What Are Rights?

Article by Ben Doolin on Oct. 29, 2015


“Rights”… no doubt… it’s a complicated subject.

So, what exactly is a ‘right’… who has them… how do they get them… and why do they matter?

We should probably start with defining what a ‘right’ is.  A ‘right’ has the implication of defining what is ‘right’ vs. what is wrong.  I’ll take this a step further and suggest that ‘virtue’ is similar… being far more inclusive… but often with less recourse.  For example, it is considered virtuous to help someone in need… however ‘not helping someone in need’… is generally not considered a legitimate reason to use force against ‘the non-virtuous’ person.

Having a ‘right’, also generally implies the legitimacy of the use of force if necessary to respond to a violation.  So, a person… with the ‘right to life’ that is attacked… is justified in using necessary force in response to that attack.

Some people claim the ‘right’ to ‘things’… like food, water, air… or even other people’s property.

Considering those claims… imagine a small island with two inhabitants.  The first builds a shelter, a solar distiller to capture drinking water from sea water… and collects a store of food.  The other does nothing… until he’s cold, thirsty and hungry… then demands shelter, food and water as ‘his right’… resorting to violence to claim ‘that right’.

This example not only points out that ‘positive rights’ (i.e. the right ‘to something’) effectively enslaves others… but also that ‘rights’ (property rights in this case) are meaningless in a situation that has no capacity to defend them.  Effectively, in the absence of systems designed to enforce rights… they do not exist.

So, why build systems to ‘protect rights’?

The vast majority of humans… prefer peace and stability.  While a ‘might makes right’ scenario might sound good to the narcissist (with a built in sense of superiority to all other humans… so figures he’ll win every battle)… those with healthy brains will understand that anything you can take from others… can be taken from you… and without security, people will not produce as any production will simply be stolen.  So, safety, security, stability, prosperity and last but far from least… the general reduction of conflict are all gains that result from systems of social order that exist to protect rights.

Having ruled out ‘positive rights’ as they enslave others, what rights should exist… and who gets to ‘decide’?

First, the idea that someone can simply ‘decide’ what a right is… and who should have it… is problematic.  Any system that allows such… is going to fail for universality.

A primary criteria for rights… is internal logical consistency.  If the claim to a right is not logically consistent itself… it is simply false.

If we’re talking about ‘human rights’… then every human has them.  To exclude someone… you’d have to explain why they are not ‘human’ (for example, we do not hold infants to the same standard as competent adults).

This point is particularly important… as it exposes The State as logically inconsistent (i.e. false).  Either every human has the right to tax… or none do.  Either every human can legislate… or none can.  Either way… universal application invalidates both taxation and legislation as possible valid rights.

While I do not intend to create a list of the ‘rights’ that should exist… I will suggest that the right to person is logically consistent and universal… as is the right to own property (not a right TO property but the right to own property that has been acquired without violating others).

Since the right to person and property are essential for survival (you’re alive, so you’ve exercised both property rights and the right to person… every day of your life)… any system of social order that has the goal of reducing conflict… must respect the right to person and property… as people will fight to stay alive.

The State… does not respect person or property… having declared that they can take any property from any person… and do anything to anyone… including killing them (if you end up on the president’s kill list… or are attacked by cops that are charged in homicide less than 1% of the time).  The result is massive levels of conflict… with The Unites States Government stealing as much as half of all earned income… and has been assigned the responsibility for more than 20,000,000 deaths… which is low when compared to ‘more socialist’ & communist governments.

Where there is a general respect for the right to person and property (something most people think they support… but completely reject in their support of The State)… any form of voluntary social order is possible.  In the absence of the respect for person and property… the remaining alternatives are tyranny (what we have now) and chaos (in a might makes right scenario)… which doesn’t work for anyone.