The term “Right” has many meanings which have been controversial in philosophy, political science, religion, and other fields for centuries. I attempt here to clarify why rights matter and what it means to have them.

What are usually thought of as “natural rights” – life, liberty, private property, and the pursuit of happiness – are natural phenomena inherent to all humans; i.e. birth given. The question of rights is still a source of political dispute because it disguises fundamental misunderstandings in a multifaceted and convoluted word. Rights are often an extension of morality, if something is guaranteed it should be desirable. If those three or four natural rights are representative of the ultimate morality, then morality is severely limited. That is why we need to separate the concept of rights from what is “good”. Only then will we understand why rights matter as practically applied, why they matter at all. The word as currently used is a source of unnecessary polarization, and with unity grows strength. So, let’s uncomplicate things.

Many questions arise when the idea is considered the “natural” occurrence which claims to produce it; why humans, and not other animals as well? What makes those three or four concepts alone so “natural”, and are there more? Are they absolute or are there stipulations and exceptions? What is the utility of this definition, and what purpose does it serve?

For many, natural is synonymous with God-given. If it is, how do we know those are God-given and not anything else? For instance, the right of abortion, which is both a freedom and a decision made in the pursuit of happiness, at the same time takes away a life. Which is greater then? If we want rights to be a reflection of morality, we have to agree on morality to agree on the best rights. Additionally, freedom and the pursuit of happiness can both interfere with others’ rights, which is another stipulation. Not only that, but almost no one actually believes in these rights; we cannot guarantee life, we take freedoms and happiness away daily. This renders these ideas useless in everyday life, and in government as well, even though occasionally “natural rights” are leaned on in argument as justification, just as the Declaration of Independence did hypocritically.  

The first question, regarding the distinction between human and animal rights, is not answered by the common definition citing either god or nature. If an owl eats a mouse, has a right been violated? If a human kills another human in self-defense, has a right been violated? Clearly, the definition formerly presented is incomplete and vague: it either needs clarification for all of these stipulations, or an entirely new classification.

All of these “what if’s” are only useful to point out the flaws in the concept of natural rights, because no definition can be found when answering what actions are “right” by nature or God. Freedom is only a social construct; it is always relative and dependent on our environment, meaning the social relations of society into which we must fit. Life is relative as well, the animals we eat are living, the criminals we throw in jail for life cost money and might rather be dead. The pursuit of happiness can always interfere with others' rights, so do we say that interfering with someone's pursuit of happiness is wrong unless that pursuit does the same? This goes in circles and is impossible to use in reality or quantify. Things are not black and white, actions are not simply good or bad, and “rights” cannot be useful to determine what’s best because they are too simple and not based in reality.

An argument once put forward is that working people (say in feudal estates, company towns, or even factories) have the ability to leave their employer, their freedom is not encroached upon and therefore their right to liberty and happiness is upheld. However, the same can be said with slaves: they had the ability to run away, and indeed some did, but that does not mean they were free before they escaped.

Oxford defines "right" as the following: “A moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way”. The separation of church and state negates the legitimacy of religious moral entitlements as used in law and society and therefore in real life. The rest of metaphysical morality again has no reason or evidence, precisely because it is beyond physics, beyond measure, and without verification.

Rights only have significance when they are guaranteed in a social contract: enforced, protected, and understood. I think people should create social contracts based on what is best for them, treating everyone equally, not because it is God-given, but because they have demanded it and it is therefore best for them and society. If the goal is to create a society in which everyone is happy, then everyone needs a say in what policy works for them. Dispel the claims which guarantee private property because of the all-powerful “nature”, because humans once lived in communities which held possessions in common, shared tools and duties, and were connected in a way we are not.

I will emphasize a few takeaways to this essay.

  1. Without reason, an argument holds no credibility. Without evidence, a claim provides no verification. Relying on “natural rights” provides no reason or evidence because that idea is riddled with inconsistencies and ambiguities that collapse in real life situations.
  2. Antiquated beliefs of morality and rights stem from culture. What was typically accepted was the way things were, the status quo, the prevailing power, whether religion or secular philosophy legitimized it. When it wasn’t, things changed, and a new society with new beliefs came about.
  3. So, until that point, stay learned. It’s time to reexamine our beliefs, especially when they are used matter-of-factly to downplay voices of change. Know why you think what you do, and where that view came from, because differences in opinion always come from a lack of understanding, a fallacy.