Moral philosophy in the media, continued.

When I had a moan about this last week I said I would return to it once the phenomenon popped up again. The following piece was actually authored a while back, but it’s still recent and awful and entirely representative of what we have to put up with.

Here is Will Self, writing for the BBC on the notion of human rights:

I only throw this proposition out in a spirit of humane enquiry – could it be that human rights simply don’t exist? After all, in my understanding it’s difficult to conceive of a person’s rights as obtaining at all unless an effective sanction is in place in the event of their violation. Take the human right not to be enslaved – it’s a noble aspiration, but looks pretty threadbare in a world in which there are more slaves than ever.

Now if this was one of many posts in some sort of symposium on human rights, it wouldn’t irk me so much. But given articles like this seldom reach the mainstream media, you would expect that when they do the BBC could invite some, you know, actual philosophers to ponder these questions, or at least critique Self’s speculations. What’s next: Paul Merton to replace Peston on Newsnight for a dispatch on the Eurozone crisis?

Ari Kohen calmly explains what’s so fishy about Self’s crude claim:

When you think of the idea of human rights, do you think only of the problem of their enforceability? In other words, how troubled are you that not every human rights violation is punished, that states continue to pursue their own self-interest at the expense of the international human rights regime, and that there’s no global police force to round up violators? Self never actually explains why an enforceability problem entirely negates the existence of the rights.

Exactly. And I imagine he can’t. Because to me, he seems to be making the simple error of somehow moving from the (perfectly valid) observation that governments and the international community often have formal commitments to realising rights which in practice turn out to ring hollow, to the much greater and untenable claim that therefore no rights exist. He tries to derive moral claims from facts. It would be like me pondering whether murder was right or wrong, noting that a man got stabbed in London last night, and affirming that it was fine accordingly.

Actually, I might write that piece. Will it get me on the BBC?


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