No moral philosophy that I have met has ever been sufficiently simple to be reduced to a list like the law and simultaneously satisfy our wants for justice. Emmanuel Kant’s morality would cut down to basic duties. Kant said that if an action is ever wrong it is always wrong and, although it is difficult to express exactly what is wrong using that philosophy, if we apply our moral intuitions to that logic it could easily fit into a legal framework (e.g. murder is not permitted). But the lack of context in Kant’s philosophy gives us no wiggle room for self-defence and euthanasia; murder and violence are always wrong. All moral philosophies fall prey to this somewhere.
Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape has a completely different issue: it is too complex. Although at bottom its basis is very simple—safeguard the wellbeing of all conscious creatures—what that looks like in action is not easily addressed by normal legal frameworks: murder is not permitted fails to engage with the subtleties and details of conscious experience; euthanasia can be the best way to safeguard wellbeing. There would be many caveats added to the law if the law was trying to express the moral landscape in terms of duties, commands and laws.
Nowhere in this are we granted rights. The foremost concern of the law is what we cannot do. We can do anything we like, until it infringes on the law. I can shout at you and berate you for your religion all I like. Except, you have a right not to be berated for your religion:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
(In case you were wondering, that gives you the right to not use condoms, benefit from or carry out stem cell research, partake in homosexual activities or become a partner in a homosexual marriage and to not have an abortion. However, it does not give you the right to bend laws to your religion. It does not give you that right because we have the right to adhere to our religion—and lack thereof1—as well.)
We know, actually, that rights do confuse the issue of law: my freedom of expression (article 19) ends at your right not to be persecuted, that’s obvious. But it also ends at the legal requirement to not incite hatred or terror. As confusing as rights are, they are absolutely necessary. Consider, in the moral landscape, the consequences of having the right to life (article 3) taken away from you because your body could be harvested to save more than one life. The maths adds up; more than one is more than one, so on a body count people have the right to harvest your organs. But in that world everyone lives in fear; that is not a positive thing for wellbeing.
The law is an approximation of morality; a list of general rules that represents at maximising wellbeing. As we expand our understanding and come up with new distinctions and terms (like the distinction between euthanasia, self-defence, murder and manslaughter) the laws can better and closer reflect morality. Rights are secondary to that; so long as the law is upheld certain promises are made to you about the freedoms you have.
But what of that obviously missing concept: responsibilities? People are quick to announce their rights, but seldom pronounce their equally-real responsibilities. You do, for example, have the right to found a family (article 16). But when you bring a child into the world you are responsible for giving that child the emotional, educational and psychological support they need—including discipline—to maximise their wellbeing.
Where the lines are between these things is pretty woolly. The foundation is morality. This is why morality is a reactive topic: it underpins politics and rights and the law. The law is then a best-attempt at reflecting morality in an enforceable way, which leads to certain shortcoming like a failure to account for nuance, context and circumstance (even though our own morality often would make these exceptions). Rights exist complementary to laws. Laws tell us what we may not do, where rights tell us what we can expect to be permitted to do. Responsibilities are to do with what others should be able to expect from us.
This post is intentionally trite on its scope. Regardless, please comment. I want to use this post as a jump-post to discuss some other ideas, including euthanasia, the ability to have your rights alienated, legalisation of drugs etc.
1 – I wonder if it would help to call “atheism” the religion of dogma-free discussion. That way we can demand all the respect religious organisations demand, lobby as a religious group etc. Not only that, but Atheist Churches could be places of discussion and debate and we could debate people from other religions dogma-free. We could engage in presuppositional dogma-laden arguments in their religious buildings. I just think it is also an abuse of language to make a group of people who are grouped by their lack of organised or central beliefs or cultural systems a “religion”.