What are Rights? (Rights:Part 1)

What are rights? I don’t know. So I am writing about it to try and figure it out.

So, what are rights?

Are rights what you are able to do?

Are rights what others cannot do to you?

Are rights the claims you make on things you need to survive?

A distinction that I found helpful was between rights and liberties. Rights in simple terms are the things that others cannot do to you. And liberties are the things that you can do free of others stopping you.

You have a right not to be assaulted, you have a liberty to be able to walk down the street.

There is also a distinction to make between positive and negative rights.

Negative rights being protections or duties on others not to act in certain ways towards you. Postive rights being claims to certain things that are necessary for you survival. Many would say that positive rights are not actually rights at all because they often would infringe on the negative rights of others.

For example lots of people make the claim that basic healthcare is a human right. They ignore the fact that basic healthcare is something created and run by other human beings. If one person has a right to healthcare, then the other has a duty to provide healthcare. If you want to force people to provide healthcare, then you are infringing on that persons right of self-ownership. You cannot have a right to healthcare and a right of self-ownership at the same time.

Rights are a bit confusing because they are an abstraction. I don’t actually possess any rights. They are not a thing that exists. I can’t look at them. I can’t smell them. I can’t use them as a shield when you attack me.

Rights exist in the minds of people. Most importantly, your rights exist in the minds of the people that you are interacting with.

I might think I have a right to free burritos, but it doesn’t matter much in reality unless the people at Chipotle think I have a right to free burritos (spoiler: they don’t).

I might think that I have a right not to be assaulted, but it doesn’t matter if someone thinks they have the right to attack me.

So when we are talking about rights, we are talking about an abstraction. Usually meaning the accepted boundaries between people in a specific social group.

I think most of the natural rights folks believe that there are objective rights that you should have no matter where you go. Those objective rights won’t help them much if they run into a tribal society that wants to sacrifice them to the gods.

If no one around you recognizes the right that you think you have, it doesn’t matter if you think you have it or not.

The only rights that matter to you are the rights that your group, city, country, or civilization believe you have.

If you move from Canada to India, your rights will slightly change because people in India have a different conception of rights. One subtle way may be that they you don’t have the right to as much personal space.

You can say that they are wrong for this, but practically it won’t change your situation.

When I started thinking about rights as an abstraction, it caused some confusion about morality. I think that groping a woman is an infringement on her rights, but some groups don’t. Does she, or does she not have the right not to be assaulted?

I think that the people doing the assaulting are infringing on her right not to be assaulted. I think that they are wrong. I think that in that society she ought to have the right not to be assaulted, but unfortunately in that area that is not the case.

In the next few days I will dive deeper into how rights come to be, how they are created, and how something would go from being socially acceptable, to infringing on someone’s rights.


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