Friday, December 12, 2008

On The Concept And Nature Of Rights - Part One

I made a comment in passing yesterday that may have left some readers confused, concerning human rights, so I have decided to elaborate today. Many people consider this to be a complicated subject but there is no reason for it to be so. If the root of human rights is treated as axiomatic then the rest becomes obvious. The axiom is one that most people recognize but few people (or at least, not nearly enough) pause to consider the details.
The axiom is this, that what we call human rights is a condition inherent in sentient beings. Whether you consider them to be inherent from God or inherent by nature is irrelevant to this particular discussion. What matters is that they are inextricably contained within living, thinking beings.
Allow me to digress for just a moment to explain why I am using a formal phrase instead of simply saying "people" or "human beings". As of yet there is no credible evidence that there are any other sentient beings either on this planet or within the greater universe. Absence of evidence, however, is not evidence of absence and it may be (it also may not be - please do not read in more than I am actually saying) that we will one day discover or be discovered by other sentient beings. If you are a fan of science or science fiction (as I am of both) then you are already aware that much thought has gone into how such beings should be treated or what rights they might possess if we ever do meet them. I use the phrase "sentient beings" in my axiom instead of "people" to demonstrate that the question is already answered. If they are sentient beings then their rights are as inherent as our own and for the same reason: the simple fact that they are sentient beings.
With that out of the way, let us return to the axiom. An axiom is a truth taken for granted because it is self-evident or is the first cause of other truths that are derived from it. If you do not believe that Rights Are Inherent To Sentient Beings is an axiom then you do not want to keep reading. We do not speak the same language and cannot come to an agreement. Rights are not granted by government or document and, while they can be abridged through force, such abridgment does not remove them, it violates them. Be very clear on and careful of the difference.
If we take our axiom as true then human rights are a natural occurance and, therefore, must occur in nature and must be able to occur in all cases where the required condition applies. Our axiom has only one condition - the existance of a sentient being - and therefore human rights must be naturally occuring to sentient beings and must be able to coexist with any one or more sentient being(s). To put it quite simply, if you can do a thing naturally and by yourself, it is possibly a human right. If you cannot do it naturally and by yourself, it cannot meet the basic definition of a human right. To think, to speak your mind, to arm yourself against possible danger, to believe what you believe and to practice this belief (in any manner that does not require the presence or participation of another person), to keep your thoughts to yourself. While certainly not an all-inclusive list, all of these things meet the basic definition and so can possibly be considered a human right. Color television, indoor plumbing, assault against another person, human sacrifice, a high paying job in someone else's business. None of these things meet the basic definition and so they cannot be human rights.
But there are people who cannot speak (or express themselves in some way) because of physical limitations and there are people who can, by themselves, build a color television or create indoor plumbing! I can hear this argument as plainly as though you were sitting in the room with me. But consider: Communication is a natural part of the human being (ask any biologist or anthropologist) and those who cannot do so are so rare as to come very close to statistical nonexistance. Conversely, those who can create or build entire structures (of almost any type) are almost as rare. In both cases, the rarity of the objection makes them the exception that proves the rule The person who has lost a basic right through physical inability should certainly be pitied but the person who has gained a right to a television (for himself and himself alone) by being able to build that television single-handedly should be greatly admired. Anyone who can add to rights is certainly a kind of hero.
So we have defined, based on our starting axiom, what rights cannot be and what rights can be. We have not, however, defined what rights are. We have only narrowed the field. We have found a definite negative but, on the positive, only a maybe. Is there a way, by drawing corollaries from our axiom, that we can narrow the field even further so that we might arrive at a definite positive?
I believe that there is and I have given a hint of what I believe through the examples I have chosen to provide. You will note, though, that the headline of this post contained the phrase "Part One", making clear that there will be a Part Two. I cannot discuss rights without getting long winded and I would not ask you to sit through all of that at one time, so we will take up Part Two tomorrow when I will attempt to demonstrate that there can be a definite positive to go along with the definite negative on rights. I hope you will join me.

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