Rebirth of Reason


Rights, Games, and Self-Realization
by Stephen Boydstun

This essay was written in 1988. It was published in the magazine Nomos. I again thank Ross Overbeek, Timothy Virkkala, and Carol Low for helpful comments on an earlier draft.
The present article here at Rebirth of Reason will consist of the Introduction of the essay. Three subsequent RoR articles will convey the three Parts into which the essay divides. The formal definition of having-a-right in terms of doing-the-right-thing was something I originated in about 1970. It was not shown in publication until this 1988 essay.

Rights, Games, and Self-Realization

Individual rights are those moral claims of one person upon another for which enforcement is morally permissible. The question of whether the use of deliberate force is morally justified turns upon the value to be secured and the strategic implications of resorting to force. What value could justify the use of force and in what circumstances? A short answer would be that only the defense of individual freedom can justify the use of force, that freedom can only be abridged by force, and that, therefore, no one has the right to initiate the use of force against another. The initiation of force becomes the hallmark of the violation of a right. In this essay, I offer an answer closely related, but informed by game theory and reaching a new view of rights in land and the nature of government.

Ayn Rand observed that “a right is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context” (1963, 93). If two people have no ability to affect each other in any significant way, no issue as to rights between them can arise. Each will face moral choices, but there will be in this circumstance no moral choices concerning interactions with each other. From my purely formal definition of a right, given below, it follows immediately, that without the ability of two people to affect each other, it would be futile to search for any rights between them. Furthermore, to say that an individual has a right to something is to say that she has a right to be free from specific contravening actions of others. Rights are not some sort of moral aura that hangs around individuals independently of social relations. This, too, is implicit in the formal definition.

In the most general, purely formal terms, rights rest upon, and can be defined in terms of, moral oughts in the following way: Individual A has a right against B doing p affecting A if and only if it is the case that there exists a possible act q of A (or her agents or surrogates) affecting B such that it is never right to do q unless B has begun or done and act of the sort p. To say what rights appear—what rights are there—when individuals come to interact is to specify the classes of action p in the formal structure of rights. Since we are concerned in this essay with political rights, we shall generally restrict our attention to cases in which q is coercive.

The formal definition of a right is tedious, but it repays careful study. The definition asserts that an act one has a right to take against others is an act that would be wrong were it not for some previous act of the others; the prior act renders an otherwise morally wrong act morally right. One has a right to engage in just those activities for which it is the case that one has a right, as in the formal definition, to take actions against others who contravene those activities. One’s rights have been violated or infringed if and only if some activity in which one has a right to engage has been contravened by others.

With the formal definition explicit and before us, we can see why the concept of rights is so useful in ordinary discourse. The phrase “having a right” is a compact expression for a complex configuration of moral oughts, for a common, but complex, configuration of the morally right and the morally wrong. My formal definition of a right captures the ordinary notion of having a right, but there is a subtly different formulation of the definition that would also be consistent with ordinary usage. In my formulation, rights are real where the mere possibility of their being exercised is real. Rights would be real simply whenever one person can affect another if “possible acts” were replaced with “conceivable acts” in the formal definition. Talk of rights in those circumstances that would fall within the latter formulation, but not within the former, seems idle to me; so my definition is drawn in terms of possible acts.

We are normally concerned with the rights of A and B against each other in the context of a larger society in which they live, but precursors of such full-blown rights emerge even when we ignore the presence of the background society. In this essay, we shall first see what sort of rights obtain between just two people in isolation, and then we shall see what rights obtain when we set these people in wider society.

In his discussion of methodological individualism, Robert Nozick drew attention to the possibility that true theories of social science may not be entirely reducible to theories of individual human action. It is possible that two-person interactions are not entirely explicable in terms of single-person behaviors in non-interacting situations. It is likewise possible that principles not present in two-person interactions emerge as we proceed to larger numbers of interacting people (Nozick 1977). We have not found a general guarantee that principles of two-person interaction will remain valid in many-person interactions. We must examine the particular principles, whether descriptive or normative, in both situations.

I proceed initially under the constraint of absolute social isolation of two interacting persons primarily to demonstrate the extents to which individual rights do and do not depend upon the existence of third parties. It should be remembered that in the real world, there is almost always some possibility that third parties may arrive and redress an injustice, that is to say, that rights will be exercised. This is so even where victims are killed; the living can still be called to account. The possibility of redress may exist even for a rights violation committed by an entire community against a powerless individual. Outside that community, there are other people who may come to exercise the power of right, and within every community, power is always passing to new generations.

In Part I we shall uncover, for two socially isolated people, some semblance of rights against personal injury and some semblance of rights to liberty. Property rights will be taken up in Part II. When we are considering two people in isolation (as we shall be doing until midway through Part II), we shall first see how far we can justify rights, taking into account only game-theoretic, prudential aspects of the situation. We then shall admit considerations of moral value and responsiveness to moral value. In general it will be found that game-theoretic considerations alone are insufficient grounds for individual rights, but they restrict what authentic, moral rights can obtain.

It might be first thought that when we come to consider two people affecting each other in society, game-theoretic considerations alone could suffice to ground individual rights; since there, in society, the weak can enter into alliances and be defended by third parties. But with the strength of alliance comes the power to run roughshod over outsiders. Appeal to moral value will still be required to justify individual rights.

In the course of my reflections on rights in the context of full society, I discovered something unexpected—a new theory of legitimate government. It is a government less extensive in its essential justified powers than any heretofore conceived, even by (non-anarchist) libertarians, yet it appears that it would be as stable, as viable, as any actual government that has ever existed. This theory will be presented in Part III.

Nozick, Robert. 1977. On Austrian Methodology. Synthese 36(3):353–61.
(Reprinted in Socratic Puzzles. 1997. Harvard.)
Rand, Ayn. 1963. Man’s Rights. The Objectivist Newsletter.
(Reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. 1966. Signet.)
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