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RIGHTS AND FREEDOM
* Natural Rights
* There is no such Thing as Freedom
See Rand's essay "The Objectivist Ethics" for a discussion of the idea of
"proper survival." And also see her essay "Man's Rights." Both of these
essays appear in the book, "The Virtue of Selfishness."
See also my essay on flourishing in Chapter 3.
* Natural Rights
L. Neil Smith: "Human rights are an aspect of natural law, a consequence
of the way the universe works, as solid and as real as photons or the
concept of pi. The idea of self-ownership is the equivalent of Pythagoras'
theorem, of evolution by natural selection, of general relativity, and of
quantum theory. Before humankind discovered any of these, it suffered, to
varying degrees, in misery and ignorance. Where they are suppressed or
disregarded today, people still suffer. When Pythagoras, Darwin, Einstein,
Bohr, and Rand each made his or her uniquely valuable discovery about the
way the universe works, mankind took another step away from savagery, toward
lasting safety, comfort, pleasure, and convenience."
Everything in the universe has a nature, and therefore there are proper
and improper ways of interacting with each thing--proper and improper ways
of living in the world. Consider the conditions which are required by man's
nature for his proper survival. Man's proper survival includes the terms,
methods, conditions, and goals required for the survival of a rational being
through the whole of his lifespan--in all those aspects of existence which
are open to his choice and which are requisite to his flourishing.
There are several categories of these conditions--Physical, Chemical and
Social, to name some. In the physical realm we can easily observe that there
are several conditions which must prevail if a man is to remain alive. An
example is the fact that he must maintain a certain environmental
temperature range, outside of which he would either freeze or roast. If for
any reason this environmental condition ceases to prevail, man's proper
survival comes to a quick and drastic end. We can see other physical
conditions necessary as well, such as a continual accomodation to the force
of gravity. In the chemical realm also we observe necessary conditions: the
existence of an oxygen gas environment, the avoidance from diet of certain
chemicals (cyanide, arsenic, strychnine) and the inclusion of certain other
chemicals (ascorbic acid). This last case is a good example of the fact that
these conditions are necessary for man's PROPER survival, for without the
inclusion of an adequate amount of vitamin C, life will not come to the same
sort of immediate and drastic end as it would from the elimination of the
oxygen gas environment. Nonetheless without the vitamin C man is not in a
state of PROPER survival, even though his life does continue on a limited
and retarded level. (He merely subsists, he does not flourish.) Rights, as
conditions, are not boolean. Just as the need for vitamin C is not. This may
help explain why they are so difficult for many people to grasp.
Observe also the fact that nature-imposed requirements are of two kinds.
It does not suffice for you merely to avoid doing the wrong things--it is
also necessary that you DO the right things. You don't get scurvy because
you did something wrong, you get it because you didn't do something right.
The point I am trying to make is that there are certain conditions
arising from man's nature--unavoidable, uncompromising and absolutely
necessary conditions--which must be accomodated in order for him to continue
in a proper state of existence. While this assertion is easily seen to be
indisputable in man's physical and chemical life, I contend that it is
equally, though perhaps not so obviously, indisputable in man's social life.
There are certain conditions of SOCIAL existence which are necessary for
man's proper survival. Conditions which, unlike the physical and chemical
conditions, prevail only when man lives in a social context.
Obviously, when a man lives alone in the wilderness, or on a desert
island, the physical and chemical conditions prevail just as much as they do
when he lives in New York City or Tokyo. However, when he lives in society
there are also other conditions which prevail, conditions resulting from his
interaction with other men. Just as he must accomodate interaction with a
physical universe and with a chemical universe, so when he lives in a
society he must accomodate the conditions of a social universe--a universe
consisting of the relationships with other men in his environment. There is
a name for this set of conditions. It is RIGHTS.
Rights spring from the need of the individual to be free in a social
context. They are the conditions of social existence required by man's
nature for his proper survival. Proper survival means, among other things,
life in a society from which coercion is absent.
Man is a being of a specific nature; his existence is contingent on
specific courses of behavior. To live, man must choose to engage in rational
and productive action. But he is also a social being, and it is therefore
necessary to derive precepts for social behavior which allow each individual
to maintain his own life free from force and fraud. These social precepts
are identifications of human rights.
The rights of Life, Liberty, and Property are the most basic requirements
of human social existence.
Consider the right to life: If the society were composed exclusively of
murderers, the "proper survival" of each individual man, and therefore of
the society, would come to an immediate and drastic end. It is clear that
"life" is an unavoidable precondition of social interaction. If you kill
everyone you meet, presently there will be no one left for you to meet
anymore. There would no longer be a social existence at all, for the simple
reason that one of the conditions prerequisite to that existence had been
violated. That condition is the right to life.
If life is justifiable there must be a justification for the performance
of acts essential to its preservation. The essence of individual human life
is action based on reason. The right of liberty arises from the fact that
the fundamental expressions of rationality are actions of an individual
mind, initiated and directed by voluntary choice. This is why only the non-
aggression principle allows for the application of rationality in human
life. This is the link between reason and ethics, and is the fact that
mandates the derivation of ethics from reason rather than from arbitrary
Since all human action involves material objects, if only a location in
which to exist, men must be free to create material goods for themselves and
to use and dispose of those goods. They must have property rights.
Consider the right to property: Depriving a person of property is
depriving him of the means by which he maintains his life. This is why the
right to property is as important as the right to life. One of the major
reasons for social cooperation among men is the material benefit to be
gained by each man from trade with other men. As you can observe from your
own experience there is much less incentive to produce or exchange if you do
not have the assurance of being secure in your ownership of the property
involved. This security in ownership is the right to property. To the extent
that this right is violated, by that much will be diminished the incentive
of each man to maintain the economic basis of society.
Life, Liberty, and Property--these three are so bound together as to be
essentially one right. To allow a man his life, but to deny him his liberty,
is to take from him all that makes life worth living. To allow him his
liberty, but to take from him his property, is to deny him all that makes
life able to be lived, for a man cannot live without property.
See Chapter 4 for a further discussion of property.
See Chapter 8 for a further discussion of rights.
Some arguments against this theory of Rights:
"Although the agencies that enforce rights do not create the objective
need for their services, if no agencies provide those services, then there
are no rights, just as if no one runs factories, then there is no steel."
The flaw in this analogy is that factories CREATE steel, whereas the
agencies do not create rights, they merely enforce rights. If no one runs a
factory, no steel will be produced, but the proper methods, the principles,
of producing steel do not disappear. If no agency helps maintain a civil
society, then I may not be able to exercise my right to life, but that does
not mean that the right to life ceases to exist. To offer a different
analogy: if I have no food, I cannot practice proper nutrition and
eventually I will die. But this does not mean that if I am deprived of food
the correct principles of nutrition have ceased to exist. If no agencies
protect rights, it is not the case there are no rights. There is simply no
protection of rights.
To speak of rights as something which can only be accomodated in modern
industrial societies is not to speak of natural rights at all, but of
figments of the imagination. A right must be something inherent in the
nature of man and reality, something that is applicable to his situation at
any time and in any age. The right of self-ownership, of defending one's
life and property, is clearly that sort of right: it can apply to
Neanderthal cavemen, in modern Calcutta, or in the contemporary USA. Such a
right is independent of time or place. But a "right" to a job or to three
meals a day or to twelve years of schooling is not the same phenomenon.
Suppose that such things CANNOT exist, as was true in Neanderthal days or in
modern Calcutta. Such "rights" are not embodied in the nature of man, but
require for their fulfillment the existence of a group of exploited people
who are coerced into providing them. "I have a right to speak freely" can
hold true no matter how many people there are, but "I have a right to a
comfortable income" can be asserted only when there are enough other people
in society to make it possible. If there are not enough producers and too
many looters, the assertion becomes impossible to apply.
One way to consider these issues is through the realization that rights
impose no obligations on other men except of a prohibitive nature. Each man
is obliged only to AVOID the violation of the rights of other men (including
making any contribution to those who do violate rights). He has no
obligation to provide other men with the means of meeting the requirements
of their existence. Thus there is no such thing as the "right" to an
education (self-education is a moral imperative but it imposes no ethical
obligations), or the "right" to a job (every man must be free to engage in
productive activity according to his own choices, but this does not give him
a claim to the use of another's property). Rights are not a claim to
affirmative action imposed by some men on others, therefore any assertion
which contains such a claim cannot be a right. Most of these so-called
"rights" resemble the "right" of someone who wants to be a concert pianist--
but who does not want to practice, or even learn to play.
The right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-
generated action. A man has the right to support his life by his own work
but this does not mean that others must provide him with food, clothing,
shelter or any other necessity of life.
The right to property means the right to take the economic actions
necessary to earn property and to use it and to dispose of it; it does not
mean that others must provide the property.
The right to free speech means the right to express ideas without danger
of suppression, interference or punitive action by government. It does not
mean that others must provide the means through which to express one's
Many argue that rights cease to exist in emergencies, and that one may
then coerce with impunity because one simply has no other choice.
Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute: "I am willing to stipulate that a
reasonable moral code would not condemn someone for killing an innocent
person when it was the only way to save his own life."
What Richman is actually saying is that murdering you is OK if it's the
only way HE can imagine to preserve his own wretched existence. The fact
that he cannot, or will not, conceive any other way to solve his problems
does not make murdering you acceptable. The ignorance and/or incompetence of
one man DO NOT constitute justification for violating the rights of another
man! Your life does not belong to him, no matter what his situation is.
Emergencies neither abrogate the existence of rights nor alter the nature
of rights. It is during disasters that rights are most significant for they
enable the afflicted individuals to cooperate in combating the disaster and
working toward a return to normalcy. Furthermore, knowing that the violation
of rights is an unacceptable option will induce people to focus on
Your recognition of an inalienable right of another man is not a
compromise between two rights, his and yours, but a line of division that
preserves both rights intact.
For any man to claim the "right" to violate the rights of another man is
a contradiction in terms (a denial of the Law of Identity). Such a claim
proposes to violate human nature in order to preserve human nature. One
cannot rationally claim that a condition of proper human survival
necessitates the negation of a condition of proper human survival. Therefore
there can be no rights to rob, enslave, or murder. Such "rights" are merely
stolen concepts. You cannot say "man has inalienable rights except in an
emergency," just as you cannot say "man has inalienable rights except in
cold weather or on every second Tuesday," or "man's rights cannot be
violated except for good purpose." There are NO rights to the work or
property of others, because this would be a claim on the lives of others--a
demand for slavery.
Rand stated repeatedly that there are no conflicts of interest among
rational men. As a precept for guidance in living life on an earth where not
everyone has the same level of intellectual functioning, I believe her
statement to be misleading at best, false at worst. I would modify it to
state that there are no conflicts of rights among men living within a
rational social structure.
A difficult question is that of the ethical status of retaliation and
self-defense. (See Chapter 6) If one person violates rights, is the
situation rectified by another doing likewise? Do two wrongs make a right?
The foundation of all human behavior--both moral and ethical--lies in the
Law of Identity. Proper behavior is that which is consistent with this Law;
improper behavior is that which attempts to contradict this Law. I asserted
above that the violation of rights involves a contradiction of the Law of
Identity. It IS consistent, however, to take an action which eliminates such
a contradiction, even if that action, when considered out of context, could
itself be a negation of the Law of Identity. In ethics, as in the
propositional calculus, one negative cancels out another. (I find it
personally distasteful, but I can see no way to avoid the conclusion that
two wrongs do indeed make a right.) Thus to lie to a man who is trying to
rob you, or to kill a man, when defending your own life against his
aggression, are ethically legitimate (i.e., logically consistent) actions.
There is a distinct ethical difference between committing a crime and
engaging in self-defense.
Even if this argument is accepted, there still remains the question of
degree. Would it be proper to kill a man who has merely stolen an apple? The
principle I have described above would make it seem so, but surely such a
degree of retaliation would be repugnant to a civilized person.
The issue of degree must be dealt with in the context of value-balancing.
As Rand has shown, there are rational means of establishing value
hierarchies, and it is with reference to such hierarchies that the proper
degree of retaliation for particular aggressive actions should be
determined. This determination is one of the proper functions of a code of
law, and here you can see the major reason why an explicitly formulated and
principled framework of justice must lie at the foundation of any social
system. If the determination of "degree of retaliation" is left to the
personal judgment of the individuals involved, or to the multitude of their
hired (or elected) agencies, then it is very unlikely that widespread
adherence to rationally-derived principles of justice would exist in
society. This would hardly be a suitable context for the ensurance of
See Chapter 8 for a discussion of how this "determination" might be
A closely related problem is the punishment of criminals. If a criminal
has intrinsic rights to life, liberty and property, then are not capital
punishment, incarceration, and fines violations of the criminal's rights?
This might seem to be a plausible argument, but observe that it is based
on the assumption that the (criminal's) rights of life, liberty, and
property include the notions of life, liberty, and property obtained and
maintained AT THE EXPENSE OF ANOTHER PERSON (his victim)--which is precisely
how the criminal views those rights.
Restitution (instead of punishment) for much criminal behavior has two
important beneficial consequences for social order: 1) It ameliorates the
condition of the victim and tends to reduce his desire for violent revenge,
and 2) It offers the offender the opportunity to restore his place in
society. Indeed, the creation of punishment law appears to have increased
social disorder precisely because punishment law precludes both of these
There is a conflict between natural law (the theory that man's rights are
inherent in his nature, exist independently of government law, and that true
laws are enunciations of principles of justice) and legal positivism (the
theory that government law itself is the sole basis of man's rights).
The legal positivist thesis is that "man's ability to contract, and
thereby offer consent, is made possible only by the establishment of a
government which can define the rules and enforce the rights that make
consent possible in a social context in the first place."
However, if this were true it would be impossible for a government to be
established by any means that involve contract and consent, which,
supposedly, cannot exist prior to the establishment of the government. In
general, if rights do not exist until after a government has been
established, then there can be no right to establish a government. So by
what principled means could government be started? And since there are many
and contradictory government theses about the function of laws, which
government is to be considered the determinator of true laws?
The legal positivist believes that only HIS government is the legitimate
source of ethical principle.
If today you can get the government to deny somone his rights, then
tomorrow somebody else can get it to deny you your rights. Thus, any
"rights" which are determined by government must be arbitrary. They cannot
be fixed. The laws regulating gold ownership exemplify how the government
turns the "right" to own property on and off arbitrarily.
Furthermore, if there were no natural rights--no independently-existing
ethical principles--then there could be no standard for judging the
legitimacy or efficacy of government-made laws--no means by which the
behavior of government could itself be evaluated.
In the legal positivist thesis, "government" is a stolen concept. But
then, "government" has always been antonymous to "rights."
There are several conditions which must be met for human survival. These
conditions cannot cease to exist, not while human beings as we know them
exist, because they are intrinsic to the nature of human beings, just as is
the need for vitamin C.
By their nature, these conditions are neither owned nor possessed and
therefore they cannot be transferred or delegated. Rights are existing
conditions or necessities, they are not transferable entities. (Thus it is
not strictly correct to say, "I have a right to ...." A more precise
statement is, "There is a right to ....") But I CAN delegate my rightful
authority to take actions that manifest my rights and ensure their
continuance. An example of this would be hiring a bodyguard. An individual
has a right to delegate his authority--to one or more people. Thus do groups
acquire legitimacy for their behavior. Groups have power, privilege, or
authority, but they do not have rights. Only individuals have rights,
because from a moral or ethical perspective a group is nothing more than an
aggregate of individuals.
We can see now that rights are not something that an individual
"possesses" and that can be granted to him or taken away from him. They are
conditions of existence which can be protected, ignored, or violated--with
accompanying beneficial or detrimental results to men living in a social
context. Rights are social conditions required for the existence of human
society. Just as violation of the physical and chemical conditions required
for individual well-being inevitably results in a deranged individual,
violation of social conditions--rights--will inevitably result in a deranged
The idea of "man's proper survival" means not merely those conditions
which apply to individual people, but also those conditions which apply to
cultures. A culture whose members are not willing to act to preserve their
rights will not survive.
To ensure the proper survival of a culture there are several things that
must be done:
1) Prevent the establishment of authoritarian institutions.
2) Transmit to your children rational moral and ethical principles.
3) Teach your children the importance of moral/ethical autonomy. Teach
them to reject all attempts to induce them to accept any judgment other than
their own regarding the propriety of their behavior--that if they judge an
action to be wrong, then they must not do it, no matter who tells them to do
Note that I use the terms "liberty" and "freedom" synonymously throughout
my writings. I don't see any justification for making a distinction between
* There is no such Thing as Freedom
There are three aspects to the idea of freedom: Physical, Psychological
In physical terms, freedom--or the lack of it--refers to the constraints
imposed by the laws of nature. For example: you are not free to flap your
arms and fly through the sky. You are not free to breathe water, like a
fish. This is not the sort of freedom I am going to talk about.
In psychological terms freedom refers to the constraints you may impose
upon yourself because of your state of mind. For example: you may not be
free to get a broken tooth fixed, simply because you dread going to a
dentist. You may not be free to learn how to ski, simply because of your
lack of self-confidence. This too, is not the sort of freedom I will deal
with in this essay.
It is freedom in the context of interacting with other people that is my
concern. I will try to make a precise statement of just what that kind of
Consider these pairs of terms:
Light - Darkness
Sound - Silence
Heat - Cold
Slavery - Freedom
Let us examine the first of these pairs, light - darkness. Light is
defined as electromagnetic radiation in a certain range of wavelengths. As
such, we can easily understand and deal with the characteristics of light.
We can measure stronger or weaker lights in terms of candlepower or lumens.
We can identify different wavelengths of light and call them colors. We can
produce light by means of light bulbs and torches. Light is a real existing
thing. What then is darkness? Darkness is not a real existing thing. It is
merely a term of convenience which we apply to a situation from which light
is absent. You will observe that there are no units of measurement for
darkness. There are not greater or lesser darknesses (what is greater or
lesser in this situation is the amount of light present) nor are there
different characteristics of darkness--there is only one kind of darkness
and that is the complete absence of light. So long as there is any light at
all present we cannot truthfully say that we have darkness but rather that
we have a greater or lesser degree of illumination.
Now consider the second pair, sound - silence. Sound is defined as a
certain sort of motion of the air. Sound comes in various degrees, namely
louder and softer. It comes also in various types, namely of a higher or
lower pitch. As with light, you can see (or rather, hear) that sound is a
real existing thing. Silence, however, is not. It is merely a term of
convenience which we apply to a situation from which sound is absent. And as
with darkness, there is only one degree of silence, the complete absence of
sound. So long as there is any sound present at all we cannot speak of
silence but rather of more or less noise.
Now on to the third pair, heat - cold. Heat is a manifestation of the
molecular energy in an object. We can make a measurement of heat by means of
a thermometer and we can see (or feel) that heat comes in various degrees of
temperature, and thereby we know that this energy content is a real existing
thing. So what is cold? Cold is the absence of heat. Cold is not a real
thing. You might now be tempted to say: "Humbug! I know cold is real. My
refrigerator makes my milk cold. I know this because I drink the cold milk."
Well, your refrigerator does not put cold into the milk. What it does is to
take heat out of the milk. The refrigerator is a "heat pump" which pumps the
heat from the inside of the box to the outside. (You can feel the heat
coming off of the radiator on the back of the refrigerator.) You will note
that we have thermometers for measuring heat, but there is no device for
measuring cold. You will note that heat is measured in degrees (fahrenheit
or centigrade), but there is no unit of measurement which indicates
coldness. Strictly speaking, there is only one degree of cold, and that is
absolute zero, the point at which all the heat has been removed from an
object. So you can see that it is not cold that is a real existing thing,
but rather heat.
Now consider the fourth pair of terms, slavery - freedom. Keeping in mind
the previous three distinctions I made, let us see what, in this context, is
the real existing thing and what is merely a term used to indicate an
absence. Consider that we can take a man and by the application of physical
force we can compel him to submit to our will. We can also compel him to
submit by threatening him with force. We can bind a man in chains; we can
lock him in a cage; we can threaten to deprive him of his property, his
liberty, or even his life. And thus we can force him to submit to our will.
Surely you recognize this as the imposition of slavery. And you can see that
slavery is a real existing state of affairs. There are degrees of slavery:
some men are completely enslaved, such as negroes in the pre-civil-war
South. Other men are more or less enslaved according to the amount of force
or threat of force to which they are subjected. So, if slavery is a real
existing thing, what then is freedom? Is it not a real thing? After all, men
have been willing to fight for it and to die for it all through history. Do
they fight and even die for a nothing? For a notion that does not exist in
reality? Is it not true that a man will go out and fight against tyranny,
and when he has destroyed the tyrant does he not smile and say, "Now I have
freedom!"? Doesn't he have something that he did not have before? Namely
freedom? Well, let us see what he does have and what he does not have.
Before, when he was living under the tyranny, there was imposed upon him a
force or a threat of force, to which he was compelled to submit. Then, when
he fought, his objective was to destroy the tyrant. When he fought he did
not take some thing away from the tyrant; rather, he destroyed the thing
that the tyrant had used against him. The thing destroyed was the tyrant's
ability to compel. And then, after his success, when he said, "Now I have
freedom!" did he possess any real thing as a result of his fight? Obviously
not. No real existing thing has come into his possession which he did not
previously possess. What has changed is that he is now living in a different
social situation. Whereas before there was force now there is not. And this
situation is what he calls freedom. Freedom is the absence of slavery.
Freedom is not a real existing thing, it is rather the term we apply to a
situation from which compulsion is absent.
I want now to make the most critically important point of my essay. I
have maintained that darkness, silence, cold and freedom are not real
existing things. What I have said is true. But what I have said, if not
properly understood, can be fatally misleading. Consider one more example of
the same nature as those I have illustrated: You can pluck a rock out of the
ground, leaving a hole, and you can say that it is the rock that is the real
thing and that the hole is merely the absence of the rock, and therefore not
real. That is the frame of reference I have used throughout this essay, and
it is correct, as far as it goes. But it is certainly not complete. Just as
you might stumble over the rock and break your leg, so you might fall into
the hole and break your leg. Your relationship to the hole, you see, is a
rather important situation. Even though we may consider the hole as being
merely the absence of the rock, it certainly does have relevance to your
life. And although I have said that darkness, silence, cold and freedom are
merely absences, I do not mean to deny their relevance to life. The absence
of light which is a blind man's darkness is crucially important. The absence
of sound which is a deaf man's silence is very relevant. The absence of heat
which is a dead man's cold is undeniably significant. And the absence of
slavery which means the freedom of Man is the basis of all human progress.
On to Chapter 6
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