Monday, January 18, 2010

The Objectivist Meaning of "Individual Rights"


I came across the following excerpt in Ayn Rand's 1963 paper entitled "Man's Rights" in which Rand expounds upon what an individual's "right to life" means in a rational and moral society. It immediately made me think of the conservative definition of a fundamental "right to life", which is predicated upon the assumption that an embryo having a heart beat at 8-9 weeks after gestation, is a human being and thus has a fundamental right to live. This supposition has been used to form legislation and foment social opinion around a woman's right to abort an undesired fetus.

From a liberal standpoint, "right to life" has come to be characterized by the correct belief that the products of one's body are and should be under the auspices of the individual and thus society, the courts and legislature being representatives thereof, should work to protect those individual rights but not play a part in how an individual, such as a pregnant woman, can execute the actions pertaining to their individual rights .

Liberals (and conservatives in a similar fashion) have used the courts and the legislature to not simply underpin the innate rights of the individual but rather to expand the role of government in the supervision and execution of individual rights (the creation of a distinction between "partial birth abortion" and "early term abortion" being one example.)

I believe that Rand clearly defines individual rights and their relation to society when she states:

"The United States held that man's life is his right (which means: by moral principle and by his nature), that a right is the property of an individual, that society as such has no rights, and that the only moral purpose of government is the protection of individual rights.

A "right" is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man's right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action - which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)

The concept of a "right" pertains only to action - specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men.

Thus, for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive - of his freedom to act on his own judgement, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights.

The right to life is the source of all rights - and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.

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