Shayne Wissler
“… to understand is, above all, to unify.” – Albert Camus

Why is Rights Theory Undervalued?

January 15 2016

When we insist on knowing why, we implicitly recognize that reason is the ultimate authority. The reason why we must ask “Why?” regarding individual rights[1] then is to understand precisely what authorizes one species of human action – which we name rights; and what denies another species – which we name crimes. To be confused about the source of this authority, or about what human actions belong to one category or another, is to prescribe social chaos. Only a thoroughgoing rational case for individual rights can provide authentic authority; all other systems, regardless of their intellectual window dressing, are tantamount to the arbitrary dictum: “Because I said so.” As children, we may not be capable of reasoning and thus must be limited to this arbitrary answer at times, but such an “answer” is always an unacceptable for a normal and mature adult, of course.

With an eye towards this rational understanding of rights – what are individual rights, is it true that they ought to be respected, and why? – in 2007 I started working on my first book, Books (2010; aka FIR). While this book had explicated the reality, precise meaning, motivation, and utility of individual rights, it had not delved to the very bedrock of their justification. This aim I started pursuing around 2011 with my next book, Books (2013; aka R&L). By necessity this book offers a new philosophy, for in order to fully justify individual rights, I needed to begin at the very roots of philosophy, and there is none in existence that provides the proper base.

To paraphrase Hume, both books “fell still-born from the press.” Now, my main motivation for writing these books was that I’d thought of answers I’d not seen elsewhere, and I thought it’d be a shame not to write them down. But, while I think I have achieved what I’d set out to achieve, I have been disappointed to find so little interest in the subject. Note that I don’t say that I’m disappointed that people haven’t liked my books – the issue is that there is very little interest in the kind of books these are, regardless of how good or poor I have been at execution. As Aristotle said, “ALL men by nature desire to know,” and given the importance of the subject matter (for what social issue is more important that identifying what should be regarded as a right and what should be regarded as a crime?), I have found the lack of interest perplexing. In this, there is surely some degree of subconscious projection by me – people are generally not as enamored by providing reasons why as I am – but I don’t think that’s the whole story.

I am not a historian of ideas, but to my knowledge, there have been but a handful of attempts to square individual rights with reason[2]:

Although he had predecessors, John Locke in his Two Treatises of Government(1689) seems to have been the first to attempt a systematically rational explication of rights, and also is the most historically significant and influential figure (that Issac Newton was his inspiration is also very relevant). Then there were those American Founding Fathers Locke inspired – such as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Samuel Adams. But Locke has not really put rights on a rational foundation; on the contrary, his ultimate foundation was not reason, but the Bible.

A direct descendant of Locke’s case for individual rights is Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics(1851), who gave to us the following formulation of The Law of Equal Liberty: “Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.”

The next thinker I know of who attempted a theory of rights was Ayn Rand, in her essay Man’s Rights (1963) (which is ultimately based on her Ayn Rand's metaethic), and in this case she considered herself to be fully relying on reason. While I don’t think she actually succeeded in providing a valid rational case, she was the first that I know of who actually made a fully conscious attempt. Inspired by Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard provided a kind of account of “natural rights” in his Ethics of Liberty (1982), but it was Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s attempt to justify rights in his Hans Hoppe's "Argumentation Ethics" (1988) that Rothbard would ultimately endorse. Finally and also inspired by Ayn Rand is Stefan Molyneux’s Universally Preferable Behavior(2007).

In contrast to the defenders of individual rights as universal and rational, which have been few and far between, there has been an army of people who have attacked the concept – pick virtually any college professor from the humanities as an example, or if you prefer famous examples, see Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham, or John Stuart Mill.

At any rate, the rational case for liberty seems both very important, and very rare; and yet, it is not something that even “leading” libertarian organizations (who one might think have a vested interest in rights theory) have been interested in[3]. Why might that be?

For starters, we must always remember Upton Sinclair’s observation: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Also, and related to this, is that we still live in very religious times, where even the non-religious are mostly mere reactionaries to the prevailing religiosity. Thus, individual rights are perceived as “god-given” by the religious, so the idea of rational justification is perceived as human folly, arrogance, or even blasphemous; or, in reaction to this, rights are perceived as a man-made fiction by the non-religious, but then this latter type still views it as folly and arrogance to provide a rational justification for individual rights. In either case, both types stand united in the view that it is an arrogant folly to square rights with reason.

Unlike our current society, which generally acts with impunity and has not the least bit of concern with justifying its institutional behaviors, a healthy, non-authoritarian society that lacked a rational basis for its practices would put a high premium on identifying and justifying legitimate rights. If we are to have a future that rejects authoritarianism and impunity, embracing reason instead, then it must begin somewhere. It cannot begin by placing our long-term hopes in institutions that have no loyalty to reason, that don’t take the problem of providing a rational basis for rights seriously. If no institution that takes rights seriously exists, then it must be created, the same way all institutions of any size have ever been created – one individual at a time.

  1. Sometimes referred to as “human rights”, or simply “rights.”

  2. Please contact me if you think I’ve left out someone important and I will revise this article. I am mainly interested in authors who in an important sense could be construed as having tried to by systematic and/or foundational concerning the theory of individual rights.

  3. This assessment is based on personal experience: the general response when I have approached the editors of various libertarian establishments is something along the lines of “the case for rights is unimportant to us.” It is not that they looked at my work and viewed it as awful; they weren’t even interested in looking at it.