Some 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
- 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.
- 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.”
- Rights are not means to “general utility”–i.e. the “collective pleasure” of everyone in society–as John Stuart Mill thought.
- 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.