‘Conflicting Rights’

Campust lefist Andrew Seal ’07 writes in today’s Daily Dartmouth that rights should be governed by reason and cannot stand on their own.

Using Prof. Ronald Edsforth’s recent protest against discussions of terrorist interrogation practices as an example, Seal says it is undeniable “that some rights claims conflict.” Someone’s claim of a right not to be offended does not play nicely with a claim of a right to free speech, he insists. “Edsforth’s freedom to express his opinion conflicts with the rights of others to dispute the merits of torture.”

This argument makes little sense. First, while Edsforth’s protest may have been dumb, it was well within his rights to speech and assembly, and it hardly conflicts with the rights of others to assemble and speak about the interrogation of terrorists. There is a conflict, but it is within the framework of existing rights–not between competing claims to new rights.

Second, Seal presumes that because one merely claims a right, that right is valid. This is an absurd premise. Generally speaking, our rights are defined as what government cannot take away (in this case the rights to speech and assembly) because to do so could undermine the system of government. Most interpersonal relationships are governed entirely by private contract and civil law–not rights.

As Seal hints in his opening paragraph, there do exist circumstances in which rights like freedom of speech do not apply–the classic example is shouting “fire” in a crowded theater–but these are not cases of conflicting rights.

Seal concludes: “Appealing only to rights instead of logic and reason is a circuitous argument, and it gets us nowhere. That should not be the goal of a free and open society.”

Unless Seal is dismissing the “inalienable rights” upon which this “free and open society” is based, there is no reason why appeals to rights are improper. In our system, rights are considered absolute goods. “Logic and reason,” on the other hand, have been used time and time again to restrict these basic and fundamental rights in order to satisfy claims to invented and arbitrary “rights” and to serve some vague and authoritarian “public good.”