The Nature of Rights

Hi all, this is my first post here, I hope its in the right forum.

Anyway the question or debate that I want to start is on the nature of rights, in particular ones that we consider “Basic human rights”.

Rights are at the core of modern politcal systems, in particular the American system where they are considered so important that they are made law, so to speak.

What interests me is where do we get these rights from, how are they derived, and does it make sense to consider them as a “given constant” or necessary. (By necessary I dont mean needed, rather uncontingent).

Initially I looked at the USAs Bill of rights, which from my understanding was an attempt to codify what they saw as “God Given rights” of all individuals.

My first thought was that rights come from basic human needs, ie the need for food, shelter from the elements, possibly access to education of some kind (if you believe it is a human need to learn). But these things dont really coinside with the USA’s Bill of rights.. Instead the USAs BoR seems to provide laws that, in a sense, protect the individual from being abused by the system of government. So if these “God given rights” are contingent upon, or required for protection from the current system of government how can they be trancendental as they are often claimed to be. If governmental systems change doesnt it follow then the “rights” of the individual can also change?

Also for something to be a given constant, then it should apply with equal effectiveness and make sense in all environments. But the right to “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the
consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed
by law.” doesnt make much sense in the context of a pre-European Aboriginal Australian community.

So if the BoR doesnt apply to all civilisation how3 can it be considered “God Given”.

Anyway Im going to dig up the UN BoR and see how that fits in the picture.

Rights accrue from property. To see the value of “rights” that accrue from scribbles, see Articles 39 through 56 of the Constitution of the Soviet Union.

Thanks for your reply. Interesting read that was. I think in some repects the USSR’s BoR seems to be more in accordence with “basic human needs”. Whereas the USAs is about defining individuals positions and protections within their system. Obviously the Soviets didnt see their constitution as being a document of much importance though. :wink:

Can I ask what you meant by “scribbles”?

Scribbles are writings, as in constitutions.

But there is no such thing as a “right to have your needs fulfilled” in nature. Asbent the charity of others, if you don’t work for your food, shelter, etc., you’ll die.

“God-given” is a silly way to defend rights, IMO. But I don’t see the dependency problem you mention. These protections are not from a specific government in theory, but from government as such. Government wields potentially coercive power over individuals, hence the need for restraints on its conduct.

Practically, yes. Philosophically - hm. I’d say rights are contextually dependent upon your underlying moral system and the type of government you wish to have. Capitalism requires certain rights, socialism requires others. The two systems, morally, can best be judged by their efficacy relative to a selected moral standard (“man’s life” for Ayn Rand, individual or social utility for most other teleological systems, “God’s will” or “the wisdom of Chairman Mao” for deontological systems).

If you’re looking for philosophical defenses of rights, you can check out Ayn Rand’s philosophy, particulary her book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal She argues that man is a biological being whose primary means of survival is his rational mind. Therefore, a proper government must defend his right to use his reason as he sees fit, so long as he doesn’t prevent others from doing the same. It’s a pretty argument, though I’m not sure I’d swallow it these days, given the rest of the problems in Rand’s philosophy (crappy epistemology, ignorance of emotions, dogmatic ethical system) and certain problems with her inductive concepts (her definition of man as the “rational animal”, her analysis of egoistic behavior).

(BTW, approach Rand with a critical eye. Some of her philosophy makes sound, rational sense; the rest is dogmatic codswallop.)

I think Robert Nozick offers a different defense in Anarchy, State and Utopia, which, unfortunately, I haven’t read yet.


There is no such thing as an “absolute” right. There is no such thing as a “natural right”. Rights do not accrue from property. Rights accrue from power. Originally, from the power of the individual (i.e. you had the right to do what you could get away with doing. And so did everyone else.) This made life terribly exciting, but it wasn’t long before people got to together, made a big list of everything they didn’t want people doing to them, got some effective power organised and said, basically: “If we catch anyone doing this to any one of us, we’ll all step in and get it sorted”.
This didn’t always work, and it was accepted for a long time that although laws were in place, any invader with a big enough sword had the right (of conquest) to do as he wished. When fuedal society failed, it was because the lords, owing to the fact that they were the only wielders of force, were able to remove more and more produce, and more and more rights, from the serfs (as they now became) and the basis for this was the force they could wield. It was about this time that they claimed the land (property) but it was not the source of their rights. Note that in pre-Norman England, justice was arrived at by a process of oath-swearing. The plaintiff, and as many supporters as he could muster, would swear that the defendant had committed such and such a crime; the defendant and his supporters would swear the opposite. A man’s rank determined the value of his oath. So you can see that this was nothing more than a declaration of power: an Earl with a body of supporters would be immune from almost any challenge. This worked because it was a nice way of deciding where the power-balance lay without going to the effort of fighting a battle, but the rights of anyone who had been e.g. pillaged, murdered, raped were neither here nor there.
That’s just history. This topic sorta came up on the seatbelt’s thread, and I posted the following, which is a touch more theoretical.

his topic was covered in the 2000 Massey Lectures. I heard most of it on CBC Radio’s ‘Ideas’. The lectures are available at:

“This” topic was covered… Sheesh.

Some of these issues were discussed in the thread What are human rights?

I’d view the Bill of Rights as an improvisational response to the Constitutional Convention, not as an extension of the Declaration of Independence (the Deity is only invoked in the latter). Specifically, the Bill of Rights can be seen as an explicit attempt to offset the centralizing features of the Consitition.

It might help to distinguish between “Legal Rights”, which are protections typically written into Constitutions and provided by the courts and “Moral Rights”, which are moral claims associated with a given status. That is, humans have human rights by virtue of being human, animals have animal rights, citizens have civil rights, etc.

So I may (or may not) have a human (moral) right to food and clean drinking water, but whether this right is best enforced through the judicial system is another matter. That is, whether or not it is a moral right, it may not be an appropriate legal right.