Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held

Rights are behavioral norms that circumscribe the actions that may (or should) be taken with respect to a person, his property, and his pursuits.* Other behavioral norms are customs that an individual may or may not observe, and the non-observance of which may have social repercussions.

The precise scope of an individual’s rights and ability to exercise them depends on

  • whence they derive (source)
  • whether they apply universally or to specific groups of persons (applicability)
  • whether they are held by the persons to whom they apply or are granted by others (how held)
  • the effects of state action of the exercise of rights that would (or would not) be recognized by common consent.

There are certain predictable patters of belief about relationships among the first three attributes of rights: source, applicability, and how held. That is to say, where beliefs about rights are unforced by state action, persons who believe in God-given rights tend to think of them as universal and innate in the persons to whom they apply; persons who believe in rights as “things” with an existence of their own (Platonic ideals) tend to think of them as universal and innate in the persons to whom they apply; and so on, as outlined in the table below. As indicated, the state can (and does) shape and apply rights differently than would be the case if they were described and defined by like-minded persons.

Extreme libertarians — who tend to be both atheists and absolutists — often view rights as Platonic essences. Those who understand that they have subscribed to a supernatural explanation of rights then turn to biological evolution, which is their God-substitute.

For my own part, I take the indefiniteness of rights as evidence that they are the products of social evolution — or would be if it were not for interference by the state. Rights, as products of social evolution, are strictures on interpersonal behavior, not “essences” that emanate from individuals. Rights, therefore, are culturally variable in their precise contours, but certain constants of human nature (empathy, self-interest) lead most cultures in the direction of a modus vivendi like the Golden Rule. These observations apply to socially evolved rights, not to the rights that arise (or are denied) by the intervention of the state and persons or groups (e.g., warlords) with state-like power.
* This definition implies that rights are negative. As I say here,

rights can’t be rights if they can’t be held universally, without cost to others. The right not to be murdered is such a right; the right to live on the public dole is not. We can, in theory, forbear from murdering each other, but we cannot all be on the public dole except (possibly) at different times. And even then we must impose on others (including those who would prefer to be on the public dole at the same time).

All of this is a way of stating  the doctrine of negative rights, which is the basis of libertarianism. But negative rights can’t be applied universally if there are some holdouts who want others to give to them without having to give to others….

Positive rights — the “right” to be on the dole, etc. — are, in this day, state-created rights. Positive rights, under the state, require compulsion.

There can be positive rights by common consent, but that is possible only in relatively small communities. As I say here,

self-governance by mutual consent and mutual restraint — by adherence to the Golden Rule — is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons: the size of a hunter-gatherer band or Hutterite colony. It seems that self-governance breaks down when a group is larger than 150 persons.

Adherence to the Golden Rules implies voluntary aid to others, not only out of love and empathy but also in the self-interested expectation of reciprocal treatment. But the Golden Rule can be a rule of coexistence — rather than a mere admonition — only for relatively small groups.

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Related posts:
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Parsing Political Philosophy
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Unreality of Objectivism
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
Social Justice
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Understanding Hayek
The Left and Its Delusions
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Crimes against Humanity