Henry Shue in his book Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy makes the peculiar claim that it would be self-defeating to say that one doesn’t have basic rights, since they guarantee the order of other rights (which presumably follow). To deny basic rights, then, would be to pull the ground out from under one’s rational basis for arguing for basic rights, since these more basic rights are the transitive telos in this hierarchical order Shue has going. We have basic rights, Shue says, in order to experience the “material substance” of other rights. I would like to point out that Henry Shue is quite obviously begging the question as to the rational basis for justified demands (which is his definition of “right”). Since basic rights–or moral rights, or legal rights–are necessary for positive rights to obtain, then Shue seems to think basic rights must be necessary. Yet no justification for basic rights is given, or even argued for. The existence of positive rights is used to persuade us that there must be moral rights justifiable due to this very contemporary scenario. The justification for basic rights, therefore, depends even more heavily on our intuitions and preferences about the positive rights themselves, which are much less justifiable without basic rights to begin with.

Pyrrhonism about ethical justifications is the only non self-defeating position to be in at this point. In every meta-ethical argument one must beg a question somewhere or insert an internalist assumption into the workings in order to arrive at a comfortable conclusion.