Three Views of The Concept of “Individual Rights”

There are essentially two views on individual rights today:

(1) They are provided by positive law, by a majority or super-majority. So, for instance, you have rights because a super-majority of people ratified the Constitution and that is respected down to today.

(2) They are based in some sort of “transcendent morality”. Provided by god or something like that. Without a supreme being there would be no rights.

Group 2 will criticize group 1 by saying that they don’t actaully advocate rights since they are just permissions granted by a majority (or super-majority) of people. Group 1 will criticize group 2 by saying that there is no scientific evidence for this “transcendent morality” that supposedly establishes rights.

The criticism that both of these groups make of the other has some merit. Since there is no evidence of god and it must be accepted on faith, which is nothing more than somebody’s feelings, then this view of rights seems to have no basis other than in one’s feelings. If rights have no basis other than in the majority’s feelings, then they are only necessary so long as the majority feels that way.

Ayn Rand proposed a different approach. She presents rights as an aspect of her overall system of morality. Moral principles are essential according to Rand because: (1) “Existence exists”. In other words reality is what it is, and has a certain nature. (2) Human beings also have a certain nature, and *if* they want to live, they need to take certain actions. (Grow crops, hunt for animals, build shelter, make clothing, etc.) Human beings must adopt certain “mental strategies” or “guides to action” that will generally lead them to obtain the things they need to live. These “guides to action” are necessary because the human mind has trouble dealing with numerous concrete things in reality without tying them together mentally and recognizing that they are sufficiently similar to other concrete things to be treated the same. For instance, if you have no concept of, “tiger”, then you will treat every such animal you encounter as behaviorally and physically unrelated to the previous tigers you’ve encountered, and you will fail to recognize the benefits and dangers of being around such an animal, and will tend not to deal with tigers succesfully.

Such “mental strategies” or “guides to action” can be called “virtues”. The dictionary has various definitions of “virtue”, but the closest one to what is meant here is “a good or useful quality of a thing.” A human being has a “good or useful quality” if he adopts these guides to action because they will help him to live. For instance, human beings must judge others to determine if they are a benefit or a danger to their survival. This is the virtue (the guide to action) of justice. Human beings must generally refrain from lying when dealing with others in order to maintain their trust so that they will want to deal with them in the future. (This is the principle/virtue of honesty.) Human beings must act in accordance with these principles because simply holding them as ideals without taking action in accordance with them will cause your mind to slowly become disconnected from reality and will make rational thought more difficult. (The principle/virtue of integrity.)

Similarly, the principle of “individual rights” is a guide to action when dealing with other human beings. Since other human beings can be assumed to want to live just as much as you do, then you must give them an “initial presumption” that they will take action to maintain their lives. They will produce the material values necessary for their survival -property. Just as you must not have your property taken from you by means of physical force without your permission, so must they. As such, you must adopt a sort of baseline guide to action when dealing with all other human beings. This is the principle of individual rights, and the specific right that encompases property is the right to private property. (More generally, all rights are subsumed under “the right to life”, which means the right to live the life of a rational being.) If individual human beings are going to live in a social environment and gain the benefits of living together, they must have their individual rights respected:

“‘Rights’ are a moral concept — the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others — the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context — the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.” (Man’s Rights, by Ayn Rand)

As an aside, the concept of “government” comes in because there is a temptation to “cheat”, and violate the rights of others while hoping that they will still respect yours. For instance, there is the temptation to rob someone at gunpoint and take their property, or just to pilfer it while they aren’t looking. If you are suspected of this, though, then others will use force in retaliation to stop your initial use of force. Government helps keep people honest by promulgating a list of prohibited acts that are widely-recognized as rights violations. Additionally, it isn’t always easy for others to tell who the aggressor is and who the victim is in a given situation. For instance, if you come upon someone with a gun held on him, is he the victim or the aggressor? Perhaps the person holding the gun on him was just robbed, but perhaps he is the robber? Government is created to provide for an orderly protection of individual rights by a recognized central authority that everybody generally trusts to be a rights-protector.

Going back to where we started: How is this view of individual rights different from groups 1 and 2? Both group 1 and 2 tend to present the concept of “rights” as something that is “nice to have”, but as unessential to the task of living one’s life. Both group 1 and 2 tend to think that a working social order is somehow possible even without respect for individual rights. They generally see rights as “altruistic” -a restraint from complete self-interest. Group 2 says rights are a gift from god, but if they are violated by persons here on Earth, there won’t be any consequences for doing so. (You might go to hell when you die, is all.) Group 1 says that the majority of people just feel that rights are nice to have, but think that a functioning society is possible without rights, and might even be more “efficient”. Ayn Rand says that “society” is nothing more than a number of individuals, and if the individual cannot live in society, then there can be no society. Ayn Rand’s concept of individual rights holds that they are necessary for the individual person to live in a social context, and that that “society” is only good to the extent that it is beneficial for the individual to live in it.

In essence, both groups today are partly right and partly wrong. Group 2 is right that group 1 seems to have no basis for rights other than the whim of the majority. Rand’s conception of rights isn’t “whim”, but the “law of nature”, i.e., the law of identity. Human beings are what they are -they have a certain nature. If they are going to live in a social environment, then others must respect their life and property by refraining from the use of force “as an initial matter”. I say “as an initial matter” because once a specific individual has demonstrated with a sufficient level of certainty that he will not refrain from the use of force to deprive others of their life or property, then force can and should be used in retaliation.

A society that tends not to respect rights will not exist for long because the individuals that comprise it cannot survive. Rights have a functional basis in the facts of reality.

Group 1’s criticisms of Group 2 has merit insofar as group 2 can present no evidence for their “transcendent” basis for individual rights. I’d also note that regardless of whether Group 2 is right about the existence of god, if they believe that reality has a certain nature, and to the extent that they want to live, then Rand’s conception of rights should also be persuasive to them, and can form the basic intellectual foundation upon which a government can be constructed, regardless of whether we all agree about the existence of a creator.

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I am Dean Cook. I currently live in Dallas Texas.