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The Nature of Rights

Discussion in 'Legal' started by Werewolf, Jun 2, 2004.

  1. Werewolf

    Werewolf Well-Known Member

    NOTE: What follows should be read from start to finish as it should be considered as a whole and not in it’s individual parts. If you are not willing to read the whole thing I would ask that you just skip this thread. Thanks

    The mandatory service thread got me to thinking about rights. It became apparent that the roots of the major disagreements stemmed from the different views people hold of what constitutes a right. That made me wonder about:


    1) What is a right?
    2) Where does a right derive from?
    3) Are all/some/no rights absolute?
    4) Who or what controls the exercise of rights?

    I am sure that other questions regarding rights can/should be asked. Feel free to bring them up.

    To get the ball rolling:

    What is a right? Little Help Please. I don’t have a clue. I can think of a great many examples of what folks consider a right but coming up with a general definition seems to be something difficult to define.

    Where do rights derive from? I believe many would answer that they derive from nature, God, the mind of man or any of a number of other sources that all boil down to we’re born with them. I believe we’re born with but one right - the right to life. Every other right derives from that single basic precept. Whether the right to life’s derivatives are actually rights and not earned privelidges is debatable (more on that later).

    The US Constitution, The UN Delaration of Human Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and other documents of declaration all seem to agree that liberty is a natural right. They stop there though. In the US the natural rights are declared to be life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (notably missing is the right to resist oppression - though it is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence it has no force of law in the US). In France it’s liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression (notably missing is the right to life). The UN says everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person (notably missing is the right to resist oppression, the right to own property and the pursuit of happiness). So three major documents only partially agree on what constitutes basic fundamental and natural rights - that’s not a very comforting thought.

    What I believe is that the only fundamental natural right is the right to life.

    Man is an animal. We cannot and should not forget that. All animals have the instinct to survive, man included. Our minds and our bodies are wired to the single and fundamental natural requirement to keep on living as long as possible. From that desire can be derived a natural right to defend one’s own life. It can further be argued that in so far as liberty, property, security, the pursuit of happiness and resistance to oppression aids in the preservation of life that they are also rights that may be considered natural - maybe. It can also reasonably be argued that the only real right a human being has is the right to life. Remember that man is a natural creatures and a creature of nature’s right to life extends only so far as it is able to preserve it through fight or flight.

    So the right to life is fundamental and derives from nature. By association liberty, property, security, the pursuit of happiness and resistance to oppression may possibly be considered natural rights.

    Some creatures of nature are social. They live in groups because there is safety and power and thus increased survivability in numbers. This is true for ants, bees, monkeys, chimps, wolves and all the other social animals. It is no less true for man.

    For the non-social creature the question of rights is almost moot. A non-social animal is not concerned with the continuation of any group only the continuation of itself. Therefore it is free to do what ever is necessary to assure that continuation. If a carnivore - it kills to eat. If a herbivore - it runs away to eat another day. Note that reproduction isn’t even a right. Reproducing is an action that must be earned - generally by fighting for it (note that fighting can take many forms other than physical aggression) and thus can be considered an earned privelidge (important concept and just as applicable to man as any other creature).

    Groups are made up of individuals. However, the survival of any specific individual is purely incidental to the survival of the group (examples of why this is true abound but are outside the scope of this discussion). In each social group there is an established structure that provides for the continuation of the group. Every social group that exists has leadership and rules in one form or another that the individual members follow by nature, agreement or by force for without rules the group ceases to exist. Without the group the individual is placed at risk. AND this fundamental truth about social groups is what provides the answer to the question:

    Are all/some/no rights absolute?

    For social animals NO right is absolute if that right impacts the survivability of the group for if the group fails to survive, in the long run (nature doesn’t care about the short run), so does the individual. (Note: this basic concept does not preclude individuals moving between groups or destroying one group and forming another. It simply assumes that man must belong to a group to survive).

    Let’s take a close look at the concept stated above. I think we’d all agree that LIFE is a fundamental natural right. But I’m here to tell you that even it isn’t absolute. Take - for example - a scenario where a group member decides that he wants to mate with any female of his choosing. To implement that desire he kills what ever male stands in his way. If that type of action was permitted to continue in a group that group for many reasons would not last long and would cease to exist thus the group generally kills or expels the type of male who behaves in the aforementioned fashion (chimps and baboons expel males that behave in the described manner regularly. For most social animals it is the alpha male who gets first choice of mate and the rest of the males get the left overs - man is no different - think about it). Thus the right to life is not absolute in a group (though in modern resource rich societies the action often taken against an offender is to isolate/expel the offender. That option exists only because the group is resource rich). If the right to life is not absolute then it should be obvious that neither are any of the other so called rights. Which finally leads us to the question of:

    Who or what controls the exercise of rights?

    As previously noted every social structure has leadership of one form or another (it would be interesting to learn if there are any known social units that exist without some type of leadership structure). Leaders become leaders by force of personality, force of arms or force of wealth. They enforce their leadership through benevolence, consent or thru force. Leaders make the rules and it cannot be denied by any reasonable thinking person that it is the leadership that decides what actions group members can and cannot take. Thus what we call rights are actually privelidges granted by the powers that be and since not even the continuation of an individual’s life is absolute we can extrapolate that there are no real rights only privelidges granted by group leadership.

    If the members of a group do not like the privelidges it has or lack thereof and wants more or in some cases fewer then it changes it’s leadership either by consent or by force. The new leadership then grants the privelidges it deems necessary and appropriate.

    Which leads to the summary conclusion that social animals (man) have no rights but only privelidges granted by the powers that be.

    GOD! That sucks!
  2. tcdrennen

    tcdrennen Well-Known Member

    I'd recommend John Locke's Two Treatises on Government (and the 2nd Treatise in particular) for a rational derivation of how the rights to life, liberty and property are mutually inclusive and supportive. That includes as a necessary component the right to DEFEND one's own life and property and the lives of others. It does NOT include a right to kill or harm others for gain or whim - only for defense, if necessary.

    Since you own your own life and self, no-one has a right to take your life or person (i.e. your liberty) or (by extension) peacefully-acquired property. The exception is if YOU become an aggressor and deprivation of your property, self (liberty) or life are required for defense against your agression.

    Your logical leap from a right to life to a right to kill or force others to do one's bidding escapes me.
  3. pax

    pax Well-Known Member

    Good questions.

    Okay, all your reasoning after this point is ... um, kind of pointless (though well written). I really don't mean to be rude here, but if you don't start by defining your terms, any subsequent activity is meaningless.

    So let's start by defining the terms.

    1) Looking up in the old Websters I find rights are "something to which one has just claim" or "the power or privilege to which one is justly entitled."

    As the dictionary implies, the whole concept of 'rights' comes back to the idea that it is morally proper for people to do certain things, and morally improper for them to do certain other things. That is precisely what is at issue when someone talks about their "right to ____." At issue is whether someone else may justly deprive them of their ability to do that thing.

    When someone appeals to "rights," they are really appealing to an almost-universally understood standard of what is morally proper (or 'just') and what is morally improper (or 'injust'). Where this standard comes from is often hotly debated, and will often end up in tail-chasing or worse.

    2) Since almost all human beings possess the quality of understanding and appealing to this standard, it is reasonable to conclude that the standard comes from the nature of human beings themselves. If one believes in a god who created human beings, one could say that the standard ultimately comes from that god. But it isn't necessary to posit belief in a deity in order to observe that most human beings possess this quality.

    Again, the moral instinct or drive is something that most human beings have in common. Even those who reject the concept of a deity will generally find themselves saying things like "that's not fair!" when something bumps into this innate sense of justice, so it is possible to believe in, and appeal to, the human moral drive without believing in "God-given rights."

    If you believe that it is not "right" for someone to kill you when you have done nothing to harm them; or if you believe that it is not "just" to throw someone in prison when they have committed no crime; or if you believe it is not "fair" when someone sneakily breaks the rules in a poker game -- then (by your appeal to it) you demonstrate that you do believe in the concept of innate human rights.

    3) When the question becomes, "Are rights absolute?" then the answer is: Rights are as absolute as the moral code you live by.

    Is it always wrong to kill an innocent who has done you no harm? Always wrong to enslave another human being? Always wrong to take things that you haven't earned and which don't belong to you?

    If you answer yes to those, you believe that the rights to life, liberty, and property are absolute. If not, or if you shade your answers, you believe that such rights are not absolute.

    4) As far as your last question, absolutely nothing changes the existence of human rights, but pragmatic considerations often affect their exercise. Whether the people around you possess the force necessary to deprive you of your life does not affect whether or not it is moral for them to take away your life. (If someone is choking you to death, you still have the right to breathe. You may not be able to do so, but you still have the right to do it.) Force and the capacity for force, fraud and its relatives, all affect the ability to exercise rights. None of these, however, affect the existence of rights.


    Audemus iura nostra defendere (We dare defend our rights) – state motto of Alabama
  4. dischord

    dischord Well-Known Member

    You've postulated this idea as a premise, so of course logic leads to your conclusion about "granted privileges. However I question the validity of your premise. You should explore whether it is valid. :)

    IMHO, rights ultimately can be neither proven nor disproven via logic -- it all depends on the premises you start with. Start with the premise that the individual's need to pass on his genes is paramount(*), and you end up with absolute rights proven. Start with the premise that the species' gene pool is paramount (as you have done), and you end up with absolute rights disproven.

    Which premise a person picks depends on his prejudices and predispositions, rendering his reasoning somewhat circular. As Robert Anton Wilson noted in Prometheus Rising (paraphrase), "What the thinker thinks, the prover proves," meaning that we all subconciously "prove" our worldview, picking the premises and evidence that support it.

    While logical discipline is useful in protecting our rights, ultimately, we will not win with "QED" but with "I demand." With all Ayn Rand's discussion of objective logic, she understood this, and thus the image of Atlas shrugging.

    (*) I'd note that in nature, especially with birds and mammals, the gene pool often takes a backseat to the individual's genes -- see the common practice of killing other's young. This practice risks the survival of the gene pool, but does help the individual's ability to pass his genes. Within the same species, the natural order is competition between genes, not cooperation to preserve everyone's genes. The species survives because the most fit (or the alpha) indivuals win, not because the group wins.

    But this natural pattern can be used to "prove" either case. ;)
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2004
  5. JPinAZ

    JPinAZ Member

    So if we all get together & deceide we're better off with you dead, you don't have a problem with that?
  6. MrAcheson

    MrAcheson Well-Known Member

    Rights are not absolute. For instance your life, liberty, or property may be taken from you through due process after the commision of a crime. This is completely just. Furthermore your rights stop where mine start (and vice versa) so some mediation may be necessary regarding them.
  7. Higgins

    Higgins Well-Known Member

    You are asking a question to which you will not find a final answer. When you really shine the light of rational thought on the subject, you find very little firm ground upon which to stand. It's like the proverbial onion, layers and layers, but when you've peeled them all away you can't really say what or where the core is.

    It's a subject on which volumes and volumes of political science, philosophy and sociology treatises have been written (some very heady and abstract stuff), still with no definitive, satisfactory answer. It's one of those issues that simply offers no final definitive answer, like nature vs. nurture.
  8. Molon Labe

    Molon Labe Well-Known Member

    Semantics nitpick:

    It is impossible to take a right from someone. You can only forbid them from practicing a right.
  9. Werewolf

    Werewolf Well-Known Member

    Excellent points about the gene pool and if I may be presumptuous I think you may have proven my point.

    Your example of various birds and mammals killing other's of the same species young goes right to the heart of the matter. Those example species are not social species. They are solitary and do not live in groups. The individual creature's paramount need as you say is to pass on his own genes even if that need is at the expense of the species.

    Man on the other hand is a social creature. It is as you say the gene pool of the group that is paramount thus it seems (as you pointed out) that absolute rights would be disproven.

    As pax pointed out pragmatism often necesitates that what we call rights be restricted or removed. This too would seem to provide proof that rights are not absolute.

    Privilidges are granted. If a right can be restricted or taken away does that not imply that they are in the final analysis granted? If granted are they then not privilidges?

    Do we have here a situation where all rights are privilidges but not all privilidges are rights?
  10. dischord

    dischord Well-Known Member

    Note that while you were writing, I edited my final comment to say that this natural pattern can be used to "prove" either point. (Alas the dangers of the "edit" button).
    Canines (such as wolves), felines (such as lions) and, most notably, primates (such as apes) will kill each other's young even within the same packs -- when one alpha supplants another alpha, when resources are scarce, etc. Those are social species. The pattern is not limited to non-social species.

    I realize that it is not the only pattern, (they also protect each other's young), but it is one pattern. The natural order -- even within the same pack, pride, troop, etc. -- sometimes leads to harsh genetic competition. Even a social animal's willingness to cooperate for "the group" is limited to the individual's genetic survival. If forced to choose, the social animal choses itself, not "the group."

    (Edited to add the second p to supplant)
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2004
  11. Werewolf

    Werewolf Well-Known Member

    dischord pointed out that:
    You got me there. Now I've really got something to think about. :D
  12. Foreign Devil

    Foreign Devil Well-Known Member

    You can't find rights in nature, studying the animal world or anywhere else. For all practical purposes they are a creation of society. Looks like Werewolf has just concluded this, much to the chagrin of anyone who believes in natural rights.

    By the way it's spelled "privilege". I get that wrong sometimes too.
  13. dischord

    dischord Well-Known Member

    I don't see Werewolf's final post as concluding that at all -- in fact, he's gone back to rethink things, which is the opposite of concluding. I think you might be ascribing your prejudices to his (non)conclusion. :)
  14. Molon Labe

    Molon Labe Well-Known Member

    Mmmm, I’m not sure if I agree with this.

    From a bear’s point of view, it has a right to life. This can be proven when you try to kill one, as it will fight to defend itself.

    From our point of view, a bear does not have a right to life. After all, we’re allowed to hunt them, are we not?

    This proves that the acknowledgment of a right depends upon point of view.
  15. dischord

    dischord Well-Known Member

    Thus my earlier statement: While logical discipline is useful in protecting our rights, ultimately, we will not win with "QED" but with "I demand."
  16. Foreign Devil

    Foreign Devil Well-Known Member

    [Okay I didn't read all werewolf's posts only the 1st one but he's starting to question natural rights.]

    Anyway natural rights implies that you can find rights in a test tube, an equation or a microscope. We can't of course. We find through soul searching and debate and argument. Social animals have instincts like maternal instincts, but rights are complex expressions of a sense of right and wrong that go much further.

    Natural rights do not exist. They are a social construction. Of course a society that didn't establish certain rights would be a pretty nasty place to live.
  17. dischord

    dischord Well-Known Member

    Thus my earlier statement: While logical discipline is useful in protecting our rights, ultimately, we will not win with "QED" but with "I demand."
    However, our senses of right and wrong -- and of rights (*) -- nonetheless are tied to our animal, survival instincts. We may not be able to get a QED proof from observing nature, but we can get a sense of whether the individual or the group ultimately is more important. And that understanding does affect our concept of rights.

    The practice of finding "rights in nature" is not an entirely absurd exercise; it simply has limitations, and we need to be aware of them.

    (*) Beware of equivocating alternate definitions of right, by the way. (You haven't done it; I'm just warning since we're flinging around both).
  18. Michigander

    Michigander Well-Known Member

    1) What is a right?

    I am unable to explain it, but I know it when I feel it.

    2) Where does a right derive from?

    Life itself.

    3) Are all/some/no rights absolute?

    No. Even Life itself is not a right. Think about it. If Life were a "natural right," nothing would die, ever.

    4) Who or what controls the exercise of rights?

    Nature. The Nature of the Universe which includes the Nature of Life, of Mankind, of all Living entities. Who is it that controls Mankind's rights if a meteor obliterates the Earth?

  19. dischord

    dischord Well-Known Member

    I think you might be confusing right and guarantee. :)

    For example, everyone has a right to procreate -- although there is no guarantee that everyone will be able. And when you think about it, passing on your genes is the ultimate in "right to life" in that we live on through our offspring. It's the closest we come physically to never meeting death (dissatisfying as that might be to our egos). The right is absolute -- the guarantee that you'll be able to practice the right is not absolute.
  20. Higgins

    Higgins Well-Known Member

    Like I said before, you guys can go round and round on this and never come to a conclusive "answer" or definition.

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