The Long Lost Doctrine of Individual Rights
Today people claim to have all sorts of ‘rights’. Supposedly there are ‘rights’ to free speech, free education and free healthcare. Allegedly there are ‘economic rights’ to “a job in the nation’s industries” (from FDR) and a ‘living wage’ (whatever that is, and however much that is). It is claimed there are ‘rights’ to ‘privacy’ and ‘rights’ to not be offended. There are ‘rights’ to believe in what you want and be free from anyone who believes in anything. There are even some who claim that if they want something, they have a ‘right’ to it – whatever (and whosever) it is.
But what is really meant by “rights”? The term’s real meaning seems a little long lost, because for over a century those intellectuals who are supposed to teach us about rights – in particular, professors in our universities – either have improperly twisted the doctrine (i.e., “economic rights”, “animal rights”, etc.) or have failed to teach it totally. This is terrible for everyone’s future because of the extreme importance of rights in making our lives livable. It is essential that people properly understand what rights really are.
Philosophically speaking, a “right” is an ability of a person to do something without the permission of any other people. It means to take an action of some kind. Rights are also called individual rights because ultimately only individual people have them. When groups of people collectively have rights, such as by voluntary private associations including partnerships, corporations and informal groups, they only do so by the voluntary consent of their individual members.
Individual rights are extremely valuable because they are the only known rules that enable everyone to live together in a way that allows them the greatest possible chance to achieve their personal happiness. Without individual rights, societies degenerate into systems where some people end up elites and others second class citizens. In these societies the elites have the power to prevent the second classer’s from pursuing their happiness by forcing them to live as a means to the elite’s ends, ultimately as de facto slaves of some kind. Examples aren’t hard to find, from primitive tribes to mafia-run anarchies to modern dictatorships.
People benefit enormously by living together. If we lived isolated from each other we would have to live by subsistence, spending so much time and effort on each and every task we had to do to survive that we would never get very good at doing anything. Everyone’s lives would be short and full of miserable drudgery. We would be like primitive cavemen trying to hunt or grow enough food to eat, protect ourselves from the elements, and fight off dangerous animals and other people trying to steal what little we have. When we live together with other people, however, we can enjoy the benefits of a division of labor system with them. With division of labor individuals can – and do – specialize at producing those values that they are good at producing, and then trade with other people what they produce in exchange for what they don’t have. This specialization and exchange allows people the time to constantly innovate and improve what they do, creating the great standard of living we enjoy now.
But a society where people live together can be dangerous because while people can be enormously beneficial to each other they can be harmful as well. They can steal through force or fraud the values others produce. They can unjustly imprison, physically abuse, rape, enslave and even murder each other. Societies where this behavior is widespread and tolerated by its rulers ultimately collapse and revert to primitive dark ages where people are such a threat to one other that the only way for anyone to live, is by subsistence.
To get the benefits and prevent the dangers of living with others, individual rights are necessary. Rights do this by placing objective boundaries on people’s behavior towards other people. Under the doctrine of individual rights, when in the company of others there are certain actions you can take without anyone else’s permission, and certain ones you can’t and need permission for. Want to drive your car? You have that right. Want to borrow mine? Ask me first.
There are two facts unique to people that give us rights: first, that we can consciously regard life as preferable to death; and second, that we can choose from among many different potential values to achieve our happiness. (For a thorough explanation of the concepts of values and happiness, please refer to my post “So, What are Values Anyway?” dated August 10, 2015 on the Broward County Tea Party’s blog site.)
Regarding the first, we can consciously understand all the happiness and pleasure that is possible from being alive and to a great extent avoid things that would kill or otherwise harm us. Lower animals, in contrast, cannot regard their lives as preferable to death. All they can do is what their instincts tell them to, even if it gets them killed. For example, I found a baby garter snake in my apartment in March a few years ago while living in the Midwest. Normally I detest killing nonpoisonous snakes but, because I didn’t want it in my apartment, there was nothing for it to eat in there anyway, and it was too cold outside for it to survive, it was pretty much doomed. So I took my rubber sandal and swung at it. It coiled up, stood its ground and struck ferociously at the shoe, breaking its neck and killing itself in the process. If the snake could’ve appreciated its life as preferable to death, it wouldn’t have done that. It would’ve seen the shoe, wondered if it could’ve won a fight with such an object and, if in doubt, would’ve slithered away into some crevice behind a cabinet where I couldn’t reach it. But it couldn’t do that. It had no choice other than to do what its instincts ordered it to: stand its ground – and die. The same is true for all lower animals.
Regarding the second, people can consciously choose both to be happy and how to be happy, from a myriad of possibilities. It goes without saying there is an incredible variety of possible vocations, careers and leisure activities for people to partake in and many different people to associate with. From all of these we can choose the ones that are of greatest interest to us and will make us happiest. Again, this is not the case for lower animals. When their instincts direct them to act, just like the snake in the preceding paragraph they have no choice in the matter as to how or any alternatives; they can only do what they are directed to. If their instincts direct them to something that furthers their lives, they’re satisfied; if not, they’re either frustrated or dead. But achieving any kind of greater happiness from choosing one alternative over another isn’t possible to them.
There are four basic rights: the pursuit of happiness; life; liberty; and property. The most fundamental of these, the pursuit of happiness, means the ability, without anyone else’s permission, to choose from among the available possibilities those values that are of the greatest interest to you and make yourself as happy as possible. For example, we all have the final say over which career choices we make, who our romantic soul mates will be, and a whole bunch of other decisions ranging from how and where to live, what kinds of hobbies and leisure activities to take up, what consumer goods to purchase, etc.
The second most fundamental of these rights, the right to life, means the ability without anyone else’s permission to decide to continue living if we so choose; we have no obligation to fall on our sword or commit suicide or allow someone else to kill us if we don’t want to. This right is concomitant with the right to the pursuit of happiness because, to be happy, you must be alive to experience it (72 virgins in heaven for Islamic terrorist martyrs notwithstanding, of course. I hope everyone understands my sarcasm.).
The third right, to liberty, means the ability without anyone else’s permission to take those actions necessary to pursue one’s values. As living things go between plants and animals, humans are definitely on the animal side of things. We can’t just stay in place and get our values by photosynthesizing the way plants do. Like lower animals, to live we have to act. For humans that means two kinds of actions: thinking, and then physically acting based on the results of that thinking. For example, to have dinner, you have to think about what you want, figure out if you have it in the house or, if not, that you have to get it or have something else, or whether there is someplace convenient where you might want to eat out. Then, you have to actually take the physical actions to get the food by buying, ordering or preparing it, and then eat it. To choose a career you have to think about whether what’s involved in a particular vocation interests you and then do what it takes to go to work in it, i.e., working in a certain type of business to learn the basic principles governing how it operates, getting a college degree, taking certain exams such as the MCAT or LSAT, going to law or medical school, completing a residency, etc.
The fourth and final of these rights, the right to property, means the ability without anyone else’s permission to use and dispose of values as you see fit once you have achieved them. It is a right because, if someone is to live happily, he must have control over his values. After all, what good is a value you earned if you can’t use it to further your life and happiness? For example, someone saves up to buy a house he wants. Then, he has enough to make a down payment and qualify for a mortgage for the rest. So he buys the house. Then (provided he doesn’t voluntarily agree to any covenants or restrictions on doing so imposed on the property by private entities with prior ownership interests in it), he can live in it, lease it, vacation in it while living somewhere else, let his children live in it, remodel it, etc. People can have rights in both physical and intangible property, such as one’s positive reputation (known legally as “goodwill”), contract rights, and intellectual property like copyrighted material and trademarks.
Life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness (and rights derived from them, such as under a contract) are the only rights people have. What nobody has is a right to obligate other adults to involuntarily obey their commands without their consent first. It follows that nobody has “rights” to things like an education, health care, a “job in the nation’s industries”, a “living wage”, or anything else that has to be provided from someone else. If multiple people are to collaborate towards a common goal, it has to be by the voluntary consent of everyone involved, such as by contract or other consensual means. The only kind of involuntary obligation sane, noncriminal adults have to other people is a negative one: not to violate their rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
Rights can only be violated by starting the use of either physical force or fraud against other people. The most obvious form of force is direct physical agency like beating or shooting someone (a violation of the right to life), kidnapping or wrongly incarcerating him (a violation of the right to liberty), or stealing his property (a violation of the right to property). Credible threats to do such things to another person are also considered force. Fraud involves making a misrepresentation to another person on which that person reasonably relies to his detriment. For example, a mechanic with a decent reputation who knowingly tells his customer he needs a new transmission costing $1500 when all his car really needs is new transmission fluid costing $150 has committed fraud if, in reliance on the mechanic’s advice, the customer pays for the new transmission.
But force can be more subtle than overtly beating, shooting, kidnapping or robbery, and it can also be used by governments against those it governs. For example, a government bureaucrat, in an effort to shake down a particular company, enforces regulations against it at the urging of its competitor. This is a violation of both the company’s right to liberty, to operate as it wishes, as well as its right to property if it forks over money to the bureaucrat or his cronies to get the government to leave it alone. (For more information on how governments violate the rights of businesses see my post “But Don’t Businesses Need to be “Regulated”?” dated May 15, 2015 on the Broward County Tea Party’s blog site.)
Rights can not be violated merely by insults or disapproval. This is because only force or fraud can prevent someone from doing those things he has a right to. If a panhandler or con artist, for example, asks a woman for money, his comments, suggestions or insults alone won’t compel her to hand it over the way, say, pulling out a gun and giving her the ultimatum of “your money or your life” can. Or it can be done by fraud, such as by telling her he will do something good for her with the money and, once she gives it to him, absconding to parts unknown with it. The woman, consequently, has a right to be free from the threats or misrepresentations of the panhandler, but not from him disliking her or calling her names or saying she’s a fat pig, etc. She has no right to not be offended by him.
There is currently an onslaught against rights in academia to define them in improper ways. For example, the liberty to think and act by speaking your mind is under attack by political correctness and defining of “bullying” to mean insults, namecalling and disapproval rather than physical force such as assault and battery. And, while professors look for ways to deny rights to people, they openly champion lower animals – for whom, as previously discussed, rights are useless – as having “rights” because they can “feel pain”. As previously mentioned, what gives any organism rights is the ability to regard life as preferable over death and the ability to choose particular values over others; the ability to “feel pain” has nothing to do with it. What “animal rights” really is, is a scam to take rights away from humans. For example, a bear comes into your backyard and threatens your family, so you shoot the bear. According to “animal rights”, you will go to prison for violating the “rights” of the bear.
This trend must be fought if we are to keep a society that allows people the freedom to choose the values they want and live happily. But to win this fight, we have to know what we are fighting for. That means correctly understanding individual rights because central to the fight is the fight to protect individual rights.