Just What Are “Rights”?

There’s a lot of talk about “rights” on both sides of the fence these days, and all over the farm as well. In fact, “rights” seem to be as numerous as pasture pies on a cattle ranch. So I (in my infinite lack of both wisdom and discretion), have taken upon myself the task of sorting out what we mean by “rights” — not so much from a philosophical viewpoint as from a practical one.

Here’s how I understand it: by “right”, we mean nothing more than the personal power to act in a certain way, regardless of law or custom. “Rights”, then, supersede the laws and rules of man. By this strict interpretation, there are really very few actual “rights”. Chief among these is the right to life. It is simple biological logic that an entity must do what is necessary to survive immediate threat to life; i.e. all organisms have a biological imperative to actively defend themselves against the threat of assault, enslavement, and death. (In this view, the right to liberty is a subset of the right to life.)

Each organism possesses tools — organic or otherwise — that improve or enhance its ability to defend itself. Man, lacking the embedded physical attributes necessary for self-defense, has developed both the wits and the tool-making skills that enhance not only his survival skills, but also his ability to become dominant in his environment. While far from perfect, these skill sets are all that stand between man the primate and an abruptly truncated branch on the old mammalian family tree.

These days we hear all kinds of people saying that no right is absolute. I believe these people are thinking of what I have to call “legal rights”, rather than “natural rights”. It should be clear to any sentient being that the right to life as described above is not only absolute, but is immune to any kind of infringement. And because of this, certain tools wielded by man are so essential to his survival that the right of self-defense (the right to life) accrues to them by extension.

To “infringe” on a right is to impair it, through any means, be it direct or indirect. Rulers (aka slavers) understand that power, however gained, is nothing more than control of individual rights. And any form of control of individual rights must, of necessity, infringe on them. This is the dilemma for libertarians. They cannot be minarchists without accepting infringement. Yet the NAP (or, as L. Neil Smith prefers, ZAP) does not allow such. So the Libertarian Party finds itself organizationally hoist by its own petard.

Some common examples of rights are found in the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. The litmus test for whether or not something is a right is to ask oneself if the right benefits oneself without infringing on the exercise of the rights of others.

Regardless of one’s belief system, individual rights are, by definition, adaptive and necessary for survival. The biological imperative for defense of self is self-evident, and any attempt to limit its efficiency is maladaptive. Any “reasonable” being understands that instinctively, and any argument to the contrary is not only faulty on its face, but speaks loudly to the ultimate ulterior motive — that of “control” of others. And such control is clearly slavery.

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