Wrongs & Rights

3 11 2010

I’m going to preface this article by explaining my thoughts on “rights” (as in ECHR).  I think it is unfortunate (but perhaps necessary in practice), that people refer to what are, in my mind, privileges that citizens of an ethical society grant to one another as “rights.”  Not because they aren’t right (as in right and wrong) to have, but rather because the language of “rights” is one of intrinsic, natural, “god-given” privilege.  Something that it would be wrong to deny a human being.

When I say they might need to be necessary in practice is because the defence of civil liberties is an ongoing and fundamental struggle.  To treat privileges as rights is to make them more resistant to encroachment, our “rights” are bastions of liberty, designed to keep people free.   When I say it’s unfortunate, it’s because it’s not true.  What we call “rights” are privileges we grant one another, by choice, as part of our social contract.  We have agreed (however implicitly) as a society, that members of that society deserve certain privileges; that to deny members of society these privileges  is to threaten society.  Without free speech, our society would not be safe.  Without the privilege of a fair trial, our society would not be safe.  Our society rests on the freedom of its citizens- from the power of government, and from one another.

We live in a representative democracy- people have a vote by which they influence the choice of their leaders, who act as representatives of the people when making laws for society (taking cynicism aside for the moment).  As such, people consent implicitly to be held accountable to the body of laws of that society.  We get our vote, we get our privileges and in return we follow the laws enacted by this mutually “agreed” body.

Part of the laws we have mutually agreed to be bound by include penalties for members of society who transgress those laws.  Some of those penalties include restrictions of privilege- such as freedom of movement.  We have agreed that some actions, if convicted by due process, deserve the sentence of temporary removal from society- prison.

Prisoners have had their rights (mistakes in the system aside for the moment)- they have had habeas corpus, the right to a fair trial, trial by jury, to not be tortured and so on.  They have the right of appeal, the right to privacy and security of person.  Nonetheless, the rule of law has, by due process, confined them to segregation, the intent of which is to prevent them from negatively interfering with law-abiding member of society, whose privileges they have infringed on.

Prisoners do not deserve the vote for two reasons-

1. They are separated from us to keep us safe from them- the vote gives them influence over our society, which they have been removed from by warrant of their actions.  They do not deserve influence over a society they are not currently part of- similar to how citizens of one country cannot vote in another.

2. Voting, like freedom of movement, is a privilege we grant one another as part of our social contact.  If you break that contract, why should you retain all of your privileges?  Punishment is a necessary disincentive to law breaking.

____________________________________________________

Taking the argument of prisoners to one side for the moment, and in light of the actual ruling of the Court (surprisingly not linked to in any of the news sites I’ve seen this discussed on </s>), it is pretty clear that argument (2) applies to all felons, regardless of imprisonment.  The Court took issue with the lack of proportionality of punishment (disenfranchisement), with the severity of the crime causing imprisonment (or in the original case, the reason for continuing detainment).  The amusing implication (for me), is that people are up in arms about prisoners voting, whilst I would argue that criminals should be denied the right to vote- in prison or not.

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4 responses

4 11 2010
me

If criminals are denied the vote, then it becomes politically expedient for one political group to try and criminalise the supporters of another. Also, there can be crimes of custom, and to disenfranchise a part of the electorate based on their custom only serves to entrench society and encourage dogma.

4 11 2010
Gareth

Prisoners are currently denied the vote. By your argument, it is politically expedient for politicians to try and imprison supporters of opposing political groups. Whilst this may be the case, it doesn’t happen in practice does it? (at least, not in the UK). So whilst “political expedience” may dictate one thing, practicality and, more importantly, the safeguards present in the legal system, will dictate another.

I didn’t suggest that we have a franchise based on custom either, did I? We aren’t talking about customs, we’re talking about crimes as defined by our legal representatives. If you disagree with their decisions, please vote against them!

That’s what I do 🙂

5 11 2010
me

It is not usually politically expedient to use prison to affect the outcome of elections, purely because the sheer quantity of people you have to imprison to get a decent swing is prohibitively expensive.

This is not the case with using disenfranchisement on those dubbed as criminals but not imprisoned. Also, how do you tell the difference between a criminal and an ex-criminal? And how criminal is criminal? How do you draw the line?

As for the custom argument, it is both a very popular custom and also a crime to consume many narcotics. If all those who had been caught illegally imbibing were disenfranchised then;

a. It would be much harder to get a change in the law, even if it was justified.

&

b. David Cameron would be disenfranchised.

hang on a minute… there may be something in this after all… ;]

5 11 2010
Gareth

Good point about cost. I was talking about losing the right to vote for the duration of their sentence, mostly on grounds that increasingly sentences are being moved to service in the community (which I support), however if someone is working to repay their debt to society, to regain their status as a “free” citizen, then perhaps they are not yet due all the rights that free citizens have.

As I said before- if people feel that the current law with regard to some of their preferred activities is not just, they can lobby (and vote) to change it. A social contract can’t hold if people are licensed to act unilaterally without regard for it.

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