Untrue Things People Believe
This is the first article addressing those things most people believe that are not true introduced in the article, "Most Of What You Believe Is Not True." To see all the articles, or any other one, please see the Index.
Everyone knows everyone has rights, but no one can say exactly what rights are. The founders of the United States described rights as something humans are endowed with by God: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." [Declaration of Independence]
There are many in the United States who truly believe rights are actually provided by God, that without God there would be no rights, and that to deny rights is essentially a denial of the God that gave them.
In the wider world, though not attributed to a God, rights are still frequently understood to be something intrinsic or essential to human nature, and are referred to as natural rights.
One other view of rights does not rest on any mystic endowment of God or nature. It is the view that rights are determined by the requirements of human nature as rational volitional beings. That to live a human being must be free to use his mind, to work and produce, and be able to keep the product of his labor. Though philosophical in nature, even this view assumes rights are an essential requirement of human nature, in the sense that all human beings must have these rights.
There is one other view of rights, which I will not discuss. That is the view that rights are not something absolute or intrinsic, but something granted by a ruling authority, the government, or the state. This is not what most people mean by rights, however, and in fact are not rights at all, but privilege or license.
What most people mean by rights is something people have with or without a government. Rights, whether endowed by God, or part of human nature, or required by human nature, are assumed to belong to all human beings, whoever they are and wherever they are.
Yet no one really believes that. That is why the Declaration of Independence says "... to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men ...." In fact, all of politics and all politicians use the idea of rights as the excuse for every new law and program they want to put over. No one notices the contradiction in what they believe: "we all already have rights—we have to have a government to make sure we have our rights."
[NOTE: I once had an argument with someone trying to convince me rights were truly an endowment of God. I was not interested in discussing his religious beliefs, so accepted his premise. "Well the Declaration says we are endowed by God with rights, but then goes on to say Governments are needed to secure those rights. Does that not seem odd to you?" "Of course not. What's odd about it?" he demanded. "Well," I said, "God endows us with eyes for seeing, and ears for hearing, and feet for walking, and we do not need a government to make sure we get them. Perhaps God intended to endow us with rights, but forgot, so Government has to do it," I suggested. He neither understood the point nor appreciated the humor.]
What Rights Actually Are
What are rights? Are they the endowment of God as the Declaration of Independence claims, or are they provided man as part of human nature? Are they an actual aspect of human nature or are they a philosophical concept based on the requirements of human nature?
Even if there were an answer to such questions, it would not tell us what rights are, only how we got them. What really needs to be asked is exactly what are rights? This question, when answered at all, is usually answered by a list of presumed rights, such as the rights to life, liberty, and property. These may or may not be rights, but they do not explain what a right actually is. For example, is the, "right to life," a guarantee one will be kept alive no matter what they do? Or is it only a guarantee no one will deprive one of life? Or is it something else?
While almost no two people agree about what rights are, there is no one who doubts that there are such things. The belief in rights is not derived by reason or evidence, it is what everyone has always heard and been taught—it is now presumed without question that there are rights and anyone who expresses a doubt about it is dismissed as a lunatic or trouble maker.
Here I will risk being a lunatic and trouble maker, because I am about to prove there is no such thing as rights—rights is a pseudo-concept that mixes truth with concepts that are neither true or false, but merely wishes.
The Exact Meaning of Rights
In all discussions of rights the precise meaning of rights always remains vague. In most cases it is because people's idea of rights is vague, but in some cases the true exact meaning of rights is intentionally obfuscated, because that meaning would be too obviously impossible.
The true meaning of rights has four aspects:
- It is something all people have just because they are born.
- It is a claim on something one does not have to earn.
- It is a guarantee of something being a certain way.
- It must be provided by someone.
The first three are essential to the meaning of rights. The fourth is an inevitable consequence.
[NOTE: I treat "rights" as a singular because it names a single concept which includes all of what are referred to as "enumerated rights."]
What Is Wrong With Rights?
The four aspects of rights are either what rights mean or everything said about rights is self-contradictory. The following explains why this is true, and why the concept rights actually identifies a fiction, a very popular and pleasant fiction.
It is something all people have just because they are born.
This is obviously not true however one defines rights or whatever they believe any particular rights are, whether a right to life, or liberty, or property, for example. People are deprived of life every hour of every day in every country of the world, are oppressed and tormented, and have their property stolen or destroyed as well. If everyone really had such rights as a right to life, liberty, and property none of these things could happen. When it is said everyone has rights it is a lie. It is, at best, a kind of ideal one might wish everyone had, or something one might believer everyone ought to have, but it is certainly not something everybody already has.
It is a claim on something one does not have to earn.
The word "rights" is sometimes used to identify that which one has a claim to because they have earned it or purchased it. That word is a completely different word from the one used for "human rights."
That one does not have to earn rights is the one aspect of rights that is never explicitly identified. There is absolutely no moral basis for any claim to anything by anyone who has not earned, achieved, or produced it by their own effort. Libertarians and most conservatives, for example, are opposed to what they consider an abuse of the concept of rights when such things as a "right to an education," or, "right to health care," or, "right to full employment," are suggested, because they must be supplied by someone else. In their view nothing can be a right that obligates someone else (whose own rights are thus violated.) Such proliferation of rights is why liberty-minded individuals cannot support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes among its enumeration of rights the following abominations:
"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."
"Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory."
It is supposed by the liberty-minded and those who identify themselves as conservatives that such rights cannot actually be rights, that they are a contradiction of the meaning of rights. In fact, they are not. When once the principle that anyone has an unearned claim on anything, even such good things as having their life, freedom, and property protected, there is no logical limit on what may be claimed, and the whole game becomes one of seeing who can make the most outrageous claims and get away with it.
It is a guarantee of something being a certain way.
It would be wonderful to live where no one's life, liberty, or property were ever threatened. That, of course, is the whole aim of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution of United States, but that guarantee (which certainly meant nothing) only applied to people's life, liberty, and property not being threatened by the government.
It is government itself that is supposed to protect individual rights. The purpose of government is to guarantee that everyones' rights will be secured and protected from all threats, foreign and domestic. Since this is not about government, the question here is whether any such guarantee is possible.
The answer is, of course not. There are no guarantees! The desire for or belief in guarantees is an unrealistic dream. Reality is generally unpredictable, often dangerous, always hard. The desire for guarantees is a desire for reality to be something other than what it is.
It must be provided by someone.
If one has a claim to the preservation of their life, to liberty, and to the security of their property, without actually providing for those things themselves, then someone else must provide them. That someone else is usually presumed to be the government, but theoretically could be some other agency. It has always seemed a curiosity to me that, for those who believe God is the author of rights, why their God is not the agency that protects them.
Since, up to this time, God has not lifted a finger to protect anyone's rights, the job is obviously one that some human beings must tackle. That means, however, that those who's rights are being protected are receiving the unearned benefit of that protection. It can be argued that people pay for that protection with their taxes, for example, but that contradicts the view that one has a claim on their rights just because they were born, without having to earn them.
There is nothing wrong with the view that one ought to defend their own lives, secure their own freedom, and protect their own property, or pay someone else to do it. That, in fact, is the morally correct way for such things to be achieved. Obviously there is no need for the fictional concept of rights for that.
Rights Is A Social Political Concept
Regardless of which view of rights one holds, whether one believes rights are an intrinsic aspect of human nature or a concept derived philosophically from the nature of man, if they are true and real and pertain to every individual, they would be true of an individual even if that individual were the only individual in the entire world. For example, an astronaut stranded on a distant planet should have all the rights of any individual living on earth.
Consider what rights would mean to an isolated individual. He would have a right to do, say, or be anything he chose. He would not have a right to life, only a right to do whatever is necessary to stay alive, if he could. He would not have a right to food, clothing, shelter, or anything else, but would have the right to produce as many of such things as he could by his own effort.
If you protest that an isolated individual does not need rights, that it is only in the context of a society that the concept rights has meaning, I agree. I have intentionally used the example of the isolated individual to demonstrate that because it is only in a social context the concept rights has meaning, it is not a valid concept.
Rights in a Social Context
What is it about a society, the presence of other individuals, that requires a concept of rights? The existence of other individuals does not change what is true about any particular individual. If an individual has no "right" to any more than he can produce, achieve, or acquire by his own effort when isolated, what is it about the existence of others, a society, that suddenly grants a right to more than he can achieve, or acquire by his own effort? One does not suddenly acquire new attributes just because other people exist.
The obvious reason the concept rights is thought to be needed in a social context is because others in a society constitute a potential threat to one's life, freedom, and property, and the belief that everyone deserves to be protected from those threats. This is the entire excuse for government. But there is something this view neglects.
The individual in isolation cannot be threatened by other individuals, but that does not mean there are no possible threats to his life, freedom, and property. Even in a society, other human beings are not the only possible threats to an individual's life, freedom, and property. Tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, lightening, accidents, earthquakes, wild or rabid animals, fires, disease, and any other unpredicted disaster can all threaten an individual's life, freedom, and property. It is only threats from other human beings that rights are supposed to protect individuals from.
The only difference between the potential threat of other human beings, and all other possible threats, is that human beings are volitional creatures and are only a threat if they choose to be. Some see this as making the threat of other humans more dangerous, but this is not really true. One can at least attempt to reason with another human being, one cannot reason with an earthquake or a rabid animal.
Notice that the concept rights (until recently) only assumed protection from human threats. One does not find a right to protection form earthquakes, fires, disease, or rabid animals, and even with the proliferation of rights, it is assumed one must provide their own protection from tornadoes, earthquakes, and lightning. Morally they should provide their own protection from all possible threats, even those posed by other human beings. No one has a claim on anything they have not earned or paid for themselves. No one has a claim on any protection they have not provided themselves.
Rights and Government
Without the concept rights it is difficult to justify government, and the existence of government itself actually contradicts the true principles implied by the mistaken concept of rights.
Since this is article is about rights, not government, the relationship between rights and government will be covered in the article on Government.
The Problem With Rights
Morally, no one may interfere in the life of any other individual, not as a threat to their life, their liberty, their property, or anything else. This is not some kind of obligation or duty imposed by some external force or agency, it is a principle based on the requirements of every individual's nature, if an individual chooses to live happily and successfully in this world. (There are no principles to guide the actions of those who do not choose live happily and successfully.) The psychological requirement of every human being is to know that the life they enjoy, they deserve to enjoy because they have earned it, not maintained it by theft and cheating others. It is essential to one's sense of dignity and purpose to know they have done all they are able to be the best human being they could possibly be. Anything less is being a failure as a human being, and one's own consciousness will not allow that kind of contradiction. One might decieve the whole world about what they are, but no one can evade their own awareness of what they are. At best, such a life is a life of disappointment and regret, but is more likely to be a life full of guilt, meaninglessness, and despair.
"Rights," is a social concept. It is the belief that there is some way to make people behave morally, to force them to refrain from interfering in other's lives. Ethics are principles that pertain only to individuals. They are not obligations or rules, but a description of those aspects of reality that determine the consequences of one choices and actions. They do not tell anyone what to do, only what the consequences will be of what they choose to do. If one chooses to defy the requirements of their nature, the requirements to produce and earn their own way, if they choose to be a parasite, a mooch, or thug, they will suffer the consequences of their own nature's rebellion against their evasion of reality, and will probably blame their unhappiness on some supposed violation of their rights.
H.L. Mencken wrote: "The central belief of every moron is that he is the victim of a mysterious conspiracy against his common rights and true deserts." Most people go through life fighting for some supposed rights they believe they have been deprived of. All the time, energy, and emotion they spend on such pursuits is a waste of their life, life that could be spent pursuing what can actually be achieved. Even those who believe rights only pertain to the freedom to live as they choose, waste much of the time they could use living as they choose pursuing the fiction of rights.
There is no such thing as rights. No one has a claim on anything in life that they have not produced, earned, or merited by their own effort. The pursuit of rights is an immoral pursuit of the unearned and undeserved, as well as a huge waste of one's resources.