Definitions are important in order to ensure proper understanding. If I say my favorite fruit is an orange because I love the crisp crunch and bitter sweet taste as I bite into its green flesh, you are going to look at me like I am strange. Clearly what I am describing as an orange is actually a granny smith apple, and the concept of orange is different between the two of us. This is why the analogy of comparing apples to oranges makes sense. In my example, I am literally confusing an apple with an orange. This makes for very poor conversation, so I will always try my best to present the best definition possible for ideas I am discussing. That being said, I will now address the question at hand; do we have rights?
A quick Google search of “What is a right?” will return the following definition that is most pertinent to our discussion: “a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way.” When we think of rights, we think of the right to life, liberty, happiness, freedom of speech, to bear arms, and in more common dialogue, the right to healthcare or education. Let’s break this down a little bit. If we have a right to life, we are entitled to live, which means other people are obligated to not interfere with our life. This puts a claim on the actions of others. If I have a right to the freedom of speech, then others are obligated to let me speak in a public forum. If I have a right to healthcare, then doctors and nurses are obligated to treat me when I am ill or injured. A right, by definition, obligates others to affirm a claim I have as a living person. So, where do rights come from?
Natural Law would have you believe that your rights come from your humanity. You are a human being, so you are entitled to life, liberty, and property. This means other people are obligated to not interfere with your life or your freedom so long as you are respecting the rights of others, and to allow you to acquire property as long as you are not violating the rights of others. These are called negative claim rights as they do not require any positive action on the part of other people. However, these rights still place an obligation on other people. If you were on a tropical island with no other people, your need for rights would not exist as there would be no other people there. What about healthcare or education?
The United Nations has declared healthcare to be a basic human right. This means that other people are obligated to give you healthcare; doctors and nurses are obligated to give you care. Education is also often referred to as a human right. This means teachers are obligated to teach you. In fact, I would argue that if education is a human right, then anyone that knows more than anyone else is obligated to educate the less knowledgeable. Perhaps that’s why I’m writing this? I digress. These rights would be positive claim rights as they require positive actions on the part of other people. Doctors and teachers must intervene in your life and expend their time, energy, knowledge, and resources to give you something. This certainly does not seem just. Are we doomed then, to live an unjust life in an unjust world?!
That seems a bit hyperbolic, so let me put an end to this rhetoric of rights. Rights, as a physical entity, like say your shoes, do not exist. They are purely a construct of the human mind. Worse yet, they are a fabrication, and an elaborate one at that. Not only is the right to healthcare a farce, but so too is the right to life. There is no real difference between positive and negative claim rights as negative claim rights still place an obligation upon other people, even if that obligation is simply to do nothing but recognize that you are a person. At its worst, the right to life could be construed to mandate that all potential life has a right to life, meaning all eggs in a woman must be fertilized and granted life as a human. This would bind all living people to perpetually living for the not yet born, thus putting precedent on creating new life over living your own life. As rights to not exist, they are neither useful nor helpful in understanding our relationship with reality or each other. Instead of having a right to life, simply recognize that we exist, and any attempt to interfere with our existence from others violates the non-aggression principle. For more on that see my post, The Moral Framework. With all this talk of rights, who benefits?
Qui bono? That is the phrase we should always ask when unraveling a complex philosophical structure meant to deceive us. Who benefits from humans believing that we have rights and that they must be recognized and respected by other people? Why, those that enforce the rules for respecting those rights; governments and politicians. If I can convince you that you have an illness, and I am the only one with a cure, are you going to buy that cure from me? Of course you are! You get to feel better, and I get to take advantage of your ignorance. Governments have a direct incentive to grant the people as many rights as they can conceive of as those same governments will grow in size, scope, and revenue in order to preserve those rights. You have a right to life? Here’s a system to make sure people aren’t killing you. You have a right to property? Here’s a system to make sure people aren’t stealing from you. Oh, and we have to steal from you to pay for it, but we are going to call it taxation. What’s that? You want a right to healthcare? Of course! Here you go! You just have to wait six months before you see a doctor. You have a right to healthcare, but no one said you have a right to healthcare right now. Oh, and you definitely have a right to education. How else are we going to prevent you from thinking critically about any of our laws or your “rights” unless we indoctrinate, I mean educate you about them or how wonderful we are for providing them to you?
There is also the Positivist legal theory. This states that all rights are granted by the government. You can do only what the law allows you to do, and all power resides within the government to grant freedoms. You have the right to live because the government has given it to you. You have the right to speak as long as the government says it is OK. While this approach is more honest about the nature of rights, it is morally corrupt and logically inconsistent. To address the latter claim first, we know that ownership is defined as exclusive control over an object. In this case, we are referring to your body. If the government is the sole entity that can grant you the right to speak or move or live, then you are not the owner of your body. This is a contradiction of reality and it cannot stand. Governments understand this, which is why they use the threat of violence at the barrel of a gun to enforce their laws. This is also why this approach is morally corrupt. Enforcing the notion that the government has the authority to grant rights to people requires a violation of the non-aggression principle, and this is morally wrong. Positivism also fails to grant humans rights. So, what is the answer?
At this point, we can unequivocally say, “No, we do not have rights.” Do you know the saying, “beware of strangers bearing gifts?” The government is one big entity of strangers, and the gifts they bear are called rights. Reject their rhetoric wholesale lest you get caught up in their convoluted mess of what rights you do or do not have and when, where and how. Instead recognize two simple truths. One, rights do not exist so you do not have them; and two, the ten scariest words in the human language are these, “I’m from the government, and I am here to help.”