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.
That famous quote sounds good, but in real world conversations, I have found few things that are less self-evident than ‘self-evident truths’ about Rights.
The quote, itself, immediately raises questions. Do we have only God-Given Rights? Are there Human Rights, Moral Rights, Natural Rights, Legal Rights? Would those be different things, or the same things coming from different sources?
And any detailed discussion of Rights typically gets less self-evident from there.
So, let’s see if I can offer you a simple view of Rights using the lens of Voluntaryism.
It might be useful to begin with Robinson Crusoe, alone on the island, again.
When Crusoe is the only person on the island, does it matter if he has any Rights? Would it make any practical difference if he has a Right to Liberty or not? It is only when Friday shows up on the island that the issue of Rights takes on any meaning.
This tells us that Rights have something to do with relationships.
Here’s why that is:
Rights, in effect, impose duties on others, in the form of either restrictions on their actions or claims on their actions.
If Crusoe has a Right to some type of freedom, that means that Friday has a duty to not interfere with Crusoe’s exercise of that freedom. Thus, Crusoe’s Right places restrictions on Friday’s actions.
If Crusoe has a Right to any services from Friday, that means that Friday has a duty to perform actions necessary to fulfill Crusoe’s Right. Thus, Crusoe’s Right places claims on Friday’s actions.
So, wherever you believe your Rights come from, God, Nature, a Constitution, etc., the purpose of a Right is to reduce the freedom of action of others in some way.
In the original story, Crusoe rescued Friday from cannibals. Let’s suppose for a moment that the rescue had failed miserably. Not only was Friday not saved, but imagine Crusoe found himself in a large pot hanging over a cooking fire.
At this point does a loud declaration from Crusoe that he has a God-Given, Human, Moral, Natural, and Legal Right to Life and Liberty do him any good? The cannibals would likely just give him a funny look and go back to making side dishes.
This tells us that Rights have something to do with voluntary agreement.
If I’m interacting with people who don’t accept that I have a Right, then for all practical purposes I don’t have a Right (in terms of my relationship with those people).
But what about Force?
Let’s go back to the original storyline in which Crusoe successfully rescues Friday. But now let’s change the story so that Crusoe, who has muskets and pistols, decides he has the Right to use Friday as a slave.
Because Crusoe can force Friday to be his slave, does that mean that Crusoe has a Right to keep Friday as an unwilling slave? Of course not.
So let’s summarize what have we learned so far about Rights:
- Rights don’t relate to individuals, they relate to relationships between individuals.
- Your Rights limit or reduce the freedom of action of others.
- To have any practical meaning, Rights must be consensual.
- The ability to force restrictions or claims on the actions of others does not constitute a Right.
What does all of this mean to a Voluntaryist?
A Voluntaryist believes that all interactions between people should be voluntary. By definition, this philosophy includes such ethical codes as Thou Shalt Not Steal (to steal is to take something against the will of the owner) and the Non-Aggression Principle (to not initiate the use force or threats against a person or their property).
So let’s see how the attributes we have discovered about Rights fit in (or not) with the philosophy of Voluntaryism.
As a Voluntaryist, by definition I grant everyone else the Right to not be aggressed against by me. When I do that, I impose a duty on myself, limiting my freedom of action.
That’s simple enough. But here’s where it gets a little trickier:
If my Rights require restrictions or claims on the actions of others, and I’m a Voluntaryist, then I can’t make a blanket claim of having any Rights. That would be imposing a duty on others, restricting their actions without their agreement. Of course we’ve already learned that Rights, to have any practical value, need consent anyway.
I can use Force to defend myself against aggression, but we’ve also learned that using Force to restrict or enforce actions still doesn’t constitute a Right.
So, bottom line, as a Voluntaryist, I can grant the Right to not be aggressed against, but I cannot demand the Right to not be aggressed against.
Fortunately, most other people, in terms of their daily activities, do consensually grant me the Right to not be aggressed against. The exceptions are a small number of criminals and a somewhat larger number of people involved in government.