Craving Significance

Humans act purposefully to satisfy subjective wants and needs. A person’s wants are often unattainable in any tangible sense. This neither prohibits them seeking these wants nor makes their efforts objectively irrational. Only an individual can ultimately determine to what extent their efforts were successful.

Among the largely unattainable things most humans seek is a measure of significance. Standing on the shore of a great ocean provides sufficient evidence of the individual’s insignificance in the broad sense. Regardless, many people crave that “fifteen minutes of fame.” This is likely a byproduct of both intelligence and leisure: primitive humanity, much like the remainder of the animal kingdom, was far too preoccupied with survival to contemplate the infinite. With both capacity and opportunity, thoughts turned toward meaning and significance.

Confronted by the inevitability of insignificance, many resort to other means of fulfilling this desire. While its roots are in primitive survival, social identity also offers the comfort of shared purpose and, consequently, the potential for significance through participation. Many wrap their identity in the colors of their alma mater, a favorite sports franchise, their religion, or their nation. This is also likely the origin of collectivist movements where social cooperation becomes social absorption.

As stated above, only the individual can subjectively determine if their actions have fulfilled their desires. Provided it is individual choice that leads to participation, no moral outrage is warranted. Sadly, where religion or social collectivism is concerned, many claim the right to quash the individually of others to achieve their ideal, as though their own significance is tied up in the insignificance of those they subjugate.

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Why No Positive Rights

A gay couple in Colorado has claimed the right of forcing a baker to bake them a wedding cake. While this may seem absurd to some, it is but one in a long and growing list of rights claimed across the world. Many in the U.S. claim that health care is a right. Around the world  people claim the right of home ownership, water and sanitation, as well as leisure. The United Nations has an extensive declaration on what it deems the extent of human rights. Among the rights asserted by the U.N. are free education, participation in cultural life, periodic holidays with pay, participation in government, and the right to a nationality.

The common thread present in the rights mentioned is that they are “positive,” imposing requirements on others. The baker, health care worker, developer, engineer, educator, and other members of society are required by these assertions to provide those things claimed as rights. Leisure, for example, results from the accumulation of sufficient means of survival to allow for rest. Claimed as a right, it places on others the burden of an individual’s survival in order to free them from labor.

Human rights, to be ethical, must be universal. The absence of an objective means of applying rights makes this necessary. As a result, there is no subset of people possessing rights not enjoyed by others. When positive rights are claimed, they assume that a subset of people possess them at the expense of others. The baker loses freedom of choice when his services are claimed as a right; when someone is forced to work for the benefit of others, we generally call that slavery. When someone claims water as a human right, they place the burden of supply on the engineer and other members of society, trampling their rights.

Rights, to be ethical, must be couched in negative terms. We have the right to be free from violence. We have the right to be free from violations of our property. Beyond these, there are few things that can be ethically claimed as rights because they fail to be universal.

Compulsion And Rights

I long ago abandoned any hope that The U.S. Constitution was in any way a limitation on government power. A brief review of history offers ample evidence of this fact. While the purpose of the document was to define and restrict the activities of the U.S. federal government, it failed in this regard from the outset. Today we find ourselves with a federal government claiming authority to compel U.S. citizens to surrender private property, die in foreign lands in wars of adventurism, pay for health insurance, and yield privacy.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case concerning the baking of a cake for a same-sex wedding. The case originated in Colorado where a gay couple requested a cake be specifically designed for their wedding. The baker, being opposed to same sex marriage, declined. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission determined that the baker had violated the rights of the gay couple.

Many see this case as an extension of civil rights legislation from the sixties that overturned years of institutionalized racism, particularly in the southern states. However, those efforts struck down legislation prohibiting people from freely interacting. In this case, the government of Colorado has claimed the ability to compel an individual to provide a service to another individual. Put another way, the state of Colorado has claimed that a person possesses the right to purchase whatever they want from whomever they want.

Now the U.S. Supreme Court entertains just that question: can a person be compelled to bake a cake for another person? Will this become yet another power of compulsion claimed by the U.S. federal government?