These place a focus entirely on the outcome, and the facts regarding what the victim has “lost,” rather than on what moral obligations the alleged perpetrator can reasonably be expected to have had under the circumstances. The facts of the outcome, and what the victim has “lost,” however, cannot be the sole and defining element of a rights violation. If they were, then a rock falling on you during an avalanche would be a “rights violation” as well — and never mind the fact that moral claims that recognize context of knowledge cannot reasonably be made of inanimate nature.

That’s an outline of my basis for thinking that context of knowledge has to be an important factor in defining when something is and is not a rights violation. I’m certainly interested in what others think, in particular about whether there may be any flaws in my reasoning. As Diana said, being wrong isn’t a moral failing, and I won’t object if anyone can make a case for why I am. :)

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