Why Isn’t Universal Education a Right? – by “Jonathan E”

In this post, I explore various philosophical justifications for why education—specifically universal (worldwide) education—is not a right. Then I argue for a reevaluation of our notion of rights that allows us to conceive of universal education as a right.

The Natural Rights position

“Education is not a natural right,” claim adherents of this position. (This isn’t to say that everyone who believes in natural rights thinks education isn’t one—just that some of them do.) These natural rights advocates believe that our rights (such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) derive from God or from Nature. And, they say, education is not one of those God-given or Nature-conferred rights.

Those who believe in God will treat their religions beliefs as nonnegotiable, and from such beliefs they can justify virtually any position (look to slavery advocates who used the Bible as evidence, for example).  Because religious belief too easily precludes rational discourse, I will not try too hard to convince the theist. For those who believe that Nature confers negative rights, or that rights inhere naturally in humans, I say that such a position is extremely problematic for three reasons. First there is an epistemological issue: Hume’s “is-ought” problem says that we cannot derive normative claims from empirical claims; since empirical claims about the world are all that we can reliably know, we can’t determine the validity of normative claims (which includes rights claims). Second there is an ontological problem: What do natural rights look like? What are they made of? How can nature dictate laws about how we should behave? And are those laws really laws if they’re not enforced by nature? Third there is good evidence for thinking that our ideas about morality and rights result from cultural norms and evolved psychological adaptations (cooperating in repeated iterations of prisoner’s dilemmas, i.e. acting altruistically when it’s not immediately advantageous, is an evolutionarily stable strategy). There: three good reasons to reject the idea of natural rights.

The “Education is a negative right” position

“I think everyone has a right to education; I just don’t think our government is obligated to pay for it.” This attitude reflects the belief that education is a negative right—one that cannot be trampled on, but also one that no party has a duty to provide. For example, the right to free speech is often conceived of as a negative right: no one is allowed to take away your free speech, but no one is compelled to give you printing materials or a megaphone either. Taking education as a negative right, then, frees one from admitting that one’s government is obligated to ensure noncitizens’ education.

One problem with this position is that it’s unclear where the dividing line between negative rights and positive rights lies. In many cases, the government must treat a supposedly negative right as a positive one. For example, my right to be free from violence seems to be a negative right, but for that right to mean anything in practice, the government must provide a police force and a military. Another example is due process: we tend to think that the government is obligated to provide an attorney for indigent defendants, because doing so is the only way to ensure that defendants actually receive due process. Applying this to education, it seems meaningless to say that education is a right if there’s no practical way for a person to exercise that right, other than the government providing it or ensuring it some other way.

Another problem is that it’s little arbitrary to call education a negative right. What is the principle that explains which rights are negative and which are positive? I don’t think there can be any such principle. Please comment if you want to propose one!

The Social Contract position

Many Americans would say education is a right, one so important that our government is obligated to provide even to those who cannot afford it. But they hesitate to extend that right to those living outside our borders.

This attitude can be justified by appealing to social contract theory, according to which the rights of citizens and the obligations of their government are established through a social contract. The reason Americans have a right to education while noncitizens do not is that Americans consent to being ruled by their government in exchange for their government fulfilling certain duties—one of which is providing some degree of education to citizens.

I won’t argue that this social contract position is wrong (even though I think it’s fraught with problems), because I think the social contractarian is correct in believing essentially that rights are what we say they are. As a result, social contract theory allows us to extend rights to noncitizens if we so choose. For example, it’s okay for a social contractarian to demand that his government intervene in order to stop genocide in a foreign country—as long as the majority (or some supermajority) of citizens agree that such intervention is permitted by their social contract. Since social contract theory allows us to confer rights on foreigners, all that’s left to do is convince the social contractarian that he should want to confer the right to education to noncitizens. I save this for later.

The “Rights don’t exist” position

Those who agree with my response to the natural rights position might be inclined to conclude that rights don’t exist. But all that my arguments demonstrate is that our old conception of rights (as being derived from nature) is problematic. We can reconceptualize rights to be how we want people to be treated. What’s appealing about this approach is that it allows us to say that people do have a right to life and liberty. It allows us to criticize people who act in ways we find repulsive. And it restores structure to how people interact, giving us the means to craft a society we find tolerable.

Why education should be a right

Rights are what we want them to be. This is where we seem to be left after rejecting the traditional notions of rights, and where we ended in “The Social Contract position.” So I guess now it’s my job to convince you that you should want education to be a right for everyone, because that’s all it should take for you to then believe universal education is a right.

Luckily, I don’t think there’s much work to do. If you believe in liberty, then you should believe in the importance of removing barriers to liberty. (And you probably know that education is one of the best ways to do this.) If you believe in reducing suffering—and you recognize that educating a populace is the best way to eliminate cruel and outdated practices, to reduce the spread of disease, to ensure proper nutrition, and to raise the standard of living—then you should believe in the importance of education. If you believe in equal treatment of individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion, then you should believe that the rights Americans have should extend to non-citizens.

Don’t let dumb philosophical positions dictate your stance on how people should be treated. Just be consistent and fair. Taking this more simplistic and humble attitude will mean better outcomes for everyone.

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