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WHAT ARE RIGHTS?

by Brian Puckett
Co-founder, Citizens of America

The position that rights do not exist

One view holds that there is no such thing as a “right”. This view holds that there are only claims to the ability to freely engage in certain actions, and that such claims are enforced only by force itself. It should be pointed out that this is not the same as saying “might makes right”. Rather it is saying “might determines what is”, whether it is right or not.

Logically and practically there is much to recommend the above view. It reflects what is obvious in real life. For example, the overwhelming majority of a society may believe – and claim repeatedly – that every human has the right to own property, travel freely, speak freely, bear arms, engage in free commerce, etc., but if the majority will not or can not enforce that claim, it means nothing. For example, claims of such rights had zero effect on the lives of those living in the former Soviet Union, nor does it affect the lives of people living in dozens of other countries right now.

The position that rights do exist

Most humans reject the view that there is no such thing as a right. The reason lies in the seemingly instinctive (and completely understandable) view that, for example, having another person steal from you, or murder you, or enslave you, or to physically harm you without cause is wrong. Therefore the concept of a right not to be stolen from, enslaved, etc., has come into being.

And unless a person believes he is entitled to be treated differently from the rest of humanity, then logically the converse must be true: everyone else has a right not be stolen from, enslaved, etc.

Inherent (“God-given”) rights versus derivative rights

There is no objective proof that the position that basic rights exist is correct. The nearly universal acceptance of this position rests on the above-mentioned “instinctive feeling”, practical application, and/or faith-based (religious) assertions of rights that oppose certain “wrong” acts.

These basic human rights, which are few in number and which vary from era to era and place to place, are considered natural or inherent rights. Religious people might call them God-given rights. To understand how much even these natural rights have varied historically, consider that the right to hold slaves existed in certain societies well into modern times, and that the Aztec civilization believed it was the right of Aztec priests to sacrifice human beings to their gods.

Rights which are prescribed by law – which could be considered to be derived from inherent rights, or derived from a particular legal system – are derivative rights. They vary considerably around the world. An example of such a right would be the U.S. Constitution’s right of those accused of crimes to undergo a trial by jury, or the right to reject the quartering of soldiers in one’s home.

Definition of a right

Because most of humanity – even humanity ruled by tyrants, and usually even the tyrants themselves – agrees that rights exist, we will adopt that view in this study.

Simply put, the basic definition of a right is a morally and legally unrestrictable option (choice). The option (choice) with which rights are associated is invariably the option to engage in some act or activity (series of related acts). For example, the right to self-defense is the morally and legally unrestrictable option to defend oneself against an unprovoked, or illegal, or immoral physical attack.

With respect to rights, maintaining a personal status quo must be considered an act. For example, consider the right to be free of unprovoked attack on our person by another human; using our definition, that may be stated as the unrestrictable option to maintain the status quo of our bodily condition. And of course owning something is an act – the act of holding as property.

Because of the way we define a right, it is important to note that, logically, any acts (or activities) associated with exercising a right require absolutely no permission. “Permission” indicates that there is some person or entity which may restrict the choice to engage in the associated acts or activities. But since a right is an unrestrictable option to engage in acts or activities, such restriction is logically incompatible with the definition.

Some believe that rights are absolute. What that means in practical terms has never been made clear, by any source, to this writer. For any right claimed to be absolute, an example of exercising that right can be found or hypothesized which no sane person or society would allow. If no sane person or society would allow it, then it cannot be either legally or morally acceptable, and is therefore outside the definition of a right.

Let me give a simple example: the right to self-defense is one of the most fundamental and accepted of rights. Now consider person A who says to person B, “I swear to you, I’m going to kill you with my hands in thirty seconds”. Person B absolutely believes person A, and knows person A is capable of carrying out his stated mission since he has killed others. So in response, person B picks up a club and kills person A before A makes any overt hostile move. Now, A was certainly defending his life, or at least his health, and if his right to self-defense is absolute, he should not be charged with a crime. But in real life he might well be, because the circumstances of exercising a right are an essential factor. There is no absoluteness.

Here is another example: Person A and person B are engaged in a quarrel. B – a known bully — clearly started the quarrel. The quarrel moves from words to blows with the fist. Person A manages to get B, the bully, down on the ground and begins smashing B’s head into the pavement. B fears his skull is about to be crushed, reaches out and picks up a rock, and smashes A in the head, killing him. Now, B was certainly defending his life, or at least his health, and if his right to self-defense is absolute, he should not be charged with a crime. But, again, in real life he might well be. Again, the circumstances of exercising a right are considered. Again, there is no absoluteness.

Consider the right to worship as one pleases. Most people would claim that this is an absolute right. But if it is absolute, does it include human sacrifice? No, it does not – though it did in certain places at certain times. Does it include sacrificing animals? In the industrialized western world it generally does not. Does it include harming any animal? If the answer is no, then leather-bound Bibles, Torahs, or Korans are not allowed, since leather comes from killing animals. Does it include harming any of God’s living creations? If the answer is no, then the paper on which Bibles and such are printed are not allowed, since trees are cut down to produce the paper. For a more pedestrian example, does the right to worship allow a church full of people to sing loudly late into the night, keeping the neighbors awake? Of course not. Clearly, the right to worship as one pleases is not absolute.

These sorts of examples can be found for any right. Again, it has never been made clear by anyone what the meaning of an absolute right is. All depends upon circumstance. It is not enough to simply claim that rights, in themselves, exist somewhere in some abstract state, in some pure and absolute form. That is utterly meaningless. So I will not engage in debate as to whether rights are absolute, and will confine this study to my above basic definition, which will be further clarified below.

Animal rights

Rational humans agree that lions in the wild have the natural right, any time they wish, to kill and eat other animals. And rational humans would agree that humans, whether in the wild or in society, have no right, any time they wish, to kill or eat other humans. Thus there is apparently a difference between animal rights and human rights.

Human rights

The difference is that in order to remain within the dictates of current religions, and/or for our societies to function, we correctly define human rights humanely. In fundamental terms, that would be stated as: No right encompasses (1) non-defensive acts involving direct or highly probable harm to another human being, nor does a right encompass (2) non-defensive acts involving any degree of probability of substantial harm to the public or society."

In part one of the definition, the words “encompassing direct or highly probable harm to another human being” are clear in meaning. But it may not be clear why part two of the definition changes from harming another human being to harming the public or society, especially since “public” is another way of saying many human beings collectively and “society” is another way of saying the system under which many humans live together. And it may not be clear why the adjective substantial is used.

The reason for the change in terms can be clearly seen by substituting the words public or society in the second part of the definition of a humane right with the words used in the first part – another human being – and leaving out the adjective substantial. Then the second part of our definition of a humane right would be: “…(2) nor does a right encompass acts involving any degree of probability of harm to another human being”. If we enforced that definition of a right, there would effectively be no rights at all, and much human activity would come to a halt. For example, there would be no driving on freeways, no police force, no airlines, no heavy industry, no military training, etcetera ad infinitum, because all of those activities produce some probability of harming another human being.

Society must allow some degree of probability of harming another human being in order to function. But it cannot allow such harm if it would affect many people at once, and/or if that harm would be substantial. At bottom, substantial harm means “far outweighing the benefit to both individuals and society in general from allowing the act under consideration”.

For example, consider whether the right to own personal property extends to allowing a citizen to store a hunk of plutonium in his home in some city. The probability of any individual home burning to the ground is extremely low, but if this particular home were to burn, plutonium particles could be scattered over an area of tens or even hundreds of square miles, resulting in the eventual deaths of tens of thousands of people and rendering the affected land uninhabitable for hundreds or even thousands of years. So even though the probability of harm coming to another human may be extremely low, society does not extend the definition of the right to own personal property to encompass the act of storing plutonium at home. This is because the benefits to society of allowing the act, both in terms of (1) personal utility to citizens who want to own plutonium for whatever reasons, and in terms of (2) defining the right own personal property as broadly as possible, are far outweighed by the potential harm in allowing it.

To sum up: when the word right is used from this point on, it means a humanely defined right, or one that accords with this definition: A right is a morally and legally unrestrictable option to engage in acts or activities that never encompass direct or highly probable harm to another human being, nor that ever encompass any degree of probability of substantial harm to the public or society.

Limitation of rights for rational and compelling reasons

If we accept the above basic definition of a humane right, then there is no such thing as legally limiting a right. This is because any action that falls within the definition of that right, which we are saying is legally unrestrictable, must automatically be legal, and therefore cannot be legally limited. Thus a right can only be illegally limited – that is, violated or infringed. Note: the sole generally accepted exception is curtailment of rights during wartime or an extreme national emergency, and even that depends upon the written law and specific circumstances of the state or country. For example, the legality of limiting the right to freedom of religion in wartime would be highly debatable.

But it is common in matters of law to say “to limit a right” and mean that such limitation is legal. That is because “to limit” is quicker and easier to say than “to legally determine that certain actions associated with a right fall outside the defined parameters of a right”. Therefore when speaking of rights, we will use the term limit to mean a logical, legal determination about that right, and we will use violate or infringe when we mean an illegal action concerning a right.

Determining “Harm”

Generally speaking it is agreed that societies can and should limit any act – whether it is considered a right or not – performed by a person or group of people if that act directly harms another human or creates a situation in which harm to other humans is highly probable. Therefore societies will automatically find themselves occasionally determining whether or not some activity falls outside the scope of a previously recognized right. (Of course the issue of what constitutes harm or probable harm will be the basis of this determination.)

For example, people in the U.S. have the right to speak freely and to speak to the masses (freedom of speech and of the press). But if this speech takes the form of libel or slander, it is rational and of compelling public interest to prohibit these rights from sheltering the originator of such libel or slander from a lawsuit. The same might be said of transferring national security secrets.

Another example: we have the right to work, to own private property, to raise our children as we see fit, and to be secure in our homes and possessions. But if a person chose to manufacture nitroglycerine in his family dwelling in a crowded neighborhood, and to store that nitroglycerine in an open vat in his back yard, and let his children play near that vat of nitroglycerine, society would rationally decide that all of those activities had gone beyond the point where they were encompassed by the abovementioned rights.

Government versus rights – an eternal conflict

Allowing government officials alone to define when an activity transgresses the “harm” restrictions regarding rights, or allowing any narrowing at all of the scope of activities associated with a right, puts that right on a slippery slope to oblivion. This is because those who work for the government automatically tend to usurp as much social power as possible, and the ability to limit human activities is a key component of social power. The key to this dilemma is to very strictly limit the definition of harm and the calculation of highly probable.

When the government restricts any activity that does not directly harm another person, or which does not create a condition of high probability of harm another person, or which will not produce substantial harm to the public or society, or which actually makes society safer, then government violates its fundamental mandate to maintain as free a society as possible within the constraints of reasonable safety. In the case of U.S. federal government, such restrictions may violate an actual legal mandate – the Constitution’s Ninth Amendment, which states that rights not specifically listed in the Constitution are not necessarily non-existent, and are not necessary limitable by the government. In sum, restrictions of non-harmful or beneficial activities is certainly immoral, and government infringement of recognized rights is incontestably both immoral and illegal.


Brian Puckett is the Founder and Director of Citizens of America, a non-profit pro-gun media organization dedicated to waking people up through use of the radio and print ads. Visit their website at http://www.CitizensOfAmerica.org. See other articles from Mr. Puckett in his archive at http://www.KeepAndBearArms.com/Puckett.

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