A writing exersize: answering some basic objections to individual rights.
David Veksler
November 16, 2004

Introduction: A brief argument for individual rights:

Man requires certain values in order to live. As a rational being, he must be free to exercise his reason in order to achieve his values. The initiation of force by other men is the only way others can prevent a man from exercising his reason, since force makes a man’s judgment useless as a means of survival. In order to live in society, men need to establish the behavior that they should be free to engage in, and the behavior that should be banned because it involves the initiation of force. The principle of individual rights serves this function by defining the range of moral actions open to man in a social context.

Objections to individual rights:

Objection #1: The principle of individual rights is unnecessary.

Why is not sufficient to simply state a general list of actions which involve the initiation of force rather than introducing a complex new set principles?  For example, one could simply state that it is immoral to steal, cheat, kill, or enslave others.

Reply:

It is necessary to apply the principle of individual rights to determine which actions consist of the initiation of force.  For example, we know that it is immoral to steal, but what constitutes theft?  It cannot be determined merely by observation of immediate action.  A man who breaks into a car and takes it against the owner’s wishes might be a car thief – or he might be repossessing it because the owner failed to pay off a loan.  A man who lies to lies in order to get something he wants might be guilty of fraud – or he might only be guilty of lying.  If a man kills another, he might be guilty of murder – or he might be acting in self defense.  If a man is forced to work without pay for a period of time, he might be enslaved – or he might be a criminal serving jail time.  Virtually every specific action which might constitute the initiation of force in a certain context may be legitimate in another context.  It is therefore necessary to establish a set of basic principles in order to deliniate which actions violate rights.

Objection #2: There is disagreement on what constitutes a “right” between individuals and societies, even those that reject the initiation of force.  One man’s “right” might be a rights violation to another, and therefore rights cannot be absolute. 
For example, abortion is seen by some as a basic right, while others see it as murder.  The status and degree to which intellectual values should be protected is also commonly disputed.  Public nudity is legal in some communities, but not in others. If there is widespread disagreement on rights, then they must depend in part on social conventions and therefore cannot be absolute and non-contradictory.

Reply:

Moral principles are derived from the facts of human nature, which are independent of the conclusions reached about, whether by difference individuals or civilizations.  Since the principle of individual rights is a moral one, it can be derived from the basic facts of human nature.  Rather than being inapplicable, the recognition of individual rights is especially important when rights are disputed - issues like abortion and welfare.  By understanding the purpose of rights – to allow rational men to pursue values free of coercion, we can recognize that a fetus cannot pursue values, but does impose a burden on the host by its very existence.  Likewise, since the principle of individual rights recognizes that values come from the man’s mind and that man needs to secure these values to live, we can recognize the importance of protecting intellectual property.

Again, the principle of individual rights provides crucial guidance for defining the scope of moral action on society.

Objections #3: Why do only some immoral interactions violate rights – why not all?  For example, if it is immoral to both kill others and oneself without due cause, why is it that one action violates rights, but the other does not?  Even within social interactions, there are many actions which are immoral but not do not violate rights, such as lying, breaking promises, and adultery.  Furthermore, if we exclude immoral individuals from our social circle, are we not violating their rights?

Reply:

The purpose of establishing individual rights is to protect man from man – to define the basic conditions necessary for social existence.  It does not follow however, that respecting the rights of others requires that we tolerate them or morally sanction their behavior.  In a rights-respecting society, individuals with very different values may coexist without harm to each other as long as they recognize the right of others to the same.  They may avoid associating with immoral individuals and exclude them from their property, but this does not prevent others from doing the same.  The use of coercion to force others into or out of their preffered associations on the other hand, destroys the conditions necessary for peaceful social coexistence.  

If, for example, a qualified job seeker is rejected by a business owner because of his skin color, the job seeker is still free to look for work in any other establishment, and others can condemn this action by avoiding that establishment.  If however, a government passes regulations declaring legitimate and illegitimate hiring criteria, the judgment of businessmen in choosing which hiring criteria is legitimate, as well as the potential for disapproval from potential employees and customers, is rendered irrelevant.  The political arena then becomes a means to coerce others into following ones values rather than a means of protecting one’s ability to choose which values to live by.

Objection #4: The protection of rights in a modern society requires that some entity, such as a government, must establish an official definition of rights, and then force a society to follow that definition, even though many individuals are likely to disagree with it.  It is impractical, if not impossible, for all the citizens to observe the definition of rights they find most logical, since it may contradict the definition of others.   If it is necessary to force the definition of rights reached by one group of men on everyone else, how can the right to follow one’s reason be guaranteed?

Reply:

Because rights are derived from the facts of reality, in particular, man’s need for freedom in order to live, it is possible to rationally arrive at the correct definition of individual rights and establish a society that protects them.  The fact that man’s rational faculty is fallible means that there can be no guarantee that such a definition will be reached, but this does not invalidate the concept of individual rights or the importance of a free society.  When choosing what moral system to live by, man faces the potential for error – but it does not follow that he should give up on values or reject reason because it does not make him omniscient.  The Founding Fathers failed to see that establishing a separation of economy and state was as important as the separation of church and state – but this is cause to correct their errors, not to do away with the Constitution entirely.