Rebirth of Reason


Confusing Terms: Rights
by Joseph Rowlands

In politics, one of the most important ideas is the concept of 'rights'. And yet, it is also a source of enormous confusion. There are a number of reasons why it can get in the way of clarity. I'll start with the one I think is most significant.

The concept of rights is used in the form of something you possess. You have this right. You have that right. You have the right to speak your mind. You have the right to live your life how you want. But while the term takes the form of something that you have or possess, what it is supposed to mean is that other people aren't supposed to interfere with your actions. If you have a right to free speech, it means others aren't allowed to prevent you from speaking. If you have a right to spend your money how you want, it means others should not be able to prevent you from spending your money.

If the word "really means" that others shouldn't be able to interfere with your actions, why is it stated in the form of something that you have or that belongs to you? This is confusing enough on its own. By shifting the focus away from what other people should not be doing to something you apparently possess, it raises a question. Just because you have this thing, why should it constrain the actions of others?

The form of the concept of rights is best understood as a parallel to property rights. When you say that you own something, like a car, it is saying more than that it is within your physical possession. It is saying that morally speaking, you should be able to use this property how you see fit, without the interference of others. It is saying that others should not act in a way that interferes with your legitimate actions.

Rights are presented in the same form as property, and like property, there is an implication that your legitimate possession of something is a moral constraint on the choices of others. Just as they can't interfere with your choices in how to utilize the property, they also can't interfere with your actions.

This presentation is troublesome because the important point that is intended to be communicated is that others should not be permitted to interfere with your actions. Using the parallel with property implies this, but it is problematic. Rights are not a kind of property, so the implication that others shouldn't interfere with your use of your property is not justified. It implies a justification that isn't true.

The concept of rights serves an important function, though. It is possible to convey the same overall idea by talking about what other people shouldn't be allowed to do, such as prevent you from speaking freely. But it can be useful to discuss it in terms of what morally sanction freedoms are available to you. The focus shifts from what others shouldn't do to what you should be able to do. These are just different ways of expressing the same idea, though. The actions that other people shouldn't interfere with are the actions that you should be able to freely do.

Even here, though, it is not necessary to express the idea as a kind of thing that you possess. Instead of saying "I have a right to free speech", you could easily put it in another form by saying "My speech should be free". Or you could say something like "My speech is rightful", which puts it in another form as well.

We can see that the form it is expressed in is not necessary. There are alternative ways of communicating the idea that your actions should be free from the interference from others. There are alternative ways of focusing on you and your available options. Presenting the idea as a kind of thing that you have or possess is unnecessary.

So what's the harm? What kind of confusions arise? The first confusion comes in the form of asking why other people should respect your rights. This treats rights as if they merely express what you think you should be able to do, unrelated to whether others should interfere. But what does it mean you should be able to do these things? That they are useful to your life?

If so, the concept of rights becomes a description of the options that would benefit your life. But this isn't right. Rights traditionally encompass a full range of options, many of which can be a hindrance to your life. A right to live your life the way you see fit implies a right to screw your life up.

So asking why people should respect your rights is an ill-formed question. Rights are supposed to be describing the choices that you should be free to act on without interference from others. The concept is expressing the fact that they shouldn't interfere. Asking why they shouldn't interfere with rights is like asking why are wet things wet or blue things blue? It's legitimate to ask why is it a right, which means why shouldn't people be allowed to interfere with your actions. But asking why a right to be respected is confusing.

It does show one of the forms of confusion, though. To ask that question, rights are viewed as something that you should have, but that don't describe what other people should or shouldn't do. They are taking to mean something else. Instead of describing social/moral boundaries, they describe something about your own needs or benefits without reference to other people, a harmony of interests, the use of force, etc.

One example of this new meaning is to say that rights refers to your needs as a human being. There would be no implied argument that they are appropriate in a social context, or that other people shouldn't interfere. These would be viewed as something to argue about afterwards. Instead, they would be merely identifications of certain requirements or beneficial options for living. They would not be moral conclusions about what you should do or what other people shouldn't do. Those would have to be proven.

In this case, saying you have a right to free speech is merely to say that it would benefit your life if you were free to do this, without saying anything about whether others should respect or protect that freedom. Crying "He violated my rights" would not be a rebuke, but merely a statement of fact. There would be no moral connotations since it isn't a moral claim about what actions others shouldn't be able to interfere with.

This warping of the concept of rights is natural given the form of rights as something that you possess. You have certain requirements for living. You have certain interests or needs. These are things that are in relation to you, things that you have. But other people not interfering is not something you can possess.

Consider also the view of 'positive rights'. This is where someone claims that they have a right to free health care. It is a claim that demands other people act, instead of the usual demand that other people do not interfere. This wouldn't be possible if the focus was kept on what other people shouldn't be able to interfere with. But shifting the focus to you and expressing it as something you have or should have opens up these other possibilities.

The foundation of individual rights is not that complicated or confusing. It is easy to express an ideal of voluntary interactions and a lack of coercion. It is not too hard to express the idea of a harmony of interests, and why we should all seek to preserve the voluntary nature of interactions. The justification for being free is in some ways very simple and easily understood.

But the way the term 'rights' is formed can create significant confusion. Detailed discussions or debates over the limits of rights, borderline cases, or the like get overwhelmed by arguments over semantics, even when the key ideas are understood and accepted. It is my opinion that the form of the concept is the main source of the confusion. It has some focusing on a meaning consistent with something you can possess, which unintentionally severs it from the fact that others shouldn't interfere with your actions.

I believe that when these kinds of discussions occur, most of the problems would go away by having all parties just stop using the term. Each idea could be expressed in a more direct and clearer way. Instead of arguing over the "real meaning" of rights, the discussion could be a productive exchange of ideas.
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