What are individual rights?

“Rights are moral principles sanctioning an individual’s freedom of action in a social context.” — Ayn Rand

 

The central issue of living with others in society is what moral concept defines how individuals should live with each other in society so that they may prosper. Given that the individual survives by acting by the use of reason, the individual requires only one thing from his neighbors (and they in turn equally of him): freedom of action. That is freedom, not to act by permission of another individual or group of individuals, but freedom to act by right.

That concept, in the words of philosopher Ayn Rand, that “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” is the concept of individual rights.

What are individual rights? In Ayn Rand’s definition: “Rights are moral principles sanctioning an individual’s freedom of action in a social context.” (I would memorize this definition).

  • Rights are moral principles. Rights are principles that form the bridge between individual morality and the ethical principles governing society. Rights say that morally certain actions are right, and all other actions that forcibly interfere with those actions are wrong. They are “the means of subordinating society to moral law”, i.e., of subordinating might to right.
  • Rights are rights 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. To live rationally by one’s reason in society, the individual needs only one thing from his fellow human beings: freedom of action.  Freedom of action does not mean freedom to act by permission, to be revoked at a dictator’s, or democratic majority’s whim, but freedom to act as an absolute — by right.
  • Rights are not guarantees to successful action. The right to pursue happiness does not necessarily mean achievement — it only means one is free to pursue what one thinks will make one happy.
  • Rights are inalienable — within an individual’s sphere of action, one’s rights are absolute. Inalienable, 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 form a logically integrated, non-contradictory whole, with the right to life being the fundamental right from which all other rights derive. No enumerated right contradicts any other right, but is the logical application of the right to life to a given context.
  • The right to life states that you own yourself and are your own sovereign, (your body is your property and belongs to you, i.e., you own yourself) and as such it is the right to take those actions (right to liberty) to rightfully acquire and use property (right to property) which is necessary for survival and indeed to flourish (right to the pursuit of happiness), free from the physical compulsion and coercive interference of other individuals. These derivative rights (right to liberty, the right to acquire, possess, and use property, and the right to pursue one’s own happiness) are corollaries of the right to life, i.e., are applications of the right to life to varying contexts.
  • Rights belong to each individual equally by their nature as a rational being. The right to life does not mean that one can force others to support one’s life against their will, as this would be a violation of their individual rights, i.e., there is no right to enslave.
  • The only requirement the principle of individual rights requires is that you respect the rights of others by not initiating physical force against them, as it is a contradiction to say other individuals must respect your rights, but you will not do the same.

 

Suggested Reading:

How are rights violated?

Rights can only be violated by the initiation of physical force.

Rights can only be violated by the initiation of physical force. There is only one way that one can stop one from acting by one’s mind. That is by using physical force against them to interfere and prevent them from acting, i.e., coercion. (Legally, fraud is an indirect use of initiating physical force).

In a political context, freedom objectively has only one meaning — freedom from the initiation of physical force by others. By initiation is meant those who start the use of force to achieve their ends, i.e., a bank robber, i.e., a con-man, i.e., a murderer.

Writes Ayn Rand on The Nature of Government:

“Man’s rights can be violated only by the use of physical force. It is only by means of physical force that one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own rational judgment. The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships—thus establishing the principle that if men wish to deal with one another, they may do so only by means of reason: by discussion, persuasion and voluntary, uncoerced agreement.”

Only by the initiation of force can one be prevented from speaking, or robbed of one’s possessions, or murdered. Only the initiation of force can stop one from acting by reason, rendering ones mind useless as a means of survival. This is the idea behind “force and mind are opposites.” Only by the initiation of physical force can an individual’s rights be violated, and as such, it is the one action banned in a proper, capitalist society.