I’m a big fan of the late great George Carlin, too, although you definitely got into his stand up way earlier in life than I did. I would estimate that I didn’t know who he was until high school, perhaps only really watching and enjoying his act somewhere in my earlier twenties. I’ll freely admit it: he stands tall amongst my heroes, joined by fellow charismatic storytellers like Kurt Vonnegut and Joss Whedon, so I’m a little butthurt at your deconstructing his wisdom.
Now this is a follow up to the post you made for December’s theme, butttttt I want everyone to know that this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r-e2NDSTuE is the George Carlin skit that always stuck with me.
Jumping right in, I think we need an operational definition of what rights are. Usually this is our sticking point in arguments: we fixate on semantics and miss how much we actually agree upon. Even knowing this, we still fight. A lot. Ok, so to my way of thinking rights are a fixed entitlement to have or obtain something, or to act in a certain way given by… well there’s our problem, isn’t it? Rights can only come from three places methinks: God, the government, or on principal of our joint humanity (in effect, a moral right). However it is arguable, as Carlin teaches, that rights are not rights if someone can take them away, they are merely privileges which can therefore be revoked.
Now assuming ‘rights’ are government given, and thus subject to near continuous change, they cannot possibly be rights by the very nature of this changeability. Assuming rights are god given, then there should be no way the government could take them away, after all, God should theoretically be the higher authority between the two. Assuming they are moral givens, (you call them universal rights), but not promised by God or the government, then they are still rights but the government may be wrong in its policy. I am of course fixating on the fixed, and the ideal; just because something should be a right, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is though.
Here, it’s pretty easy to mosey along agreeably with your thoughts, as I too, reject universal rights as a purely societal construct i.e. what we call rights in legal terms, ain’t really rights. If Uncle Sam can take and remake them, they are obviously not permanent or inalienable. I would call these privileges: they give citizens a clear advantage over non citizens. You throw out the God-given rights as inconsequential, and I will too because as a species we haven’t agreed on one God from which we could know what aspects of our lives to prioritize into different rights. Depending on your deity, you may have different rights? No dice there, as that negates the whole universality thing, so that hits the trash bin as well. Which leaves us with Moral Rights.
Ideal Rights vs. Realistic Rights?
See, I am right there with you up until you say: “All humans die, and because all humans die, we are granted the right to live by virtue of our births.”
To my way of thinking, you got it backwards: By virtue of our births, we are granted the right to die. All humans die. No one, not the government, not God, not our fellow man, can refuse or revoke from us a death. From there everything kind of snowballs. You believe that humans should have the right to reproduce and, essentially, to have access to survival basics. Now, I think ideally yes, they should. Those are moral rights we occasionally get wrong in execution and that are absolute only in theory.
Which brings me back to George Carlin – the last bit of the video is him claiming the existence of either unlimited rights or no rights. To me, this is essentially the difference between ideal rights and realistic rights. Ideal rights would be unlimited; what society deems good may be in flux, but human wellbeing would be the goal, so anything that helps man survive would be a right. OR, on the flip side, realistic rights would be no rights; when a piece of paper can change what you’re allowed to do and every action you take is subject to the judgment of another how can you possibly claim to be entitled to anything that everyone else, especially those with different standards of judgment, are entitled to?
Thus, I think if you want to talk about absolute rights, there can only be those not subject to any outside interference. This leaves us with the right:
Simply put, it’s impossible to avoid death forever, and even with the use of narcotics or brainwashing or whatever, it’s impossible to completely stop someone else from thinking or using their senses in perceiving the outside world.
Slavery, murder, and competition make other more idealistic rights too vulnerable to be guaranteed or absolute. Do I think everyone should be entitled to live, to eat, to drink, to be warm, to be happy, to be healthy, to all that good stuff you mentioned? Hell yes. But once again, just because something should be a right, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is.
You’re correct though, all in all: we simply cannot exist without some form of rights, based on clear truths of existence, however I can’t agree that either those rights or those truths are absolute.