WHAT IS A RIGHT?
What exactly is a right? Is it something that you are born with? Is it something that is a priori? Or is it a man made construct like time? You can ask one hundred individuals what they believe a right is and they will all have slightly distinct and unique perspectives on what it is. I want to use this essay as a way to bring about a discussion on what rights are and whether they actually exist.
A right is a legal, social, or ethical standard that people are entitled to. It is a social normative or idea of what is allowed by people and what is owed to people. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Rights are entitlements (not) to perform certain actions, or (not) to be in certain states; or entitlements that others (not) perform certain actions or (not) be in certain states.”
A right is something that an individual or a group of individuals feel entitled to. They may feel entitled to this because of the laws set before them or because they feel that it is innately understood for all humans to have these rights. What I want to discuss is the different types of rights and whether they are actually rights at all. Here I am going to discuss what natural rights, legal rights, positive rights, and negative rights are and whether they are what we think they are or privileges handed down to us.
Natural rights are rights that are not manmade. They are not given by a governing body. They are what some would call inalienable. The United States declares life and liberty as natural rights (although that remains to be seen).
According to John Locke natural rights have always been. Before there were states or other governing bodies, there was nature and the people of the Earth were all subject to the laws of nature. Those laws created what is known as natural rights. What exactly could be considered a natural right? “The right to live” is considered a natural right, but is it really natural? Does mother nature stop hurricanes from running up into cities where thousands or millions of people could be hurt because the inhabitants there have the right to live? No. She doesn’t. Nature is nature and it is bound by no laws. So if there is no natural law, there can be no natural rights.
The Earth provides all the necessities to live (if we imagine a world without war mongering governing bodies controlling the resources and flow of energy), but it does not give any individual, whether human, plant, or animal, the right to live. It simply provides the means to live and you, whatever you are (plant, animal, or human) have to work in some form or another to survive. This may mean that you have to open up your leaves every morning to catch the sun’s rays, or it may mean you have to hunt for your food, or it may mean you have to build shelter to stay warm, but whatever it is, you, the individual, has to work to live. It is not a right provided by nature, it is actually a privilege.
Legal rights are easy. They are rights granted by a governing body. They are built into a society by a legal contract. Legal rights do not have to be morally acceptable. They do not, and usually are not, granted to the people of the world. Some countries maintain certain “rights” while others take “rights” away. Individuals are subject to whatever their authoritative ruling body declares as a right. It is something given, not innately possessed.
Legal rights are not rights at all. They are approved actions that the governing body allows the people to do. I think calling a legal right a right is contradictory to the term itself. We have the “right” to marry, but only under the conditions the governing body deems acceptable. We have the “right” to go to public schooling, but only the type of schooling the governing body deems honorable.
So, are legal rights, rights? By definition legal rights can be considered a right. They are written into a social contract that the individual signs (except that we didn’t actually sign any legal contracts with out government so are we therefore entitled to those rights? Read more here.) Is a legal right a right that is innately understood? No. Is it a right that everyone is entitled to? No. Different ruling bodies have different laws in place and they grant those rules or “rights” to the individuals of that land. Are legal rights yours? No. They are given, handed down to you. They are not your by choice. I would argue that legal rights are not rights at all. They are privileges that the governing body allows the citizens to have. Is it really your right to marry if you can only marry under the conditions set forth by the state? Is it really your right too free speech when we have journalists being blacklisted and harmed for spreading truth the the people? Is it really your right to privacy when the NSA is watching out every move? Are these rights? No. They are not.
Positive rights are rights that people give to themselves. They are rights the people believe they and others are entitled to. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “ the holder of a positive right is entitled to provision of some good or service.”
Some examples of positive rights:
Positive rights can range from person to person. These are just a few common examples of what people claim they have a right to. Positive rights are typically enforced by a governing body. If we want universal healthcare, the people who believe this is a right would demand that it comes from their governing body. I do agree that IF we have a governing body working FOR us they should provide whatever the people insist on, especially since they are involuntarily taking our tax dollars to provide us with services.**
However, I do not believe that positive rights are rights at all, they are privileges. They are ideas or agreements between the people and those who grant the positive rights. The right to life is not completely compatible or intertwined with the right to housing and food, although in some people’s minds these are one in the same. The current society we live in makes it very difficult to imagine different scenarios and this system creates a lot of the problems we face, but let’s say people have the right to live. Most people would say every person has the absolute right to live. They would then conclude that in order for people to have the right to live they must have the right to housing and food and in some cases, education. These are all really beautiful wants, but they are not rights. In order to provide these necessities for the 7 billion people of the planet it would have to be energy taken (either voluntarily or involuntarily) from another person or group of people. Yes, I agree that we should help each other out. If you see a hungry person on the road, buy him some food! If you believe education is important and everyone should have access to it start your own school! Or start your own initiative to educate. Make pamphlets, hold meetings, reach out! If you think everyone is entitled to something then do your best to expend that energy into your community, but do not insist that the government should grant you or anyone these rights. Remember that the government does not actually care about your rights (which is why it took 100 years of the women’s suffrage movement to gain the right to vote).
Positive rights are really beautiful and can be ideal, but they are not rights. They are privileges granted by someone to someone and in a world where freedom is becoming more and more limited we need to find a way to break away from the controlling entities that grant us these “rights” because where one person may gain, another may lose.
**I want it to be clear that I do NOT support any governing body giving out rights. I do not think they are capable and trustworthy of such a task. The governing bodies have proven for centuries that they cannot handle the task of protecting the people. Ideally, the whole system would be abolished entirely.
A negative right is the right to non interference. It means that the individual has the right to do nothing. An individual is entitled to not help out their neighbor as much as they are entitled to help out their neighbor. Negative rights do not mean they are “bad”, it just means that no one can tell you what to do and that you are capable of deciding what you want in this life and whether you want to do anything about it.
WHO HAS RIGHTS?
Who exactly has rights? Is it me, an individual? The collective? Do children have rights? What about mentally disabled or handicapped peoples? Do animals have rights? Does the Earth have rights? Who has “rights”?
Every person on the Earth seems to believe they have “rights” and maybe they do, but how do we all agree on who has “rights” in our current society? With Big Brother watching our every move (Vault 7) one could argue that rights do not exist. We have been granted the right to privacy, but do we actually receive that right?
How do we solve the clashing of the right of the individual and the right of the collective? When is it morally acceptable to force an individual to obey or follow the demands of what you believe is your right? We believe we have the right to free speech here in the United States, but do we? What about when someone says something that is racist? Do racists lose their right to free speech?
What about when we have a group of people who need more financial assistance than another group of people? Do we invade the rights of one group to provide the rights for another? I do not agree with this form of action. I see why people would think this way, but right’s are not innate. They are given by others to others or to yourself. If everyone has rights, then we cannot rightfully overturn one individual or collectives rights to give rights to another individual or collective.
What about different people? Do children have rights? Do those deemed mentally ill (which is a whole different discussion on why the government might want to label individuals as incapable) have rights? Do handicapped peoples have rights?
Your initial response might be “of course!” Because what kind of a person would say that these people do not have rights? Not anyone with a good moral heart of course! But the truth is, no one has rights. If you believe people have rights, then when is it okay to take freedoms away from children? Why is it okay to yell and physically harm children? Do they not have the right to live in peace? To feel safe?
People labeled with mental disorders are the first individuals to lose their rights in the current political regime. Mental disorders cannot even be biologically pinpointed in many cases and are typically diagnosed based off descriptions found in textbooks. So who is to say who is mentally disabled and who is not? Why are they the first to lose their rights? They are forced into hospitals against their wills, they are told they cannot work in certain places, they are told they cannot own certain things (guns, etc.). Are these individuals less than those not stigmatized with a mental disease label? Do they really deserve less rights (if you still support the idea of rights at this point)?
What about animals? Do they not also have the right to life and liberty? Do you own an animal? Are you holding them captive? Do you eat animals? Aren’t you invading their right to life? So who’s right is it to live? Is it yours or theirs? Where is the line of rights drawn? If your rights interfere with another’s rights are they rights?
Again, this is why I say there are no rights. No one is entitled to anything at all because right’s get messy and they take away from others. This leads me to my next thought.
WHO GRANTS RIGHTS?
If we have rights, then who in this great massive world is granting them? Do you grant yourself rights? Are inalienable rights just supposed to be known (a priori)? Are right’s given as privileges by governing bodies?
If we have rights they have to come from somewhere. If you are religious you may say they come from your god. If you are a statist you may say they come from the state. Maybe you just believe they are there for the taking and no one grants them, but then this get’s really confusing because rights are either given or taken. They are not just floating in the air. If I say that I have the right to have decent housing do I go and take over someone else’s home to acquire my right to housing? Or do I force someone else to build me a suitable house? If it’s a right then I should obtain this right for free, shouldn’t I? If I have to pay for it, whether in monetary or energy wise, then it is not a right because it is something I have to work towards. If I coerce a group of people to build my house I have overstepped their rights in order to achieve my own. If I build my own house I have to invade the rights of the Earth (if you believe the Earth also has rights that is) to gather materials for my housing. In the end energy is always spent, voluntarily or involuntarily, to gain or take rights. Nothing is free and no one and nothing can grant you rights. You either have the capabilities to do something or you don’t.
Some people may argue that rights are innate. We have the right to live, so that means people do not have the right to take my life. Well, someone actually can take your life, unfortunately, so is that a right? Or a privilege?
Rights are privileges granted by someone or something with the power to enforce those rights. I personally love the idea of rights. I love the idea that I would have the right to live in a house without paying rent, or to get all the food I need to eat for the week, but the truth is I do not have these “rights”. I am lucky enough to have the means necessary to harbor these ideologies (aka: rights), but they are not provided for me and they are not provided for people anywhere. Maybe in smaller communities, where governments cease to exist, we would have the means to help those in need, but in this current system we do not even have the ability to grant others or ourselves these “rights”.
I hope that I do not give the impression that “rights” are silly. I think there are a lot of good intentions behind rights and why people believe we have them, but in the end I do not think rights exist. I do not think anyone has the right to anything, not even life itself. You were born without choice, but do you come here with inalienable rights? Or do you come here and have your rights protected and granted by governing bodies (who take rights away from others to give it to you)?
If my rights clash with your rights, then who keeps their rights? Someone must gain while someone must lose and even if it’s for a good cause it still doesn’t change the fact that it isn’t a right. All rights are man made ideas and there is no higher authority who grants everyone the same rights. Rights are privileges. They are things that some people are capable of and some are not. Should we help those less capable in achieving what we wish everyone to have? Yes, we should, but again this doesn’t change the fact that they are not rights. It is a privilege to live. It is a privilege to eat. Sadly, not everyone has these privileges. I hope that one day we can create a world where we all have the same privileges. Where everyone has the means to create or have a home, to grow or obtain food, to make or buy clothing, etc. In the end though, these are privileges.
Privileges are not given. They just are. Some people have more privilege than others based on a variety of things (race, gender, place of birth, etc). You do not choose your privileges and we have limited privileges due to the ruling body of government who maintains a monopoly on the privileges given. They maintain control over what “rights” are given and who has “rights” and who does not have “rights”. Without the central government controlling all aspects of education, energy, resources, businesses, protection services, we would have more privileges and we would be more capable of providing what we believe others should have. Unfortunately, we are subject to these rulers which is why it is essential we leave this currently dead end system in it’s place. We can create the world we wish to see here and now. We can help people without the government in place, but we have to unite as a people of the Earth. We have to believe in the power within ourselves. We have to create alternatives to the situations at hand. Agorism is a peaceful means to an end and as much as I would like to get into what agorism is I will just leave you with information for you to discover on your own.
We can discuss what privileges we believe we all should have, but this essay’s main purpose was to discuss whether rights are real or imaginary and whether or not we have them. Let me know what you think about rights and what conclusions you have come to based off your own thoughts.