Rights: Positive, Negative, and Their Duties

I usually stay out of discussions about rights, whether they exist and which ones are “real.” Part of the reason for this is that I find it rather boring to discuss whether philosophical constructs exist or not (it should be fairly obvious that they don’t in any normal sense of the word), and partly it is because such discussions never lead anywhere. At all.

There seem to be so many misconceptions and misunderstandings about rights that discussions start and end in the same manner: with people dogmatically claiming their specific position is right, from which follows that everybody else is wrong. Mostly, the arguments consist of repeating the same thing over and over again rather than arguing a point of view, often with the sole purpose of showing that the author who originally said it is right. (Objectivists are very good at this.)

On rare occasions it happens that people from radically different points of view start discussing rights. This has happened quite a few times on the rapidly growing web forum of Anarchism.net, a site I run with the sole purpose of letting anarchists of different colors find out that their views aren’t very different from other anarchists’ (and that there is plenty of reason to start a unified anarchism movement rather than fight endless faction wars).

Imagine anarchists from different political traditions discussing rights. It should be fairly obvious that such a discussion should strike at the very core of rights, whereas statists (from minarchists to communists) discussing rights really discuss what rights the State is supposed to impose on people. Sorry, I mean what rights the State is supposed to protect. The common ground for anarchists is that they want no State, so their view of rights should be pretty interesting from a political and/or philosophical point of view, right?


Anarchists tend to fall into the same traps as statists always do – they discuss which set of rights is “better” and which right has the best outcome. Even though I usually find the discussions quite simple at times, this fact of discussing outcomes rather than what the rights are is interesting. Rights are usually something that is philosophically constructed from a statement of fact; for instance, the negative right to life is based in the fact that individuals are individuals and that they, even if they are social creatures and think collectivist thoughts, necessarily act as individuals. The right doesn’t say that this or that should happen so that people get to be individuals – it states that people are individuals and that they have an equal right to be individuals, and that therefore no one else has a right to force others to obey their orders.

This kind of right should be pretty interesting to anarchists, don’t you think? And it necessarily is, even though discussions on rights usually don’t start and never begin with such a right.

What I find both interesting and troublesome is this focus on the effect of rights rather than their meaning. In a discussion between proponents of negative and positive rights, focusing on the outcomes totally misses the point. Rights aren’t production processes that need to be streamlined and/or optimize – rights are basic rules of thumb for what is right and what is wrong.

Think about what the effect of evaluating the freedom of speech by the effects. What are the effects of freedom of speech? Well, except for the obvious feeling of not having to be scared to say the wrong things and the positive effects of scientists in different fields having the right to criticize what they believe is wrong, the effects are mostly negative. After all, your right to say whatever you want can and will hurt people.

This is especially true if we include different sorts of mystic beliefs people tend to cling to (religion and other superstitions). Saying that “Jesus was an ass, and Muhammed liked to put his dick in it” would probably make quite a few people in this world upset. The negative outcomes of free speech are much greater than the positive if we attempt to estimate the total amounts of “utility” and “disutility” through calculating the number of people in each category.

Then think about the effect of the right mentioned above: the right to be an individual, to be unrestricted in your thoughts, aims, and actions by everything but the equal rights of other individuals. What does this mean? It means you can literally hurt thousands of people, and you will definitely make a lot of people despise you and your views no matter what you do. How many people are positively affected by your having this right? Maybe your loved ones, a few friends, perhaps someone you choose to help. But it would probably be better for most people if you didn’t have this right – actually, it would be better if you didn’t act at all since that would mean that you wouldn’t hurt anyone.

And consider the right not to starve or, even better, the right to three meals every day. Now, the obvious effect of this right is that nobody would starve. Wouldn’t this be great? And everybody would be equal, since we’re all getting three meals every day. No more starvation and probably no more obesity. There would be food for everybody, which would mean there would be a whole lot less cause of conflict. The most fundamental human need is satisfied.

Let’s take one step up to the next level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and add safety as a right. This would be great, wouldn’t it? There’s no need to worry anymore, since everybody would have the security of body, employment, resources, family, etc. Suddenly six billion people would not be victims of uncertainty anymore, since we would all be able to trust that what we have we will always have for as long as we want it.

Wait a minute… no more uncertainty? Yes, that is basically what it means to have the right to safety. And I agree that it is absurd to establish a right to escape uncertainty. How do you do that? It is literally impossible.

Why is it impossible? Because we have failed to ask where these rights come from. Philosophers know that rights don’t come without duties, but that important piece of information seems to have escaped most people discussing rights. A rights discussion is more of a war of “who can say they want most” than actually arguing – and even less proving – anything.

Let’s recapitulate the rights above and see what duties they require, that is, what they necessarily mean in a world like ours. The first right, to free speech would mean there is a duty on everyone not to stop someone from talking. This is not a very heavy burden, even though sometimes we are indeed desperate not to hear what someone is about to say. (This is probably the case for some people with this post on rights…) What about listening to what is said? No, there is no such duty. There is a right to freedom to speech, but not a right to have people listen. There isn’t even a right to have someone pass on what you say – you only have a right to say it.

Then there is the right to be an individual. I guess this is something that is something that is very difficult to escape. After all, all of us are individuals (however, not necessarily individualists). What does that mean? What duty is there that makes this so? I really can’t think of any such duty, since this is rather a statement of fact than a normative claim.

But with the claim that this is a right that is limited by all others having the exact same, equal right – then we have a duty. It follows that it is everybody’s duty to not act to undo individuals, in other words that we all have the duty not to enslave people, kill them, or in any other way force them to give up their individuality (whatever it may be). This too doesn’t seem too cumbersome. At least, I don’t think it is a problem to not be able to forcefully enslave people.

Now consider a right to three meals a day. It sounds like a pretty good idea to me, because even though I can afford to eat every day I sometimes don’t have the time to eat or interest to cook. It would be so much better if I could just go somewhere and get a meal. Even better – what if I could have the meal come to me? Actually, if I have a right to three meals a day, nobody can claim I need to go somewhere to get it – I have a right to three meals, not a right to go to a specific place at certain times to pick up three meals. So I could sit in my office and just expect three meals, just like I should be able to wake up in the morning and get breakfast.

Now you might ask, where does these meals come from? That’s a good question. If everybody had a right to three meals a day I would sincerely doubt a lot of people would work in restaurants – if there would be such things at all. If everybody has a right to three meals a day, then why the hell would anybody want to start a business to sell what everybody gets for free? That would be just stupid.

But the problem is still there: where do the meals come from? Who provides the meals? Who delivers? Who is held responsible if I would not get my meals? The right to three meals means a duty for someone or something to provide the meals, but it doesn’t say who has that duty. So we need to figure something out. Either we pay someone to cook three meals a day for six billion people, or we force someone to do it. I, for one, certainly don’t believe that angels would fly down from the heavens carrying food for all of us.

And what about the food? I don’t only want three meals per day, I want three good meals. I want food that I like and food that is good, healthy, and varied. Is that included in the right to three meals, or do I have to live for the rest of my life eating three meals of cabbage soup every day…?

It is easy to see there is a problem here; three meals per day for everybody don’t just appear because we say this is a right. The food has to come from somewhere – from someone. And that someone has a right to have three meals just like everybody else. Does this mean we all have to cook for someone else, and that we then pass the food along – it is almost noon, everybody pass one meal to the person on your right in three, two, one… now!

This doesn’t sound quite as good as “eliminating starvation.”

What about the fourth right, the right to safety and security? The same applies there – we’re not safe and secure unless someone provides us with it. This is very obvious with the security of employment and resources. Who will provide you with a job, and where do the resources come from?

It should be pretty obvious that there is something wrong with these rights. The first two could easily be satisfied through everybody having a duty to not do horrible things. There was no force involved, no one was forced to do anything against his or her will. The latter two create a great void of legitimate claims – everybody has a right to something that no one knows who will provide. All we know is that we can demand to have something, but we don’t know who should give it to us. Unless we live in the Garden of Eden, where everything is always available, these two rights call for either enslavement of some for the benefit of others or enslavement of all.

It is great to have a right to three meals a day if you are on the receiving side, but someone has to be on the supplying side – and that can’t be too great. After all, everybody will require three meals a day and they will have a right to it. If you are on the supplying side you are fundamentally screwed. Want a day off? Don’t think so. Vacation? That’s impossible. Retirement? No way. You are a true slave.

A professor in a political science class I once took briefly touched on rights as negative and positive, with the former being a right to not have others impose anything on you (like the first two) and the latter being a right to something specific. I remember saying these rights are necessarily contradictory – if you (and everybody) have a right to be an individual, to lead your life as you see fit as long as you let others lead theirs as they wish, you cannot also let some have the right to something. If you do, then you necessarily say that someone has to supply this something – and that contradicts the right to live your own life.

The professor answered that this was a common misunderstanding, and that there is only a contradiction if we first accept a certain set of morals. He never told me exactly what set of morals we need to accept or what the other view would be. Something tells me he couldn’t, since a universal right to not be a slave and a universal right to have a slave don’t go together. Unless we stop believing people are people and adopt the [faulty] view that some people are better than others – or that some people simply don’t count.