A few days ago I was asked how we can know that rights exist, so I wanted to put my thoughts down.
Human values are facts that relate to the requirements for a human life. Human values are different than the readily perceptible facts we see around us, like the fact that water is wet or that a diamond is more durable than iron. Nevertheless, in any given circumstance, there are certain values (or goals) that, when obtained, advance a person’s life, just as the goal of consuming a given amount of vitamins and nutrients is necessary to remain alive. Moreover, life is not just any value, but an ultimate value, a value necessary for the expression of any and all other values. In pursuing any value (even while risking life), we are required to take life-promoting actions. Whatever other goals people might have, it would be a contradiction to pursue values (or goals) that undermine an essential means (one’s own life) that make the pursuit of any and all other values possible. In order to live, then as a matter of fact, one ought to take life-promoting actions. To do otherwise would contradict the choice to live.
That addresses an essential concern of ethics: the values, if any, a person ought to pursue. But is there a reason to think those values ought (for the sake of one’s own life) be pursued by particular means? It appears so, if we think about what it is to be alive. A person who moments earlier passed away is still alive in a certain respect. The vast majority of the body’s cells are still alive and will be for quite a while afterward. But the person is not alive as a human being, since the distinct feature of our species is the possession of the faculty of reason, specifically the ability to engage in rational deliberation. To live in the capacity of a human being requires making reasoned judgements.
People may choose to attempt to live encumbered as if they were a bear or an alligator, for example. Even with volition though, acting in accordance with one’s identity as a human being optimizes the ability to pursue the goal of living. The takeaway is that a person ought to achieve life-promoting goals and do so in a manner consistent with one’s identity as a reasoning animal.
People don’t possess automatic knowledge, nor can they reliably turn to mystical revelation for insights into how to satisfy their hunger, to build a computer, or to cure illness. To optimize the potential that people can make reasoned judgements, they must be free to act (including to think) and to have claim to those actions. The freer people are, the more alive they can be. To live, people ought to pursue life-affirming goals, and they must be free to fully do so. This is where the philosophy of politics becomes relevant. Just as ethics is the study of which actions promote a person’s values on a personal level, politics is the study of which interactions promote a person’s values in a social context.
The principle of rights bridges these two dimensions of philosophy. Rights are the moral principles pertaining to how people ought be free, and people ought to be free if they are to live as human beings. From this formulation, the most basic right is the right to life, the principle that a person ought to be free to take the actions necessary to sustain his or her life.
Life is the ordered collection of those activities taken for the purpose of achieving those activities. It is simultaneously an essential means and an ultimate end, an end necessary for the fulfillment of all other ends. As each person’s life is morally an end to one’s self, no person should be subjugated for the life of another. A person’s life is one’s own; it may not ethically be impeded by others.
Aggression — a violation of the rights of others — and life are opposites. Aggression cuts against rationality, the thing that makes a person’s life distinct from non-human life. To violate the rights of others is to live as something less than human.
Image credit: bitzcelt, with a Creative Commons license