To say “I don’t believe in rights,” is like saying, “I don’t believe in language.”
Uttering the phrase contradicts your claim. Humans created language in order to constructively communicate. Language is real because people agree on the meaning of words.
In the same vein, humans created the concept of rights to facilitate peaceful human interaction. Rights are real because people agree (sometimes without realizing it) on what constitutes a right.
Even as someone utters, “rights don’t exist,” they are exercising their most basic human rights.
It is self-evident that they believe they have a right to live because they are alive. They believe they have the right to free speech because they are speaking their mind.
And haven’t they taken the time to ponder their beliefs? They have done so in their best attempt to understand the world, and thus apply that understanding to the pursuit of their own happiness.
Civilized Society is Built on Individual Rights
“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.” -Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence (emphasis added)
Of course, “men” in this context means humans, even though at the time women were prevented from exercising their rights to the same degree men could. And of course, at the time, a partnership between government and industry kept black slaves from exercising their freedom.
But Thomas Jefferson knew what he was writing. Despite his faults, he knew that he was setting the stage for women, blacks, and all people to be free.
And whether God, nature, the universe, Gaia, Allah, or whatever life force exists; humans are naturally born free.
This means rights are the free exercise of your will.
Absolutely every peaceful action you take is your right. When an action is measurably harmful to another person, that is where rights stop.
This framework ensures no conflict or contradiction between the ultimate exercise of your free will and the ultimate protection against those who would interfere with your freedom. This recognizes the equality of everyone.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote, “among these rights,” he was laying a foundation. Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness encapsulate every other right.
Another way of saying this is the right to self-ownership. You own yourself. That is why rights cannot extend past the point of harming others. Once your actions hurt someone, you have violated their right to self-ownership. You are no longer dealing only with your life, your liberty, and your happiness. You have affected another person’s rights. You have taken their freedom to choose what happens to their most precious property, their own being.
Thomas Jefferson borrowed this concept from John Locke who wrote that the basic human rights are “life, liberty, and property.” Locke also wrote elsewhere extensively about just how important it is for a human to have the unrestricted ability to pursue happiness.
The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty.
I suspect Jefferson’s marketing instincts made him change the wording. You always want to appeal to emotion if you want people on your side. Happiness sounds less greedy than property. And yet not only are property and the pursuit of happiness the exact same thing. Locke and Jefferson were four times redundant.
Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and property are all the exact same thing. And as we’ll see, these concepts have other synonyms as well.
Your body is yours. Your life is yours to live.
You may do with it as you choose. And no one else is justified in interfering with your life. And of course, that means you are not justified in commandeering another’s life without his or her consent.
Consent. That’s another synonym. Life, liberty, property, self-ownership, the pursuit of happiness, and consent in all matters concerning you. These are among your many rights.
And when someone violates your consent, when they stop you from pursuing what is best for you, when they act as if they own you, when they take or destroy the fruits of your labor, when they stop you from exercising any and all of your many freedoms, or when they take your life, they are wrong.
That doesn’t mean they will be punished. This is simply the best philosophical framework to facilitate peaceful human interaction.
It is the best because it assumes that it is a self-evident truth that all people are equal.
And it is a great litmus test to see if someone is a dangerous person. What kind of person would disagree with this live and let live philosophy?
Your life is your life, and when two lives clash, whoever caused the conflict is wrong. This is self-evident.
The fact that it is sometimes difficult to discover or understand who started the conflict does not diminish this truth.
What right does a man have to stop you from taking an action? Only the right to stop you from taking an action which harms him.
You have the same right to stop him from hurting you.
But when his actions do not affect you, you have no rightful say in the actions he takes. And he has no rightful say in the actions you take.
Isn’t this a self-evident framework for how humans should interact? Doesn’t it place everyone on equal philosophical grounds?
The fact that those who commit wrongs are not always punished does not negate the right to liberty. It is easy to see that the liberty of every individual is not always respected.
So humans create systems to enforce this framework. The rule of law or common law frameworks help to enforce the system of individual rights. Common law proceedings attempt to identify exactly when and where someone crossed the line from exercising their own rights to violating another’s rights, and punish the perpetrator accordingly
This creates a civilized society based on natural law by resolving conflicts without further violence.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Why would you ever try to stop a person from pursuing their own happiness? A civilized person would not.
A civilized person recognizes that every individual’s life is their most precious possession. And every person must have the liberty necessary for them to even attempt to make their life a happy one.
The pursuit of happiness is the freedom to forge your own path, to take the actions you feel are best for you. It is self-determination, self-ownership.
And of course, it is absolutely no guarantee of actual happiness. It is rather the philosophy that it is wrong for anyone to stop you from taking the actions which you deem to be most likely to lead to a fulfilling life.
If your version of happiness includes robbing others of their life, liberty, and property, you are wrong for doing so. Again, the limit of all rights is when they interfere with the free exercise of others’ rights.
This reciprocity creates equality.
You believe in the right to property.
I know this because you are alive. And to be alive means you eat food and drink water. When you eat and drink you monopolize those resources–you claim them as your own, your property.
They become your property when you exercise your liberty to pursue a quality life. Certainly being fed and watered is necessary for happiness, necessary for life.
By combining your labor with a natural resource, you make something your property. It becomes an extension of you. Because you own yourself, you own everything your labor creates.
Of course, advanced economies make the interactions more intricate. We deal with transfers of property and substitute payments for labor.
Yet respect for individual rights ensures society remains civil no matter how advanced and interconnected the economy becomes.
You cannot force others to labor for you, because that robs them of their property, their liberty, their ability to pursue happiness, and their freedom to control their own life.
Taking the products of someone’s labor by force is the same as forcing labor from someone. You stole what they created. You failed to gain their consent and thus violated their right to own themselves, to choose where their energy goes, to determine where their energy goes.
These are all different ways of saying the same thing.
If you don’t understand the meaning of a word, the word does not cease to exist. If some people incorrectly use a word, it does not mean belief in language should be abandoned. If people use language as a tool to confuse rather than communicate, it does not change the underlying purpose of language.
In fact, the perversion of language and the desecration of rights have much in common. How can we communicate effectively when the true meaning of words has been so muddled? And how can we interact peacefully when the concept of rights is so misunderstood?
It all starts with life, the most self-evident of rights. Since your life is your own, you are at liberty to do as you choose with it. You are free to use your liberty and do with your life whatever it is you believe will bring you the most happiness and fulfillment in this world. Whatever work you do in those interests, is yours to keep in the form of property.
These concepts are all inextricably linked, and all refer to the same framework which has built civilization.
Individual rights are the foundation of everything we hold dear. They form the bedrock of human interaction, meant to ensure to the best ability of humans, that all men and women are created equal, and have the right to do anything and everything they wish, in the course of determining their own destiny.