Where do rights come from?

In another thread, Liberal made a comment:

I thought: true enough. But then I realized there might be a lot of contention about where I think rights do actually come from. I can see that rights can’t just come from constitutions, yet I also don’t think rights come from a Creator (not believing in such a Creator is a big impediment to that choice).
My conclusion: rights come from societies.

So, whaddya think?

I should mention that one reason I don’t show up in GD much is because the debates outpace me; please don’t think I am abandoning this thread if I only post every other day or so.

Rights come from God, He is the only one who truly believes in the worthiness of each and every person.

For a very simple question that is actually not easy to answer.
Rights do come from societies, and yet in those societies where rights are not recognized people can rise up and claim their rights.

Rights come from whomever has the power to make the rules and enforce them?

Now I might be punsihed for claiming rights that are not officially sanctioned. Does that mean I don’t have those rights, or do I have them by claiming them regardless of the consequences?

As I see it, rights are a collection of rules that history has demonstrated make life better for most people. If they come from anywhere, they come from the collective experience of humanity. To a large degree they are arbitrary, but they work.

Simple example : In a variety of threads, I have expressed hatred and contempt for religion. Despite my feelings, I have never called for it to be outlawed, or the religious to be persecuted. Why ? Because history shows that the results of that sort of thing are an ethical and social disaster. It doesn’t matter if I’m right; the end results of some purge of believers would be horrible.

Free speech is a right beacuse societies with it work better and are better to live in. The same goes for freedom of religion, probitions against torture, and so on.

As I see it, if something is truly a right (in the “inalienable” sense, which is what I think the OP intends), it exists as part of the human condition. The most fundamental aspect of that condition is that which defines man: free will. Therefore, true rights are those things—and only those things—that, if absent, prevent one from expressing one’s will:

I have the right to form my own thoughts.
I have the right to decide what to do with my body.
I have the right express myself and communicate with others.
I have the right to lay claim to what I create.
I have the right to benefit from the sweat of my brow.
I have the right to act in my own best interest.
I have the right to protect myself and my family.
I have the right to enter into agreements of my choosing.
I have the right to shape my future.

These rights were implicity given to us by our Creator the moment he endowed us with free will.

Additionally, certain privilege may be construed as “rights” to the degree that societies view them as universal and desirable.

Your rights are yours by birth. The Declaration of Independence summed it up pretty well. You have these natural rights, and as a member of society you relinquish some of them for the common good. You can’t keep 100% of what you earn, else you’d have no roads to drive on, that sort of thing. About the wackiest idea I ever heard of was that rights are a function of property.

There are no rights. There is only power.

Wrong. Rights are God-given, those who use their power over others to take them away will regret it.

About the only thing useful I’ve ever heard Rush Limbaugh say was when he was quoting someone else. He said “Rights are something that don’t cost anyone else anything” So the talk of the right to medical care, etc. isn’t a right at all. You’ve summed them up pretty well here. One thing the DOI and the COUS does that I find exceptional is the idea that by claiming our own rights as individuals that we have a certain moral obligation to extend and defend those same rights to our fellow citizens. It even means we have a moral obligation to be representative of those rights in dealing with other nations and it’s citizens. So things like throwing people in prison indefinatly might violate that. But I digress.

I agree with Der Trihs that rights are in large part what we agree on as a society and something honed by history and a certain sense of justice and humanity. There is also a difference between our legal rights, and what we claim to be human rights.

Because Daddy spank?

…what if I don’t believe in God?

God is so gosh darn benevolent that he allows you to have rights in this life even if you don’t believe. Of course in the next life it’s your ass.

If Bush, Falwell, Robertson, and Swaggart have their way you’ll have a lot fewer rights here. It’s only right though since they have been chosen to speak for God.

We’ve now had three people cite an either “nature” or an invisible man in the sky as the source of “rights.” I’m beginning to think Rune has a point.

I lean toward agreement with this as far as the US is concerned. By the Declaration 1776 and subsequent events such as the Constitutional Convention, our stated principle is that the people decide collectively on what government they need and want. The people then grant to that government certain limited powers that are needed for a functioning society and retain all other powers to themselves. In my view individuals can act as they please and the other people in the group, i.e. the government, can only interfere with those acts when they impair the freedom of others in a way that disrupts the society as a whole. By that I mean, for example, if I park my auto in a particular place I interfere with your right to put yours in the same place. However that interference isn’t disruptive of the functioning of society. However if I drive up to a building that is on fire and park so as to block the access to a fire plug I have interfered with a societal need in a disruptive manner and my right to park there shouldn’t be protected.

Some Supreme Court justices don’t take this view and neither do some posters here. I think they are wrong. I think that when a governmental restriction of individual actions is applied the courts ought always to put the onus the government to show that the restriction is necessary to protect the society as a whole and proper in that it doesn’t restrict freedom of action beyond the minimum required.


I appreciate your invitation to come here and share my view of where rights come from. I see that several people have already made passionate declarations — everything from rights are divine to rights don’t exist. I think that the very broad range of opinions might indicate the very broad range of different definitions that we all have for rights.

Some people see rights as permissions. As such, they must of necessity come from someone else. If I am to be given permission to do something, there must be a giver — a person or entity with the authority and the wherewithall to confer rights upon me. It seems to me that people who see rights as permissions might readily hold that rights come from the Constitution, or from the Founders, or from society, or some other authority. So for example, if I have the right to worship, then it means that I have permission to exercise my faith. In order to allow me to worship, someone must intervene.

Others see rights as an attribute of property ownership. As such, rights do not come from an authority, they are an authority — the authority to make decisions with respect to the property owned. These people are likely to hold that rights come from birth. Ownership of our bodies confers upon us the right to life, and ownership of our minds confers upon us the right to give or withhold our consent. It is from these rights that we may derive all others — we come to have rights with respect to what we acquire through the use of our original property, our bodies and minds. (Note that a theist will credit his birth to God, and an atheist will credit his birth to nature; therefore, you will hear phrases like “God given rights” or “natural rights”.) So for example, if I have the right to worship, then it means that I have the intrinsic authority to exercise my faith. In order to stop me from worshipping, someone must intervene.

There are other views in political philosophy, but those two are the most popular here, and the most likely to butt heads.

The main complaint that I hear against the natural rights theory is that it confers upon some people more rights than others. Well, in one sense that’s true, but in another sense it isn’t. In one sense, if Mr. Smith has 10 things and Mr. Jones has only 5, then there are indeed 10 things over which Mr. Smith has authority, and only 5 things over which Mr. Jones has authority, suggesting that Mr. Smith has more rights than Mr. Jones. The problem with examining rights in that way is the fact that it is merely a snapshot of a circumstance that might easily change. If Mr. Smith is a poor steward of his things, then he might lose 7 of them, and end up with fewer things than Mr. Jones. Or if Mr. Jones is more clever than Mr. Smith, then he might use his things to triple their number, and end up with more things than Mr. Smith. This snapshot method of examining and comparing rights fails because life is not a snapshot, and any attempt to create a sort of rights parity by extending to one or the other enough things to make them equal makes only the snapshot equal. In other words, even if Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones start out with 10 things each, on any given day thereafter, they might not have an equal amount. Maintaining parity becomes a never ending task of gathering information about Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, and constantly evening them out. The more kinds of things there are, the more people there are, and the more complex society is, the more difficult it becomes to maintain an equality of rights. The logistics alone can become nighmarish.

But in the other sense, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones have exactly the same right — namely, the right to make decisions with respect to the things they own. Either one may increase or decrease whatever the number of things is, but how each one’s right is defined remains identical. All that is required to maintain parity is to make certain that both Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones are free from the willful and initial interference of others. If each is protected from thieves and muggers and con men, then each still has the same rights as always: authority over what they own. Mr. Smith is protected from decisions about his own property being made by Mr. Jones, and vice-versa. The more kinds of things there are makes no difference. The onus upon government is the same. The more people there are in the society, the more people government needs to ensure noncoercion. It seems to me like a far easier task than the other sense requires.

I’ve also heard people say that Mr. Smith will have certain advantages over Mr. Jones because of having more to work with. Possibly true. However, there is certainly no guarantee of that, not without the interference of someone else to hold back Mr. Jones in case, say, Mr. Jones is more clever than Mr. Smith. It seems to me that the things, in and of themselves, confer no intrinsic advantage on anyone. Of far greater importance are other factors — volition, creativity, work ethic, desire, and so on. Mr. Smith might enjoy an advantage anyway if, say, he is more handsome than Mr. Jones. Studies show that people grant more favor to good looking people than to plain looking people. Thus, even if you force a snapshot parity on the two, if one has real intrinsic advantages over the other, he will soon upset the artificial equality in any case.

Anyway, that’s how I see it.

AFAIK most rules / laws society makes are either prohibitions or obligations: don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t rape, pay your taxes etc.

Rights are the opposite: deliberate rules that state things people are allowed to do. The right to keep property, freedom of expression, freedom to bear arms (in the US), the right to do things that don’t infringe on the rights of others.

In a way, it makes sense to have rights as the basis for a society than prohibitions & obligations, because rights are easier to agree on (not least because rights are positive instead of negative) and you need a whole lot less of them. The rest of the laws can be seen as either protection of certain rights, or arbitration in the case of conflicts between the rights.

If you look at rights from this perspective, rights are the reason people will want to participate in a society and submit to the rules: nobody wants things stolen from them, but if you want that protection, you’ll need to agree not to steal yourself.

Rights are given by society - without society, rights have no meaning.

Concensus and tradition.

I think this is an oversimplification. If there were only one sentient being in the world, then there would be only power. Better would be - rights are derived from the recognition between 2 or more agents that each has a measure of power over his/her own life (life and liberty) as well as a certain measure of power over others (the pursuit of happiness - which can be equated with the understanding that power is not absolute).

NO, God doesn’t spank. You are your own best friend, and your own worst enemy. Depends on how you treat others.

Not true. Punishment goes from you to you. God punishes no one.