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Rights and Insults September 9, 2010

Posted by Ian in Morality, Skepticism.

I’m way overdue to write something on the blog so here is a little rant about rights and insults that’s been circulating in my mind the last few days.

One thing that I find myself differing with a lot of fellow skeptics and atheists is notions of rights and insults.  A lot of this has come out of the discussions about the proposed mosque at ground zero but it seems to me skeptics have a blindspot when it comes to talking about rights to free speech, rights to avoid harm, rights to shelter and so forth.


One of the big things that is buzzing around at the moment is about the right of free speech and if there are limits to the applicability of this.  Firstly most people talk of free speech as if it is a fundamental right, not a legal right, and this discussion assumes that is what is meant –  legal rights are a whole different ballgame.

I would argue there is no such a thing as a fundamental right, end of story.  A right is manifestly a human construct much like a law and designed to indicate we think certain things should be fundamental – it is an operational strategy that we think will work.  It doesn’t magically exist any more than objective moral judgements exist, which is to say we have precisely the same amount of evidence in favour of them – zero.

To say “everyone has the right to free speech” is to literally fabricate an idea from absolutely nowhere.  The only way to give the idea any validity is to then justify why it is a good idea and you are instantly in the territory of a strategy, not a magical right.

Now it is important to note here that I am strong proponent of absolutely unhindered free speech across the board.  In other words I do not think anyone should be censored in any way.  But thinking something is a good idea doesn’t make it reality – it is just an operational strategy like any other that has benefits and costs and the decision can be made to implement it or not.

The primary barrier I see to the implementation of such a strategy is that people get insulted by words.


I think that words have far too much power in society and people take what other people say far too seriously.  Words are just words and should be taken as such.  

I don’t actually think I could really be properly insulted anymore – I genuinely can’t actually think of something anyone could say that would properly offend me.  (and yes, you can take that as a challenge!) 

Whatever anyone could say about me, either it is true or it isn’t.  If it is then why should I complain?  If someone says I am fat then all I can do is agree!  Why should this be offensive to me? 

Some things are more subjective so if someone says I am ugly and they genuinely believe that then they really think I am ugly – good for them.  If they don’t believe it and are just trying to be offensive, it’s an empty statement with no meaning behind it so why should I care? 

Someone might say my atheism is a false belief but why should that bother me?  If it is false then they have spoken the truth, if it isn’t then they are wrong – neither option should offend me.

You may think there are some core ideals or ideas that I hold that you could insult but I suppose my ultimate point is that there really aren’t any core ideas that should mean that much to people.  Sure there are things that matter to me and you could anger me by damaging them (for example if you broke something irreplaceable) but again that isn’t an insult – the act is one of unprovoked cost to me.  The objection is justified on a purely pragmatic basis and requires no insult.

In fact allowing yourself to be insulted by words is the first step to closing ones mind to an objective view of the world around yourself.  As soon as you allow the challenge of an idea to be insulting, you stop thinking about the validity of such counter arguments.  It makes far more sense to focus on the substance of conversation and not the superficial nonsense that is ideals, insults and the like.


It is not that I think everyone should have the right to say whatever they want, but that I feel that if people didn’t get insulted then society would operate far more smoothly.  This is a purely pragmatic argument and I don’t think anything else is needed.


1. Dale Campbell - September 10, 2010

Hi Ian,
I think you’re being consistent to your worldview when you say there are no fundamental rights. I also think I wouldn’t want to live in a world where everyone believed that 😀

catch ya ’round. take care.
oh, and the next time you’re up in aucks… 🙂


2. Ian - September 11, 2010

Even if it was true? 🙂

And I have even yet another reason to head to aucks now my olds have moved there so hopefully in the next 6 months or so.

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