WHAT ARE RIGHTS?
Citizens of America
position that rights do not exist
view holds that there is no such thing as a “right”. This view holds that
there are only claims to the ability to
freely engage in certain actions, and that such claims are enforced only by
force itself. It should be pointed out that this is not the same as saying
“might makes right”. Rather it is saying “might determines what is”,
whether it is right or not.
Logically and practically
there is much to recommend the above view. It reflects what is obvious in real
life. For example, the overwhelming majority of a society may believe – and
claim repeatedly – that every
human has the right to own property, travel freely, speak freely, bear arms,
engage in free commerce, etc., but if the majority will not or can not enforce
that claim, it means nothing. For example, claims of such rights had zero effect
on the lives of those living in the former Soviet Union, nor does it affect the
lives of people living in dozens of other countries right now.
position that rights do exist
Most humans reject the view
that there is no such thing as a right.
The reason lies in the seemingly instinctive (and completely understandable)
view that, for example, having another person steal from you, or murder you, or
enslave you, or to physically harm you without cause is wrong.
Therefore the concept of a right
not to be stolen from, enslaved, etc., has come into being.
And unless a person believes
he is entitled to be treated differently from the rest of humanity,
then logically the converse must be true: everyone else has a right not be stolen from, enslaved, etc.
(“God-given”) rights versus derivative rights
There is no objective
proof that the position that basic rights
exist is correct. The nearly universal acceptance of this position rests on the
above-mentioned “instinctive feeling”, practical application, and/or
faith-based (religious) assertions of rights that oppose certain “wrong”
These basic human rights,
which are few in number and which vary from era to era and place to place, are
considered natural or inherent rights.
Religious people might call them God-given
rights. To understand how much even these natural rights have varied
historically, consider that the right to hold slaves existed in certain
societies well into modern times, and that the Aztec civilization believed it
was the right of Aztec priests to
sacrifice human beings to their gods.
Rights which are prescribed
by law – which could be considered to be derived
from inherent rights, or derived from
a particular legal system – are derivative
rights. They vary considerably around the world. An example of such a right
would be the U.S. Constitution’s right of those accused of crimes to undergo a
trial by jury, or the right to reject the quartering of soldiers in one’s
of a right
Because most of humanity –
even humanity ruled by tyrants, and usually even the tyrants themselves –
agrees that rights exist, we will adopt that view in this study.
Simply put, the basic
definition of a right is a morally and
legally unrestrictable option (choice). The option (choice) with which
rights are associated is invariably the
option to engage in some act or activity (series of related acts). For example, the right to
self-defense is the morally and legally unrestrictable option to defend oneself
against an unprovoked, or illegal, or immoral physical attack.
With respect to rights,
maintaining a personal status quo must
be considered an act. For example,
consider the right to be free of unprovoked attack on our person by another
human; using our definition, that may be stated as the unrestrictable option to
maintain the status quo of our bodily condition. And of course owning something is an act – the act of holding as property.
Because of the way we define
a right, it is important to note that, logically,
any acts (or activities) associated with exercising a right require absolutely
no permission. “Permission” indicates that there is some person or
entity which may restrict the choice to engage in the associated acts or
activities. But since a right is an unrestrictable
option to engage in acts or activities, such restriction is logically
incompatible with the definition.
Some believe that rights are
absolute. What that means in practical terms has never been made clear, by any
source, to this writer. For any right
claimed to be absolute, an example of exercising that right can be found or hypothesized which
no sane person or society would allow. If no sane person or society would allow
it, then it cannot be either legally or morally acceptable, and is therefore
outside the definition of a right.
Let me give a simple example:
the right to self-defense is one of the most fundamental and accepted of rights.
Now consider person A who says to person B, “I swear to you, I’m going to
kill you with my hands in thirty seconds”. Person B absolutely believes person
A, and knows person A is capable of carrying out his stated mission since he has
killed others. So in response, person B picks up a club and kills person A
before A makes any overt hostile move. Now, A was certainly defending his life,
or at least his health, and if his right to self-defense is absolute,
he should not be charged with a crime.
But in real life he might well be, because the circumstances of exercising a
right are an essential factor. There is no absoluteness.
Here is another example:
Person A and person B are engaged in a quarrel. B – a known bully — clearly started
the quarrel. The quarrel moves from words to blows with the fist. Person A
manages to get B, the bully, down on the ground and begins smashing B’s head
into the pavement. B fears his skull is about to be crushed, reaches out and
picks up a rock, and smashes A in the head, killing him. Now, B was certainly
defending his life, or at least his health, and if his right to self-defense is
absolute, he should not be charged with a crime. But, again, in real life he
might well be. Again, the circumstances of exercising a right are considered.
Again, there is no absoluteness.
Consider the right to worship
as one pleases. Most people would claim that this is an absolute
right. But if it is absolute, does it
include human sacrifice? No, it does not – though it did in certain places at
certain times. Does it include sacrificing animals? In the industrialized
western world it generally does not. Does it include harming any animal? If the answer is no, then leather-bound Bibles,
Torahs, or Korans are not allowed, since leather comes from killing animals.
Does it include harming any of God’s
living creations? If the answer is no, then the paper on which Bibles and such
are printed are not allowed, since trees are cut down to produce the paper. For
a more pedestrian example, does the right to worship allow a church full of
people to sing loudly late into the night, keeping the neighbors awake?
Of course not. Clearly, the right to worship as one pleases is not absolute.
These sorts of examples can
be found for any right. Again, it has never been made clear by anyone what the
meaning of an absolute right is. All depends upon circumstance. It is not enough
to simply claim that rights, in
themselves, exist somewhere in some abstract state, in some pure and absolute
form. That is utterly meaningless. So I will not engage in debate as to whether
rights are absolute, and will confine this study to my above basic definition,
which will be further clarified below.
Rational humans agree that
lions in the wild have the natural right,
any time they wish, to kill and eat other animals. And rational humans would
agree that humans, whether in the wild or in society,
right, any time they wish, to kill or
eat other humans. Thus there is apparently a difference between animal rights
and human rights.
The difference is that in
order to remain within the dictates of current religions, and/or for our
societies to function, we correctly define human rights humanely.
In fundamental terms, that would be stated as: No
right encompasses (1) non-defensive acts involving direct
or highly probable
harm to another human being, nor does a right encompass (2) non-defensive
acts involving any degree of
probability of substantial harm to the public or
In part one of the
definition, the words “encompassing direct or highly probable harm to another
human being” are clear in meaning. But it may not be clear why part two of the
definition changes from harming another
human being to harming the public or society, especially since “public” is another way of saying many
human beings collectively and “society”
is another way of saying the system under
which many humans live together. And it may not be clear why
the adjective substantial is used.
The reason for the change in
terms can be clearly seen by substituting the words public
or society in the second part of the
definition of a humane right with the words used in the first part – another
human being – and leaving out the adjective substantial.
Then the second part of our definition of a humane right would be:
“…(2) nor does a right encompass acts involving any degree of
probability of harm to another human being”. If we enforced that definition of
a right, there would effectively be no rights at all, and much human activity
would come to a halt. For example, there would be no driving on freeways, no
police force, no airlines, no heavy industry, no military training, etcetera
ad infinitum, because all of those activities produce some
probability of harming another human being.
Society must allow some
degree of probability of harming another human being in order to function. But
it cannot allow such harm if it would affect many people at once, and/or if that
harm would be substantial. At bottom, substantial
harm means “far outweighing the benefit to both individuals and society in
general from allowing the act under
For example, consider whether
the right to own personal property extends to allowing a citizen to store a hunk
of plutonium in his home in some city. The probability of
any individual home burning to the ground is extremely
low, but if this particular home were
to burn, plutonium particles could be scattered over an area of tens or even
hundreds of square miles, resulting in the eventual deaths of tens of thousands
of people and rendering the affected land uninhabitable for hundreds or even
thousands of years. So even though the probability of harm coming to another
human may be extremely low, society
does not extend the definition of the
right to own personal property to encompass the act of storing plutonium at
home. This is because the benefits to
society of allowing the act, both in terms of (1) personal utility to
citizens who want to own plutonium for whatever reasons,
and in terms of (2) defining the right own personal property as broadly
as possible, are far outweighed by the potential
harm in allowing it.
To sum up: when the word right
is used from this point on, it means a humanely defined right, or one that
accords with this definition: A right is a
morally and legally unrestrictable option to engage in acts or activities that
never encompass direct or highly probable harm to another human being, nor that
ever encompass any degree of probability of substantial harm to the public or
of rights for rational and compelling reasons
If we accept the above basic
definition of a humane right, then there is no such thing as legally
limiting a right. This is because any action that falls within the definition of
that right, which we are saying is legally unrestrictable, must automatically
be legal, and therefore cannot be legally
limited. Thus a right can only be illegally
limited – that is, violated or infringed. Note: the sole generally accepted
exception is curtailment of rights during wartime or an extreme national
emergency, and even that depends upon the written law and specific circumstances
of the state or country. For example, the legality of limiting the right to
freedom of religion in wartime would be highly debatable.
But it is common in matters
of law to say “to limit a right” and mean that such limitation is legal.
That is because “to limit” is quicker and easier to say than “to legally
determine that certain actions associated with a right fall outside the defined
parameters of a right”. Therefore when speaking of rights, we will use the
term limit to mean a logical, legal
determination about that right, and we will use violate
or infringe when we mean an illegal action concerning a right.
Generally speaking it is
agreed that societies can and should limit any
act – whether it is considered a right or not – performed by a person or
group of people if that act directly harms another human or creates a situation
in which harm to other humans is highly probable. Therefore societies will automatically find themselves occasionally determining whether or
not some activity falls outside the scope of a previously recognized right.
(Of course the issue of what constitutes harm
or probable harm will be the basis of
For example, people in the
U.S. have the right to speak freely and to speak to the masses (freedom of
speech and of the press). But if this speech takes the form of
libel or slander, it is rational and of compelling public interest to
prohibit these rights from sheltering the originator of such libel or slander
from a lawsuit. The same might be said of transferring national security
Another example: we have the
right to work, to own private property, to raise our children as we see fit, and
to be secure in our homes and possessions. But if a person chose to manufacture
nitroglycerine in his family dwelling in a crowded neighborhood, and to store
that nitroglycerine in an open vat in his back yard, and let his children play
near that vat of nitroglycerine, society would rationally decide that all of
those activities had gone beyond the point where they were encompassed by the
versus rights – an eternal conflict
Allowing government officials
alone to define when an activity transgresses the “harm” restrictions
regarding rights, or allowing any narrowing at
all of the scope of activities associated with a right, puts that right on a
slippery slope to oblivion. This is because those who work for the government
automatically tend to usurp as much social power as possible, and the ability to
limit human activities is a key component of social power. The key to this
dilemma is to very strictly limit the definition of harm
and the calculation of highly probable.
the government restricts any activity
that does not directly harm another
person, or which does not create a condition of high
probability of harm another person, or which will not produce substantial
harm to the public or society, or which actually
makes society safer, then government violates its fundamental mandate to
maintain as free a society as possible within the constraints of reasonable
safety. In the case of U.S. federal
government, such restrictions may violate an actual legal mandate – the
Constitution’s Ninth Amendment, which states that rights not specifically
listed in the Constitution are not necessarily non-existent, and are not
necessary limitable by the government. In sum, restrictions of non-harmful or
beneficial activities is certainly immoral, and government infringement of recognized
rights is incontestably both immoral and illegal.
Puckett is the Founder and Director of Citizens of America, a non-profit
pro-gun media organization dedicated to waking people up through use of the
radio and print ads. Visit their website at http://www.CitizensOfAmerica.org.
See other articles from Mr. Puckett in his archive at http://www.KeepAndBearArms.com/Puckett.