I want to set something straight for future reference.
Ethics, as I explained before, is the process of examining the logical consistency (validity) and the empirical proof (accuracy) of statements regarding universally preferable human behavior.
If a statement about preferable human behavior cannot be logically universalized it automatically fails the test of validity and can be discarded easily. For example, the proposition “Theft is universally preferable.” faces a rather insurmountable logical contradiction. If it was universally preferable to steal things from others, then that would mean that, in order for the victim to be in compliance with this theory, he would need to prefer non-ownership to ownership. But the thief only steals something in order to obtain ownership over that thing. But then ownership would have to be both valid and invalid at the same time, valid for the thief and invalid for the victim. But then theft cannot be universally preferable, since it can’t be applied to all humans at all times and at all places.
The issue of rights falls right into the realm of ethics, in particular morality, that subset of ethics that deals with logically consistent universal rules involving the use of violence.
In common debates, the term is used all too often without any clear conceptualization behind it. The most helpful and most consistent way to define a right is, in my opinion, only this:
A right is a universally defensible claim.
For example, when I say “Everyone has a right to his body.”, then what I am really saying is: “Everyone has a universally defensible claim to his own body.” And what I am really saying with that is: “It is a logically consistent proposition to say that all humans at all places at all times may violently assert their ownership over their own bodies when aggressed against.”
This is a logically consistent and thus a completely valid proposition. It faces no inner contradictions.
This works in exactly the same way with the proposition “I have a right to my property.”
In this manner we can also easily test propositions such as “Healthcare is a fundamental human right”. This proposition would more precisely read “Every sick human has a right to another human’s resources to heal his own illness.” This could be translated into: “Every sick human has a universally defensible claim to another human’s resources to heal his own illness.” or “Every sick human may violently and universally assert his claim to another human’s resources to heal his own illness.”
This proposition faces several severe challenges:
- By introducing the word “sick”, one has left the realm of universality. To say that “only a sick human being has a universally defensible claim …” is an inherently contradictory statement. The criterion for universality is that it apply to all humans at all times and at all places, not just to certain humans with certain conditions.
- Another problem is that we have already proven above that every human being has a right to his property and in particular to his body. Even if introducing the term “sick” was valid, the above proposition breaks down because it is logically inconsistent to say that a person has a right to his body and his property but another person simultaneously has a right to this same person’s body or property. So in order to proceed on the proposition at hand, one would first need to disprove the validity of the, so far, valid theorem of self-ownership and property rights.
- Another possibility would be to remove the term “sick” from the proposition in order to rescue its universality. But the problem with this would be that the proposition would read “Every human being has a universally defensible claim to another’s owned goods and body parts.” This proposition, however, is equivalent to the one of theft, which suffers from inner logical contradictions. If one had a claim over another’s property or body that may be violently asserted, then he would never have a defensible claim to the obtained goods. But the very objective of such an action would be the assertion of such a claim. Thus the proposition is invalid.
To be sure, the moral invalidity of such a violently asserted right to health care in no way discourages from the validity of other potential ethical propositions, in particular in the field of aesthetics, which deals with propositions involving non-violent behavior such as, “It is universally preferable to help suffering people in need.”
It is just important to understand that rights are fundamentally a concept that falls in the realm of morality, meaning that of universally preferable behavior involving violence, not in the realm of aesthetics, which deals with all other universally preferable behavior propositions.
A lot is being talked about rights. But what is a right? I have written about it before in Ethics, Human Nature, and Government:
A right is defined as a defensible claim to an object, meaning a claim that, if necessary for the preservation and development of mankind, may be defended violently.
But this statement still doesn’t clarify where rights come from. Who determines which creature has defensible claims to what? Thus it is crucial to understand that rights are inextricably linked to and the outcome of a process of reasoning. This is precisely the process I applied in the article I referenced above.
If you haven’t read it yet, do so, because I will not delve into the details here. I will just say that the concept of rights is derived from the assumption that humans have a certain nature and that a part of this nature is the desire to live and the desire to remove uneasiness every step of the way. Part of this nature is also the innate capability to let reason guide one’s actions, as opposed to instincts. Thus it immediately follows that when we talk of rights we always implicitly refer to human rights. We’re not talking about the rights of a cow, a bird or a fish.
If humans did not have a desire to live or to improve their well being every step of the way, the concept of rights would be completely irrelevant. But then, if humans did not have a desire to live I would not be sitting here and writing stuff. I’d have no business doing so. Nor would you be reading this and maybe posting comments on it. You’d have no business in doing so. Thus the desire to live rises to the status of an irrefutable axiom.
But to delimit the scope of human rights requires consistency. If one agrees that he has a right to his body and his property it immediately follows that all other humans do as well. It also follows that if he thinks he may for whatever reason infringe upon someone’s rights, he may rightfully become subject to defensive violence.
Thus a peaceful and just society is only possible if everyone’s rights are respected and exercised when needed. This is by no means to say that all humans are saints. The concept of human rights does not assume that in any way. Quite the opposite: Talking about rights would be completely futile and vain if it weren’t for people who infringe upon them. To state that one has a right to something always implies the threat of defensive violence, were one to become a victim of aggression.
It is also not to say that our current system is in any way designed in a way so as to respect our rights. Again, quite the contrary: A system that involves a government is by definition one that allows a certain group of people to perform aggression and theft on a periodical basis and with complete impunity, meaning without the subjects exercising their rights. It is impossible to institutionalize a system that protects everyone’s rights if the institution entrusted with this task by definition violates them.
There is only one system that establishes the framework that will one day enable all humans to exercise their rights to the fullest extent possible. This system is of course and by definition the system of anarchism.