What are Rights? Do Rights Exist?

What is a right? Do rights exist? They seem so intangible, yet philosophical constructs can be real.

A right simply defines a state of being; it describes a condition. “Right of way,” is how we describe who has precedence in a driving situation. That certainly doesn’t mean people can’t ignore the concept of right of way, it just serves as a tool for establishing who is liable if a car accident should happen.

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 arose without government, and governments actually pervert common law with edicts that punish people not involved in any dispute].

Saying someone has a “right” is a statement about an individual’s condition in nature, absent other parties. 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, and the assertion 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, and you can do whatever you want with it, until those activities effect another individual without their consent.

The legal basis of a right is that only the individual gets to decide what happens with his or her person. The base 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 should be held accountable.

In reference to human interaction, in nature an individual is at peace until acted upon by an outside force. Whoever wields that force is naturally in the wrong.

Justice is when a person who is naturally in the wrong is held accountable for their transgression of an individual’s right. Unless an individual violates the rights of another, it is unjust and unnatural to violate that individual’s rights.

A “Right” is: any activity performed by an individual that does not measurably impact any other individual without having gained their consent, and should therefore elicit no legal retribution from an individual, group, or society.

The reason all other rights stem from self ownership, is that all true rights are exercises of an individual that harm no one else; a person doing what they want with their own body.

Therefore, speaking your mind is a right; lying to defraud someone of their possessions is a violation of their right to property. Carrying a gun or other weapon to protect yourself is a right, pointing that gun at an innocent person is a violation of their 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 since there is no measurable impact. Dumping raw sewage in a river is a violation of rights, because it infects water downstream.

And the fact that it may sometimes be hard to decipher if a right has been violated, as with psychological trauma, does not change the fact that rights do in fact exist.

What Rights Are Not

Some people think rights are anything that they feel they should have, like education, food, and shelter. But if someone else must provide a “right” for you, it cannot be considered a right, unless you believe in slavery and inequality.

If someone else must be forced to provide for you, where are their rights? Or can the rights of some take precedence over the rights of others? That is simply right by force, so under those circumstances, whoever has the most guns, or biggest muscles, has the most rights.

But I don’t think most people would still support that position if they thought deeper than a knee jerk, emotional reaction of, “Well of course everyone should have food and shelter!” Which, yes, that would be great if everyone had food and shelter, but these things are not magically provided without work: they do not naturally occur without labor. Even berries must be picked, or a cave occupied.

Therefore a right cannot be something that must be provided, it can only be something that an individual is capable of exercising. It is the absence of obstruction, not the presence of a good or service.

Again, a right is a negative requiring only inaction: you may not kill me, because I have the right to life. Education, food, and housing are positives requiring an action: who will teach, who grow the food, who will provide the housing?

Rights only require the absence of violation, not the addition of something. Your right to live is a standard that it is wrong to take a life. Your right to property is the standard that it is wrong to take something which someone has been peacefully acquired. Saying you have the right to healthcare is statement that someone must give you medicine.

When you say things like, “I have the right to speak my mind,” or “I have the right to spend my money where I please,” it is simply a way of saying, it is wrong for someone to try to stop me from speaking my mind or shopping where I please.

It doesn’t mean these rights won’t be violated, it just means it is “right” for them not to be violated. It means if someone is victimized, and the victim wants justice, there is a legal basis for obtaining that justice since the aggressive party is naturally in the wrong.

There cannot be contradictory rights. If i have the right to property, then it is a violation of my rights to take that property, even to provide others with food or education. If I have the right to freedom of expression, it is a violation of that right to censor me for the sake of non-captive audiences who could ignore me.

None of this is to say that these things like education, food, and shelter couldn’t be provided for people in need, voluntarily. I’m not saying that if someone cannot get their own food or education they shouldn’t have food or education; I am saying it is wrong to violate others’ rights in order to provide them with food or education.

Two wrongs don’t make a right.


15 thoughts on “What are Rights? Do Rights Exist?

  1. Pingback: What are Rights? Do Rights Exist? | Eatgrueldog

  2. Hey Joe, I’ve actually been wanting to ask your thoughts on this real life situation.

    A couple of months ago I went to Jackalope Freedom Festival in AZ. It is held on National Forest land. For the most part I had a great time. I arrived on Tuesday, I got as far away from where it looked like most of the activity was to set up my camp. I like things to be as quiet as possible. If I had 4 wheel drive I could have gone farther, but I just have a little Ford Focus. Anyway, round about Thursday a group came in and set up a rave very close to where I was. Their plan was to have music from noon until 6 am for the rest of the week. Myself and the other people that were camped near me weren’t crazy about that idea to say the least. I always use ear plugs when I travel, just to avoid any problems. But I couldn’t even lay on my side because I could hear the thumping through the ground. I’ll leave it at that right now and tell you the rest of the story after I see your thoughts. As far as I know most everyone there was anarchist/Voluntaryists.

    • Hi Amy! I guess I would have a few more questions before I could form an educated opinion about the situation. Like, was there plenty of unoccupied land they could have set up on far away from other campers? Was there a designated or suggested “party area” versus “quiet area” to camp, like they had at porcfest?

      This is one of those cases where you just wish people would be more considerate. I get that it is a freedom festival, but part of freedom is recognizing others’ freedom as well. Since you were all there for a specific purpose, the whole argument that “if you want to have quiet, you need to acquire more land” doesn’t really work as it would otherwise.

      And still, there are reasonable points at which noise from a neighbor does become an infringement on your property, and these things are decided in dispute resolution to find exactly where the limit is. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I think we can all recognize that hammering from the neighbor building a shed is not an infringement, but eardrum bursting music is.

      That is the type of thing which actually would depend on community standards. It is not so much that the community gets to decide what the rights are, more of decide where the line is drawn.

      • Yes, I thought you might have more questions. Yes, there was a lot of unoccupied land. As the the non organizer of the nonevent said “Baca Meadows is a biiiig place”. There were not designated quiet/party areas. That suggestion was made for next year. I actually asked before I set up where a quiet place might be.

        I am genuinely trying to see how things like this would/could be worked out in a Voluntary society. Because there was no consideration for other people and if it had been a long term thing instead of a week, I would have never stayed.

        What ended up happening was that everyone was invited to a group discussion. One of the other people that was bothered by it already left, so I was the only one to stand up on that side of the argument. ( even though many people later came up to me and said it was dumb, unnecessary, a waste of resources, etc.) Ernie Hancock was moderating. It was basically decided that since it was public land anyone could do whatever they wanted and if I didn’t like it I could move. I was camping by myself and a bunch of guys volunteered to pick up my tent etc and move it to the other side of the meadow, where you could still hear it btw. If that wouldn’t have happened I would have been SOL I guess. So, it ended up being ok. But, being considerate of other people to begin with would have been much preferred.

  3. I agree with the points you make n this article, and I think the most important distinction is that rights are negatives that require only inaction on the part of other people. However, as a parent, I’m thinking that children have certain rights that must be in the positive by nature of their helplessness. So an infant has the right to be fed by its parents, having been brought into the world involuntarily by said parents. These rights get more ambiguous the farther a person gets from infancy and the less necessary the “right” is for survival. Obviously I no longer have the right to food and shelter from my parents, though I believe I did have that right at 14, at least in our society where I really could not have been able to provide for myself at that age. Then there are things like education, which I feel my children have a right to, even though they could live without an education. Still, I believe they can only demand that education from me, not society at large. To sum up, I guess I am saying that I believe children have some positive rights that parents can be demanded to fulfill because of the nature of the parent-child relationship. It gets tricky if a parent neglects to fulfill these rights because then these positive rights fall on people who have no obligation to the children. In effect, neglecting your child is a violation not only of the child’s rights, but also those of your community, who would be obliged to pick up your slack to make sure the child survives. As in your comments above, one’s community would be instrumental in designating a clearer standard on what does and does not constitute neglect. Am I making this too complicated? I feel like consideration of children makes for a more complicated interpretation of any anarchy principle that would be straightforward when dealing only with adults.

    • Someone actually brought the point up to me that in order to even exist in this world our rights have to be violated: we are born without consent. Interesting point, and I think you have just made me think about children’s rights differently. It is not so much that the child has positive rights, it is that in order to bring a child into the world you cannot gain their consent, and therefore have violated his rights by creating him. That would mean taking care of a child is retribution for this heinous violation of rights.

      I am joking, sort of. Thinking about rights in this way essentially solves the problem of children’s rights; parents have an obligation because they did something to the child without consent (brought them into the world), even if we generally consider the creation of life a good thing.

      Now the issue is the sentence: for how long must the child be repaid by the parents for their violation? And this is decided by community standards, just like the punishment for other crimes is decided by the society in which you live. This doesn’t mean rights are different, it means the standard of behavior is different for different communities, and the same violation may be considered more serious by certain cultures.

      I think this links back to Amy’s case, where if that festival was a tiny society, the community standard was that a noise violation of your neighbor was a very small transgression that requires no redress. But had that been a retirement community where the rave was set up, perhaps it would have been up to the ravers to make up for their violation, as opposed to telling the retirees, “if you don’t like it, move!”

      So I guess what I am saying is that even though rights are constant, how to redress grievances will depend on the culture. You say at 14 you think you still had the right to help from your parents, and I agree, for this culture. But there are some societies where at 14 they are/ were not children, and are already expected to be making it on their own.

      Rights are constant, punishment for violating those rights are up to the society in which the right was violated. That actually leads into the discussion in this week’s post about the rule of law, and how common law came about.

      • Thanks for your reply! Even as I was writing my original comment, I had the nagging thought that conceiving a child is a violation of his or her rights. I’m not sure if that alone would make me question whether to have (more) kids, since you truly cannot consult a non-existent human on the decision. But if their immediate violation of rights upon existing is accepted as a first principle, then it is easy to see the justice in providing for your own children. Pretty much everyone accepts the idea that you should care for your own kids; I just like that it is a thought that is consistent with the anarchy philosophy.

  4. Pingback: Why Common Law is better than Government Law | Joe Jarvis

  5. I can’t make the leap to “having kids is a violation of their rights” (lucky for you). It is a no brainer, however, to say that failing to provide for your children violates their rights as well as well as the rights of individuals in society who may have to pick up the slack. I also agree that the age at which they should be responsible for themselves will vary with the culture and the individual. Fortunately most parents want more than the bare minimum for their children and will gladly do what they can to provide it.

    • That is still a positive right though. It IS a no brainer that parents SHOULD care for their children, but unless a parent is repaying a debt, that is assigning a positive right to a child. You say that if the parents don’t provide for their kids they are violating the rights of others in society by shifting responsiblity. But what if the parents die? Who then MUST provide for the child, if they have positive rights?

  6. With regard to Amy’s problem I have to point out that the dispute was resolved without violence, and without government. Resolution does not mean that everyone will be happy with the outcome. This dispute arose because the rules were not clear, expectations were in direct conflict, and perhaps one party was not as sensitive to the others rights as it could have been.
    Anarchy can’t prevent this from happening. It can only resolve the dispute in the way it WAS resolved. I get that Amy was not happy with the result and it is to her credit that she accepted it anyway. If the decision had gone the other way the ravers would not have been happy, But note that no one left the scene in handcuffs or an ambulance. An agent of the government did not shut down the whole event. Sporting events deal with this all the time. Out or safe, in bounds or out of bounds, block or foul, and every time one of the parties is unhappy with the decision. But everyone accepts the outcome for the good of the game. So part of the solution is to lay out the rules ahead of time as well as can be expected, and the rest is to be aware of what others might expect and to not “import” rules from another setting that might not apply.

    For the record I would have been on Amy’s side since she was there first, there was plenty of space and it is unreasonable to think that everyone at this event wanted to party all night.

  7. Pingback: “Flight Grounded” is Now Free! | Joe Jarvis

  8. Pingback: 10 Best Quotes From Henry David Thoreau’s Essay “Civil Disobedience” | Joe Jarvis

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