Human Rights, Virtue Ethics, and Tyranny

If there are no human rights a priori of government force, how can tyranny be avoided? In the absence of any deontological justification for normative ethics, there is only virtue ethics.

The idea that there are human rights is something that exists only in the minds of humans. There doesn’t exist any ontological necessity that humans be treated in a certain way by other people, including the government. The things John Locke (and the American constitution) list as fundamental rights – life, liberty, and property – are not intrinsic. There is no creator that has ‘imbued’ us with these rights (an already incoherent idea). And there is no divine punishment for transgressing these human ideas.

The problem with having no foundation with which to build a normative ethical framework is that we fall into moral relativism and might-makes-right as descriptive ethics. That means there isn’t an argument that could be made against a tyrannical government. This is certainly the conclusion Thomas Hobbes came to in his treatiese Leviathan. Hobbes famously describes humankind’s natural state as ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ and thus we must build a government, no matter how tyrannical, to raise humankind above that state of nature. Without human rights, this seems like an almost inevitable outcome.

As I stated earlier, if we don’t have human rights, any ethical framework will have to be based on virtue ethics. This is because we couldn’t describe ideas like life, liberty, and property as intrinsic human rights, but only as lofty ideals in the minds of humans. I can’t justify why these classical liberal ideas stem from our humanity. What I can say is that they’re a good idea if we want to care about human flourishing. I, for one, do care about human flourishing. From an absurdist point of view, holding these virtues is a sort of supererogation, since there is no obligation – or even expectation – that people have a duty to uphold the life, liberty, and property of others. It can’t be said that someone transgresses these rights, but it can be said that a person who upholds them is virtuous.