Rights are one of those terms that have been so abused that it is generally meaningless without qualification(s). Many people- politicians included- are quite fond of arbitrarily designating something as a right1. Unfortunately, this tends to be based on whimsy wishes rather than a solid and consistent concept of rights.
As principles which define when it is moral to use force, rights leave nothing untouched in the arena of politics. Our views on income taxes, toilet regulations2, pollution, and every other imaginable issue are affected by what we think rights are. Thus, it is crucial for each one of us to give this issue careful thought.
A right is the sovereignty to act or control. That is, a right is something over which you have absolute jurisdiction; no other person or group of persons have any legitimate grounds to exercise control.
Any interference with this sovereignty, by violence (coercion, force) or the threat of violence, is a violation of right(s).
Natural rights were famously enshrined by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence:
“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.”
Boundary of Your Rights
What is the boundary, or extent, of each person’s rights? Briefly, my rights end where yours begin, and vice versa.
Let’s explore this a bit more carefully. It starts with your body: you are the only one with any legitimate sovereignty over (power to control) your own body. No other human has grounds to make a higher claim to this control than you do. This is sometimes referred to as self-ownership. By ownership we simply mean the right to control.
Scarce physical goods (land, garden tools, pencils, etc) come under your rightful dominion through trade or homesteading.
These rights to your body and justly acquired physical goods are all technically property rights. Because you have these rights, you have legitimate authority to do anything you want with your property, regardless of whether others approve, so long as you do not violate their rights– that is, use their property in a way they disapprove.
The following list is examples of things that you have a natural right to. All of them are based in your right to do what you please with your body or property.
It is important to note that when you are on other’s property (e.g., a theater), that property is under control of the theater owner. Hence, he can regulate or prohibit you from exercising your natural right to speak, for instance; since you have voluntarily agreed to enter his property, you must abide by his rules. This solves that “crying fire in a theater” problem. Yes, you do have the absolute natural right to speak, but only on your property can you be unhampered exercising your rights.
Here are some examples of things that are not rights (and why, briefly):
- Reputation (That is the sum of what others think about you; you do not own their thoughts)
- Goods and Services – such as Food, Education, Housing, Sports Car, etc (You do not have a right to the property of others)
- Employment (You cannot force anyone to trade goods for your labor)
Positive and Negative Rights
Your right to control your body or other property does not diminish the same rights of every other individual. These rights are sometimes referred to as negative rights, which simply mean a right to not be subjected to action of others. The sphere of our negative rights does not overlap or conflict with that of others. They are compossible.
Positive rights, on the other hand, are rights obligating others to act on behalf of the right holder. The only way these rights can exist without contradicting our negative rights is through voluntary contract; unlike negative rights, they are not natural rights that we are entitled to simply because we are human.
If I sign a contract agreeing to provide free health care to you for one month, then you have a right to health care from me for that period, as specified in our contract. But without an agreement like this, you don’t have a right to health care from me or anyone else, period.
We can now see why legal or statutory rights to goods or services are not natural rights at all. They are positive rights, provided by forcing others to supply the resources necessary to exercise said rights. This by definition violates other’s natural rights.
Origin of Rights
Natural rights do not come from other people; rather, they are ours by nature of our humanity (whether you view that nature as being created by God, or having come into existence another way).
In particular, rights do not come from governments or constitutions. The former are merely a group of people and the latter is a piece of paper, neither of which grant us sovereignty to control our bodies or property, since those things are ours by the nature of us being human.
Morality and Rights
There are two important points to make regarding rights and morality. Moral actions are actions that are considered right, virtuous, or ethical. A violation of rights is immoral since it requires initiatory (non-defensive) violence.
Secondly, exercise of one’s right does not imply morality. For instance, you have a right to speak; but that does not imply what a person speaks is moral. I refer the reader to James A. Sadowsky:
When we say that one has the right to do certain things we mean this and only this, that it would be immoral for another, alone or in combination, to stop him from doing this by the use of physical force or the threat thereof. We do not mean that any use a man makes of his property within the limits set forth is necessarily a moral use.3
Implications of Natural Rights
Thus far, we have explored the concept of pure natural rights which are possessed equally by every human being. If you’ve thought this through enough, you’re thinking this is nice on paper, but has radical implications.
After all, if each person has the sovereignty to control his own body and property, that means a group of people widely known as “the government” could not force people to pay taxes or obey any “laws” that were not already (natural) law
This is, of course, contrary to everything we’ve been taught over the years. Governments as we know them are “a vital institution for our survival”; or at worst, a “necessary evil”- as one of the founders described.
This assumption may or may not be true4. Nevertheless, it’s one that nearly all of us will cling to for dear life. I will not contend with it here; rather, let us briefly consider how we might reach a compromise between the beautiful concept of natural rights and the deeply entrenched legitimacy people ascribe to “the government”.
The theory of social contract says that we give up some of our rights to form a government which protects our rights and provide certain services. Only certain, specific rights are given up to the government, and all other rights remain ours. For instance, if we do not delegate our right to freely speak, then the government created by the social contract has absolutely no legitimate authority to interfere with our right to speak.
There are many flaws with this compromise, of course, one being that the individuals living under this framework did not necessarily consent to the social contract. I never signed off my rights, and I doubt you did. Nevertheless, it is a position that proponents of natural law and natural rights usually find easier to acquiesce with.
As with other contracts, a strict enforcement of the social contract’s original meaning is essential. Only those rights expressly ceded to the government should be exercised by the government.
Should due vigilance not be taken to follow the terms of the contract, the contract looses meaning and the government becomes a tool of control and plunder. In that situation none of our natural rights are secure, let alone acknowledged.
A “living contract” is no contract at all. In the United States today, the Constitution would be the ultimate social contract. Despite its flaws, the main problem with it is the prevailing “living constitution” idea which has rendered it meaningless (more on this in a future post). A social contract that has any compatibility with some natural rights must impose clear, precise, and absolute limits on government power.
Did I Break Your Utopian Meter?
Congratulations for making it this far; we’re almost finished. I suppose some readers are experiencing the problem of a broken utopian meter by now, considering the concept of natural rights quixotic. It is not; what is utopian is to claim every person would (perfectly) respect the natural rights of others.
I am under no illusions that violations of rights can or will cease to exist. However, the fact that mankind is incapable of perfection is not grounds for discarding the concept; in the same manner, today, we do not reject the sanctity of life because the problem of murder remains with us.
By nature of your humanity, you have a right to complete control of your person and justly acquired property, and you must respect these same rights which belong to every other person. Unfortunately, while there is a very strong case for natural rights, a complete adoption of it is not compatible with the near universal, religious support for an institution with the monopoly of legitimate force over a given region (a.k.a. “the government”).
Nevertheless, we would all benefit from recognizing that at least some of our rights should be upheld as sacrosanct, untouchable even by governments. The more, the merrier. After all, appealing to our rights are only useful in the present when they are widely recognized. If we would like to see respect for rights increase, we must first commit ourselves to respect the rights of others.
This was a difficult post to write; while I’m a long time supporter of the concept of natural rights, setting out to explain it didn’t come as easily as I wished. Further, a subject like this cannot be comprehensively addressed in a short article. It’s my hope that I presented a fairly accurate snapshot, though. This will lay the foundation for future Striking at the Root articles in which a person’s rights are referenced.
- An excellent example is the video discussed in this article.
- Rand Paul’s awkwardly presented but excellent points about consumer regulations at a Senate Energy Committee hearing demonstrates a belief in natural rights vs. the common view in which the state has a right to arbitrarily demand individuals use their property a certain way.(View Video)
- James A. Sadowsky, S.J., “Private Property and Collective Ownership,”
- A majority of humans may always consider initiatory violence legitimate in some cases. (Of course, this doesn’t imply the choice to be right/moral).
All images are my creation or public domain.