Whats wrong with rights?
The right to choose, the right to smoke, the right to clean air and the right to have someone wipe my backside are claimed with great frequency. Okay maybe we don't hear real people whining about clean air very frequently but there are many ridiculous things people claim to have "as a right".
The subject of rights can be a firecracker. It doesn't seem to strike many as odd that there is so little agreement on the subject. A discussion of types of beer or tobacco or the merits of national football teams can be lively but rarely have the potential to inspire hatred. Yet discussions about rights can end in fights or even wars. That should strike rational people as odd.
It struck me that way anyway. I thought it a subject worthy of further investigation. So I've spent a few months reading the work of a lot of wiser people than I to see what they had to say on the matter. These are my conclusions.
What are rights all about and why are they important to people? Isn't the basis of rights essentially a way to avoid conflicts? Where there is conflict rights should enable us to decide what is just and what isn't, right? That explanation doesn't seem to go along with what we hear about rights on TV or in the newspapers. Isn't that odd? I hope it strikes you so.
There is more.
I happen to believe the above stated purpose for rights is a very workable one but it isn't workable as it stands. It is lacking. It is a good starting point though. After all if rights do not provide a way to avoid conflicts then what is the use of them?
What is lacking from the above is a way to arrive at a universally acceptable definition of the word "right" and then to come up with some universally acceptable rights based on it.
By "universal" I mean accepatable to all people. Why is it important that rights be universally acceptable? Because the purpose of rights is to minimize conflicts between people. They serve as the most basic agreements that we have with each other no matter where we are or who we are with. Conflicts can occur anywhere and amongst any people so we had all better be included.
The United Nations came up with what they called a Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the people involved in drafting it may have had good intentions, or they may not have had, but it was only "universal" in that it was accepted by representatives of something like 48 nation state governments. The European human rights law and the UK law, amongst many others, are very much based on the UN model.
But there is a difference between what a state would regard as acceptable and what the actual individual people would regard as acceptable. To be truly universal it would have to be acceptable to all people rather than all states. Now you may think that is a very high and overly ambitious standard. It may well be, but it is the least that is required for something aspiring to be universal.
An important question to be answered has to be; where do rights come from? Are they god given or state given? Or are they intrinsic in the nature of Man? We are talking about the most basic rights that all people would have just by virtue of being human. But first a definition.
A right is the moral authority to control something. It differs from a privilege in that it cannot be taken away by anyone else without consent, if it can be taken at all, and that we do not need the permission of anyone else to exercise it.
Instantly and immediately we are into territory where governments fear to tread. Rights that don't need permission to be exercised? Perish the subversive thought.
As every human must act he must also have the moral authority to do so. So where do human rights come from? They don't come from anywhere. We might consider them to be god given or we might consider them to be intrinsic. They are a part of us. In the same way that arms and legs are a part of being human so too are the moral authorities that could be called human rights. They are therefore most certainly not granted by governments.
In order to survive at all we must have control over our own lives and bodies. When I say "we" I mean each individual must have control over his or her body and life. It would not be possible for any one of us to survive if we had to get permission from some other person or some group of others whenever we wanted to breathe in or breathe out. So I think it fair to say that the right to have control over our own individual bodies and lives is fundamental and truly universal. Who could argue against that? (Note that I did not ask who could rail against it)
So we each have control over our bodies and lives. Anything else? What about food and shelter and heat and video games?
We don't have everything we need and want in life. There are only two ways to obtain things we would like to have from other people. We can receive them with the willing consent of the other person, as in a gift or an exchange, or we can just take them without the voluntary consent of the other guy.
We live in a world where these and many other things we value can only exist if we cooperate with other people. To take things from others without their willing consent, with or without exchange, does not encourage their cooperation in producing more of them. It is called stealing and is very destructive of goodwill. It therefore makes sense to only engage in transactions with other people when there is mutual and voluntary consent.
What does this have to do with rights? Everything. If I want a cafe latte from my local Italian cafe I have the same two options. I can do something for the producer that he will willingly accept in exchange for the coffee or, I could just steal it from him. Likewise if I want money to buy cafe latte and video games I will need to either do something for someone who has money that he will willingly accept in exchange for the money I want or, I could just steal it from him.
Why can't I just have a cafe latte given to me just by virtue of being human and wanting one? Let's call it a human right. Doesn't that mean I am no longer a thief and that the Italian in the coffee shop has a duty to provide it for me? The answer is another question. Why should the coffee producer invest his money and labour to produce his product only to give it away to me and receive nothing in exchange? What are the real rights at issue here? The real rights have to do with control. Who has the right to control the things involved in the production of cafe latte?
Rights are essentially about who gets to call the shots regarding property. We can acquire property if we want to and if the person who currently owns it is willing to let us have it. We can use that property in any way we see fit and we can dispose of that property in whatever way we voluntarily choose to do so. The key concepts are control and voluntary consent.
So what are the universal rights?
We could say....
We each own our own lives and bodies and the fruits of our labour and we must interract with others respecting that every other person owns their lives and bodies and the fruits of their labour.
Or it could be stated like this;
We each have the responsibility of being fully responsible for our own lives and bodies and the fruits of our labour and to only interract with others on a mutual consent and willing basis.
Or we could state the same thing as a right like this;
We each have the right to be fully responsible for our own lives and bodies and to only interract with others on a mutual consent and willing basis.
Along with the above we must also include the right to defend oneself or one's property against unwanted attempts to seize or harm them.
I believe this is close to being universally acceptable amongst people. Let me know if this is not acceptable to you.
That is all the rights we need if the purpose of rights is to promote a conflict free society.
But what about smokers rights, gay rights, womens rights? Where I come from these are all still considered forms of human.
There are some people who claim they want an "equal" or "fair" society. These will be the subject of many other blogs. Suffice to say for now that if the meaning of "equal" and "fair" is sameness then so-called rights that follow from that would rather obviously create conflicts. We cannot have a world where there are no differences between people and at the same time have a world that is more or less free of conflict. We need to rediscover the meaning of "Justice" again too.
So to get back to where we came in, smokers claim they have a right to smoke while anti smokers claim they have a right to clean air. Can they both be right? Yes they can if they are restricting themselves to premises they have the right to control. Otherwise it is a false question. There is no absolute right to clean air just as there is no absolute right to smoke. The so-called debate surrounding the ban on smoking in "public" places was deliberately framed in this way to limit what would be debated. One had to submit to one "side" or the other. But it is in fact a false question.
Look at it from the viewpoint of property rights and it is easy to resolve with everyone satisfied except those who want to control others but who have no moral authority to do so.
No matter which is the larger group; smoke frees or smoke friendlies, the same principle applies. Those who don't want smoke can go to places where the owner does not permit smoking or they can create such themselves if such people find they are in a minority. Likewise smokers can go to places where the owner welcomes smokers or create such if they are in a minority. Nobody has to go anywhere they do not willingly consent to go. Nobody has to give control of their property over to government without their willing consent. Nor is slavery permitted where a non smoking employee is forced to work at a job he doesn't want. Whereas with a ban on smoking everywhere if smokers choose not to patronise the place any more those poor non smoking workers won't have a job at all.
What is more if property rights were always respected without any exceptions there would be no incentive to lie and falsify science in order for one group to win at the expense of another through the use of destructive government power.
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