I posted the following on Facebook the other day:

I don’t think most people have a very clear idea of what a “right” is. Conversationally and in the news, the concept of a right seems to range from a basic human need (food, shelter) to abstractions about life in society (property, movement) to social expectations that might vary by time and culture (harassment, religion).

I think there are some elements of truth in varying degree to each one of those, but we rarely ever encounter any clear definition of the term that people agree on. And I think a lot of our political discussions would go a lot farther if we did have more agreement on that term.

Some questions that we might be able to discuss in a more coherent way might be:

– How should we regard immigrants, legal and illegal?
– Do individuals have the right to amass/hoard huge sums of wealth and money?
– Is it proper for people to have unfettered access to own and carry guns? Knives? Bombs? Poison gas?
– Is healthcare a right?
– Do unborn humans have rights?

[Sidebar: I saw someone share a meme that asked people to share if they think fetuses are human beings. I didn’t share it because I think only human fetuses are human. Other fetuses from other species are not human beings.]

I’m always curious to know what people who disagree with me in the realm of politics think a right is. I don’t mean a list of rights. I mean a guiding definition or principle that would allow me to identify what is and is not a right without having a list in front of me.

It’s because I do have a clear definition of a right in mind that my imagined ideal society has some pretty extreme characteristics to it. But many of those things are obviously unworkable in our society today for all sorts of reasons because we haven’t solved a lot of related issues and we have a long history of not being an ideal society that has yet to be overcome. That’s why you don’t often hear me getting into loud arguments about how we should legalize all drugs or anything like that.

It’s also why I tend to take such hard stances on particular issues; why I am not aligned with either of our major parties; and why I make the choices my make when it comes to voting.

But in this post I’m trying hard not to force what I believe to be the definition of a right on anyone, because I’m mostly writing this post for folks on both sides of the political spectrum who don’t agree with me, so I’m going to take a socratic approach and ask a few questions that I think are worth pondering if you don’t already have a clear concept of what a right is.

– Does a person have a right to be immoral?
– Can two or more people share a right?
– Can one person claim a right that limits or infringes on the rights of another person?
– Can one person claim a right that allows them to force/compel/coerce another person to do something?
– Under what conditions could a person claim a right that forbids another person from taking a particular action?
– Why do we even need rights?
– How is it that we have rights in the first place?
– Do people need permission to exercise their rights? If so, from whom and on what basis would it be given or not? 
– Is it possible for someone to exploit another person without violating their rights?
– What is the role of government with regard to rights? Does the role of government extend beyond its connection to our rights? If so, how? If not, why not?


Some other friends commented that they wanted to share the post because they liked it. When I started writing this post, I only had one friend take it in the spirit it was intended and started a thought-provoking discussion about how they see the concept of “rights.” We don’t agree, but I got a lot out of it and I hope they did as well.

One thing was very clear in our discussion: throughout history there have been many claims about what is and is not a right. Some think kings and lords have claimed the right to have sex with subordinate women on their wedding night. Nazis thought they were in their rights to torture and kill Jews, non-Aryans, and homosexuals. Early Americans thought they had the right to own other humans. So, it’s not unreasonable to think that “right” is just a concept thrown around to lend gravitas to what are essentially just cultural norms, ulterior motives, flights of fancy, or mob rule.

I do not think that’s what rights are. I think having a strong, objective, rational concept of rights is vitally important for making decisions about what constitutes freedom and good governance.

So, I thought I’d come to my oft-neglected blog and answer some of the questions I asked as they apply to the way I see rights and I’ll do my best to explain why I think this is the correct way to think about rights.


Does a person have a right to be immoral?
Sure. Rights establish conditions under which any moral action may be taken. But it doesn’t mean only moral actions. Because rights are conditions about humans living among one another and one can be immoral all by one’s self, rights do allow you to undertake unethical actions as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of other. but it means all moral actions along with some subset of immoral actions.

I think it’s worth pointing out here because it will come up a lot in the next questions, the purpose of morality is to enable us to pursue our thriving. “Good” is that which promotes that. “Bad” is that which detracts from or limits our happiness.

Rights don’t tell you what you cannot do nor do they tell you what you must do. They don’t tell you to be moral. They only establish what you must be allowed to do so that you might thrive as a human being.

Can two or more people share a right?
No. I find it easiest to think of rights as the social rules necessary for humans to thrive in society. Outside of limited-time (such as pregnancy) or extremely unusual (as with conjoined twins) or emergency situations, one’s life does not depend on anyone else’s. And rights are about thriving. Any set of rules like rights that attempts to establish the conditions for a pair of individuals thriving would have to first rest on a concept of individual rights.

I do think it’s notable that it is for lack of better terminology that there are situations in which we use the term “rights” to refer to some collective action as in the case of “states’ rights.” I’m not going to get into it here, but I believe that particular idea is actually just a restatement of concepts of sovereignty. Here’s a good write-up on that.

Can one person claim a right that limits or infringes on the rights of another person?
Can one person claim a right that allows them to force/compel/coerce another person to do something?
For both questions for the same reasons, no.

So much of what I think is a proper conception of rights hinges on the fact that they pertain to individuals and not groups. Humans as animals have separate biological machines, bodies from other humans. Further, as rational animals, our happiness is sought and enjoyed in a similarly solitary fashion. Even if two people are happy together, their experience is individual. So, rights are individual.

An example of something that has been claimed as a right, but violates this rule is slavery. The owner claims a right of property over another and violates their rights to their person, property, and even life. And because it violates this rule, I do not believe anyone can legitimately claim the right to own another human being.

It’s also for this reason that I think abortion is a right of any woman anywhere at any time. For practical reasons and basic benevolence, I think it would be wise and proper for a woman considering an abortion at a late stage in her pregnancy to consider giving birth or otherwise not ending the potential life inside of her. But if we are to respect rights, I don’t believe it’s proper to limit abortion by law.

Aside: for reasons that are still not completely clear to me, a lot of people have been talking about killing babies after the mother gives birth. At that point, the baby is an independent, individual being and killing such a baby would clearly be murder. The concept of rights I’m describing prohibits murder.

Under what conditions could a person claim a right that forbids another person from taking a particular action?
If the action in question violates their rights.

I have a car and because it’s my property, it’s my right to drive it. But if I were to drive my car through someone else’s living room, I would be violating their property rights.

Why do we even need rights?
I like the way it’s described 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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.


Rights are the necessary conditions for humans to both live among one another and individually achieve and maintain happiness or, as I prefer to say, their thriving.

The particular systems by which we establish these conditions among one another is what we call “government.” But if people don’t agree on what rights are, they will not agree on what type of government is best. And that’s actually one of the more basic philosophical reasons why we see so much political divisiveness in America today.

How is it that we have rights in the first place?
This is a very important question.

My friend who talked about rights with me on Facebook holds a subjective view of rights. He thinks that as long as most people in a society agree on something (or at least go along with it) and make it a law, then it’s a right.

I hold an objective view of the origin of rights. It’s a view often described as a “natural rights” rights view because I think rights are derived from the facts of reality themselves. Specifically, the rights we have are a direct result of what humans are and the peculiar needs we have in order to pursue our thriving.

So, what are humans? I tend to take the aristotelean view that humans are “rational animals.” I’ll spare you a lecture on what that means and simply point out that this definition attempts to highly that we are biological beings (animals) with a particular conceptual capacity (rational).

So, rights aren’t things we need because we’re animals, things like food, shelter, and beer. And they aren’t things we need simply because we’re rational, which would be things that a robot might ask for.

They’re things we need because we are rational AND animals. Our right to our life, our property, our bodies/persons, and our free association with one another. That’s not an exhaustive list, but merely representative of the sorts of conditions necessary for a rational animal to thrive.

This view of rights is important because it’s also objective. It doesn’t matter how many people think otherwise, unless it’s shown that humans aren’t human, these are the rights we need protected.

Do people need permission to exercise their rights? If so, from whom and on what basis would it be given or not? 
No, they do not. And if you see rights the way I do, this question may have your hackles up.

Can you imagine if someone came into your house and said you were no longer allowed to wipe your own butt? What if someone tried to make a law that you had to apply for a license to go on living every year and, if denied, you’d have to kill yourself? It sounds preposterous, but that’s exactly how I see this question. It’s preposterous!

And that’s why so many libertarian people get so grumpy about licensure laws, zoning ordinances (Thanks, racism!), and other such things.

Is it possible for someone to exploit another person without violating their rights?
Not really, but it depends on what you mean by “exploit.”

I’ve heard a couple of people argue recently that billionaires shouldn’t exist because they should use that money to pay employees more money. OK. That’s debatable, but let’s take that as true for a minute. They then say that because they aren’t doing that, they’re “exploiting” their employees. That’s a very broad and casual use of the term and not what I typically think of when someone says “exploit.”

When someone says “exploit” I tend to think of situations where someone defrauds or takes some unfair advantage of another. And I think fraud is rightly a crime and a violation of someone’s rights.

So, if you’re talking about actual deception and fraud or coercion or something like that, then no, it’s not possible to both exploit someone and respect their rights.

If you’re talking about engaging in a mutually consensual business transaction as between employee and employer, then I don’t think that’s exploitation, but if it is, then, yes, you can exploit someone and still respect their rights.

This is why it’s important to be clear and not emotional when we’re talking about these things. Unfortunately, political advertising and sound bites are not chosen for their intellectual nuance and depth.

What is the role of government with regard to rights? Does the role of government extend beyond its connection to our rights? If so, how? If not, why not?
If you accept my explanation above for why we need rights, then you accept that government is established to maintain and protect these conditions that we call “rights” which are necessary for our thriving.

But the question here is whether the government ought to do more than simply protect our individual rights and I would say no because I can’t think of a way in which that would be possible. How could the government both do more — like provide health insurance or social security or anything like that — without in some way violating our rights through involuntary taxation or by dictating to you what you can and cannot do with your own property?

This is where I think I will lose most people because our government does SO many things beyond simply protecting our rights. Even the Constitution allows for some things that really don’t make a ton of sense if the founding fathers felt like I do about government. Here are a few examples of things the government does today that go well beyond simply protecting the rights of Americans:

  • Delivers mail
  • Social security… and all kinds of welfare stuff. I’ll spare you a litany
  • Roads
  • Airport security
  • National Parks
  • Schools
  • Healthcare
  • Farm subsidies
  • Libraries

And in each situation the government is violating someone else’s rights to accomplish these things.

That doesn’t mean that I’m opposed to roads or parks or even making sure folks can retire and enjoy life. It’s just that I am opposed to forcing anyone to support those things simply because I think they’re good. I think too few people understand that when the government does anything, it is doing so with the threat of violent force behind it. You pay taxes not because you opt to, but because if you don’t and they catch you, you will be deprived of property and liberty.


I’d really welcome a discussion on this with people who don’t share my view of rights. I’d like to understand other formulations, but I haven’t heard of one that is both objective and can be applied as consistently as this one.

There you have it! That’s how I think about rights. All credit, though, goes to Ayn Rand. I avoid saying her name because a lot of people immediately stop listening when her name comes up, but to the best of my understanding what I’ve less adeptly sketched out above is actually her formulation of what rights are. You can read more about how she saw rights in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

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