Rights vs. Oughts: a fundamental concept for civilized conversation

I’m going to try to make this short and sweet, so I can point back to it whenever I need to. There’s something we all need to get clear, in our discussion of ideas and ethics and social mores and what have you. It is this: There is a distinction between granting a right, and bestowing approval.

Do we have that? This is important. I can defend and advocate someone’s right to do something, without at all believing that it’s what they should do. I can defend and advocate someone’s right to do something while at the same time trying to persuade them to do otherwise.

To take two recent, topical examples: that dude in Florida had every right to burn his Koran. Those Muslims in New York have every right to build their community center near Ground Zero. I don’t approve of either action. I could write long posts arguing reasons for both of those parties not to go through with their plans. And if I did this, someone would inevitably respond with, “Yeah, but they have a perfect right to do so, so why are you arguing?”

I’m arguing because I, as a thinking person, have every right to criticize and disapprove of other people’s legitimate choices. Full stop.

To take a more everyday example: I have the right to eat meat. If an animal-rights-activist-vegetarian friend disapproves of my eating meat, they have the right to say so, to argue with me, to show me reasons why perhaps I shouldn’t eat meat. If this friend and I care about our friendship, we will find a way to strike a balance between discussing this issue all the time (because it’s so important to my friend) and never discussing it (because it’s a source of conflict.)

When I say, “People shouldn’t do X,” please don’t take that to mean, “People shouldn’t be allowed to do X.” Those are two very different questions.

One thought on “Rights vs. Oughts: a fundamental concept for civilized conversation

  1. A thought I had in the shower (where i have lots of thoughts, it seems)….

    Since belief is not subject to the will, meaning that quite strictly we don’t choose what we believe, people who believe things believe them based upon what they know.

    By arguing, criticiszing, or merely stating a different opinion based upon facts, the believer may be put in a position of forcing to change opinion (assuming the facts and logic are sound, etc).

    Therefore, by hearing criticism, the believer (in whatever issue is at stake) may feel like they are not being allowed to believe what they do because the argument they are hearing is dismantling the idea. Their belief erodes wioth a counter argument that stands up.

    Thus, there might be some reason why someone may conflate criticism with not being allowed to believe something.

    That’s a stretch, I admit. And even if it were true, why would it be bad to be coerced by the truth?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s