What rights should people have, and why? (and what the hey, how to balance them)

I’ve been reading a bunch of gun threads, and the gun advocates are very enamored of the right to carry a gun, and I keep thinking… Why? You have no right to fly a drone (there are a ton of legal restrictions, and they are likely to get tougher). You don’t even have a right to drive a car.

I also recently read The Dawn of Everything which discusses three basic rights that most people have had throughout time, that we mostly don’t have.
The freedom to leave (and be accepted somewhere else)
The freedom to say “no”
The freedom to redefine your social relationships.

So I wondered more broadly, what ARE important rights? Or what SHOULD BE the rights society protects. And I thought that might make a good debate, if not necessarily a great debate. :wink:

So, I’ll start by saying that I think the right to bodily autonomy ought to be near the top of the list. WIthout that, what rights can you have? And yet, it’s a right that’s routinely trampled in the US. Look at the abortion debates, or the laws preventing trans people from getting treatment. (Although to be fair, the rights of minors are very complex.) Heck, not that long ago the US was involuntarily sterilizing various types of “undesirable” people. And we incarcerate at the drop of a hat. And of course there’s slavery, not all that long ago.

Anyway, I ask you to name one or two rights, and lobby for them in this thread. Or discuss the rights others have suggested.

It should be noted that while the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution is generally construed to be specifically referring to firearms, the term ‘arms’ actually refers to any personal weapons (knives, swords, axes, et cetera) and has been used to strike down laws for both sublime and ridiculous, e.g. prohibiting pocketknives, nunchaku, various Eastern and European medieval weapons, et cetera. As for the logic behind it, it fundamentally goes hand in hand with the right to personal defense against violence and aggression which is pretty much universally recognized in Western law…provided, of course, that you are a white landed male—for slaves, Indians, Asians brought over to build the railroads, uppity wives who don’t know their place, et cetera such a right has not always been recognized as a legitimate defense against aggression.

However, it is also understood with other rights that there are legitimate limitations and legal strictures intended to guarantee protection for the rights and well-being of other people. The question of “balancing” rights is rarely as complicated as people make it out to be to serve their own interests; for the most part it is easy to delineate that one person’s rights end where they threaten the rights, security, and health of other people. Even where rights—say between freedom of expression and the implicit ‘right’ (or expectation) of privacy—the relative merits of expression and public interest are generally balanced in favor of individual privacy with exceptions for the well-being of minor children.

In the specific case of access to abortion, there isn’t even a genuine legal conflict; it is well-understood in US. law that a fetus does not meet then standard of legal personhood and any ‘rights’ assigned to a fetus are at best provisional. The idea that a fetus has rights accorded by ‘natural law’ (read: religious belief) has no real basis in law, and while the US Constitution is mute on the specific topic it is generally accepted that doctor-patient privilege over medical decisions and information is an inviolate legal barrier, as is legal authority over one’s person save for being in a state of incarceration, incapacitation, or representing a threat to others. The same logic obviously applies to gender transition and any other ‘body autonomy’ including consumption of narcotic or intoxicating substances.

Freedom of expression, movement, security in one’s domicile against intrusion, religious or philosophical belief are all crucial rights that are explicitly recognized by the US Constitution and in most other foundational legal documents in the developed world. For the most part, other rights extend from these fundamental ones, again limited by their detrimental effect on the rights and well-being of others.


The individual right to bear arms is derived from the right to defend yourself and the right to overthrow tyrants.

I think it’s a reasonable interpretation that owning a gun derives from self defense the way something like the right to a state-provided public defender derives from the right to a legal defense. This would obviously be highly contextual as far as what specific rights to bear arms are justified in any particular society. I’d also say in America that cities that tried to straight up ban buying handguns were in fact violating the principle.

As far as I’m concerned getting protection from the government in support of the right to overthrow tyrants is basically just impractical. If there ever actually was a civil war someone would wind up having power (even if it resulted in splitting the country) and there’s no way to guarantee that the people who win because they’re allowed to be so heavily armed would be less or more tyrannical than the government. (Also the possible alternative of perpetual conflict and a failed state isn’t preferable in any case). There’s the logic that the government that tries to disarm the population is by definition tyrannical but I don’t really buy that logic.

As for a right I want to advocate for, I’d say the right to equal-ish political representation for adults. There are of course tons of limitations to that (for one thing truly equal representation would basically be impossible to achieve or even determine), however if we don’t try as hard as possible to get close, the other rights largely just go out the window.

The most important general human right is the right to leave instead of being subjected to treatment you don’t want to endure.

In the abstract, every indivdual should have the absolute right to do absolutely any damn thing they want, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the next person’s right to to absolutely any damn thing they want. It’s the definition of territory that fouls everything up.

Anarchy is loosely defined as “nobody has more authority than me, so we’re all equal here and nobody is above anyone else”. I’ve been a victim of organizations that were devoted to absoliute consensus decision-making. We’d spend 11 consecutive hours discussing and debating and debriefing in hopes of reaching some semblance of consensus, and tiredly go home thinking we’d at least established some common ground. Then next session we’d find that three people who had not been in attendance at the previous meeting did not feel their concerns had been heard, in addition to which four of the people who had been present did not agree that we’d reached consensus on anything.

There are possible structures that would enable anarchy but simply declaring nobody gets to be above anyone else is an objective; it’s not a solution in and of itself.

If there’s a secondary right that comes after the right to leave, it’s the right to be heard. A chance to communicate. A day in court, a chance to address the council, an opportunity to respond to the condemnation of the neighborhood.

Freedom of speech stands above absolutely everything else in my opinion. Without it you cannot even advocate for any other rights at all and we could not even begin the discussion on this thread.

Freedom of religious belief (and freedom from religious belief). No-one should be forced to accept or to worship in a particular way. Nor should anyone be stopped from holding religious views or enacting religious practices (as long as they impact no-one else)

I’m not sure in what way those are all “basic” rights or that we “mostly don’t have” them.

Speech is also likely at the top of my list.
In addition to freedom of religion, I would favor a freedom FROM religion.

And I’m not sure if it would be tied in with a right of privacy, but I would favor a right to be (relatively) anonymous and to be left alone.
Yeah, bodily autonomy should be a no-brainer.

One that is often missed, but is one of the most important, is the right to own private property. Much of Western civilization is based on this foundational principal.

Ironically for such a highly praised document, the US Constitution has very weak protections for property ownership; the only part of the Constitution that directly addresses property rights is the ‘“Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment”:

  • No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.*

Not only is there a long history of the use of eminent domain by governments at all levels to forcibly take property and put it to a use that is of questionable if any benefit to the public including providing it to private and corporate interests and with minimal ‘due process’, but one of the largest factors in social and racial inequality are discriminatory practices denying access to property ownership to specific classes of people based upon racial categorization, and in driving out people from areas through legal expropriation, intimidation, and the threat and application of violence without compensation.

Municipalities can also place extreme restrictions and fines on the use of property through regulation without much of anything in the way of public hearing or legal recourse, even seizing property that has excessive unpaid fees or taxes as a means of covert expropriation, and impose arbitrary and nebulous ‘building codes’ that actually have nothing to do with safety of the occupants or maintaining integrity of the structure and surroundings.

Of course, property rights are a key issue in reparations, particularly when it comes to property that was lost or destroyed in lynchings, taken from Americans of Japanese who were interned descent during WWII, and property that was granted and then taken from Native Americans every time some corporate interest discovered oil or valuable minerals on a reservation, about which appeals to the Constitutionality of these actions have been met with abject silence. The less said about Puerto Rico and Hawaii the better as both were essentially taken over by corporate interests and plantation owners.

And most galling is the more recent practice of civil asset forfeiture where governments are allowed to take property based purely upon unfounded suspicion of being used in or purchased from the proceeds of illegal activity (generally illegal drug manufacture and distribution), about which the Supreme Court has been mum and typically refused to hear cases. This practice is broadly restricted in most. developed nations to be limited to cases in which an owner cannot be prosecuted by reason of death, flight or deliberate absence, but in the United States it has become a funding stream for communities and law enforcement agencies that apply it on a whim without consequences and to which a property owner is required to prove legitimate ownership at their own cost.

So, property rights in the United States are not very secure, even compared to some of the more illiberal regimes around the world.


I think if you don’t view taxes as an infringement on property rights then things like eminent domain and reparations would fall under the same umbrella.

Taxes are essentially a civil service fee for things like infrastructure maintenance, fire and law enforcement service, et cetera. Unless you are on the hardcore Ron Swanson-esque self-parody end of the libertarian spectrum you realizes that taxes are a part of organized society and just bitch about them like everyone else does. Eminent domain was intended to allow the government to secure property for necessary throughways, civil works projects, and other procurements that were in the interest of public safety and general benefit; instead, it has largely been applied in the service of corporate interests that are often contrary to the health and welfare of the general public.

I’m not clear on the point you are trying to make regarding reparations but I’ll observe that even in clear cases where the government has actively denied people access to and reclamation of their lawfully owned property, e.g. American citizens of Japanese descent imprisoned during WWII under presidential order, reparations took nearly fifty years and were of only a token amount not reflecting the evidentiary value of the property and accrued wealth lost over the intervening period.


I’m inclined to agree with this.

It’s probably not valuable to explain why i think they are basic. But it’s certainly true that we mostly don’t have those rights. The ancient world was much more open. We have national borders penning us in. That’s a fairly modern invention. But it’s such a fundamental violation of our right to leave that we have a word for people who can’t exercise it, “refugees”. I guess refugee are people who have left but don’t have anywhere to go. The ones who actually couldn’t leave are called deceased.

Ukrainians are having trouble getting out of shooting range. Jews couldn’t leave Nazi territory (or were turned away at borders if they reached some other shores.) The US border is cluttered with people who aren’t allowed to cross it, but are afraid to go back to where they came from. This is a widespread problem, and has been since national borders were established.

Sorry, I misunderstood the point you were making about reparations…

With eminent domain and taxes, the thing for me is not that one is more ripe for abuse. It’s that philosophically both are examples that people don’t have (and shouldn’t have) the absolute right to not have the government take their property. And yeah it’s kind of ridiculous to assert otherwise especially with taxes because there basically isn’t a practical way that is known to us to construct a society we’d all want to live in where the government can never take our property.

That’s not the only protection for property, as set out in the 5th Amendment itself: " nor shall any person … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law"

That guarantee provides both procedural and substantive due process requirements to protect property. That’s separate from the takings clause.

There’s a similar due process guarantee in the 14th Amendment.

Wikipedia summarises it:

That’s a separate guarantee from the takings clause.

To your first point, in the OP you did suggest that we discuss the rights other have suggested. So I’m engaging on some of those you included in your post.

Perhaps the creation of borders could be said to infringe on peoples right to leave and be accepted elsewhere in some ways but humans being tribal creatures there have always been some degree of restrictions on that right anyway.

For the last two though, I think we absolutely have the right to say “no” and absolutely have the right to redefine our social relationships. More so than in any point in history, what makes you think we do not?

Can you just walk away from paying taxes? (Say “no”?) Before people were tied down by farms that they’d heavily invested in, they often did exactly that. There was no real authority, except authority that others accepted. Or temporary authority via immediate use of force.

We still have remnants of that in volunteer work. Volunteers can often say “no”. The fact that they regularly say “yes” shows that you can harness a great deal of organized labor without any coercion.

I think you are right that we have a good deal of freedom in defining our social relationships, though.

This seems like a very narrow and specific example of saying “no”. One that I could counter that with the fact that women generally are more able to say “no” to many things that previously were enforced to the point of brutality and violence.

Perhaps the problem with those examples you give is that they are far too broad to be able to discuss them as stated. i.e. I don’t think too many people would recognise “the right to not pay taxes” as a good of example of “the right to say no”

I was quoting from a heavy tome, and may not have given enough context. But the authors talk about social structures, mostly in prehistory.

They also take about the fundamental forms of power over other people: physical force, knowledge, and charisma. Those may need less explanation. A modern nation state wields all three. Most earlier forms of human organizations didn’t.

And you bring up a good point. When we talk about “rights” we often are talking about rights of individuals with respect to the state. But of course, by monopolizing the use of force, the state can also enhance the rights of individuals with respect to other individuals.

Dragging the US constitution into these discussions is fundamentally alienating, IMO. We should be able to have a discussion of rights that don’t devolve to niggly nitpicks of details of one decidedly non-universal, very flawed, outdated document.

I think the freedom to say “no” should be the fundamental freedom, and even the other two of the freedoms in TDoE can be distilled down to it.

I don’t think freedom of speech is or should be a fundamental freedom. Freedom of opinion, yes, freedom to unrestrictedly express said opinion in the public arena, no.

And I don’t believe private property should be a right (by “property” here I mean real property, not personalty)

Is that a typo? I’m not sure what you mean by “real property, not personality”.

No typo. I mean real property, not personalty or “personal property”