The Garrett Hardin Society

Updated 9 October, 2006

Limited World, Limited Rights

by Garrett Hardin, Biological Sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA

Commentaries: Rights and Liberties, Society, 17 (4):5-8. May/June 1980

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When a deaf woman who tried to enroll in a school of nursing was turned down, she sued, claiming that her rights were being violated. After reviewing the case in 1979 the Supreme Court unanimously found against her: neither the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 nor any reasonable conception of natural rights justified imposing the handicap of a deaf nurse on hospital patients. Some time later, a hundred and fifty handicapped protesters of the decision marched through the Westwood region of Los Angeles chanting, "Rights have no price," and "How would you feel if it was you?"

These chants nicely revealed two important characteristics of rights, as popularly understood. The first is a feeling that a right is something outside of-beyond-all systems of pricing and evaluation. This view implies that rights are immune to rational discussion. The second chant tries to shore up what is essentially an egotistical demand with the altruistic authority of the Golden Rule. The implied argument is this: "Wouldn't you want this privilege if you were in my shoes? Therefore must you not support me when I claim this privilege as a right?" Logic aside, this is a powerful emotional argument.

Claiming rights is a major oratorical sport of our time: it is a marvelous substitute for reasoned argument. Julius K. Nyerere, the president of Tanzania, once said: "In one world, as in one state, when I am rich because you are poor, and I am poor because you are rich, the transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor is a matter of right." Note the implied reference to the Golden Rule by a speaker who intends to be on the receiving end of the transfer. The same pattern is seen, perhaps at a more elevated level, in a statement made shortly before his death by Robert Kennedy, who based his claim to more political power on right: ,. At stake is not simply the leadership of our party, and even of our own country, it is our right to the moral leadership of this planet." Some of Kennedy's advisers recommended against his saying this in public, but hubris prevailed. "Whom the gods would destroy ….”

Perhaps nothing that most people want has not been claimed as a right by someone: the right to work, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to liberty of movement, the right to conscience, and the right to dignity. (How defined?) Even the right to treason has been claimed. (Why not the right to rob, the right to murder?) My favorite is the "right to hold religious pizza parties in the prison chapel" claimed by a group of penitentiary inmates in Michigan. The petitioners wanted to hold a pizza party, and since 52 of them had foresightedly paid $2 each to be made ministers in the California-based Universal Life Church (which ordains by mail, no questions asked), it seemed only politic to claim that eating pizzas was a religious exercise (as is eating consecrated wafers in the Catholic church). When their petition was denied by prison authorities, the dissatisfied petitioners sued the state for $110,000 for violating their rights. (They lost.)

Given examples like this, we sympathize with the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham who, almost two centuries ago, said that the idea of natural rights "is simple nonsense … rhetorical nonsense, nonsense upon stilts." The no-nonsense approach of the utilitarians to such transcendental entities as natural rights was kept alive by August Comte and the positivists of the nineteenth century, as well as by the logical positivists stemming from the Vienna Circle in the twentieth. The operational approach of science, explicitly described by physicist Percy W. Bridgman, falls into the same category. Names change, but the spirit remains the same. The opposing spirit survives also: belief in the existence of translegal rights is probably more widespread today then it was in Bentham's time.

I believe it was religious historian Ernest Renan who invented the "Man from Mars," that thoroughly rational, inquisitive being who asks earthlings to explain what they do in terms that can be understood by an intelligence completely free of all traditional terrestrial beliefs, assumptions, and prejudices. Renan's Man from Mars is, of course, completely in the Bentham-Comte-Bridgman tradition (which just shows that tradition cannot be completely escaped). What would the Man from Mars make of the multitude of rights now being vociferously claimed? If the idea of religious freedom supports the right to eat consecrated wafers, why does it not also support the right to eat pizzas? How can a real translegal or natural right be distinguished from a fraudulent one? Looking for a common denominator to the many rights claimed on earth, the Man from Mars would find only one: the implied demand, "I want it."

This is an egotistical demand, of course. It is the weakness of egotistical demands openly expressed that they provoke defensive denials by other egotists, lest they be sucked into satisfying the demands. To forestall such denials the egotist casts his demands in the apparently personality-free language of universal natural rights, thereby improving the chance that he will get what he wants. Right is the rhetoric which, if unchallenged, transforms personal desire into universal virtue. So say the operationalists.

The principal intellectual opposition in our time comes from those who see the concept of translegal rights as a necessity for the evolution and rationalization of law. H.L.A. Hart and Ronald Dworkin are distinguished proponents of this view. Dworkin says we cannot understand statute law without presupposing deep principles which, though not stated explicitly in the statutes, pervade all laws and all proposals to change law. This is certainly a plausible view; yet a scientist cannot but note the family resemblance between this concept of natural law and the concept of the "ether" held to be indispensable in physics for more than two centuries. The wavelike properties of light were regarded as evidence of the existence of a medium – “ether" – in which waves could move, even though there was no positive evidence for the existence of such an ubiquitous, substanceless entity. Around the turn of the present century, the Michelson-Morley experiment and Einstein's relativity theory removed the intellectual underpinnings of "ether," and physicists found they could get on quite well without the concept. Perhaps the concept of translegal rights will some day be recognized as being equally dispensable.
Without settling the eventual fate of natural rights, we can usefully point out a number of the properties of rights, whether natural or legal. Rights imply more than they say. When a right is demanded by a human being from a. nonhuman universe, no controversy ensues. If Robinson Crusoe feels that he has a right to food, let him set about getting it. Either he will succeed and live, or fail and die; in neither case is controversy created. But when a human being in a world crowded with some four billion other human beings asserts a right, he asserts a claim upon his fellow beings, a claim that cannot be accepted without proof of its value to the community.

The point is well illustrated by an exchange of views between columnists in Newsweek. When Shana Alexander asserted that people have a basic human right to food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, Milton Friedman replied: "The heart approves Ms. Alexander's humanitarian concern, but the head warns" us of the dangers in her statement. "If I have the 'right' to food. . . someone else must have the obligation to provide it. Just who is that? If it is Ms. Alexander, does that not convert her into my slave?" Friedman's language is perhaps too blunt, but the fact asserted, namely that a right is a claim upon other
people, is undeniably true. This is apparent from one of the earliest definitions of right by Samuel von Pufendorf, a statement that was influential in the writing of the Declaration of Independence: "A right is an active moral power of a person to receive something from another as a matter of moral necessity."

One person's right is, then, a demand upon others. Pufendorf follows his definition with a two-word précis: Vocabuli ambiguitas. Rights are ambiguous words, literally "words that drive both ways." This fact is conveniently neglected by those who fight most vigorously to establish new legal rights on the basis of supposed translegal rights. The desirability of the right to the person benefited may be admitted by all; but before acquiescing in the establishment of a new legal right, we need to examine its drive in the other direction, in the demands it makes on those who must pay the cost of the right.

The highly individualistic view implicit in rights as currently conceived is not adequate for a world of more than four billion human beings. Our world is not the world of Robinson Crusoe or even of Daniel Boone. It is preeminently a social world, and social relationships are fantastically complicated and subtle. Whenever we contemplate intervening in an existing social system, we must be acutely aware that we can never do merely one thing. Quantities matter. A right that may be bearable and even beneficial at one level of population, may be unbearable or disastrous at another. Situation ethics is the only ethics that works.

In the past, freedom to move about as one might wish has been regarded by many as a right. Clearly, this right must be reexamined in the light of population increase. In the days when people were few, movement presented little social problem. In general, there was no reason to deny a person the right to move out of a community (though for the serfs of old this right did not exist). An American colonist moving into the wilderness seemed to present no social problem: either he made it, or he didn't. A person living in a wilderness is not obviously infringing upon the rights of others. But 4.5 billion people have pretty well covered the face of the earth. Except for Antarctica, there are no parts of the earth unclaimed by one or another of the hundred and fifty nations. Under these circumstances, to claim the right of immigration would be to assert the right of invasion. It would be suicidal for the invaded country to accede to a right to immigrate. It is noteworthy that the United Nations, though prone to assert far-reaching rights, has not yet asserted the right of immigration.

However, the United Nations has asserted the right of emigration. One has sympathy with this claim, but we should admit there is also something to be said for the contrary position. The USSR, for example, has denied the right of emigration to Jewish citizens who want to go to Israel. I am one of the many who have signed petitions appealing to the Soviets to relax their restriction on emigration, and yet I can see a sort of defense for their policy. It could be maintained that my petition is just the knee-jerk reflex of a person so immersed in Lockean individualism that he cannot see the social picture. An adult individual, after all, represents a considerable investment in the maturation process. In a simple society living largely by private enterprise, the investment may be made almost entirely by the family, so only the family need be concerned if an individual proposes to emigrate. But in a complex, modem, socialistic state, it is the state that invests most in the maturation of the individual. From a purely economic point of view, it is appropriate for the state to claim a right to control emigration since the would-be emigrant proposes to take human resources, for which he personally has not paid, out of the state which did pay. Such is the strict economic, non-individualistic view. I do not think this is all that matters, and I think it would be only prudent for a nation sensitive to the views of other nations to soften the purely economic conclusion. For our part, a recognition of the basically individualistic nature of Western rights might make our international demands less shrill, and hence more effective.

What about the movements of citizens within a nation? Should they be free to travel from one part to another and change their place of residence? The largest nation in the world, China, with its approximately one thousand million people, denies this right to its citizens. To most Westerners, China's policy seems a retrogression to the days of serfdom; but before we condemn it we should look for the positive benefits of a policy of restricted internal migration.

One of the problems resulting from free internal migration is excessive urbanization. The concept of urbanization is not precise, but in round numbers it can be said that seventy-five percent of Americans live in urban centers, as compared with only twenty percent of the Chinese. Excessive is also not a precise concept, but attests to the evils associated with heavy urbanization-crowding, crime, pollution of many sorts, and anomie. If a policy of
restricted freedom of movement can diminish "natural" excessive migration to urban centers, it is conceivable that a just accounting of the benefits and costs of the right to move freely might work out to the disadvantage of the claimed right. At any rate, the governing powers of China seem to think so; other countries should seriously examine the issue.

What happens to the beauty of an exceptionally favored locale when people are free to move into it if they want? Hawaii is an example in point. Many of the people long resident in Hawaii feel their state long ago grew beyond the optimum population level; they would like to restrict further entry into it from the other forty-nine. Any such restriction would appear to be unconstitutional, but Hawaiians are desperately seeking an argument to compel a re-examination of this point. To the biologist, the theoretical issue underlying such a situation is clear: the argument for restriction should be based on the "carrying capacity" of the environment. "Carrying capacity" is not a figure that is uniquely determined: it depends on the quality of life presupposed. In the case of Hawaii, the very peculiar merit of the environment is its beauty. Beauty is a complex concept, difficult to pin down in law, but clearly crowding has an effect on beauty. The present state of Waikiki Beach compared with its condition in 1930 indicates a marked depreciation in esthetic values. Further population growth can only make the beach worse. Ultimately, Waikiki may be Coney Island West. In the allocation of natural beauty we face a problem in the diseconomies of scale. Hawaiians have no argument with New Yorkers about the desirability of Coney Island for the East Coast-they merely do not want to see their state turned into a western version. Is the Constitution of the United States incapable of supporting the desire of a state to control the number of its entrants in the name of quality of life? It is not easy to see how such control could be exercised without a fundamental change in the Constitution, but this question will be raised increasingly in time to come.

There is another reason for suggesting that we may some day restrict movement in a country like the United States. All travel requires energy. As the energy budget of the average citizen becomes increasingly restricted, this reason alone may force us to accept restrictions on travel and on change of residence. This possibility is only one among many raised by the contraction of the energy budget. The diminution of per capita energy supplies is moving us into a world that will be categorically different from the one we have known for the past century. Only dimly can we see the psychological adjustments we must make if we are to live with a reasonable degree of happiness in this new world.

Probably no right now claimed is so revolutionary in its consequences-and, I shall argue, so indefensible-as the right to food. On 23 March 1976 an organization called Bread for the World presented the following statement to the American Congress: "We believe that every man, woman and child on earth has the right to a nutritionally adequate diet. This right is not ours to give or take away. It is fundamental and derives from the right to life itself. The Declaration of Independence identifies the right to life as an unalienable human right coming from God who has created all persons equal. Without the food to sustain life, that right is meaningless."

This is lovely rhetoric, but it is ecological nonsense. In a limited world, indefinitely continued exponential growth, if food is equally shared, will lead ultimately to starvation and misery for all – and "ultimately" is not far off. Every year another 90 million mouths clamor for food-another Egypt and Vietnam, as it were. The World Health Organization says that 800 million persons are now malnourished. The advances in agricultural productivity, most conspicuous in the already advanced countries, give little promise of decreasing the number of malnourished, in either absolute numbers or relative to the total global population.

The people in poor nations are increasing faster than those in the rich: about twelve times as fast, in absolute numbers. (The poor are about four times as numerous as the rich, and they are increasing at a relative rate that is three times greater.) Before we support a right to food, we should ask what this will do to us if we support also the right claimed in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Article 16: "Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family." In practice, this statement has been repeatedly interpreted to mean that the right "to found a family" means the right to determine the size of one's family. If people in poor countries persist in producing larger families than people in rich countries, and if poor nations are unable to feed all their citizens, and if we hold that the right to food means that the rich must ship food to the poor, then we are setting up a one-way siphon that moves food from slowly growing rich countries to rapidly growing poor countries. Charity then finances suicidal growth. If the world's resources are indeed finite-and
few doubt this any more-then at some time in the future the right to food will produce disaster. Considering the magnitude of malnutrition in the world, we can say that the future is already here.

Why are we not more acutely aware of this fact? There are several reasons. First, chronic misery is not news. A dog set on fire by an unknown sadist in Massachusetts gets more newspaper space than 800 million people continuing to suffer from malnutrition throughout the world. Second, where chronic misery is greatest, newspaper reporters are scarcest. How many reporters are there in Bangladesh and central Africa as compared with the District of Columbia? Third, we do not know what to do about chronic misery anyway. We have great dreams, we make periodic plans; but in our more realistic moments we see that nothing much has come of these plans. We doubt our political potency.

We do not keep our attention focused long enough on the problem of chronic misery to see that simultaneously asserting the right to food and the right to breed insures the perpetuation and increase of need. Every right must be evaluated in the network of all rights claimed and the environment in which these rights are exercised. When the human population was periodically decimated by such crowd diseases as cholera, typhoid, plague and smallpox, claiming both the right to breed and to be fed may have done no long-term harm (though such double claims were seldom made in those days). But the new limit to growth-sheer want-created by substantially eliminating the old limits (disease, principally) turns the right to food and the right to breed into a suicidal combination.

If these two rights have a translegal existence – if to use the language of earlier days, they are God-given rights – then we must bitterly conclude that God is bent on the utter destruction of civilization, that He must intend to reduce human existence to the level of the Iks, so movingly described by Colin Turnbull. Saying that both such translegal rights exist in unqualified, unquantified form is fatalism of the most extreme sort. On the other hand, if we hold that every right, “natural" or not, must be evaluated in the total system of rights operating in a world that is limited, we must inevitably conclude that no right can be presumed to be absolute, that the effect of each right on the suppliers as well as on the demanders must be determined before we can ascertain the quantity of right that is admissible. From here on out, ours is a limited world. Rights must also be limited. The greater the population, the more limited the per capita supply of all goods; hence the greater must be the limitation on individual rights. At its heart, this is the political meaning of the population problem.