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The rights debates raging on a number of recent comment threads have been pretty embarrassing for many of the people (gun advocates) taking part because they have simply not engaged with the conversation at the level it should have been. This is a philosophical blog, at heart, and the articles are mainly written to stimulate philosophical conversation, sometimes overtly and explicitly so. In the recent cases, this concerned the ontology of rights.

Mind Independence

Conceptual nominalism would say that rights, as abstract objects, only exist in the mind of the conceiver. If all sentient animals that conceived of rights were to die, then the concepts of rights would die with them.

This is defended by the following issues that arise when trying to claim that rights/abstract objects have ontic/min-independent existence, for example, in saying that rights exist innately in humans. If this were the case:

  • What would rights (/abstract objects) be made of?
  • Where would they be located? If they are innate in humans, where in the human body do they exist?
  • How would they causally interact with the physical world?
  • How do we know what those rights are? How do we know if our ideas of what our rights are map directly onto what those “real” rights are? (John Locke might call these nominal and real essences).

We know of things that really are innate. Take a predisposition or behaviour to do X. This would be coded into our genes (if shown to be genetically caused and not behaviourally learned based on interaction with the environment). X is innate insofar as society does not enforce X, somehow, on the agent and that the agent is born with it; it is not environmentally derived (assuming a simple understanding of genetics).

We can also see innate characteristics with blue eyes, dark skin or red hair, or any other genetically defined property.

But rights? Where and how are these encoded into a human? In what way could they be innate? Really, what does this mean?

We, as a society, ascribe rights to humans. This is why those rights differ across time, across societies and people. We used to think keeping slaves was a right. Many now see same-sex marriage/relationships/parenting as rights. But, ironically, many who argue for gun rights argue that these other rights are not, indeed rights.

One criticism of natural rights (and there are many I am not detailing here, see many of the linked articles below) is, as mentioned, knowing that we have a correct idea of what these supposedly innate things are. This is similar to issues with divine command theory as pointed out in the previous piece. There is an epistemological problem as much as an ontological one.


I could, for example, claim that eating ice cream on a Tuesday is a right. An innate right. I could claim anything is. How would we know? What I think has happened, over time, is that thinkers have tried to think of catch-all rights that cover all the bases rather than individualised rights. Of course, these bases are merely benchmarks of moral philosophy, and I would argue that rights supervene on pretty standard moral philosophising rather than have a fundamental and properly basic existence.

It appears that John Locke did this catch-all approach in claiming that there are three basic rights: rights of life, liberty and property, all somehow innate in humans. As great as many libertarians and American Constitutionalists think he was, he was a little contradictory, supporting the Bank of England, setting up military conscription in Carolina (this is a balanced piece on his involvement there), becoming the Commissioner on the Board of Trade (imposing tariffs and restrictions) and so on. (See here and here for property issues). I would certainly take issue with some of his claims:

We should not obey a king just out of fear, because, being more powerful he can constrain (this in fact would be to establish firmly the authority of tyrants, robbers, and pirates), but for conscience’ sake, because a king has command over us by right; that is to say, because the law of nature decrees that princes and a lawmaker, or a superior by whatever name you call him, should be obeyed. (Locke, 1663–64, Essays on the Law of Nature, in Goldie (ed.) 1997, 120)

Locke believed that having no property meant no injustice, and government was necessarily an infringement on liberty. True liberty is doing what one pleases. He saw moral laws as certain and discoverable as Euclidean geometry…

The problem for Locke is that he didn’t appear to do any ontological philosophy to support his claims of rights; he just asserted this, and this is then asserted by guns rights advocates in an attempt to sound lofty and thinking they are then rationalising their position. This is a really important point to emphasise. Thus all the issues with natural rights remain. This paper (“A paradox in Locke’s Theory of Natural Rights“) really sums up my thoughts on Locke and those (for example, in these threads) who quote and idolise his claims on natural rights:

There are certain recurring objections to Locke’s theory of legitimate government and the conception of natural rights on which it is based. These objections generally take the form of showing that most of Locke’s claims in the Second Treatise stand largely as ad hoc assertions, defended—if at all—not by philosophical argumentation but by appeals to theology or intuition. These criticisms might be called external criticisms of Locke’s theory because they focus, not upon the coherence of the theory or the perplexities which prompted Locke to adopt it, but rather upon the justifications (or lack of them) for that theory. [my emphasis]

Quite. He really doesn’t justify his claims, as far as I can see, on natural rights by dealing with ontological issues.

Let’s look at these rights, and forget the massive ontological issues that obtain in terms of what they are made of. You could say that eating an ice cream on a Tuesday is indeed a right because it falls under the rather nebulous right of freedom.

Indeed, most things do.

Aha. But what if your right to do something impinges on someone else’s right to their freedom, or indeed life? And this is where we get into a whole minefield of rights that is simply unsolvable. I might demand something that means someone is confined to a sweatshop; or it could be that I demand something that contributes to climate change and infringes on everyone’s right to life (okay, so must gun advocates probably deny climate change, but you get the point). Rights of property: what happens when people amass so much propertynto the detriment of others, affecting their rights?

…the top wealthiest 1% possess 40% of the nation’s wealth; the bottom 80% own 7%; similarly, but later, the media reported, the “richest 1 percent in the United States now own more additional income than the bottom 90 percent”.[8] The gap between the top 10% and the middle class is over 1,000%; that increases another 1,000% for the top 1%. The average employee “needs to work more than a month to earn what the CEO earns in one hour.”[9] :[source]

How does this affect rights? Especially when we know that money begets privilege and gives untold opportunity advantage to those who have it.

Locke was actually pretty progressive, which is amusing since many modern Americans who idolise his natural rights position are clearly not:

The Civil Rights movement and the suffrage movement both called out the state of American democracy during their challenges to the governments view on equality. To them it was clear that when the designers of democracy said all, they meant all people shall receive those natural rights that John Locke cherished so deeply. “a state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another” (Locke II,4).[43] Locke in his papers on natural philosophy clearly states that he wants a government where all are treated equal in freedoms especially. “Locke’s views on toleration were very progressive for the time” (Connolly).[44]Authors such as Jacob Connolly confirm that to them Locke was highly ahead of his time with all this progressive thinking. That is that his thought fits our current state of democracy where we strive to make sure that everyone has a say in the government and everyone has a chance at a good life. Regardless of race, gender, or social standing starting with Locke it was made clear not only that the government should provide rights, but rights to everyone through his social contract. [source]

These triple rights are also seriously challenged by the idea that libertarian free will does not exist – either philosophically and logically or empirically, as according to the overwhelming majority of philosophers (86% – metadata shows that those who don’t are invariably Christian thinkers who require it for their understanding of a judgemental god, heaven and hell, but they have yet to give a cogent account of how contra-causal free will can possibly work).

A right to bear arms is a freedom, but the probability of this leading to the infringement of someone else’s rights is what is the battleground here.

So even if we can establish another realm of reality where abstract objects can exist independent of the mind, we still have an absolute quagmire to negotiate. Of course, under conceptual nominalism, all of these issues simply evaporate; they are not a problem, because rights are conceptual, and so only exist in our thought, and don’t have real boundaries When they conflict, it is only because we have invented these fuzzy ideals that come with all of the issues that invented things do.

But realists have to solve these problems.

The funny thing is, they appear not to be bothered.


Take the right to freedom. Libertarians (and I mean true libertarians) get this absolutely right (if you believe in these Lockean rights). The right to movement is about the most basic right of freedom – to move, with your body, from one location to another. Thing is, we’ve invented borders and nationhood – abstract ideas that we have codified into laws and maps. We’ve made them up and we don’t like people from that made-up country coming to this made-up country. In short, people don’t like immigration. Libertarians, taking into account Ayn Rand as a Russian illegal immigrant herself, actually defend migration and free movement of people amongst a whole suite of other things, and presumably based largely in the thinking of Locke:

1.5 Abortion

Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.

3.4 Free Trade and Migration

We support the removal of governmental impediments to free trade. Political freedom and escape from tyranny demand that individuals not be unreasonably constrained by government in the crossing of political boundaries. Economic freedom demands the unrestricted movement of human as well as financial capital across national borders. [my emphasis]

In other words, every gun rights activist should be a free movement of people advocate. They should be welcoming people across the Mexican border in the US and should be decrying Trump, his rhetoric and his wall.

In reality, of course, they don’t (in the vast majority of cases), post hoc rationalising and cherry-picking their freedoms to suit their own little bubble.

They like the idea of a right to bear arms, but they seem to want to have a right to stop other people moving, infringe the rights a woman has over her own body (whilst not caring about the rights of the born baby they fight so hard to get born, after it is born), deny the right to life of countless others through a clean environment (air, water, climate change), so on and so forth. The morass of contradictions and conflicting ideals is almost funny had it not so many nefarious implications. How do we know how to solve these problems? In what way can we tell that one right trumps another with any sort of epistemic certainty?

Easy. Because, you know, guns and abortion. These trump everything. This is identity politics at its best, with all the virtue signalling we have seen on the latest threads. Irony is delicious (though sometimes differentiating between irony and flat out hypocrisy is tough).

If people vomit their comments all over this thread without dealing with the ontology of rights, then they are doing their position a disservice. They are building their entire edifice of politics and thought upon air, on empty or hollow foundations.

Locke appeared to do the same, and repeating his mantra as a justification of their position, or bringing up human-conceived documents (Bill of Rights, the Consitution etc.) is no justification. You cannot bring up the conclusion of a strain of thought as justification for the conclusion of a strain of thought.

Please do not hijack this thread to try and scattergun your thoughts about gun ownership; I couldn’t care less here and now. This is a philosophical post about rights, their ontology and the contradictions inherent. This is my blog, my article, and my thread. Don’t opportunistically herd here like a pack of rabid dogs trying to upvote each other in competing as to who can comment the most, shout the loudest and champion gun rights to those gun control nazis and libtards that we supposedly are. I would hope we’re usually a bit more mature here in hoping for some more nuanced conversation.



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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...