Saturday, November 14, 2009

What Are Rights?

Rights are very confusing. Some people say that The Constitution defines their rights, others say that their rights are defined by God, and others say that they have a right to whatever they need.

Worse, there are all sorts of different rights that academics fight over: Claim rights, privilege rights, power rights, immunity rights, etc., etc. etc.

But here's one way of looking at rights that simplify matters: There are no rights.

Instead, consider a rights-free world where all behavior is constrained by obligations. Initially, that doesn't sound like too much fun; most people don't like being burdened with obligations. But negative obligations are not burdens.

For example, the "right to free speech" can be written as "other people are obligated to not interfere with your speech". Similarly, the government's right (or, if you prefer, power) to declare war can be thought of as "the citizens are obligated to respect the decision of Congress to declare war."

The advantage of this formulation is that it is easier to determine which actions ought to be rights. For example, the "right to healthcare" sounds like a fine idea, but listen to how it sounds when it is rewritten: "Other people are obligated to provide you with healthcare." Now it doesn't sound as good.

Of course, there are still ambiguities, such as the "right to clean air". Does that mean that other people are obligated to provide you with clean air? Or does it mean that other people are obligated to not dirty your air? And that doesn't address your obligation to not interfere in other people's affairs (like operating factories) that do not directly affect you.

So, we aren't left with a simple answer to everything, but "obligations" vastly simplifies the confusing vernacular of "rights", and it also helps us better determine what sort of behaviors are permissible.

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