Saturday, February 27, 2010

Rights... what the heck are they?

I recently sent an email to my friend Kevin of The Smallest Minority, asking questions about rights. He since has made it the subject of one of his blog posts and has sparked a great deal of comments. Below is my original email, his response and my comment on his post after having read many of the other 25 comments already written.

My initial email:

Sorry to bother, but have been running a few thoughts through my brain recently and wanted to run them by you. I have been thinking about 'rights' and what they really are. Given you are probably the most versed in such subjects of all those I know, I thought you might be willing to discuss your thoughts with me.

To begin with, what is a right? Miriam-Webster defines a right as something a person can make a just claim to. So... what can we make a just claim to? I first started looking at this from an American standpoint, but realized I had to move past that. As American's are rights are only as good as they are recognized by others... which means the list gets really short of what actually are rights. Given that we as a human must have just claim to them, that would imply that all others would agree to that claim. Which means a right is subject to the crowd by which the claim is made. Which means, at least in my mind, that as the crowd increases the likeliness that they will all agree to your claim is less likely.

Moving past the abstract version of a right, I turned to American Rights. Obviously we have the constitution and the Bill of Rights that clearly defines our rights. However, I would argue that, as it was the government that gave us these 'rights' that they could then take them away at will. That for an American to truly have a right to something, even in America, that he/she must have the just claim that his/her fellow Americans agree and support. I could claim I have a right to all the fresh water in the country, but I doubt that many would agree with me... thus I don't have a right to the water. However, let's look at what is defined... I have the right to bare arms. For the most part, my fellow Americans would agree I have the right, but yet there would be those that disagree. Some of those people might even own a business and refuse my right to bear my arms in their establishment. With mere ownership and difference of opinion, they have stripped me of my right. So if the right can be taken away, then how is it really a right so much as just a privilege granted to me by those that would agree with me?

I know you have addressed these issues to great extent on your blog, but I am not sure you covered this outlook. If in fact the 'rights' we are granted by the constitution and the bill of rights are not really rights, but rather privileges... then what expectation can an American have of those privileges simply being taken away at the whim of anyone (or even the government that first granted them) taking them away? And, what recourse would one have against those that resend such privileges? If I grant you the privilege of drinking alcohol in my house, but then change my mind and want you to stop... as it is my house, don't I get to make that decision?

Your thoughts?
Kevin's Response:

Bill:Actually, the multiple essays on the sidebar under "The 'Rights' Discussion" are all about precisely what you're asking. I strongly suggest that you sit down and read them in detail. The point of the original "What is a 'Right'?" essay was that your "Rights" aren't enforceable if your culture does not support them. If you want to keep your rights, you must fight for them and keep them active in the hearts and minds of your fellow citizens. 

The six-part exchange I had with mathematics professor Dr. Danny Cline explored the concept of the "realness" of rights, but my slant on it was that the concept of rights isn't a stand-alone thing. I concurred with Ayn Rand that what the concept of "Rights" does is codify ones freedom of action within a society. From a practical standpoint, your rights define what you can do (or others can do to you) without fear of sanction. I don't know if you read last night's post on our withering Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search, but that's an example of what you're talking about.
I am in agreement with Rand on another point - there really is only one, fundamental right: the right to ones own life. All other "real" rights are corollaries to that single right, but how broad those rights are and how well they are protected is fundamentally dependent on the culture in which one lives. Ours is the first (and to my knowledge still the only) culture founded on the concept that the purpose of government is the protection of the rights of individuals, and that failure to live up to that responsibility is grounds to replace that government. Prior to (and to be honest, subsequent to also) the founding of the United States, the purpose of government has always been understood to be maintenance of the power structure that formed said government, and to hell with the rights of the people. The idea that the rights of the individual are the single most important factor in a culture is - truly - revolutionary. 

As to your example of a business owner restricting your right to bear arms in his establishment, that's simply a conflict of rights - his property rights versus your right to self-protection. It's an interesting conflict, since he (apparently) doesn't also accept simultaneous responsibility for your protection when he denies you the possession of the tools you've chosen for that duty, but you have the choice not to give him your business, or even go into competition against him. Your right has not actually been taken, but it has been limited. No one has ever said that rights are unlimited - "Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose." What our Bill of Rights was supposed to do was place significant limits on what limitations government could put on our rights, because government is a monopoly - we cannot choose another government or start up one of our own without getting rid of the one under which we currently live. Unfortunately, people are people, and as the various courts have proven over time, we're more than willing to "constitutionalize our personal preferences" when it suits us. This is why, IMHO, education is the battleground it is - if the populace is ignorant, it's much easier to lead them around by the nose - ergo, the best place to undermine a culture is the schools, followed by the media. 

Hope this helps.
My comment:
Wow... I step away from the blogs for a few days and look what all of you have done. Thanks Kevin, for making my email the subject of a post, had no idea I would have stirred things up the way I did. However, I fear that maybe a few of the commenters may have mistaken the intentions of my questions. As stated, I have shaken off the liberal shackles I once wore proudly. I now find that the deeper I look at things the more complex they are than I ever would have realized. That was the beauty and simplicity of the liberal left... "Don't worry about it, we will take care of it for you... as it is too complicated for you to understand." And that would have been fine had I not met you Kevin (and others) that challenged my intellect to look further down the rabbit hole (no jokes there, please). Once you got me to start thinking for myself verses toting the leftist ideals, I began to ask myself and many others many questions.

The concept of rights is a fascinating one that started as a much simpler question, but quickly spiraled into something far greater than I ever anticipated it would. Initially I was examining the concept of how the American government has created an illusion of freedom. When the country was first formed it was easy to do, as there were so few people. But now, as a country of over 330 million people, that illusion is quickly fading fast. The reason, at least in my belief, is that freedom is only good if you are alone... as are rights. The moment there are two people involved, limitations begin to be imposed upon on another. As you stated in your response, "Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose." If this is the case, then I am not free to swing my fist, but rather I am free to swing my fist anywhere other than your nose. And, the more noses there are, the less free I am to swing my fist. When the country was first founded and our heroic documents of freedom drafted, one could easily swing ones fist about freely as there were so few noses. It made it seem that we could do anything we wanted, so long as it did not impact someone else. Also, I would argue that the Bill of Rights was not drafted to protect your rights, but rather to protect the rights of others from you taking them. In other words, I would say that the right to bare arms is not granting you the right to carry a fire arm, but rather it is granting the of those that would carry a fire arm to to lose that right to you should you disagree. But, as this was stated by the federal government and the federal government has ways of "modifying" the original document, nothing says the federal government can't simply change their mind and change the rules. The only thing standing in their way would be that illusion of freedom and what the American citizen now believes are their rights. As the federal government granted them the right, there should be no expectation of an American citizen that his/her government will not and can not take that right back... as it was never really a right. To many noses.... 

In contrast, I would say that, as an individual, we are all free to do what ever we want. We have the right to do anything and everything we want to do. The only difference is that our society also has the right to decide whether your claim is just, and thus whether there should be punishment for your actions. Therefore, our personal freedom is only limited by what we feel we are willing to except possible punishment for at the hands of the society we chose to associate with. Feel free to rape, pillage and steel till your heart is content... knowing that society will most likely fry your ass for your actions.

And finally, if we are tethered by the societal constraints of what they are willing to accept... are we really free? To be truly free, we should be able to act as we want at all times with nothing to constrain ourselves other than our own thoughts. If we were all individuals trapped on our own deserted islands, we could run naked all day, piss in the water and fornicated with anything we saw fit with no restraint... as the only person to judge would be ourselves. But play the same scenario out with a video camera broadcasting your actions to millions of viewers, I would be willing to bet ones behavior would quickly be modified to what they think would be acceptable to those watching to some degree... and thus freedom would no longer exist.
So what do you think? 

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