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This right tonight
I caught part of a bunfight discussion on Radio 2 at lunchtime today, between George Monbiot and somebody from (I think) the Spectator, about the environmental ethics of cheap flights. [BBC News: "UK 'must act' on plane emissions" | Report launched today by the University of Oxford]

You already know what Monbiot's line is; I don't need to rehash that here. But the other chap was putting forward a view that I hadn't heard before; he was arguing that Monbiot's call for fewer cheap flights was part of some kind of middle-class conspiracy to trample all over the "rights" that have recently "been acquired" by "poorer people". He claimed that the rich resented the poor becoming richer, and wanted to "punish" them for this by curtailing their "rights" to cheap flights -- whether they are making these flights for pleasure, work, or "education".

Questions I am not going to attempt to answer include: whether the environmentalists' predictions of the future global warming scenario are as exaggerated as their detractors claim; how many flights Monbiot has made in the last year; whether he is more interested in advertising his book than saving the world; how many of our cheap flights to European holiday destinations (of which I've made a few myself) are "educational"; whether there is a middle-class conspiracy to erode the rights of poorer people; whether the poor are in fact becoming richer, and if so, by what metric.

Questions I would like to find answers to include: where do "rights" come from? Are we born with them? If not, do we accrue them as a function of our passage through time, or are they allocated to us by some external agency? Does the discontinuing of a commodity or service which used to exist automatically constitute riding roughshod over somebody's "rights"? If we have a "right" to something, should we claim it, whatever the cost?
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chickenfeet2003 From: chickenfeet2003 Date: October 17th, 2006 03:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
Without getting into a fundamental debate on rights I think the cheap flights issue does show up how easily people claiming to be arguing for the benefit of humanity fall into a class trap. If plane emissions are a problem then the 'obvious' first thing to do is ban first and business class. First and business class passengers take up more room and so cause more emissions and, we must assume, they have no more intrinsic 'right' to cause emissions than the chap in cattle class. Naturally, private jets should be banned as should dedicated planes for politicians, royalty etc. Oddly, you won't hear the privileged people who are so desperate to save the planet arguing that line.
j4 From: j4 Date: October 17th, 2006 03:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Does it have to be either/or? Surely the "obvious" thing to do would be to attack the problem from both ends: banning private jets and making first/business class more efficient, and counteracting the culture of "cheap" flights.

I don't think anybody has a "'right' to cause emissions". I think (as you might have guessed from my post) the question of "rights" in this context is largely if not entirely a red herring. It comes down to a question of whether people/goods (whether it's royalty or Royal Mail) need to be moved from one place to another, and how fast; but questions of "needs" are as slippery as questions of "rights" (do we have a 'hierarchy of rights'?).
beingjdc From: beingjdc Date: October 17th, 2006 03:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
where do "rights" come from?

Abroad. Nasty un-English nonsense.

Sorry, that's not the useful philosophical debate you want, but my other answer tends to be "people who feel that 'I want' isn't a strong enough expression of the fact that they want something", which is even less helpful.

Rights come from protected welfare interests which can be expressed in the form of a negative duty on others-in-general, or a positive duty on others-in-particular.

They arise out of either the political process, societal evolution and necessity, or the ability of the rich / powerful to create a consensus that they have a particular right, absent any challenge to it.

Cheap air travel is not a right as far as I can tell. Freedom of movement within particular parameters might be, or at least freedom of egress from the country one is in - though if it's a right to have it at £200 and environmental tax would deny this right to people who can't afford £300, what about people who can only afford £150?
j4 From: j4 Date: October 17th, 2006 03:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
I like your second answer, but I agree that it's probably not conducive to "useful philosophical debate". On the other hand, I opened the floor to my flist; if what they want is a bunfight, then bring on the buns. ;-)

I also like your more serious answers, however; though I'm not sure I'm clear about what you mean by negative/positive duties on others-in-general/particular (that is, I think I know what you mean, but it's not terminology I'm familiar with).

They arise out of either the political process, societal evolution and necessity, or the ability of the rich / powerful to create a consensus that they have a particular right, absent any challenge to it.

Out of interest, are you identifying these as two different routes by which rights are created/evolved, or two different ways of looking at the same process?

Where would you recommend that I started if I wanted to read a relatively brief and lucid introduction to these issues? (I always fear when I embark on Philosophical Musings that I am reinventing the wheel and making it slightly more elliptical in the process..)
aldabra From: aldabra Date: October 17th, 2006 03:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
Rights come from social consensus. They depend on the society you're born into: it makes no sense to talk of a right to life in the absence of enough food to feed everybody. But it becomes very very useful indeed when you have enough food to feed everybody but it's being fed to cattle to make feasts for the rich.

They're used to shore up the welfare of the weak against the strong. Though I see you have a comment already saying they're to protect the privileges of the rich from the masses, which suggests some disambiguation is called for. I suspect it disambiguates along the property rights/personal rights division.

If claiming your right costs more than it's worth without a consequent social benefit then I think it's a "right" that needs looking into.
rysmiel From: rysmiel Date: October 17th, 2006 03:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
My take on rights, much summarised and simplified, is that they are things we as civilised humans choose to assert against a universe which cares not and against uncivilised humans; that there are some which come with being born, and some more which come with being a reasonable adult, and defining the boundary of "reasonable adult" is really darned hard.

I do not think cheap air travel is a right. I'd still be very glad to have it available.
addedentry From: addedentry Date: October 17th, 2006 09:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
When you say that there are some rights which come with being born, do you mean that they are inherent in being human or that they are asserted by civilized and reasonable adults on behalf of the newborn?
simont From: simont Date: October 17th, 2006 03:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
My general feeling is that rights language is emotive, black-and-white and has no room for complication or subtlety. This is occasionally genuinely useful when fighting against real systematic oppression (denying women the vote, serious back-of-the-bus level racism, that sort of thing) because such issues don't have a whole lot of complex subtlety in the first place and by and large the things advocated by rights talk are actually the right things. But in most cases, I tend to think, rights language is a severe over-simplification and obscures an issue more than it helps.

A good example of this is found in the fact that many people can't even agree on what a given right is. Take the right to free speech. The original point of enshrining that right in (American) law was because it helps prevent a totalitarian government from keeping itself in power by suppressing dissent; so it's specifically about the government not inhibiting citizens' free expression of their honestly felt political views. But there are people who will argue that if a newspaper declines to publish their letter it's infringing on their right of free speech; that truth-in-advertising laws are an intolerable restriction; that merely trying to persuade somebody that they shouldn't say a particular thing constitutes a dangerous move towards violation of that right. My feeling is that this widespread wrongness is a symptom of the fact that rights language is just not expressive enough to handle subtleties.
pjc50 From: pjc50 Date: October 17th, 2006 04:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
The veil debate is another example of the problem: "People have a right to wear whatever they want" is advanced as an argument against "I would prefer people not to wear veils".
nja From: nja Date: October 17th, 2006 03:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
Basically, I agree with Mary Warnock's view (which is derived from Bentham and legal positivism). A right is something the law gives you, and though we may talk of other "rights", that's just a confused way of saying that we feel strongly that something is morally a good thing. She gives the example of the 1972 Education Act, which gave severely disabled children the right to an education. Prior to that, you might say that morally such children ought to be educated, but not that they had a right to an education. After the Act, parents could use the courts to ensure that their children were educated. If you can't enforce it, it isn't a right. Same with cheap flights, though there's not (so far as I know) a law saying that airlines have to offer cheap flights, so it's not even a right in that legalistic sense.
juggzy From: juggzy Date: October 17th, 2006 06:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's just shifting the debate back a bit to what we mean by 'morally a good thing,' which probably ends up right back with something approximating JDC's definition (the first one) of rights.
camellia_uk From: camellia_uk Date: October 17th, 2006 04:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
There was a similar debate here recently, as they've stopped doing free NUS cards (at certain places), and now you only get discounts if you pay for a card. My initial thought was that this was horribly unfair, particularly for students who are funding themselves and really *need* those discounts, and shouldn't be forced to pay for the card. But as a friend pointed out, discounts for students aren't a *right*, they're a privilage, and if the NUS decide to take that away, well we can take it up with them (and accuse them of selling out as a union), but we can hardly take it to the court of human rights.
(Another point that's being hotly debated is the issue of whether it's a human right to be able to display religious symbols in the workplace... but I think that's even more fraught with flamebait than the airtravel issue.)
pjc50 From: pjc50 Date: October 17th, 2006 04:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've not been able to get any answer more satisfactory than "rights arise from the political process"; in particular, that "Human rights arise from the international political process and subscription to the UN declaration".

Rights language is extremely unhelpful in resolving conflicts of interest and social issues. It becomes a game of who can advocate most convincingly that X is a right.
fanf From: fanf Date: October 17th, 2006 07:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
Do you thing that talking in terms of duties instead of rights is less prone to self-righteousness?
hairyears From: hairyears Date: October 17th, 2006 06:00 pm (UTC) (Link)

I have no respect for those who witter about rights without considering that they come with responsibilities; yes, we have a right to travel freely - 'free' in the sense that can have it if we pay the cost, rather than imposing it on others.

Which is, of course, the point with cheap flights, gas-guzzling Chelsea Tractors, electrical goods, cigarettes and snack food: the full environmental and social costs costs are 'externalised' - dumped in landfill, picked up by the NHS, left for future generations - all the costs which don't turn up on our credit card bills.

It follows that a mature democracy would seek ways to correct this by taxation, legislation, or coercion through public campaigning... And it follows that a society of warring baronies will reward whoever is powerful or clever and deceitful by giving them whatever they claim as a 'right' while imposing the costs on some subclass of losers in an unending dance of evasion, blame, and self-congratulation.

Where do I place George Monbiot in all this? In amongst the rentiers of revolutionary France, confident that they can seize power from an unjust King, mature enough to avoid the self-interested power-grabbing of tose English Barons on Runnymede, half-believing and half-hoping that their dimly-understood new credo of 'principles' and 'rights' and constitutional law is enough to inspire others to respect the new order and work together... And fearful of 'The Mob', the volatile and violent underclass who are might in theory share in the Rights of Man, but are best kept under control and better kept out of sight altogether.

juggzy From: juggzy Date: October 17th, 2006 06:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
We need to be investigating biofuels (and Monbiot is shockingly way off kilter there), ways of extracting hydrogen from water using non-petroleum sourced energy and developing air-speed capable engines that will run on these fuels.

Oh, and I agree with jdc.
gnimmel From: gnimmel Date: October 17th, 2006 08:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
As of two weeks ago this is my work field, and I'm much less sure that biofuels are a good idea than I used to be -- potentially one of the main causes of global warming arising from aviation is from the condensation trails planes produce and cloud seeded from those trails, which is not solved by biofuels. In fact, two weeks in the field, whilst entertaining and involving going up in control towers and being addressed by John Gummer, has been fairly depressing as far as my idea of the future of the world goes.

(although the other thing which is rarely mentioned is that aviation produces about 5% of greenhouse gases -- whilst it's a problem, most of the problem is elsewhere)
hatmandu From: hatmandu Date: October 18th, 2006 08:08 am (UTC) (Link)
I've no answer to the rights discussion, but:

how many flights Monbiot has made in the last year

The answer is none, assuming his claim to have stopped flying about 18 months ago is correct.
j4 From: j4 Date: October 18th, 2006 11:06 am (UTC) (Link)
Excellent! Thank you for injecting a fact into the hand-waving. :-) Do you have a citation for that claim? (Not that I don't believe you, I'd just be interested to read what he says about it.)
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