“A right,” as defined by Ayn Rand, “is a moral principle defining an individual’s freedom of action in a social context.”
Rights are principles that form the bridge between individual morality and the ethical laws governing society. The concept of individual rights, observes Ayn Rand, “provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others—the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context—the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics.”
Rights say that morally certain actions are right, and all other actions that forcibly interfere with and prevent those actions are wrong.
Individual rights are guarantees to freedom of action: the right to those actions necessary to support one’s life — so long as one does not violate the rights of others.
Fundamentally, there is only one right — the individual’s inalienable right to their own life — from which all other rights logically derive.
Individual rights are inalienable — within an individual’s sphere of action, one’s rights are absolute.
Inalienable (and unalienable) means the right may not be alienated from the person who possesses them, i.e., may not be given or taken away, i.e., may not be morally infringed upon. For example, a robber may steal a car from a doctor, but morally the doctor’s right to the car is not alienated. Though the robber has possession of the car, the car still rightfully belongs to the doctor, i.e., the doctor is in the right, and the robber is in the wrong.
Rights are not guarantees for successful action but are only guarantees to freedom of action.
The right to life does not mean that one (or the government) can force others to support one’s life against their will, as this would be a violation of their rights. There is no such thing as the right to enslave (“the right to violate rights”). No one has the right to force others to give them food, health care, insurance, education, a house, or to force them to give up their property (wealth, money) to obtain these values. One may produce them or acquire them by reason (trade/persuasion/charity), but never by threatening force (coercion.)
The right to property does not mean one will own property, i.e., a phone, a car, or a house. It only means that one’s freedom to use and dispose of one’s property, that one has honestly acquired (either through production or trade), will not be infringed upon, so long as one respects the rights of others.
The right to pursue happiness does not necessarily mean achievement — whether in one’s career, friendships, or marriage — it only means one is free to pursue what one thinks will make one happy, so long as one respects the rights of others.
Individual rights are universal — they belong to each individual equally by their nature as a rational being.
Though individuals differ in their ability to reason, this does not change the fact that reason is a human being’s distinctive means of survival.
Take, for example, the right to property: all individuals have the equal right to property honestly acquired, whether one is Queen Elizabeth or a street-sweeper. The right to property does not mean one will own property, but only that when one has honestly acquired property (through production or trade), that property is one’s property not by permission, but by inalienable right. The right to property does not mean all individuals will have an equal amount to property, only they will have the equal right their property.
Individual rights are not self-evident but are, like the theory of gravity, objective discoveries based on the facts of reality.
Individual rights are not a perceptual self-evidency but are a tremendous discovery that took humanity centuries of observation and thought to discover and formulate.
Individual rights are the objectively identified requirements for a human being to live a flourishing life in society. It is because they are not self-evident that there is much confusion over the nature of rights and how they are applied.