01 March, 2012

Whence Cometh Rights?

I Have A Right...
Every day, it seems that we hear something about rights. We hear discourse on what constitutes a right and what doesn't, who deserves what rights, which rights are more or less important, whose rights are more or less relevant, and so forth.
What seems to cause many of these issues is a difference in opinion regarding just what a 'right' is. For instance, a fiscal conservative will tell you that it is a person's right to operate a business with little interference from a central government, whereas a liberal might argue that consumers have rights to openness from said business, and so forth. Clearly, there are a myriad of opinions on what constitutes rights, and who has them.
However, it is difficult to say just where the line ought to be drawn for the same reason. Do we have the right to be housed? Fed? Do we have a right to a successful career? A right to love? To happiness?
It seems to me that what is lacking from many of these discussions is an underlying theory of rights, if you will. If we were to agree on a source of rights; a process by which they come into existence, perhaps, or an inferential construct that shows where rights come from, then we might be more inclined to agree on what these rights are in the first place.

What is a 'Right?'
Before we get too deep into this topic, I think it would first be prudent to define just what we mean when we say the word 'right,' as distinct from, say, privileges or something similar.
I think that the easiest way to define a 'right' is to define what it is not: a privilege. A privilege is something which cannot be abridged; it is given by the governing body voluntarily, and can be taken away without moral consequence.
For instance, being permitted to practice medicine.  Nobody in their right mind would argue that each and every person should have a 'right' to perform surgery. However, we all seem to agree that certain members of our society who demonstrate the requisite skill ought to have the privilege of doing so, for all of our benefit.
Now, to the contrary, rights are something a bit more untarnished. A right is more than a privilege; it is something that a government must permit, lest that government be rightly viewed as immoral and unjust.
The right to freedom of expression comes to mind as a handy example. There is something about expression which intrinsically yearns to be free. We rightly judge governments who clamp down on expression in its myriad forms to be totalitarian and oppressive in nature. There is something within this freedom which seems to indicate that it ought to be free, independent of other factors.
Yet again, we're left with the inadequacy of our understanding. We must be able to distinguish where rights come from before we can judge which principles are rights and which are not. Again, some sort of explanatory construct is needed.

Common Explanations for Rights
Something like such a construct is often postulated by those who typically fall on the 'right' of the 'left/right' political spectrum: that rights are inalienable because they are 'god-given.' That is to say, that people are 'created' as 'endowed with certain liberties,' which they then proceed to define in various ways.
This would satisfy our requirements, to be sure. Clearly if this hypothesis were held to be true, it would follow that whichever 'rights' this 'creator' 'endowed' would clearly be the only valid rights; all others would be privileges or the like. 
However, what about those of us who don't accept the claim that such a creator exists (atheists, agnostics, etc)? Or that such a creator would bother to delineate rights (deists, wiccans, etc)?
Clearly, since both scientific evidence and reason point us away from the idea of a creator god, a better explanation for rights must be found.
Another explanation for the origin of rights, at least here in the United States, is that they are bestowed by the Constitution. Such a claim can be relatively easily countered by simply asking two questions:
Do non-Americans have rights?
Would your rights go away if the Constitution went away?
Clearly, the answer to the former is 'yes,' and the latter is, 'no.' But these answers drill a hole in the middle of the 'rights come from the Constitution' argument, and for obvious reasons. So, again, this is an inadequate explanation.
Call it arrogant, but I think that I've hit upon an explanation of where natural rights could come from without invoking a supreme being or claiming that they're bestowed by a mutable document.

Imagine A Person Alone
To begin, I'd like you to image a single person alone in the word. For sake of argument, let's imagine that it is today's world; indistinguishable from how the world is right at this moment save for the fact that it is inhabited by one person only.
What may this person decide to do?
Clearly, he or she may decide to write whatever they wish on whatever subject they wish. They may speak whatever words they wish. They may create whatever art they wish, and display it. And so forth.
They may go wherever they wish of their own volition. They may eat whatever foods they choose; those that are available, anyhow. They may wear whatever clothes they choose, whatever ornaments they choose.
Now, let us imagine that this person's world is suddenly populated with many other people but, as yet, there are no governments. What may he or she do now?
Clearly, he or she may enter into mutually-agreed-upon arrangements with other people, including transfers of property or social arrangements such as marital union or sexual congress.
Without going into too much redundant detail, I think that you get the idea.

But What Does This Have To Do With Rights?
If you haven't guessed it already, here it is:
I'm arguing that a 'right' is essentially 'that which a person in isolation or in a society free of government has the liberty to do.'
Now, there are important limitation on what this defines as a 'right' that are worth discussing rather early on.
The first is that this definition doesn't include things which our person has not the ability to do. Our person hasn't the right to suspend the law of gravity and float in the air, because he or she lacks that ability, even in isolation.
The next is that there are certain other things which are not, in this model, 'rights.' For instance, being provided food and shelter are not rights, because a person in isolation must provide these things for him/herself, and in our anarchist model, our person may either provide them for him/herself, or enter into an mutually agreed-upon arrangement to acquire these things. In either case, he has the 'right' to undertake the action which leads to being fed, or sheltered. Yet being fed and sheltered are not themselves rights, among others.

If we assume that this postulate is a valid explanation for where 'rights' come from, then it is rather easy to define, as we have above, what is a right and what isn't.
This comes into sharper focus when we synthesize this idea with the theories of Social Contract as described by, among others, Hobbes, Locke, and Montesqieu.
In a rather brief summary (I encourage you to read the works of the above noted authors if you haven't already for a more detailed, eloquent, and textual exploration of this idea), 'social contract' simply means that governments come about when citizens voluntarily band together for mutual protection and benefit.
An important aspect of this theory is that the people, when doing so, necessarily lose some of their natural rights. They voluntarily give them up in order to acquire things like stability, safety, protection, etc.Viewed this way, we can see that any government is intrinsically a body which abridges some or all natural rights, no matter how virtuous that government may be.
It follows, then, that the best sort of government (when viewed through the lens of liberty) is that which strikes the most economical balance between delivery of these social goods (safety, et al) and the preservation of as many natural rights (i.e. the abridgement of as few natural rights) as possible. In the context of the ideas I outlined above, this means that that government is best which restricts our hypothetical person in isolation the least, all else held equal.

Rights Can Neither Be Created Nor Destroyed
Despite the best efforts of folks on both sides of many debate to claim or assert the contrary, I don't think that natural rights, as described above, may be created or destroyed.
Let's look first at the creation of rights. Can this be done? Well, no. We cannot go back and give our idealized person in isolation any abilities that he or she doesn't already possess and, therefore, we may not give ourselves any new natural rights in the process.
We can, however, acquire new privileges. Privileges may be granted at will, and are limitless in their potential scope and breadth. A government may, if it wishes, provide all of its citizens with the privilege of being given a new car upon graduation from University. However, the granting of this privilege doesn't implicitly or explicitly grant the citizens of this rather generous nation a new 'right.' The distinction is important.
Contrariwise, rights cannot be destroyed either. They may be abridged, true enough. They may be denied. But just as we cannot go into our idealized world of thought experiment and specially endow our person in isolation, we cannot cripple and hobble him, either.
We can, and should, view any attempt to deny people of their natural rights as defined above as immoral, undue, and deride it as such. However, we must remember that we, as humans, still retain those natural rights regardless of whether they are recognized or not and they are, in that sense, inalienable.

You Don't Have The Right...
Clearly, when viewed through this paradigm, there are many 'rights' claimed by all sorts of groups or citizens which are not natural rights in the strictest sense. Now, this is not to say that these principles are not worth protecting as a privilege, just that there is nothing intrinsic about them which dictate a special consideration as immutable or inherent in any way.
An obvious example of this is health care. Many groups around the country have claimed, in my view erroneously, that it is (or ought to be) a right for each citizen to be provided health care throughout his or her life, yet in my view, this is not a right at all (for reasons that, I'm quite certain, are by now clear to you).
It is, however, a privilege which may be a desirable one to bestow on our citizens; at least, upon those who haven't the ability at present to provide it for themselves. That debate is one that can be had, and the fruitful result will hopefully be a policy which is at once economically feasible and compassionate.
Most emphatically, however, this does not bestow any rights! This does not imply that to receive health care is a right! Just that it is a privilege; a privilege which may or may not be granted.
This may sound quotidian or, perhaps, semantic in nature, but I think that it is vastly important to point out which ideals are natural rights and which ones are not.

I hope that, more than anything else, I have inspired you to take a second look at your notions of what constitutes a right and what doesn't, and where those rights really come from.
In the end, I think that liberty and freedom are things worth preserving, and they are ideals which are both increasingly important in our modernizing society and increasingly under attack by those who would seek to profit or gain power at our expense.
I urge you, reader, to identify your rights, and strive however you can to defend and protect them. For they cannot be taken away; they are yours forever; but they can be taken away.
And functionally, that's the same thing.

*Cue the Beastie Boys music*

1 comment:

  1. I really like the treatment of the topic, but it leaves one aspect untreated. Don't we have to define rights also in relation to rights of other people?

    I guess something can't really be a right of one person if it violates the right of another one. Although I certainly have the liberty to hurt or kill someone in a non-governed world, I don't have the right to do it, or how do you distinguish here?

    So I think this should be the third criterion, which defines right.