Rights of the Individual

Which individual human rights are fundamental?

In my opinion, what we'd call the "negative rights"; in sum, the right to be left alone. The right not to be killed, the right not to have one's freedom messed with, the right to be secure in one's possessions (ie, body, mind, time, skill, and what one produces with these or acquires in exchange for these) are facets of that basic negative right.

I usually talk about Life, Liberty, the pursuit of Happiness, and Property because most people are (however vaguely) familiar with those expressions. But what I really mean - fundamentally - is: Don't tread on me.

Fundamental individual rights.

Fundamental rights are themselves part of human nature. I am alive, I have the right to Life; I am a choosing being, I have the right to Freedom; and so on. There's nothing mystical about them. And they are as inalienable as the humanness of which they are a part.
Natural rights are those which appertain to man in right of his existence. Of this kind are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and also all those rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and happiness, which are not injurious to the natural rights of others. (Thomas Paine)

By definition, "rights of acting" exclude doing things which are injurious to the rights of others. This is a "limitation" in the same way that "black" is limited because the definition excludes "white" (or any individual colour). In fact, it is this limitation which in part makes rights absolutely inalienable.

Capital punishment, however, teaches the citizen that the right to Life is "alienable". By pandering to the desire for vengeance, it justifies itself with the argument that the criminal "gave up his right to Life".

A society in which the inalienability of fundamental individual rights is not recognised has no real safeguards. The weaker members of such a society are at the mercy of the stronger

The Final Solution, the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides all make perfect sense in a society which places the supposed good of the community above the rights of the individual and which does not hesitate to take the lives of those whose very existence is perceived to be a threat to the well-being of that community (or tribe, or nation, or Volk).


The Nature of (a) Man

In one way, the rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and (the most restricted sense of) property are abstractions developed from an attempt to understand and define the nature of Man.

The foundation upon which all rights - the very definition of me as human, in fact - rest is life. I'm a human being only so long as I'm alive. When I'm dead, I'm meat. In other words, life is a necessary (though not sufficient) element of the definition of "human being". Since all humans I've come into contact with are choosing beings who seek to avoid pain and obtain happiness, I presume that the ability to choose and the desire to pursue happiness are also parts of the "human condition".

In a purely selfish reflex (for selfishness is also a human trait), I shall demand to be left alone. That is: Do not kill me. Do not mess with my ability to choose. Do not stop me from trying to avoid pain and seek happiness. This same selfishness will impel me to affirm that I own myself, my time, my mind, and so on.

Since I am a thinking being, I must decide between two different ways of achieving my ends. Either I can become so strong that no one can attack me successfully, or I can convince others to see things my way. If I choose the former method, I will prevail until someone stronger comes along. If I choose the latter method, I must be willing to recognise and respect the self-interest of others.

In one case, I shall be subject to the objective reality of the law of the jungle; in the other, to the intellectual construct of "rights".

In a universe governed by chance, either method is equally valid - because equally meaningless. Except to me, of course, because the only universe that has any meaning is the one I myself create.

If, however, we posit the existence of an independent Creator ("independent" in the sense that He is not a figment of my imagination) and if we accept the idea that we have been created in His likeness, then the discussion of individual rights takes a slightly different turn.

(Whether one believes in a God involved in human affairs, in a clock-maker God, or in no God at all is, though, not central to this particular discussion.)


The idea that one person's rights compete in some way with those of another is one I cannot comprehend. Let's look at the "negative" right - ie, the right to be left alone - that I mentioned earlier. In what way can my right to be left alone be in conflict with your right to be left alone?

The "fundamental" rights - to Life, Liberty, Property - aren't any more susceptible to conflict. In what conceivable way could my being alive infringe anybody's rights? (Even the unwanted fetus' life doesn't infringe the "unwillingly pregnant woman's" fundamental individual rights.) How could my ability to choose ever compete with somebody else's? (We're not talking choices, we're talking ability. We're talking Freedom.) And so on.

The right is absolute, but the exercise of the right is limited by nature and by the rights of others.


Let me finish with two paraphrases of Jefferson:
Good government is that which shall restrain men from injuring one another and shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits.


We must all bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will - to be rightful - must be reasonable.

and a little something exact from Paine:

The natural rights which are not retained, are all those in which, though the right is perfect in the individual, the power to execute them is defective. They answer not his purpose... He therefore deposits his right in the common stock of society, and takes the arm of society, of which he is a part, in preference and in addition to his own. Society grants him nothing. Every man is proprietor in society, and draws on the capital as a matter of right. (Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man)