The Rights and Wrongs of it

Philosophical Reflections XVII

In Philosophical Reflections 16, I noted that everyone’s fundamental right is to be free from the initiation of force, a right stemming from the nature of man as a free-willed, thinking being. The basis of government is the need to protect that right.

Before I examine the implications for government as such, the implications for the concept of rights themselves needs further elaboration, owing to the confused modern notions of rights.

Since rights relate to the use of physical force, some of the ideas discussed here have been anticipated earlier, when I discussed what is and is not initiation of force (Reflections 13). However, these concepts are important enough to deserve further amplification with regard to their political implications.

Wrong Rights

By the nature of rights, there can be no coercive rights, by which I mean rights to initiate force against another person. Since all rights spring from the fundamental right to be free from coercion, it is logically impossible to derive a “right” to coerce others.

Note that a right implies the use of force, for a right has no practical meaning if it isn’t enforced. Indeed, to look at it from another perspective, a right defines when it is permissible to use force: force is permissible in defence of a right. Since force is never moral except in response to force, there can be no coercive rights.

So-called “positive rights”, beloved of politicians seeking to buy power by granting them to favoured groups of voters, are simply coercive rights. But staking a claim on someone else’s time, property or life does not give you the right to it, whatever words you use. For all their alleged generosity (with someone else’s time, money or life), all such claims of “rights” – to medical care, education, leisure, employment, or whatever – are immoral. Although their proponents rarely if ever have the courage to admit it and not evade it, all these “rights” are based the assumption that it is moral to initiate force against other people. And what makes it moral, is that you need or want what they can provide or have earned, and you have not earned it. A “right” to medical care or education means a right either to enslave doctors or teachers, or to take someone else’s money to pay your bills (or a mixture of both); a “right” to employment means forcing someone to hire you or to pay your wage; and so on. It makes no difference in this context whether you are initiating force directly, or delegating it to the government: the initiation of force against someone else is not made more moral by having someone else do the dirty work for you.

By the nature of rights, there can be no such thing as collective rights: in the sense of rights, deriving from membership of a group, that supersede or negate an individual’s rights. Rights derive from our nature as rational beings: and we are both rational and beings, which is to say, individuals. As rational beings, we have no choice but to live by the judgment and decisions of our own minds. Even if the only decision you ever make is to blindly follow some guru, that is the decision you made, that is the course you chose for your life, and is a choice you keep making every day of your life. It is the individual who must decide – the individual who must think – the individual who must be free from coercion – the individual who has rights.

Whatever group you may belong to, it is a group of individuals. Whatever virtues that group might claim, you cannot claim them unless you, as an individual, possess them. Whatever vices they might be accused of, you cannot be guilty of them unless you have committed or abetted them. Whatever values that group might seek, you have no right to them unless you have earned them.

Thus, there cannot be collective rights such as “women’s rights”, “men’s rights”, “Aboriginal rights” or “blondes’ rights”. You cannot have more, or less, rights than anyone else. Any such claim is simply this: because I belong to some group, I have a right to take a value I haven’t earned from someone else who has, by force.

In a moral society that holds individual rights sacrosanct, the issue of collective rights would not arise. Collective rights are only “needed” when society is geared, not to the freedom of the individual, but to the demands of competing groups for a share of government favours. Which is to say, when rewards are received not by right, not by justice, but by privilege: and the way to get them is not by trade – not by offering value for value to the uncoerced judgment of your fellow citizens’ minds – but by membership in some group. Then if that group is loud enough, it will attract some crumbs: crumbs taken from someone else and given to your gang as bribery or protection money.

There is only one minority which can have rights, and that minority is the smallest one there is: the individual. We are all individuals, and we all have the same right: the right to exist by our own judgment, the right to exist solely by voluntary trade. I have the right to offer you a trade: and you have the right to refuse, whether the trade is in spiritual values, goods, or the labour of my mind and body.

Thus the modern anti-concepts of so-called “positive rights” and “group rights” are anathema to rationality and justice. Both are attempts, as blatant as the “Ministry of Truth” in Orwell’s 1984, to hijack a valid concept and thereby bask in the glow of justice and morality, while working for their destruction. Any attempt to subvert the rights of the individual – by definition, of any individual – is to negate the whole concept of rights at its root.

Right Wrongs

One of the most important derivative rights to recognise is the right to be immoral. One of the most dangerous codes is one that says you have a right to initiate force against someone simply because he or she is acting contrary to your morality. There is only one evil that justifies force: and that is force. It is against all morality and justice to initiate force against someone: and no matter how immorally they are acting, in your opinion or even in objective fact, if they are not initiating force then you have not a shred of justification for stopping them by force. Any law that attempts to impose morality where force is not being initiated – such as in voluntary sexual activity between adults, how many spouses you have, what you smoke in your own home, or the expression of ideas that might hurt someone’s feelings – is monstrous.

That is the essence of why “political correctness” laws are immoral. They stem from the theory that you have a right to initiate force against people to make them deal with others, not according to their own judgment (flawed or not), but according to your standards. No such right can exist, whether those standards are yours, a religion’s, or the entire country’s. As noted in Reflections13B, if you do not like the terms on which someone wants to deal with you (and you are not being physically forced), then refuse to deal with them. That is your right.

Similarly, you have a right to discriminate, for or against anyone, for any reason whatsoever. “Discrimination” is simply the use of your own judgment, which is the foundation and cause of all rights. To claim a right to force someone not to discriminate is therefore a fundamental perversion of the concept of rights. Of course, you have an equal right to discriminate against anyone whose discrimination you disagree with!

This point is so crucial that it deserves repeating. You have a fundamental and inalienable right to live by the judgment of your own mind, no matter how irrational, foolish or immoral anyone else might judge you to be. Or to state the obverse of this coin: you have no right (in the strict sense of having recourse to retaliatory force) to be treated rationally, fairly or morally! If someone treats you like dirt, then that is the basis on which they in their judgment have decided to deal with you, on whatever level of mental and moral competence they possess: and that judgment is their inviolate right. If you disagree, treat them likewise or refuse to deal with them. The only judgment not allowed you or anyone else is the decision to use force, as that contradicts the very basis of rights: rights derive from reason, and reason and force are fundamentally incompatible. Of course, you can make that decision, but you will get what you asked for and deserve: people will deal with you on the terms you chose – by force.

Civil Defence

If you have no right to be treated fairly, are you then left defenceless against the unjust and immoral?

An implication of the rights to discrimination and property is that you have a right to expel anyone you please from your property. That is, no one has a right to stay on someone else’s property without the permission of the owner. The first line of defence against immoral or obnoxious people is this right of expulsion: whether the owner is you or someone to whom you can appeal for justice, such as your employer or the owner of the building, vehicle or street where you are. Of course, in a small number of cases it is the property owner himself who is the problem: but that is his or her right (assuming no contract to the contrary), and nothing can justify the violation of that right.

Even then, if you cannot avoid such a person, you have a further defence if enough people agree with you on the justice of your cause.

Some religious communities deal with immorality by shunning the perpetrators. That is the correct response to any and all major evil (short of force). It avoids force, and leaves reality as the judge of who is right. The irrational is the dependent: on principle, by the nature of things, successful dealing with reality depends on rationality. So shunning – the total withdrawal of all moral sanction, all communication, all trade, all help – is its perfect punishment. Yet if shunning is applied irrationally or unjustly, it cannot fundamentally harm a rational man: the rational is what can deal with reality, and (in the broadest context) it does not gain by dealing with the irrational.

Now we are ready to examine government itself, which will be my next topic.

© 1996 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.