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"Black Lives Matter" and Darwall's Rights

6:00:00 AMAlexander S. Anderson


Stephen Darwall, in his book The Second Person Standpoint, speaks of the intimate relation of second person speech-acts to rights. Integral to this understanding is the ability to makes claims against others: “It includes a second-personal authority to resist, complain, remonstrate, and perhaps use coercive measures of other kinds, including, perhaps, to gain compensation if the right is violated.” Central to this is the idea that making a second-person claim to a right is stronger than simply stating or arguing for the existence of a right.


You could explain to someone that steps on your foot that the action is hurting you, that he, in fact, has a moral obligation to remove his foot. All of this could be done entirely descriptively, making your rights simply known. Or, you could make a claim against the other, commanding or admonishing him to get off your foot. Darwall thinks that this second form is not only stronger, but that the possibility of making such a claim and having it be recognized is necessary for truly having rights.
The importance of these acts and their recognition is an important part of contemporary political discourse.  Recognition of second-person claims is central to social movements, including, recently and notably, the “Black Lives Matter” campaign. Starting with police shootings of black suspects, the movement has grown to campuses and campaign rallies (such as helping organize this large protest against Donald Trump).  


The rallying cry of the movement is “Black Lives Matter,” a claim that says, in part, that black claims should be recognized but too often aren’t. You can see this in the exasperation of Ta-Nehisi Coates as he defends these voices against the charge that they ignore black-on-black crime.


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The critics of the movement, on the other hand, seem to be using a different template of rights. By this I do not mean the most extreme, who often assume the victims and protestors alike are simply criminals. Rather, I mean those otherwise disposed to admit that the protestors have a claim. They are more likely to limit their criticism to tactics, or other points which focus on the effect of the speech, such as the supposed stifling of the free speech of their detractors.


I don’t mean to insinuate bad faith among those that detract along these lines. I believe that they hold their beliefs sincerely and seriously. But there seems to be a profound disconnect between them and their pro-protestor counterparts. I think Darwall’s point may help illuminate this disconnect. It may give us an insight into a deeper philosophical difference between these two camps.


The detractors, like Damon Linker, Nicholas Kristof, and others, seem to see rights in a largely proceduralist way. If all the procedure is followed through correctly, then no rights are violated. One can voice their displeasure, but for the most part the wheels of justice turn largely on themselves. The duty of government and citizenry is to follow the descriptive rights that Darwall lays out. If this is done, complaints are rather superfluous.


Those who are for the protestors, on the other hand, seem to be operating under a much thicker conception of rights. These do not stop at a descriptive view of rights and a proceduralist approach to carrying them out. They go further, demanding that their specific claims be recognized, in a way that echoes the point made by Darwall. This leads them to differences on tactics and goals with their detractors.


The detractors probably do not see themselves as failing to recognize people or their claims. Likely, they believe that such recognition is best found through the gears and wheels of procedure, and that justice will find its level once the procedure is made to be totally blind and equal. Justice is blind, isn’t it? But this blindness often comes at the expense of the particularity that comes out bright and clear with the command “get off my foot.”



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The descriptive approach to rights can often even hide injustices, as the universal, descriptive approach can hide inequalities. Like the man who only describes the duty to remove your foot from his, the approach can leave those with rights feeling meekly passive, not truly an agent of their own dignity. If Darwall is correct, then the dignity of persons depends on some things stronger, a more robust sense of rights than that offered by mere procedure.

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