George Carlin on Rights

Someone didn’t like my post on Hohfeldian rights on the grounds that there are no such thing as rights.  He cited a monologue by George Carlin on the issue.  Now, George Carlin was a great comedian, one of the best of all time probably.  And comedians often say things which are absurd and untrue, because they are funny. They often also say things that are true, and also funny.

It might be a disservice to Carlin to pretend his comedic monologue is meant to be philosophically coherent statement of his view on rights, but Carlin does seem to mean what he says, at least much of the time.

Unfortunately, like most things George Carlin says, while he is very funny, his view won’t hold up to a philosophical examination.  I found a transcript of the relevant monologue:

Here’s one more item for you, the last in our civics book: Rights. Boy, everyone in this country is always running around yammering about their fucking rights. I have a right, you have no right, we have a right, they don’t have a right… Folks, I hate to spoil your fun but-there’s no such thing as rights, okay? They’re imaginary. We made them up! Like the Boogie Man… the Three Little Pigs, Pinocchio, Mother Goose, shit like that. Rights are an idea, they’re just imaginary, they are a cute idea, cute… but that’s all, cute, and fictional. But if you think you do have rights, let me ask you this, where do they come from? People say, well, they come from God, they’re God-given rights… Aw fuck, here we go again… here we go again. [laughing] The God excuse. The last refuge of a man with no answers and no argument, it came from God. Anything we can’t describe, must have come from God.

Okay, so Carlin is making two fallacious arguments here.  The first seems to be something like “Rights are ideas; therefore rights are fictions.”  He seems to be assuming the principle that everything that is an abstract entity is made up or imaginary.

But this is obviously false.  Mathematical entities are abstract entities or ideas, and yet they are not made up or imaginary.  Logical entities, such as propositions, are abstract entities, “ideas” if you like, and are not made up.  Scientific entities, such as the laws of nature are abstract entities, but they are not made up or imaginary.  Metaphysical entities such as essences are abstract entities and are not made up or imaginary (unless you are a nominalist, but no one has ever figured out how to be one of those in a rationally coherent way).  The only abstract entities that are made up or imaginary are imaginary things.

Perhaps what Carlin has in mind is that it is possible to falsely assert a right where none exists. In this sense one can attempt to “make up” a right.  But from “some rights are falsely asserted” you can’t logically get to “all rights are falsely asserted.”  To see that, consider the parallel logical cases “Some accusations of rape are false; therefore, all accusations of rape are false” and “Some assertions are false; therefore, all assertions are false.”  The fact that someone can attempt to assert a right they don’t really have no more proves that there are no rights than someone uttering a falsehood proves there are no truths.

Next, Carlin is making an atheistical straw man argument, in claiming that any appeal to God is an “excuse” made by those “with no argument.”  He certainly hasn’t said anything yet to back that up.  One could just as easily dismiss all of science by simply declaring that appeals to “nature” are “an excuse” made by those who don’t have any arguments.

Consider these venerable words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Are the American Framers really so desperate and irrational as Carlin makes out? I doubt it.

There seems to be a core of truth in Carlin’s line of reasoning, which is the connection of rights to God, the grounding of rights in God, which Carlin uses as a premise:

  1. If rights exist, then God exists.
  2. God doesn’t exist.
  3. So, rights don’t exist.

But as we say in philosophy, “One man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens.” Carlin’s modus tollens can be answered by a modus ponens, thus:

  1. If rights exist, then God exists.
  2. Rights exist.
  3. So, God exists.

In fact, the “argument for the existence of God from natural, universal human rights” seems to be a version of the argument from objective morality, which is one of the stronger arguments for God, since few atheists are actually courageous enough to draw the full consequences of their nihilistic position.


Carlin laying claim to one of those rights he says don’t exist.  This is a funny riff. It leaves me thinking he’s not serious about there not being any rights.

Personally, folks, I believe that if your rights came from God, he would have given you the right to have some food every day, and he would have given you the right to a roof over your head, God would have been looking out for you. [applause] God would have been looking out for you. [applause] You know that? He wouldn’t have been worrying about making sure you have a gun so you can get drunk on Sunday night and kill your girlfriend’s parents.

This is a very common atheist fallacy. It is an argument that goes something like this

  1. If I were God, I would do X, Y, Z.
  2. God doesn’t do X, Y, or Z.
  3. Therefore God doesn’t exist.

The trouble with this, of course, is that it presumes that a finite mortal mind can understand the actions of God, which we are not in a position to do.

Next, Carlin is taking a comedic swing at the Second Amendment, but it’s a miss. The right to have arms has to do with the basic human natural right to self-defense, of one’s life, liberty, and property, or the lives, liberty, and property of others.

Thrasymachus and Machiavelli notwithstanding, might does not make right. Might does, however, allow those who are willing to trample the rights of others to do so—unless those whose rights are attacked have sufficient might or force to defend their rights.  No one has a right to murder me or to rape me, but the state can only protect me to a limited extent.  I have a natural right to protect myself to the best of my ability from a would-be murderer or rapist, and arms—guns in particular—are a damn good way to do it.  A relatively small woman doesn’t have much chance in a physical contest with a large man.  A gun can change that power dynamic real fast and completely.

There’s a Latin saying that Carlin needs to be advised of: abusus non tollit usum.  This means “abuse does not take away use.” Many things can be abused. It does not follow from this that they have no legitimate use.  Guns are a particular case in point.  You can also abuse a hammer to murder someone, or as happened recently in France, drive a truck into a crowd in an act of mass murder.  But murder isn’t what hammers or trucks or guns are for (although guns are  at least in part for killing things).

But let’s say it’s true, let’s say God gave us these rights. Why would he give us a certain number of rights? The Bill of Rights of this country has ten stipulations, okay? Ten rights. And apparently God was doing sloppy work that week because we had to amend the Bill of Rights an additional seventeen times. So God forgot a couple of things. Like… slavery! Just fucking slipped his mind. [laughing] But let’s say, let’s say God gave us the original ten. He gave the British thirteen, the British Bill of Rights has thirteen stipulations. The Germans have twenty-nine, the Belgians have twenty-five, the Swedish have only six, and some people in the world have no rights at all. What kind of a fucking goddamn god-given deal is that? No rights at all? Why would God give different people in different countries different numbers of different rights? Boredom? Amusement? Bad arithmetic? Do we find out at long last after all this time that God is weak in math skills? Doesn’t sound like divine planning to me. Sounds more like human planning. Sounds more like one group trying to control another group. In other words, business as usual in America.

This is an obvious straw man.  No one thinks the Bill of Rights is directly divinely inspired, even if God is the ultimate foundation of human natural rights.

Carlin seems confused in other ways too. He seems to have forgotten the 9th Amendment for example:

Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment IX says flat out that we have more rights than are listed in the Bill of Rights.

Also, we have amended the Constitution seventeen times.  Not the Bill of Rights.  The Bill of Rights is an informal name for the first 10 Amendments of the Constitution that were adopted simultaneously with the Constitution.  The other Amendments are the ways we have changed our Constitution.  That is why the Constitution has provisions on how to do that.

Amending the Constitution ≠ creating a new right.

And of course many of the Framers of the Constitution were perfectly aware that slavery was directly contrary to the principle of an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  They were also aware, however, that had they tried to abolish slavery in the Constitution, the Constitution would not have beet ratified.  They chose the path of a lesser evil, doing the best they could do, and it isn’t really fair to demand of someone that they do better or more than they can do.

They were well-aware that eventually the American principles of equality and liberty and the practice of slavery would come into direct collision, which they did in the American Civil War, one of the bloodiest human conflicts of all time, which finally removed the cancerous stain of slavery from the Americas.

Now, if you think you do have rights, one last assignment for you. Next time you’re at the computer, get on the Internet, go to Wikipedia. When you get to Wikipedia, in the search field for Wikipedia, I want you to type in “Japanese Americans 1942,” and you’ll find out all about your precious fucking rights, okay? [applause] All right. You know about it. You know about it. Ya.

In 1942, there were a 110,000 Japanese American citizens in good standing, law-abiding people, who were thrown into internment camps simply because their parents were born in the wrong country. That’s all they did wrong. They had no right to a lawyer, no right to a fair trial, no right to a jury of their peers, no right to due process of any kind. The only right they had, “right this way” – into the internment camps. Just when these American citizens needed their rights the most, their government took ’em away. And rights aren’t rights if someone can take ’em away. They’re privileges, that’s all we’ve ever had in this country, is a bill of temporary privileges. And if you read the news even badly, you know that every year the list gets shorter and shorter and shorter. [applause] You see what I was saying…

This is a non sequitur.  The failure of the American government, or any government, to honor or respect the rights of its citizens or the natural rights of all human beings doesn’t lead to the conclusion that rights don’t exist.

If there were no violation of justice in the interment of Japanese Americans, no violation of justice in slavery, why on earth is Carlin upset? Without the ideas of justice and right (ius is just Latin for “right”), all that happened is that some people forced others to be their property, and at another time, some people forced an minority into internment camps for not very good reason that they shared an broad ethnicity with the people of a country with whom we were at war.

Neither slavery nor the Japanese Interment seem like anything to get upset about … if there are no rights.  If there are no rights, as Carlin is saying, or rather, if rights are made up, there seems to be nothing wrong with making up unequal rights.  Why not, if you have the raw power to do so? Carlin, oddly for him, seems to be endorsing the core principle of fascism: rights are simply arbitrary conventions imposed by anyone with the will and power to do so.

But in fact his moral outrage over slavery and the Japanese Interment gives the game away.  He thinks these were clear cases of injustice, and they make him seethe with anger.  And he’s not wrong to. But since justice is giving each their desert, injustice is either giving someone something they don’t deserve or taking something from someone they don’t deserve. In other words, all cases of injustice can be formulated as a violation of rights.  But slavery and interment self-evidently violated their victims’ rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“Rights aren’t rights if someone can take ’em away.”  Strictly speaking, no one can take away a right from someone.  But they can violate the rights of another person. Carlin is emphatic (and correct) than the Japanese-Americans did nothing wrong. But that presupposes there is such a thing as wrong. Carlin seems to be admitting that it would not be unjust to lock up, for example, an actual traitor.

I think this statement is Carlin’s basic confusion about rights.  He thinks the fact that rights can be violate means they weren’t really rights.  “If a right can be violated, it isn’t really a right.” But consider these parallel claims:

“If a truth can be denied, it isn’t really a truth.”

“If property can be stolen, it isn’t really property.”

“If a belief can be false, it isn’t really a belief.”

Carlin seems to committing a kind of Nirvana fallacy, where he holds that rights should be somehow built into reality not as the are, as OUGHTS, but as NATURAL LAWS.  He seems to think the only way I could have a right to life is if I were unkillable, or a right not to be raped if I were unrapable.

That sounds nice, but it isn’t the reality we live in.  We are all subject to violence and violation of our rights.  How on earth does it follow from the fact that our rights, just by themselves, can’t protect us from those who are willing to violate our rights, that they aren’t rights? It obviously doesn’t follow.  Carlin is setting up an impossible standard, and then pretending to be indignant that the standard is not met.

Yeah… sooner or later the people in this country gonna realize the government does not give a fuck about them. The government doesn’t care about you, or your children, or your rights, or your welfare, or your safety, it simply doesn’t give a fuck about you. It’s interested in its own power, that’s the only thing, keeping it and expanding it wherever possible.

“The government” isn’t the kind of entity that can either give a fuck or not give a fuck.  Governments are creations of imperfect, flawed, human beings, to try to establish a community to the best of our ability.  Let’s go back to the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

According to the American Founders, the primary function of Government is to secure our natural rights.  Note that the Government does not give or take rights. The rights are there regardless. But Governments can go bad and “become destructive to these ends.”  In the fact of the prospect of a Government that is violating the rights of the People, or simply failing to “secure” them, the Founders assert a Right of the People “to alter or abolish” the Government in question.

Maybe Carlin is correct to think that the American Government has become corrupt.  Even so, this wouldn’t be evidence that rights do not exist. The failure of the Government to secure the rights of the People is how we know it is corrupt.  And the People always retain a right to fix it.




4 comments on “George Carlin on Rights

  1. Grendel_the_Dog says:

    I like your post on the whole, but there’s a problem with your “One man’s modus ponens…” point. You write (and seem to endorse):

    1. If God exists, then rights exist.
    2; Rights exist.
    3. So, God exists.

    But that isn’t MT, it’s affirming the consequent. And Carlin’s argument, as you reconstruct it, denies the antecedent.

    I think what you really mean requires changing the first premise, both of what you imagine Carlin’s argument to be and your own, to: If rights exist, then God exists. And insofar as there’s something worth reconstructing in Carlin’s argument, he’s claiming that since God doesn’t exist, neither do rights.

    Of course, that premise begs the question against lots of reputable accounts of rights, but that’s another matter. Your first premise begs the question about various theological views, I suppose, but that’s even farther afield.


    • Eve Keneinan says:

      You are correct. I was tired, and it was late at night. Fixed it. Even a professional logician like me sometimes gets tangled up by affirming the consequent or denying the antecedent.

      The point is still sound. The premise recognizes an entailment between rights and God, and one can deny rights by denying God, as Carlin does, or one can affirm God by affirming rights.

      Both are valid (now).


      • Grendel_the_Dog says:

        That’s why I revise everything 50 times, and could never blog!

        Another possibility, of course, is that there isn’t such an entailment at all. In either direction.


        • Eve Keneinan says:

          It’s valid anyhow. Whether it is a true premise would be a much longer discussion. Here, I limit myself by invoking the authority of the American Founders to show it is not an utterly implausible or false on its face entailment.


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