Are personal rights a myth? A fairytale? Is it true that you have no true freedom, that you only have temporary privileges that you enjoy until someone tells you to stop enjoying them? This is definitely a philosophy that is prevalent among the supporters of authoritarian government. However is this rational?
If privileges are only temporary and exist only until someone tells me to stop enjoying them, then in the absence of others, I am free. Well this seems to point to the idea of a universal freedom rather than a freedom that is given by any specific person, and indeed that seems true. So we have in a way a contradiction; since freedoms naturally exist until they are taken away, they can not be mythical or fleeting.
If however we assume that rights, instead of being transient, are perpetual, unless oppressed by an outside force, then we do not have a contradiction; as soon as the oppressor is removed from the picture, our freedom suddenly is expressible once again; thus it seems that the idea of persistent freedom is more rational.
Definition of Rights
Okay; it’s great to think about something from an entirely philosophical point of view, but that doesn’t always help us out. So, now I will discuss rights, starting with a working definition. A right is that which is enjoyed, by a group of people, in the absence of others, and which does not infringe on the rights of any subset of the group. Originally I used the word “maintained” rather than “enjoyed,” but this led to some confusion. Enjoy, which means to possess or take advantage of, fits better than maintain.
Great. We have a working definition for a right. However, it is unreasonable to just make up a definition. Any new definition must be supported by an argument for why the definition is valid. Let’s consider a few candidates for rights: freedom, contracts, property, speech, healthcare, recognition of marriage, punching someone, employment.
The aforementioned working definition puts the individual at the center of what is a right. It is not something that is maintained by government or any other cultural construct. If it were, then the government would not need to actively suppress rights of individuals or groups. Culture does play a role in the workings of rights however. Specifically, each culture determines how to manage situations of conflicting rights by fashioning a hierarchy of rights.
Right to Inaction
From this definition, we can see that one of the most fundamental rights, if not the most fundamental right, is the right to inaction. In the absence of others, any person could choose to do nothing. It might negatively impact his or her existence, but it is maintained, in the absence of others, and since we are looking at the individual, no subgroup, aside from that individual exists. In addition, a key feature of the definition is that a right is defined by the conditions that exist, at a moment in time. What is a right at one point in time may not be a right at another. For instance, if you have food, then you have a right to eat it. If you do not have food, then you do not have a right to eat.
Compacts and Contracts
If the right to inaction is the most fundamental right, that can exist for a given individual, what is the most fundamental right that might exist between two individuals? Refusing to interact with one another is just exercising the right to inaction, that each already holds. So that’s not it. The most fundamental right that a group of two people hold is likely to be the right to form a compact.
Hierarchy of Rights and Privileges
Even if we can define rights in an objective way, does that mean that all rights are created equal, and that we should never act in opposition to those rights? That requires a different argument, and one beyond the scope of this text. All that I will say on the topic is that a society will have a hierarchy of rights and privileges, and that there will be times where a privilege overrides a right, in a given society. That is often the case in the United States.
If the protection of rights is paramount, and the goal is to reject natural slavery, then we must assume that all entities with agency [people] are sovereign, as are all collectives of people. This would mean that every person, regardless of whether or not they are a citizen are still sovereign. We may defer the decision making process, but ultimately any and all decisions are our own. This means that we are responsible for our own decisions and the decisions of those to whom we have made our agents, and that we can, at any time, reject those agents.