The question, we recall, is to what extent we can think intelligently about rights by reducing to an extremal case, in this instance the case of there being only one person in the world. I argue that this last-person-on-earth scenario is missing crucial features of what makes rights, in the real world, problematic to decide. Joe, on the other hand, thinks that the last-person-on-earth scenario is paradigmatic for rights.
After thinking about this a bit more, I want to amend what I said in the last post. One can have a right to do a morally wrong thing, I realized, and the amendment is that "A has the right to do X" should mean that it is immoral for others to prevent A from doing X. There's already a problem on this horizon, in that there's a generally accepted distinction between random other people preventing you from doing something, and the state, or the church, or your employer, etc. doing so; but while that problem is interesting, I think it's not too relevant for this discussion, since the hypotheticals here have so few other people, no state, etc.
Anyway, all of what I'm about to say is toward an argument that rights are inseparable from their context. In particular, I'm not prepared to concede the validity of any argument of the form
(0) Imagine a hypothetical world where the effects of person X doing action A are very different from the effects of that action in the real world.
(1) In the hypothetical world, it is moral for X to do A, and/or immoral for anyone else to prevent X from doing A.
(2) Therefore, in the real world, it is moral for X to do A, and/or immoral for anyone else to prevent X from doing A.
This is at least partially due to my consequentialist leanings in moral philosophy, an early point of divergence between Ms Rand and myself. (More precisely, I think that any attempt at a moral philosophy which does not factor predictable, anticipable effects of actions into the calculation of their moral status automatically fails.) Two actions which look identical "up close", but which will have different effects, can have different moral status, so long as the agents can predict or anticipate those effects (or at least anticipate how probable various possible effects are).
TL/DR: Context and consequences have moral weight!
Anyway: we begin our parable on a small island. To keep this post a manageable length, I'll lay out the first three sets of circumstances today, in which the moral claims are (I think) pretty unproblematic -- but I'd love to see disagreement if my readers have any.
0th scenario: there are no people on the island. The island's soil and natural features could probably support a civilization of a few hundred people, if they had the right crops to plant and the right animal species to raise in captivity; but none of that goes on in this hypothetical. The island features (obviously undomesticated) edible plant species, herbivorous and carnivorous animals, and freshwater fish in the island's lake and streams. (These don't tend to be very large, since there's not a whole lot of room for them to bump up against each other.)OK, so there's really nothing, at all, to be said about rights here, since no moral agents live in this hypothetical. (As usual, I assume that nonhuman animals on Earth are neither moral agents nor persons. Also, no aliens.) So let's move on to the
1st scenario:We introduce one human into the hypothetical, a guy we'll call Abel. The details of his background are, I think, irrelevant; let's just assume he shows up at some point on the island with no expectation of ever leaving. He has skills ample to the task of surviving; he can hunt, and can make tools. Not only that: Abel knows how to work metals, and has the skill to find the ores of useful metals and smelt and forge metal implements. (Useful metals, I said, not gold.)
Abel does no cultivation of plants or animals, but as said, he does hunt, for food (and I'm sure for enjoyment too). In fact, he hunts faster than his targets can replenish their numbers: several of the tastier species on the island will be extinct, at his current rate, in twenty years or less. At the same time, Abel's smithing is using up the trees on the island too, on about the same timescale. He also fishes, but not at such a high rate; the fish species are safe.
The question is, of course, is Abel doing anything wrong in this scenario? Does he have a right to do the things he does?
The most obvious candidate for a "no" answer would be his practice of hunting animals to extinction; but while there's definitely an argument to be made that it's always baseline immoral for a species of moral agents to drive another species extinct (i.e. yeah, there are self-defense situations and smallpox, that's not what we're talking about here), I think for this discussion I'll posit that Abel has the right to consume the island's resources for his own benefit under this scenario. Disagreement is welcome below. (In particular, since this hypothetical arose in discussion as the last-person-on-earth scenario, we can omit the argument from "science needs to categorize and know about these species!')
OK, so far so good.
Scenario 2: Same island, same plants and animals, no Abel. Instead, a similarly immaculately arrived adult human couple, Mr. and Mrs. Cain. Their skills lie in the direction of agriculture; they are vegetarians (though like many, they inexplicably see no problem with eating fish... maybe they used to be Catholic?). Hence, they are not in the business of driving any species to extinction.Once again, I submit that in this scenario it is hard to claim that anything the Cains are doing is wrong, is anything that they do not have a right to do. Of course, in on sense this is trivial: since there are no other people, there is no one who could prevent either Abel or the Cains from doing anything they liked; but regardless of that, what they're doing in the scenarios seems well within their rights, no matter how we define that term precisely. (There aren't even any borderline cases in the second scenario, unless you count the fact that their kids will have no choices for mates outside their own siblings; let's hope the Cains have strong genes.)
After spending time eating fish (and ok, maybe a little rabbit when they couldn't get
hobbitfish), the Cains can determine some plant species they can live off. The staple of their diet soon becomes the products of a pair of vines which climb on and live symbiotically with the tall trees of the island. One produces squash, and the other beans, which together provide complete protein. The Cains have tried, but with only limited success, to transplant these vines to trellises: the vines grow, but the beans are all husk and the squash taste like vinegar. They speculate that this may be a matter of too much light and not enough shade, but probably also related to the symbiosis between vines and trees, some invisible nutrient being passed on that they haven't figured out how to substitute in their own gardens.
The Cains prioritize the sustainability of their lifestyle. They plant and tend the vines and other vegetable species they eat, monitor the soil for depletion, and rotate their cultivation accordingly. Their focus on sustainability is not merely feel-good: they are planning to raise a family and generate a lasting society on the island, so that while they may be the only people on Earth at the moment, they are determined not to be the last.
OK, so are we good with these initial scenarios? Are there any matters of rights that show up as problematic here, but that I've skipped or not noticed?