Do you want to be free and live in a moral society that supports human flourishing? If so, you must understand the concept of rights and be able to defend the idea in conversation. Similarly, do you value all the wonderful technological products that are available today and the wealth you enjoy to be able to buy them? If so, to preserve these things you must know that the recognition of individual rights by governments makes them all possible.
We live in an age where the recognition of individual rights is being constantly eroded and things we have come to take for granted are threatened such as our freedom and our prosperity. Rights are such a new concept in human history that few of us really understand what they are. But without the knowledge of what they are and why we need them, we are vulnerable to losing them.
So, what are rights?
Rights are a moral concept. Morality is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions that determine the purpose and course of his life. We have already discussed the fact that man needs morality because he is not omniscient or infallible, and he is not born with instinctive knowledge. men have to figure out what to do and how to live. Thus, we need a code of values to guide us.
A right is a moral principle defining and sanctioning man’s freedom of action within a social context. On a desert island where there is no one else to hinder ones freedom of action, the concept would not arise. We can see, therefore, that rights protect the individual’s freedom of action from any interference by others or by the group, or the government.
Where do rights come from?
Traditionally rights have been attributed to one of three sources.
- A gift from God: The early advocates of individual rights such as philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) as well as others, did not defend the concept of rights from the rational perspective that we can today thanks to the brilliant insights of thinkers such as Ayn Rand. They claimed that rights came from God. Because God had given them to men, no man should take them away. But we cannot defend the concept of rights or rationally explain why we need them on this basis. There is no evidence for the existence of God, so how could they have come from this source? Rights do not come from God or any other mystical or supernatural source.
- A gift from Society: The second attributed source of rights has been that they come from society or the group, the collective, or the government. This is no rational explanation for their origin either. The group does not exist as such. It is a collective noun, an abstraction. Only individual men exist and can have rights. Society cannot give what it does not possess. The same applies to a government. It is is an idea, an institution, or a pile of paperwork created by men. Men came first, not governments. Governments can create legislation and pass laws. They can also grant ‘benefit privileges’ and they can withdraw these benefit privileges, but they have no power to grant rights. Rights pre-exist the concept of government.
- Natural Rights: This theory holds that rights are a self-evident or natural phenomenon. It claims that rights are intrinsical ‘out there’. This is not a sufficient argument to support such a crucial concept with so much depending on it. Rights are not intrinsically out there or in our bodies or in anyway self-evident. The concept of rights must be grasped intellectually, conceptually. They are not self-evident. One must reason one’s way to understanding them. Another reason this theory is inadequate is that natural rights can easily become supernatural rights, and then rights once again become a gift from God.
So where do they come from?
Man is a rational being. His nature requires him to use his faculty of reason to gain knowledge and to act upon his judgment in the furtherance of his life. This is his means of survival. This means to live as a man, he must be free to act upon his own judgment as a necessary condition of survival for his particular mode of existence.
Rights come from the objective recognition of the facts of reality and of man’s nature. The need to be free from the interference of others is man’s basic survival requirement. This is where rights come from. If a life on earth is his purpose, it is right for a man to think and to act on his judgment, it is right to keep the products of his effort, and it is right for him to choose and pursue his own goals.
The right to life
The basic human right is the right to life. It is from this basic right that all the others derive. Since life is a process of self-generated and self-sustaining action the right to life means the right to take the required self-generated and self-sustaining action in order to live.
The right to life is inextricably linked with the right to freedom, to property and to the right to the pursuit of happiness. You cannot have one without having all of them. You cannot deny one without denying all of them. The right to freedom (or liberty), to property and to the pursuit of happiness are implied by, contained in and necessitated by the right to life:
The right to life means the right to think and act on one’s own judgment (right to freedom), the right to work for one’s values and to keep the results (the right to property) and the right to live for one’s own sake and to choose and pursue one’s own goals (right to the pursuit of happiness).
So we can see that rights pertain to action, not specific goods, services or outcomes. The right to life is the right to think and to translate that thought into action. because this is a necessity of man’s survival.
The right to life is the source of all rights but property rights are the only practical implementation. Without property rights no other rights are possible. We all have to sustain our lives by our own effort, so if we have no right to the products of our effort we have no means to sustain our life. If one man produces and another disposes of his product, he is a slave. If a man is allowed to keep only a portion of his product he his still a slave.
It should also be noted that respect for property rights is the basis of all wealth creation through trade – the voluntary exchange of value for value to mutual profit. It should also be noted that capitalism is the only socio-political system that respects rights and the freedom of the individual.
The right to own property does not mean a right to be given property. It is a right to act and to the consequences of that action. It is the right to use, keep and dispose of the results of your own effort. There is no such thing as the right to a product, to a home, or a car. there is only the right to keep such a thing if your work to earn it. There is no such thing as the right to health care, there is only the right to act in a way that preserves one’s own health.
The steady erosion of rights
The destruction of the concept of rights is being brought about by the introduction of so-called rights that contradict the nature of the concept. You cannot claim the ‘right’ to a job or to a fair wage, you can only claim the right to take any job you are offered on the free market according to the terms and conditioned applicable. You cannot claim a job that does not exist. Economic so-called ‘rights’ are bogus and nonsensical. There are no such things as economic rights.
Similarly, to claim the right to any goods or services is to claim the right to enslave others to pay for them. This is a contradiction. For example, Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages…” But who has the obligation to pay for it? Who’s wealth shall be expropriated to pay for this ‘free’ education?
Why do we need rights?
We need rights…
- if we want to own our own lives
- If we want to be free to act on our own judgment
- If we want to live in a moral society
- if we want to enjoy wealth and to flourish
- If we want to pursue and achieve our happiness
- If we want to keep all of our stuff and not have it confiscated by government decree
- If we want to be protected from the arbitrary edicts of any governmental power or group of thugs
- If we want to be protected from the irrational actions of other men
- If we want to be able to speak our minds freely without incarceration or torture
- If we want to come and go as we please, and to travel the world
- If we want to enjoy peace, freedom and abundance
- If we want to thrive and live a fully human life
You only have to look at the historical lessons of the past. Consider Soviet Russia or Nazi germany, consider Pol pot’s Cambodia or Chairman Mao’s China to see the horrors that unfold when the concept of rights are not recognised and respected. Rights are the foundation of freedom and a civilised society.
The only way to violate the rights of a man is with force. There are only 2 ways for men to interact with one another, by the use of reasoned argument through persuasion, the other by force. In a civilised society, the use of force to coerce men will not happen. In a truly free and civilised society, all interaction between men will be on a voluntary basis. There will be no un-chosen obligations.
Common misconceptions about rights
Rights cannot pertain to a group, or to the collective. A group does not exist as such and cannot have rights. Since only an individual man can possess them the term ‘individual rights’ is technically a redundandcy.
You cannot have the right to things such as food and shelter, or to services such as health care. because they all have to be paid for. Claiming The right to stuff is claiming the right to enslave the producers of the stuff, which is claiming the right to violate someone else rights, which is a contradiction. You cannot claim the right to a contradiction.
Rights are a moral concept. Morality only pertains to beings with the capacity of choice. Animals and insects and Planet Earth do not have rights. Irrational men can cause all sorts of damage to all of these, but the concept of rights is inappropriate to address these problems. Promoting and advocating rational behaviour is the way to prevent these atrocities of irrational men. The term ‘Human’ Rights is a redundancy. There is no other kind of rights.
Individual men, women and children have rights. You cannot grant them or enforce them. All you can do is acknowledge them and respect them. The demonstration of the recognition of rights is by dealing with al men by reasoned argument, through persuasion and negotiation.
Why you need to know about rights
We need knowledge of individual rights because they must be proactively claimed, defended, and even fought for. We must be able to reason and explain why a free society is necessary and why it rests upon the concept of rights. If we cannot do that, if we have no argument for a free society, no reason why men should be free, then we will lose our freedom and consequently, we will lose everything we value.
For this reason, they are an essential topic of study on the curriculum of life. And they are conspicuously absent from the mainstream narrative or the curriculum of what is loosely referred to as a modern ‘education’.
Morality is a science and our need for it is provable. Similarly, the moral concept of individual rights is rationally provable and we must be able to defend it.
The content of this post borrows heavily from the great intellectual heritage of Ayn Rand. I am deeply grateful to her and to the many other pioneering thinkers of the past.
Resources – Useful Web Sites to further explore the nature of rights
Recommended Ayn Rand Non fiction: (These are affiliate links, I get a few pence if you buy one)
- For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand
- The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism
- Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
- The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature
- Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
- Philosophy: Who Needs It
- The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought