Friday, April 23, 2010

On Rights

These truths are self-evident:

All rights are the creation of men. It is the desire of men to have rights, which creates rights. Rights derive from the relations between men, and the resources available to men. Men give rights, so that they may have them. They are property, which each man possesses to one degree or another. Rights have value. The value of a right is not its formality, but its effect. Each man values each right, to one degree or another, according to its effect on his life.

All rights are by the consent of others. Since the consent of others is always contingent, no right can be absolute or inalienable.

Each society has available to it, even where it extracts rights from other societies, only so many rights to distribute among its members. A society with more resources has the potential for more rights. It may have less.

Each right that a person has is a limitation on the rights of others. Each right is a burden on others.

Rights incur responsibilities. The failure to meet those responsibilities is a cause tor the alienation of those rights. The first responsibility is the granting of rights to others. The second responsibility is their enforcement. The third responsibility is mercy. Since the responsibility of rights represents a burden, the fourth responsibility is the minimization of that burden, given the maximization of those rights, given the resources available. The fifth responsibility is the education to those rights, and their responsibilities, and their burden.

The people of a society grant rights for their own benefit. Rights are granted where the effective benefit of those rights is greater than the real burden of the responsibilities. Where the people benefit less than the burden, those rights will be discarded.

The people of a society develop institutions for securing their rights. These institutions formalize the granting of rights, and their enforcement. These institutions are themselves granted rights, to the benefit of and at the expense of the people. Such institutions necessarily also increase the rights of a few. To such degree as they use force, or are inefficient, they reduce the rights available to the people and increase the burden of those rights.

In a society, there is a natural distribution of rights, which depends on the resources available to that society, demanding the least force and incurring the least inefficiency, which maximizes the value of rights available to the people. The institutions chosen by the people need not guarantee that distribution, and indeed may be chosen to impose distributions of rights different from this natural distribution. The additional expense, the loss of rights to a society, will be more than proportional to the deviation from the natural distribution.

So by consent, the members of a society may make certain rights universal, and held in equal quantity by all, and inalienable except for failure to meet the incurred responsibilities. These certain rights then represent a form of property which cannot be bought or sold. A society may consent to this, at the expense of other rights, that the few more fortunate of more able, shall not otherwise acquire those certain rights of the many less fortunate or less able.

And by consent a society may make certain rights held by a few, who incur greater responsibilities. It may assign these rights, and those responsibilities, to the few, in
various manners. These certain rights then represent a form of property, which may also be bought and sold. A society may consent to this, at the expense of other rights, if the many choose to not effectively exercise themselves those responsibilities these rights incur.

Properties are rights, and by the consent of others. Therefore, no property is absolute or inalienable. Others consent to properties, so that they may also have properties. Those who consent to have less, do so in the expectation that they may attain more, either in the present, or in the future. Since properties are rights, those with more properties have more rights than those who have fewer. Those with more properties also impose greater burdens on their society, and incur greater responsibilities. Since there is a natural distribution, those with more properties may impose a disproportionately large burden of their society, and incur disproportionately greater responsibilities.

There will always be those with many rights. There will always be those with few. When those with few are many, and those with many few, a society is poor.

Where many rights are narrowly held, where the many have few, either the few exercise their responsibilities, and impose the lesser burden on society, or they impose the greater burden of society, and the consent of the many is obtained and maintained through fraud and excess force. The many may either shake off their burden, or succumb to it. The resources taken to enforce fraud and excess force take away from the rights available to society.

That distribution of rights which maximizes the value of rights, and minimizes fraud and force, is most just, and most merciful.

Subject to revision.


  1. I can't read posts about rights without thinking of abortion and the right of women to determine what to do with their own bodies. Is it just me? Or is it that so many articles like these are written by men? Anyway, the statement above: "Each right that a person has is a limitation on the rights of others."
    Anti-abortion campaigners would probably say that the embryo has rights which are affected. Others would say that rights don't begin at conception, but differ on where they do.
    I think what I'm saying is that, aphorisms about rights that ignore the who or what has rights appear to me to have a big hole in them, like a half-made sampler (embroidery analogy, there you go).
    However, I am British and from where I sit it looks like abortion is not a subject entered into lightly by US commentators.

    1. I think one of the main thrusts of the post was the idea that rights are not 'God given,' but by the mutual consent of men,( and women.) Arguments from God are, while not irrelevant, since some parties give much emotional weight to them, rather beside the true origin of rights.

      I believe much of the current position against abortion is a residue of cultural history, and the regarding of women as property of men. Women fought very had to change this, and bring about a new consensus of rights, and who had which of them.

      The extension of rights to those who are not, perhaps cannot be, party to a consensus, such as fetuses, who are alive and potential citizens (and consider the treatment of children, and also animal rights) is always contentious, requiring a change in group consciousness to take effect. The consensus must grant rights to those outside of the consensus, at some cost to (some of) its members, and usually with the expectation of some payoff.

      My own view of the balance in this particular issue is 5 months. By this time I believe a woman almost always knows she is pregnant, and if she does not have an abortion in this period, can be considered to have decided by default. But the decision is hers alone. even, I would say, in the case of a minor. Society is obligated to provide opportunity and information of all the choices and consequences available, including all means of contraception and reasonable alternatives of abortion. The woman's duty is to be informed of these choices, and her body. I believe if a society imposes further restrictions on abortion and contraception, it assumes the burden of raising the resulting children. I consider abortion foes to be somewhat hypocritical, since if they offered instead to raise the children of those they instead try to deny abortions, I believe they would, in their own view, save many lives.

      The deeper balance is not so pretty. Even from a humanist perspective, life begins at conception. If the principle is survival, it is merely one of degree of dependence on the mother. But so we can have more fun, (sex) with equal consequence for both parties demands either no consequence for both, ( the woman can have an abortion, if desired,) or the man must help raise the child, (Shotgun marriage.) We have decided no consequence, and so have traded the rights of the fetus for our own. This was not always the case.