The Nature of Individual Rights: Short Notes

Bill of Rights - First Ten Amendments to the US ConstitutionSome short notes about the nature of genuine human rights. I start by clearing up some common misconceptions about rights, then discuss what rights actually are.

What Rights Are Not

  1. Rights do not come from religious texts, like the Bible. Biblical Commandments like “Thou shalt not murder,” and “Thou shalt not steal,” don’t provide an answer to what killing counts as murder, or what taking counts as stealing. In the Biblical book of Exodus, priests and leaders may kill those in their community who are not attacking them, and it is apparently not considered murder. (See: Exodus 32:27-29) Also, many early Christians eschewed private property and lived a communal lifestyle, with all things held in common. (Acts 2:42-45) The Judeo-Christian tradition relies on the arbitrary dictates of the Biblical God and does not provide a solid basis for rights to life, liberty and property.
  2. Rights are not moral duties or “side constraints” on purposeful action, as many academic libertarians believe. They don’t have their basis in some vague concept of “inherent human dignity.”
  3. Rights are not means to “general utility”–i.e. the “collective pleasure” of everyone in society–as John Stuart Mill thought.
  4. Rights do not protect need-based claims to goods or services to be provided by other people, such as food, shelter, healthcare, etc. Contra Bernie Sanders, healthcare is not a right.

What Rights Are

  1. Rights are moral/political principles that need to be followed in a society for individual humans to survive and thrive. Rights are specifically those principles that should be implemented by the force of government, not merely by the actions of private individuals.
  2. Rights are neither arbitrary grants of the government, nor inborn parts of people, but principles implemented by human beings, in accordance with objective facts about human nature, toward the goal of maintaining the societal conditions necessary for human life and happiness. They are fundamental rules of conduct that must be adhered to if human life is to flourish in a society on earth.
  3. Rights are prohibitions against the use of physical force to prevent other people from acting in pursuit of certain goals. Rights protect individuals’ freedom of action.
  4. The most fundamental right is the individual’s right to life. The right to life is not the right to be supported by the forced labor of others, but the right not to be prevented from living, by the coercive act of another person. That is, the right to life is the right not to be killed by another person.
  5. The right to liberty is derived from the right to life. It is the right not to be imprisoned or enslaved by others, because such actions destroy an individual’s ability to support his own life.
  6. The right to property is also derived from the right to life. In order to support his own life, an individual needs to be able to control things that he has produced by his own effort, as well as land, tools and raw materials that he is using to produce these things. If these things can be stolen or destroyed by others whenever they want, he is not able to plan and produce wealth reliably. To the extent others violate an individual’s property rights, his ability to support his life by his own effort is destroyed.
  7. The right to property includes the right to freely trade the product of one’s effort for the product of others’ effort, when those others consent. Anyone interfering with this trade by force is violating the right to property.
  8. Intellectual property is one type of thing that can be a substantial product of an individual’s efforts. Inventions, music, movies and written works are not specific physical objects, but intellectual constructs produced by intellectual effort. Patent rights to specific inventions and copyrights to music, movies and written works are thus proper.
  9. Because the rights to property and free trade are exercised over time, rather than in a single instant, the right to freedom of contract is implied by these rights. Parties can set up conditions of their voluntary trade with each other in advance by mutual agreement–that is, by contract.
  10. Because meaningful consent to a trade involves both parties having the ability to gain an accurate understanding of what is being traded under what conditions, one party lying about what he’s trading to the other nullifies that other party’s consent and makes the exchange of property non-consensual. The net effect is the same as theft, and therefore, such fraud is a form of indirect force and a violation of the right to property.


Individual rights are not inherent in a person, the way DNA is. But they are objective, in the way the laws of physics are objective. People can violate the laws of physics in an analogous way to violating people’s rights: They can ignore them and act in defiance of them. For example, they can build a bridge without using the proper support for the weight the bridge is supposed to carry. But the unavoidable penalty for such a policy is that the bridge fails when used in an attempt to support that weight.

Similarly, people can build a society in defiance of individual rights, but the unavoidable penalty is that the people in that society are damaged or destroyed.

To learn more about the theory of rights explained here–i.e. Ayn Rand’s theory of rights–I recommend reading The Objective Standard‘s article about it here: Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights: The Moral Foundation of a Free Society.

For more resources from Ayn Rand herself, see also Individual Rights at the Ayn Rand Lexicon.


Related Posts:

Ayn Rand’s Philosophy vs. Abortion Bans: Why a Fetus Doesn’t Have Rights

Socialism and Welfare vs. Justice: Why Inalienable Private Property Rights are Required for Justice

How Christian Morality Promotes Despotism Over Liberty

Atlas Shrugged, Altruism and Egoism

Why a Proper Ethics is Not a Set of Social Rules, But a Complete Way of Life

The Wages of Altruism: Domestic Abuse

2 thoughts on “The Nature of Individual Rights: Short Notes

  1. Rights are moral/political principles *limiting* an individual’s action; defining the exact point of morally invalid interference in another’s life.
    Rights are relational and *action-defined* in a social context. What you *do* that affects, that interferes with, the life (and life-supporting and furthering actions) of another has a morally-defined causal status. The limit is defined by what your action qua cause does to another’s life qua effect. There’s more to this, but that’s for an essay…

  2. I liked this, and to the best of my knowledge it’s an accurate articulation of the Objectivist position on rights. It might also be useful for introducing someone unfamiliar with philosophy to the classical liberal / Objectivist view of how rights work.

    That said, I do have a minor criticism, which is that you didn’t actually provide reason to think that rights work this way in your post. You just asserted it. I realize you’re just trying to do “Short Notes” here, but that seems consistent with providing at least an abbreviated argument for the Objectivist conception of rights.

    Overall, I really like your work, both in this post and in general. Keep it up!

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