The Constitution recognizes a right to life. Does that imply a right to food, water, shelter, and health care? If not, what good is it? And where does that path lead? (More)

Rights, Privileges, and Thickets, Part I – Making Things

This week Morning Feature considers the thorny topic of rights and privileges. Today we examine the dangers of mistaking ideas for things. Tomorrow we’ll contrast that with a legal perspective on rights and privileges. Saturday we’ll conclude with Fred Whispering points for moral, progressive policies.

We took a vote and….

Most parents learn to recognize loaded questions such as: “Mom, is democracy really the best form of government?”

A parent doesn’t hear that question in terms of political science, or different forms of democratic government. Maybe it’s something in the child’s eyes or tone of voice. Maybe it’s just timing. With children, such questions usually appear out of the ether, because the child asking the question has just appeared from another room. Regardless, an alarm starts clanging: Danger! Danger! Do NOT give the obvious answer!

If Mom ignores the Parental Alarm, the rest of the conversation usually goes something like this:

Mom – Yes it is, sweetie. Democracy isn’t perfect but it’s better than the alternatives.

Precocious Child – Oh good. That’s what we thought. So we took a vote and we want ice cream.

Oops. Time for Mom to explain the prerequisites for democratic government and why those are not always met in family life (and good luck with that). Or Mom can jump directly to: “Because I said so” (and good luck with that, too). Either way, it’ll be awhile before Mom gets to the real issue: Is this a good time for ice cream?

If Mom listens to the Parental Alarm, the conversation is very different:

Mom – What is it you want?

Precocious Child – Well, actually we want some ice cream.

The Reification Fallacy

In asking that question, Mom sidesteps the entire debate about family democracy. It’s an intuitive response, and an excellent example of avoiding a very subtle logical fallacy called reification. That translates to “thing-making,” and as a logical fallacy it means treating an abstract idea as if it were a concrete thing. Precocious Child’s argument really maps out like this:

  1. We children voted to have ice cream.
  2. Democracy is the best form of government.
  3. Democracy is a good thing.
  4. Mom should do good things.
  5. Therefore, Mom should give us ice cream.

The logical fallacy comes between step 2 and step 3. In step 2, Precocious Child did not ask whether a family should make decisions by a majority vote that includes the children. The child, being precocious, knows that conversation is fraught with peril. Instead, Precocious Child asked about democracy as an abstract idea: “Mom, is democracy really the best form of government?”

However, by step 3 the abstract idea Democracy has become a good thing. As even Mom would agree she should do good things, the argument goes, Mom should give the children ice cream.

Except we can imagine any number of practical reasons why giving the children ice cream – at that moment – would not be a good thing for Mom to do. Maybe it’s almost time for dinner, or for bed. Maybe the children like ice cream but have medical issues with sugar or milk products. Maybe they are already wound up and ice cream would send them bouncing off walls. Maybe Mom doesn’t have any ice cream, and to afford it she’d have to not buy something more healthful.

Precocious Child’s argument sweeps aside all of those practical considerations by seeking agreement on an abstract idea, then ignoring its abstractions and treating the idea as a good thing … a paramount goal, in and of itself.

A right or a privilege?

The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution recognize what we commonly call a “right to life.” Most Americans would agree that is a fundamental right. Even conservatives recognize a “right to life,” at least for fertilized human ova. But most humans die from starvation, dehydration, exposure, injury, or disease. If each of us has a constitutional right to life, shouldn’t that imply each of us has rights to adequate food, water, shelter, and health care?

That question is as loaded as was Precocious Child’s “Mom, is democracy really the best form of government?”

The obvious answer is “Of course a right to life implies rights to adequate food, water, shelter, and health care.” But like Mom’s response to Precocious Child, the obvious answer only gets you more entangled in a rhetorical thicket.

If it’s a right, shouldn’t it apply the same to everyone? If not, it would be a privilege, right? And if it’s a right and should apply the same to everyone, doesn’t that mean everyone should get exactly the same food, water, shelter, and health care? (Uh oh.) Communism was based on that idea (not exactly, but good luck with that) and communism was a horrible failure (for other reasons, and good luck with that, too). So if rights apply the same to everyone, then food, water, shelter, and health care aren’t rights. They’re privileges, so let the Invisible Hand of the Free Market sort it out! (Uggh.)

Like Precocious Child’s argument, that entire debate is riddled with reification fallacies. We go round and round debating abstract ideas – definitions and sources of “rights” and “privileges” – while too many people still do without concrete things: food, water, shelter, and health care.

Like the Mom who notices the Parental Alarm, we should skip that debate and jump straight to the real issue: How do we best provide adequate food, water, shelter, and health care for all?

That question calls for pragmatic answers that provide concrete things. I think that’s a good idea.


Happy Thursday!