Individual Rights

The concept of individual rights is the foundation of Objectivist politics. In the last lecture, we discussed the problem of living within a society while retaining our ability to act according to our own reasoned judgment in the pursuit of our lives. Individual rights is the mechanism by which this can be attained.

What are individual rights exactly? You can think of them as social boundaries between people. There are certain actions that are off limits because they are an attack on another person's ability to live. Rights are an identification of particular human needs and the conditions necessary for someone to live peacefully within a society. The goal of rights is to create a barrier of freedom around a person where other people are not allowed to violate. Rights demand a limitation on the actions of other people so they don't interfere with the freedom of the individual.

Rights are an identification of certain facts of reality. It identifies man's needs for life, and thus his needs within a social context. It identifies the kinds of actions that should be properly considered an attack on the life of the individual. But I'm not talking about the narrow view of life that means the opposite of death. Life, in the sense of the process of self-generated, self-sustaining action, can be attacked in more than one way. By preventing an individual from acting to promote his life, you are attacking that process. You are impairing his ability to survive. Rights set the boundary to prevent any attack on one's life, not just those immediately ending in death or physical harm.

Since rights are based on universal human needs, and the rights are an identification and recognition of those needs, everyone has the same rights. Rights are universal. An important implication is that a person does not "have the right" to violate the rights of another person. These barriers of freedom do not conflict with one another. Your freedom of action does not include the freedom to violate the rights of other people.

Rights are always in the form of a freedom to act. The word "rights" had gained enough credibility and popularity that it is now sometimes used beyond it's proper meaning. People talk about a "right to health care", or a "right to education", or any number of other so-called rights.

It's important to distinguish individual rights from these false rights. Individual rights place a constraint on the actions of others that allow you freedom of action. These false rights require other people to act in order to perform them. If you have a right to health care, someone must provide it. Where individual rights allow you the freedom to pursue these goals, these false rights claim to promise you the results of actions. It means somebody must be enslaved in order to satisfy it. That's why they're not really rights. They are incompatible with individual rights.

Sometimes, to distinguish between these radically different kinds of rights, people refer to them as positive and negative rights, based on the kind of obligation they entail. A positive right requires someone else to do something for the rights-wielder. It is a demand for someone else's service. A positive right is not a legitimate right. Negative rights require others to not interfere with the rights-wielder. It requires a kind of inaction by setting certain interfering acts off limits. So the false positive rights require that other people perform actions for you, while negative rights just requires them to leave you alone.

That should give you a better grasp of the idea of individual rights as a protective boundary around a person where other people are not allowed to tread. The boundary is not a physical boundary, but a social boundary, limiting the kinds of interactions that are possible. Rights aren't some kind of magical property that other people are unable to violate. Obviously violations of rights, such as murder, can and do happen. So what is the nature of rights? What exactly are they?

Rights are a recognition of these fundamental human needs within a social context. The needs are facts of reality that we can observe and understand. Rights recognize these facts and understand them within a moral framework. They recognize that to live as a human being, these boundaries must exist. And they recognize that a violation of these boundaries is morally wrong. Rights is an awareness that a violation of these needs is an attack on the life of the victim. It is also a recognition that to live, a person who's rights are violated must remedy the violations or defend against them. It is morally right for him to respond with violence in order to repair the damage and to reestablish the conditions for living his life.

The point here is that we establish these buffer-zones from interference in order to live peacefully with other men. If the conditions that give rise to the concept of rights are invalidated, your actions should reflect the new conditions. When someone violates your rights, you have to recognize that they are not living peacefully with you, and then do what you must to rid yourself of the interference.

There is a lot of confusion with the term "rights". People talk about having rights, rights being inalienable, losing rights, etc. They talk about rights as if they are real things, that you can give up or lose. Instead of trying to sort it all out, you should focus on the facts of reality. Look past the word at the concepts involved.

When a criminal attacks you, does he abdicate his own right to life? Looking past the words, you can see that the criminal has altered the conditions that give rise to the concept of rights. We have rights to live peacefully amongst other people, but the criminal has invalidated that possibility. In that case, you should act to promote your own life even if it means killing the criminal. Does it matter if the criminal is said to abdicate his rights or not? The result is the same regardless of the terminology.

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