I want to zero in on what I think would be the most controversial steps in Evelyn Pluhar’s argument for rights (both for human and nonhuman animals).
In this post I’ll focus on the first: the move from an agent affirming her own goals and desires to affirming a right to freedom and well-being necessary to pursue her goals.
Pluhar reconstructs Alan Gerwith’s argument that any reflective agent must, logically, hold that she has the rights to freedom and well-being. The first two premises are derived from the nature of agency itself–its conative or goal-seeking aspect:
(1) “I do X for end or purpose E.”
(2) “E is good.”
Pluhar clarifies that “good” in premise two doesn’t mean morally good, but simply that the end for which an agent acts must be regarded by that agent as desirable or valuable enough to pursue.
When the agent reflects about the nature of agency itself, she will realize that action of any kind has two necessary preconditions or “generic features”: (a) the ability to have purposes or goals and (b) the freedom required to pursue those goals. In order to have goals, one must in turn be alive, have a certain minimal quality of life, and have certain basic mental and physical capabilities. [Alan] Geriwith combines these requirements for the first generic feature of action under the heading of “well-being.” The next premise expresses the fact that the reflective agent who wants to pursue her goals must also value her well-being and freedom and hold that they are good:
(3) “My freedom and well-being are necessary goods.”
“Necessary goods” means not only that freedom and well-being are necessary conditions for successful goal pursuit: it carries the agent’s approbation. Note that Gerwith is not claiming that the agent’s freedom and well-being are good: his point is that the reflective agent must hold them, as generic features of action, to be good. Even an agent bent on being enslaved or immolating herself must value the freedom and well-being needed at that moment to carry out her purpose. (p. 241, emphasis in the original, footnotes omitted
This step in the argument is fairly noncontroversial, I think. If an agent, by definition, regards the end that she acts for as good, then she must regard as necessary goods those things that are preconditions of any action whatsoever, what Pluhar describes as freedom and well-being.
The agent’s realization that her freedom and well-being are requirements for the achievement of any of her goals leads her to the next premise:
(4) “I must have freedom and well-being.”
This premise is not just shorthand for “I must have freedom and well-being if I want to act”; it is an expression of the agent’s “advocacy” of her own freedom and well-being. She wants freedom and well-being because she wants–as does every agent, by definition–to achieve her goals. This inevitably leads her, Gerwith argues, to claim that she is entitled to freedom and well-being:
(5) “I have rights to freedom and well-being.”
Note once again that Gerwith is not arguing that the agent has these fundamental, “generic” rights: he is saying that she holds or accepts that she does, as an agent who wishes to pursue her goals. (241-2, emphasis in the original, footnotes omitted)
This is where things start to get a little tricky. On the face of it, it doesn’t seem to follow from the fact that I regard something as good that I must also regard myself as entitled to that thing, to have rights to it. Simply because I affirm the goodness of freedom and well-being as necessary for me to act, does it therefore follow that I have to affirm my rights to them?
Pluhar thinks that Gerwith’s argument shows that it does indeed follow:
Gerwith now uses an indirect proof to show that any agent logically must hold that she has these basic rights. If she were to deny 5, she would also have to deny:
(6) “All other persons ought at least to refrain from removing or interfering with my freedom and well-being.”
Premises 5 and 6 are logical correlatives: rights claims are claims against others. But if the agent denies 6, then she must accept the following substitute premise:
(6′) “Other persons may (i.e., it is permissible that other persons) remove or interfere with my freedom and well-being.”
However, 6′ contradicts : “I must have freedom and well-being.” (pp. 242, footnotes omitted)
In a nutshell, the argument here is that if I deny that I have rights to freedom and well-being, then I am committed to 6′–that other persons may remove or interfere with my freedom. But this contradicts 4 above: my affirmation that I must have freedom and well-being. I can’t simultaneously affirm that I need freedom and well-being and that others can take it away from me (other things being equal).
It’s important to be clear about what Pluhar thinks this argument shows: not that I have the rights to freedom and well-being, but that I’m logically committed to affirming or claiming those rights for myself. For if I don’t, I undercut the very nature of my own agency by denying that I need what are necessary conditions for exercising that agency.
In the next post I’ll look at how Pluhar/Gerwith thinks we move to the extension of moral rights to others; after that we’ll examine Pluhar’s extension of the reasoning to animals.