What is a right? Do rights exist? They are intangible, yet philosophical constructs can be real.
A right defines a state of being; it describes a condition. “Right of way,” is how we describe who has first use of a road. People can certainly ignore the concept of a right of way. But that doesn’t void the concept. Right of way still serves as a tool to establish who is liable should a car accident occur.
In the same way, a right serves as a natural basis for who is wrong in a given dispute. It establishes who should be held accountable in a legal setting. And “legal” does not just refer to our current court system. Common law is a natural law system which solves disputes.
Saying someone has a “right” is a statement about an individual’s condition in nature. That is why rights are expressed in the negative. It is not something that must be provided or given (positive action). A right is a declaration of the natural state of a human. A right is the concept that another human should not disrupt (negative action) this natural state.
Therefore, there is only one natural right, from which all other rights stem: self-ownership.
Self-ownership means your body is your property. You can do whatever you want with it until your actions affect other individuals without their consent.
The legal basis of a right is the concept that only an individual gets to decide what happens to his or her body. The basic right of self-ownership condemns non-consensual interference with another person’s body. Therefore the initiator of aggression, the person who violates another’s self-ownership, is naturally, and legally, in the wrong. And therefore, the aggressor should be held liable for the violation.
In nature, an individual is at peace until acted upon by an outside force. Whoever wields that force is naturally in the wrong.
A “Right” is any action taken by an individual which does not measurably impact any other individuals without their consent.
Since non-aggressive action is, therefore “within our rights,” it should elicit no aggressive response. Any aggressive response to non-aggressive action is itself a violation of rights.
You are within your rights whenever you are not violating someone else’s. If you are respecting the self-ownership of others, every action you take is a right.
Therefore, speaking your mind is a right. Lying to defraud someone of her property is a violation of her rights.
Carrying a gun or other weapon to protect yourself is a right. Pointing that gun at an innocent person is a violation of his right to exist free of death threats.
Some would argue that since every action has some effect, it is impossible to live without violating others’ rights. That is why a violation of rights must be measurable.
Peeing in the woods does not violate anyone’s rights because there is no measurable impact. Dumping raw sewage in a river is a violation of rights because it infects water downstream.
It may sometimes be hard to decipher if a right has been violated. But this does not change the fact that rights do in fact exist as a concept to remedy disputes.
What Rights Are Not
Some people think rights are anything that they feel they should have, like education, food, and shelter. But if people are forced to provide a “right” for you, their right to self-ownership has been violated. They are being forced to do something with their body–provide something–against their will.
Things like food, shelter, healthcare, and education do not occur in nature, they must be created. This requires labor. People must work to extract and manipulate resources. People must study to learn skills. People must work to deliver products and services.
But forcing people to work against their will is called slavery. That is clearly a violation of self-ownership.
That is the concept of positive rights. It requires an individual to act.
Self-ownership means you have the right to not be forced to act against your will.
These concepts of rights are contradictory. Both cannot exist.
Someone may have good intentions in attempting to force people to chip in for others’ food, healthcare, and education. But if we want all human interactions to require consent, then we cannot also force people to provide things for others.
Otherwise, we devolve into right by force. Aggression becomes okay when used to force others to provide a right. And then, of course, the right to self-ownership goes out the window.
But positive rights are insidious. Sex is the most basic human desire. So why shouldn’t sex be considered a right, as important as education? But what if there is a man no one wants to have sex with? Someone would have to be forced to provide him with his right to sex. Of course, that would involve rape.
Less extreme examples are a variation of violating consent. Suppose no one is available to teach a man. Should a teacher be forced against her will to provide him an education?
Therefore a right cannot be something that must be provided. It is the absence of aggression, not the presence of a good or service.
You may not kill me, because I have the right to life. That concept stops aggressive action.
You must give me food, because I have the right to eat. That concept allows aggressive action.
When you say, “I have the right to speak my mind,” it is simply a way of saying, “It is wrong for someone to stop me from speaking my mind.”
It doesn’t mean these rights won’t be violated. It just means whoever violates you is naturally wrong.
The concept of rights is a legal basis to settle disputes. It gives victims a grounding, objective concept to assert that they are owed recompense for a wrong committed against them.
Self-ownership is a concept required in order to avoid the most atrocious human rights abuses, like slavery, murder, and rape. Without this view of rights, all manner of evil can be justified in the name of providing for others.
When you see someone suffering, it is tempting to force others to help them. But two wrongs do not make a right.
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