I think about George Carlin a lot. He was one of the first comedians I really started listening to when I was about eight… which is probably too young. But I think his cultural impact goes far beyond being a stand-up comedian. I really think he was a modern-day philosopher, especially as he got older and the subject matter of his comedy became more existential. I don’t know if he believed all of the ideas that he presented on stage, but he at least had the intellectual capacity to consider and explain them – convincingly.
I am constantly reminded of Carlin’s unforgiving genius when I listen to Louis C.K. (This video of C.K. speaking on Carlin following his death is stirring, particularly if you know how crass and uncaring C.K.’s on-stage persona can be.) I think Louis C.K. is for the 2000’s-plus what Carlin was for the entirety of his career.
“There’s No Such Thing as Rights”
One part of Carlin’s stand-up has stuck out to me over the years. So, no, I am not technically using literature for my inspiration, but Carlin certainly wrote his ideas before performing them, so I’m counting it.
Carlin begins this segment by stating that there is no such thing as rights and goes on to explain that rights cannot be god-given because “different people in different countries [have] different numbers of different rights.” Postulating that rights must be an entirely human construct for governments (or society in general) to control their populations, Carlin gives the example of Japanese internment camps in the 1940’s to conclude that rights are not rights if they can be taken away by a higher authority, particularly the government.
His ultimate point is that Government is only interested in maintaining its own power over people, regardless of the legal rights set within that governmental structure. All logical, but let’s leave behind the anti-government talk for now.
Do absolute rights exist?
Can rights exist outside the bounds of a human construct, such as government? As in, are there certain rights that are inherent or innate in being human? Carlin continues at the very end of that video down this vein, and we’ll come to that in a second. I want to lay down where I’m coming from logically from this point forward.
I agree with Carlin that rights cannot exist if they can be taken away by another authority. For rights to truly exist in any form, such as an absolute or universal truth, every human must have the same rights, regardless of what any government says. Carlin’s initial idea that maybe we have privileges (which he then refutes), can be cast aside by arguing that privilege is the product of advantage over someone else. If someone has an advantage of any form, then that is not a right, because that advantage cannot be held by every human being. If it were, it wouldn’t be an advantage.
The existence of any universal right implies that there is at least one universal truth about being human. The obvious starting point is death. All humans die, and because all humans die, we are granted the right to live by virtue of our births. You live, therefore you can live. (Who grants us this right – God, Gaia, Nothing – is inconsequential in this context.)
Thus, humans also have the right to give birth to other humans – or to choose not to, since giving birth is not mandatory to be considered a “full” human. We then need food, water, and shelter of some form in order to live – a condition of our existence. (I’m just lumping clothing into shelter – it’s basically just protection from the environment.)
If every human has the right to life, birth, food, water, and shelter, then no human can deny those rights to any other; they are absolute. This line of thought can easily devolve into much more complex ideas of slavery and oppression, but it can safely be assumed that if you are enslaving or oppressing someone, you are denying them at least one of those absolute rights in some form.
Ethical grey matter
From this point forward, the means by which we attain and/or use those rights gets blurry. For instance, if someone is trying to deny you your right to life – they’re trying to kill you – do you have the right to deny them theirs as a form of self-defense? Most people would generally agree that you do, but that is also at least partially a cultural construct.
However, if you have the absolute right to your own life, then your assailant equally has the right to theirs. Therefore, you cannot deny them their life. You can prevent them from denying yours – fighting back physically, etc. – but you do not have the right to take their life, or deprive them of any of the other absolute rights we’ve established. This line of thought can easily be extended to war.
Now, I want to be clear that we are looking at rights essentially in a vacuum, but I think that’s necessary because various cultures view these same values differently. They’re not necessarily right or wrong, but we’re talking about absolutes here, so they apply to every human being.
Again, some of this strays into a grey area from this point forward. Carlin ends by offering that there are really only two options: either we have no rights at all, or we have unlimited rights. We’ve already established that there are some absolute rights, based on the fact of our existence. Leaning towards unlimited rights, Carlin offers that unlimited rights would include killing someone else for essentially any reason.
I think this is a faulty way of viewing humanity, because living essentially without any ethical boundaries at all is impossible for us. Humans will always feel the need to come together and form some sort of societal structure. It’s in our DNA; we evolved to form social communities, and those communities are always developed with boundaries. Without them, we likely would have gone extinct tens of thousands of years ago.
Even if our legal systems and social norms are essentially constructs we build around ourselves (and I think they are), I also think that we simply cannot exist without some form of absolute rights, based on equally absolute truths of existence. And there must be some absolute truths in the universe, because saying that there are none is itself an absolute truth. Human existence does not easily abide paradoxes.