Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights: The Moral Foundation of a Free Society - The Objective Standard

Note: This essay is included in the anthology Rational Egoism: The Morality for Human Flourishing, which makes an excellent gift and is available at Amazon.com.

What are rights? Where do they come from? One’s answers to these questions determine whether one is capable of defending a free society. If one does not know the nature and source of rights, one cannot know whether rights are real or imagined. And if rights are not real, there is no foundation for freedom; governments and societies may do as they please.

The traditional answers to the above questions fall into three categories: (1) Rights are moral laws specifying what a person should be free to do, and they come from God. (2) Rights are political laws specifying what a person is free to do, and they are created by governments. (3) Rights are moral laws specifying what a person should be free to do, and they are inherent in man’s nature. But each of these theories is demonstrably false, and a person or society attempting to defend freedom on such grounds will ultimately fail—as Americans are failing today.

Ayn Rand’s answers to the above questions, however, are demonstrably true—and those who come to understand her answers thereby equip themselves to defend freedom on solid, philosophic ground.

Toward understanding Rand’s theory of rights and its crucial value in the cause of freedom, let us begin with a brief overview of the traditional theories and their essential deficiencies. Then we will turn to Rand’s theory, see how it solves the various problems left unsolved by the other theories, and discover how it grounds rights in observable facts.

Traditional Theories of Rights and Why They Are Wrong

God-Given Rights

The idea that rights come from God is particularly popular among conservatives and Republicans. According to this theory, an all-powerful, infallible, all-good being makes moral law and gives man rights; thus rights exist prior to and apart from any man-made law and cannot be granted or repealed by government. As Sarah Palin puts it: “The Constitution didn’t give us our rights. Our rights came from God, and they’re inalienable. The Constitution created a national government to protect our God-given, unalienable rights.”1 Rush Limbaugh agrees: “You have individual rights, as granted by God, who created you, and our founding documents enshrine them: Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. Those rights don’t come from other men or governments. . . . They come from our Creator.”2 Newt Gingrich challenges anyone to identify another possible source of inalienable rights: “If you are not endowed by your Creator with certain inalienable rights where do they come from?”3 And James Dobson warns: “If you say that rights do not come from God, and they come from the state, they can be taken away.”4

But the theory that rights come from God is hopeless. To begin with, there is no evidence for the existence of such a being, much less for the existence of rights that somehow emanate from his will. Whether one believes in God is beside the point here. Either way, the fact remains that there is no evidence for God’s existence, which is why it is supposed to be accepted on faith—in the absence of evidence. Rights in support of which there is no evidence are not rights but fantasies.

Further, what would it mean for an all-powerful, infallible, and all-good being to give man rights? Surely, if God existed and possessed such qualities, he could at any time repeal those rights and kill people at will (as he does in the stories of the Old Testament) or command or permit certain people to kill, enslave, or rape others (as he does in the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). And if God—who is supposed to be infallible, all good, and the maker of moral law—did commit or permit such acts, then such acts would, by definition, be morally good. “Rights” that can be revoked are not rights but permissions. And a “theory” of rights that permits murder, enslavement, and rape is not a theory of rights but a mockery of them.

The supposition that rights come from God entails additional problems (e.g., which “God”—Yahweh? Brahman? Allah?), but the foregoing flaws are sufficient to disqualify it. The “theory” amounts not to a rational theory about a demonstrable source of inalienable rights, but to a fantasy about supernatural permissions.

To say that rights come from God is to say that there is no evidence in support of their existence, that there is no basis for them in perceptual reality, that they are not rationally provable. This is not a sound theory of rights; it cannot serve as a solid foundation on which to advocate or defend liberty.

Government-Granted Rights

Leftists and modern “liberals” cash in on this apparent absence of evidence. There is no such thing as rights, they say, at least not in the sense of absolute moral prerogatives to live one’s own life, by one’s own judgment, in pursuit of one’s own happiness. Rights, say the left, do not precede political laws but follow from them: Governments create laws, and the laws, in turn, dictate the rights and non-rights of the people who live under those governments. “Absent a government,” writes E. J. Dionne, “there are no rights.”5 Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein elaborate: “[R]ights are powers granted by the political community”; thus, “an interest qualifies as a right when an effective legal system treats it as such by using collective resources to defend it.” Holmes and Sunstein conclude by favorably quoting Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who famously said a “right” is a “child of the law”6 and thus that “imprescriptible rights” (i.e., inalienable rights) are “rhetorical nonsense, nonsense upon stilts.”7

Rights, on this account, are governmental decrees: If the government says that you have a right to take a particular action (or to be provided with a particular good or service), then you do; if the government says you don’t, then you don’t.

But this notion of rights entails a fundamental contradiction. The idea that rights are permissions granted by a government (or a legal system or a political community or the like) contradicts the very purpose of the concept of rights. Rights are fundamentally a moral concept; they pertain to that which a person should be free to do. The essential function of the concept is to specify those actions that no one—including government—can morally preclude one from taking. Whether rights actually exist is beside the point here. The purpose of the concept—its function in thought and communication—is to identify the actions (real or imagined) that a person morally must be free to take and to distinguish them from the actions that he morally may be prohibited from taking. To say that rights are governmental decrees is to imply, among other absurdities, that Islamic theocracies do nothing wrong in stoning adulterous women or hanging homosexuals—and that the Nazis did nothing wrong in torturing and killing millions of Jews—because, well, the governments involved deem such people to be right-less.

“Rights” that can be granted or nullified by governments are not rights but political policies (or laws), and they logically should be identified as such. To call them “rights” is to abuse language.8

The notion that governments create rights is not a viable foundation on which to advocate or defend liberty.

Natural Rights

Well aware of the dangers of governments dictating what “rights” people have and have not, Enlightenment thinkers, classical liberals, and the Founding Fathers sought to ground rights in nature. Rights, they posited, are born not of man-made law but of natural law—specifically, natural moral law: natural law concerning how people should and should not act. As John Locke put it, there is “a law of nature,” and this law “teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”9 The Founders agreed. “Man,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, is “endowed by nature with rights,”10 and these rights are a matter of “moral law”;11 thus they are “inherent,” “inalienable,” and “unchangeable.”12 A free people claim “their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.”13

This is the view held by many “constitutional conservatives,” Tea Partiers, and others who admirably seek to defend freedom. But this theory does not withstand scrutiny, either.

The “natural” law to which Locke, Jefferson, and the other Enlightenment thinkers refer is not natural law but “supernatural” law. It comes not from nature but from “God.” As Locke put it in the extended version of the passage quoted above: There is a “law of nature,” and this law

teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure.14

In other words, the “law of nature” that gives rise to man’s rights is the law of God: He ordains that we are his property and must serve his purposes; thus, men may not make us serve their purposes.15

Jefferson and the other Founders held essentially the same view. “The moral law of our nature,” wrote Jefferson, is “the moral law to which man has been subjected by his Creator.”16

Under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the Author of nature.17

Alexander Hamilton wrote:

Good and wise men, in all ages . . . have supposed that the deity, from the relations we stand in to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is indispensably obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever. This is what is called the law of nature. . . . Upon this law depend the natural rights of mankind.18

George Mason wrote: “The laws of nature are the laws of God, Whose authority can be superseded by no power on earth.”19 And John Adams wrote that man possesses rights “antecedent to all earthly government—Rights, that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws—Rights, derived from the great Legislator of the universe.”20

This is the generally accepted view of the source and meaning of “natural” rights. But the idea that rights come from a law of nature created by God is beset with all the same problems as the idea that rights come from God—because it is the same idea, albeit with God’s involvement one step removed.

If natural rights come from God, then proof of their existence depends on proof of God’s existence—and further, on proof that God somehow makes rights exist and cannot repeal them. But, again, there is no evidence for the existence of God, much less for the existence of natural moral laws or inalienable rights that somehow emanate from his will.

To accept the existence of “God” is ultimately to accept it on faith; accordingly, to accept the idea that “rights” somehow “come from God” is to rest one’s case for rights on faith. This will not do. As Ayn Rand observed:

[T]o rest one’s case on faith means to concede . . . that one has no rational arguments to offer . . . that there are no rational arguments to support the American system, no rational justification for freedom, justice, property, individual rights, that these rest on a mystic revelation and can be accepted only on faith—that in reason and logic the enemy is right.21

This is undeniably true.

With all due respect to Locke and the Founders (and the respect due is monumental), the idea that rights come from God or from a law of nature created by God not only fails to meet the requirement of demonstrability; it also concedes that reason and logic are on the side of tyrants.

Neither the notion that rights come from God—nor the notion that they come from government—nor the notion that they come from a law of nature created by God is viable. None of these theories identifies a demonstrable, observation-based source for rights. None explains rationally why people should be free to live (the right to life); to act on their own judgment, free of coercion (liberty); to keep, use, and dispose of the product of their effort (property); and to pursue the goals and values of their own choosing (the pursuit of happiness). None supplies an objective foundation for freedom.

In the absence of demonstrable proof of the existence of rights, proponents of rights have nothing to support their claims—and the modern intellectuals know it. As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre bluntly and mockingly puts it:

[T]hose rights which are alleged to belong to human beings as such and which are cited as a reason for holding that people ought not to be interfered with in their pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. . . . the rights which are spoken of in the eighteenth century as natural rights or as the rights of man. . . . there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and unicorns.

The best reason for asserting so bluntly that there are no such rights is indeed of precisely the same type as the best reason which we possess for asserting that there are no witches and the best reason which we possess for asserting that there are no unicorns: every attempt to give good reasons for believing that there are such rights has failed.22

If we want to defend rights, we need to be able to do more than just say that we have them. We need to be able rationally to explain where rights come from and why we have them. Toward that end, we need a rational account of natural moral law—moral law derived not from “super-nature” but from actual nature—moral law not merely asserted but proven—proven by means of evidence and logic.

Ayn Rand provided just that.

Like Locke and the Founders, Rand held that individuals have a right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. But she arrived at this conclusion in a very different manner than did they or any other natural rights advocates. Whereas traditional conceptions of rights are based (ultimately) on presumptions of God, Rand’s conception is rooted in observations of fact. Her theory of rights derives from her more fundamental theory of morality—which derives from her observations of reality, of the nature of values, and of the requirements of life. Thus, to understand Rand’s theory of rights, we must begin with a brief survey of her theory of morality and the observable facts that give rise to it.

Ayn Rand’s Observation-Based Morality

Our purpose here is not to flesh out Rand’s entire moral theory, which would require a book, but rather to examine certain aspects of her ethics that are essential to understanding her theory of rights. Thus, I want to stress that the following streamlined survey is no substitute for a thorough study of her ethics.23

Morality or ethics, observed Rand, “is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life.”24 And the first step toward understanding a code of values, she reasoned, is to understand the nature of values. Thus, Rand’s approach to morality began not with the question: Which of the existing codes should I accept?—but rather with the questions: “What are values? Why does man need them?”25 These questions directed her thinking away from the established views and toward the facts of reality.

Looking at reality, Rand observed that a “value” is “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.”26 We can see the truth of this all around us: People act to gain and keep money; they value money. Students act to gain and keep good grades; they value good grades. Churchgoers act to gain or keep a relationship with “God”; they value that relationship. People act to develop fulfilling careers, to establish and maintain romantic relationships, to gain and keep freedom, and so on. The things one acts to gain or keep are one’s values. And the key word here is: acts. Values are objects of actions. (Please take special note of this, as it is a crucial aspect of Rand’s derivation of moral principles—including the principle of rights. We will observe the relationship of actions and values repeatedly and with mounting significance throughout the remainder of this essay.)

Looking at reality, Rand further saw that this phenomenon involves not only human beings but all living things—and only living things. We can see this: Trees, tigers, and people take actions toward goals. Rocks, rivers, and hammers do not. Trees, for example, extend their roots into the ground and their branches and leaves toward the sky; they value minerals, water, and sunlight. Tigers hunt antelope and nap under trees; they value meat and shade. This pattern continues throughout the plant and animal kingdom: All living things take self-generated, goal-directed action.

Nonliving things, on the other hand, take no such action. They can be moved, but they cannot act—not in the self-generated, goal-directed sense that living things do. A rock just remains wherever it is unless some outside force, such as a wave or a hammer, hits and moves it. A river flows, but its motion is not self-generated; water moves only by means of some outside force—in this case, the gravitational pull of the earth. And a hammer does not, by itself, smash rocks or drive nails; it does not generate its own action.

Rand observed that the reason inanimate objects do not act in the same sense that living things do is that they have no needs and therefore no corresponding means of action. Only living organisms have needs, goals, or values; accordingly, only they have a means of acting toward such ends.

Having clarified that a value is that which one acts to gain or keep—and that only living things pursue values—Rand proceeded to ask: Why do living things seek values? What are values for? “The concept ‘value’ is not a primary,” Rand observed. “It presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative.” A tree faces the alternative of reaching water and sunlight—or not. A tiger faces the alternative of catching and keeping its prey—or not. And a person faces the alternative of achieving his goals—or not. The objects a living thing acts to gain or keep are its values—values to it.

That answers the question: “to whom?” But the question “for what?” remains.

What difference does it make whether an organism achieves its goals? What happens if it succeeds? What happens if it fails? What ultimately is at stake? Here is Rand’s key passage on the issue:

There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence.27

The reason why living things need values is: to live. The answer to the question “for what?” is: for life. Life is conditional: If a living thing takes the actions necessary to remain alive, it remains alive; if, for whatever reason, it fails to take those actions, it dies. And human beings are no exception to this principle. People need values for the same reason plants and animals do: in order to sustain and further their life.

On the basis of such observations, Rand discovered that an organism’s life is its ultimate value and thus its standard of value—the standard by which all of its other values and actions are to be evaluated. A tree’s standard of value is the requirements of its life as set by its nature. A tiger’s standard of value is the requirements of its life as set by its nature. And a man’s standard of value is the requirements of his life as set by his nature.

Now, our purpose here is not to examine every nuance of the proof that an organism’s life is its standard of value, nor to address every objection that might be raised to the idea.28 Rather, our purpose is to survey the essential facts that give rise to the principle, to see generally how they anchor it in perceptual reality, and ultimately to see how this principle underlies and gives rise to the principle of rights. Toward that end, we will focus on a few crucial components.

By pursuing the question “Why does man need values?” Rand kept her thinking fact-oriented. If man needs values, then the reason he needs them will go a long way toward establishing which values are legitimate and which are not. If man doesn’t need values, well, then, he doesn’t need them—and there is no point in pursuing the issue at all.29 Rand discovered that man does need values, and the reason he needs them is in order to live. Moral values—values in the realm of human choice—are facts in relation to the requirements of man’s life.

Because we possess free will, we choose our values; thus, we can choose either objectively legitimate, life-serving values (e.g., to pursue a wonderful career, to remain with a worthy spouse, to establish and maintain a civilized society)—or objectively illegitimate, life-thwarting values (e.g., to shoot heroin, to stay with an abusive spouse, or to advocate communism or sharia). But whatever our choices, these facts remain: The only reason we can pursue values is because we are alive, and the only reason we need to pursue values is in order to live. This observation-based, two-pronged principle is essential to understanding how morality—and, in turn, the principle of rights—is grounded in the immutable facts of reality: Only life makes values possible, and only life makes values necessary. Or: We have to be alive in order to pursue values, and we have to pursue values in order to stay alive.

These are metaphysically given facts—facts about the fundamental nature of reality, about how the world is regardless of what anyone hopes, feels, prays, or chooses. And they give rise to a crucial epistemological principle—a principle pertaining to the correct and incorrect use of the concept of “value.” Quoting Rand:

Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself: a value gained and kept by a constant process of action. Epistemologically, the concept of “value” is genetically dependent upon and derived from the antecedent concept of “life.” To speak of “value” as apart from “life” is worse than a contradiction in terms. “It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible.”30

The reason that to speak of value as apart from life is worse than a contradiction in terms is that to do so is to tear the concept of value away from its conceptual foundation—the foundation on which it hierarchically depends and in relation to which it has objective meaning. Ripped away from the concept of life, the concept of value has no grounding in reality; it is severed from its factual base and thus amounts to a subjective utterance. To speak of value as apart from life is to commit what Rand called “the fallacy of concept stealing,” which consists in using a concept while ignoring or denying a more fundamental concept on which it logically depends.31

The concept of value is rooted in the concept of life. Value means “that toward which a living thing acts.” And moral value—value proper to human beings—means “that toward which a person acts in accordance with the requirements of human life.”

Rand further observed that because human beings are individuals—each with his own body, his own mind, his own life—this standard applies to human beings as individuals. Man’s life is the standard of moral value—and each individual’s own life is his own ultimate value. Each individual is morally an end in himself—not a means to the ends of others.32 The moral principle here is egoism.

Egoism is the recognition of the fact that each individual should act to promote his own life and is the proper beneficiary of his own moral action.33 The validity of this principle is implicit in the very nature of values. A value is the object of an action taken by a living organism to sustain and further its life. Again, the fact that people can choose antilife values doesn’t change the roots of the concept of value or the fact that the only demonstrably legitimate values are those that promote one’s life.

Importantly, egoism (properly understood) is not hedonism or subjectivism; it does not hold “pleasure” or “feelings” as the standard of value. A person may find pleasure in actions that are not good for his life; for instance, a ballerina might enjoy eating lots of cake and ice cream, but if doing so causes her to gain too much weight, it will ruin her career as a ballerina. Likewise, a person may feel like doing something that is not good for his life; for instance, a salesman might feel like sleeping in one morning, but if doing so means missing a crucial meeting and losing a major customer, it is not in his best interest to do so.

Looking at reality, Rand saw that although experiencing pleasure—and, more broadly, achieving happiness—are crucial aspects of human life, they are not and cannot be the standard of moral value. “Happiness,” observed Rand, “can properly be the purpose of ethics, but not the standard. The task of ethics is to define man’s proper code of values and thus to give him the means of achieving happiness.” She elaborated on the relationship as follows:

The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. To hold one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement. Existentially, the activity of pursuing rational goals is the activity of maintaining one’s life; psychologically, its result, reward and concomitant is an emotional state of happiness. . . .

But the relationship of cause to effect cannot be reversed. It is only by accepting “man’s life” as one’s primary and by pursuing the rational values it requires that one can achieve happiness—not by taking “happiness” as some undefined, irreducible primary and then attempting to live by its guidance. If you achieve that which is the good by a rational standard of value, it will necessarily make you happy; but that which makes you happy, by some undefined emotional standard, is not necessarily the good.34

On the basis of such observations, Rand arrived at and validated the dual principle that man’s life is the objective standard of moral value, and the achievement of happiness is the moral purpose of each individual’s life.

This brings us to the question: How can we know which actions will serve our life and happiness? What must we do to live and prosper? To answer this question, Rand again looked at reality and formulated principles on the basis of observation.

Rand saw that man, like all living things, has a means of survival. Whereas plants survive by means of an automatic vegetative process (photosynthesis), and whereas animals survive by means of automatic instinctive processes (hunting, fleeing, nest-building, etc.), man survives by volitional means—by choosing to use his mind to identify and pursue the requirements of his life.

While the choice of whether to use one’s mind is up to the individual (one can choose to exert mental effort or not to do so), the basic requirements of man’s life are set by his nature. They are metaphysically given facts. We need food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and other material goods in order to live and prosper. We also need self-confidence, personal goals, romantic love, and other spiritual values in order to thrive. More fundamentally, we need knowledge of such needs and knowledge of how to acquire them. So the question becomes: What must we do to gain such knowledge and acquire such values?

Rand observed that first and foremost we must use reason, the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses. Reason is our means of understanding the world, ourselves, and our needs; thus, if we want to gain such understanding, we must use it; we must observe reality and think.

Man cannot survive, as animals do, by the guidance of mere percepts. A sensation of hunger will tell him that he needs food (if he has learned to identify it as “hunger”), but it will not tell him how to obtain his food and it will not tell him what food is good for him or poisonous. He cannot provide for his simplest physical needs without a process of thought. He needs a process of thought to discover how to plant and grow his food or how to make weapons for hunting. His percepts might lead him to a cave, if one is available—but to build the simplest shelter, he needs a process of thought. No percepts and no “instincts” will tell him how to light a fire, how to weave cloth, how to forge tools, how to make a wheel, how to make an airplane, how to perform an appendectomy, how to produce an electric light bulb or an electronic tube or a cyclotron or a box of matches. Yet his life depends on such knowledge—and only a volitional act of his consciousness, a process of thought, can provide it.35

And reason is not only our means of gaining knowledge of our physical needs; it is also our means of gaining knowledge of our spiritual needs. It is by means of reason that we learn what self-confidence is, why we need it, and how to gain it; the importance of long-range goals, which ones will serve our life and happiness, and which ones will not; the nature of love, and how to build and maintain a wonderful romantic relationship; and so on. We are not born with any such knowledge; if and to the extent that we gain it, we do so by means of reason.

On the basis of such observations, Rand identified reason as our fundamental means of living, our basic life-serving value, and thus our basic moral value. If we want to live and prosper, we must use reason: We must observe reality and think; we must integrate our observations into concepts, generalizations, and principles that correspond to reality; and we must act accordingly.

Here again is the action thread, but now with another element folded in: Whereas all living things must act in order to live, human beings must act rationally. This does not mean we must always be correct or never make errors—that would be an impossible standard. We are neither omniscient nor infallible; our knowledge is limited to whatever we have learned at any given time, and we can err in our thought processes, conclusions, and judgments. This, however, is not a problem, because we can always gain additional knowledge or correct errors by applying or reapplying reason—by looking at reality, integrating our observations into concepts and generalizations, and checking for contradictions in our thinking.

The moral principle is: If we are to live and prosper, we must always act on our rational judgment—our basic means of living.36 And this brings us to the question: What can stop us from acting on our judgment?

Looking at reality, Rand observed that the only thing that can stop a person from acting on his judgment is other people; and the only way they can stop him is by means of physical force.37 To see this vividly, suppose you are alone on an island. What can stop you from acting on your judgment? Nothing can. If you decide that you should go fishing or pick some berries or build a shelter, you are free to do so. But suppose another person rows up to the island, hops off his boat, and ties you to a tree. Clearly, you are no longer free to act on your judgment. If you had planned to go fishing, you can’t go. If you had planned to build a shelter, you can’t build it. Whatever your plans were, they are now ruined, and, if you are not freed from bondage, you will soon die.

The brute’s force has come between your thinking and your acting, between your planning and your doing. You can no longer act on your judgment; you can no longer act as your life requires; you can no longer live as a human being. Of course, the brute could feed you and keep you breathing; but a “life” of bondage is not a human life. A human life is a life guided by the judgment of one’s mind.

In order to live as a human being, a person must be able to act on his own judgment; the only thing that can stop him from doing so is other people; and the only way they can stop him is by means of physical force.

This principle holds regardless of location, regardless of the kind of force used (a gun to the head, fraud, the threat of incarceration, etc.), regardless of who uses the force (an individual, a group, or a government), and regardless of the extent to which force is used. A few examples will bear this out.

Suppose a woman is walking to the store intent on using her money to buy groceries, and a thug jumps out from an alley, puts a gun to her head, and says, “Give me your purse or die.” Now the woman can’t act according to her plan. Either she is going to give her purse to the thief, or she is going to get shot in the head. Either way, she’s not going grocery shopping. If she hands her purse to the thief, and if he flees without shooting her, she can resume acting on her judgment—but, importantly, not with respect to the stolen money. Although the thief is gone, the effect of his force remains. By keeping the woman’s money, he continues to prevent her from spending it, and, to that extent, he continues to stop her from acting on her judgment. This ongoing force does not thwart her life totally, but it does thwart her life partially: If she had her money, she would either spend it or save it; but because the thief has her money, she can do neither. She cannot use her money as she chooses, and her life is, to that extent, retarded.

To whatever degree physical force is used against a person, it impedes his ability to act on his judgment, his basic means of living.

Take another example. Suppose a man reads an advertisement for a used car and goes to check it out. The owner assures the man that the car’s odometer reading is correct; this, however, is not true, and the owner knows it because he turned back the mileage himself. As far as the man can tell, though, the owner is being honest, and everything seems to be in order; so he buys the car and drives it away. But notice that the man is not driving the car he bargained for; he is not driving the car he was willing to buy. Unbeknownst to him, he is driving a different car—one with higher mileage than the one for which he was willing to pay. By lying to the man about the car’s mileage and by selling it to him on the basis of that false information, the crook has defrauded the man. Because the man’s willingness to exchange his money for the car was based partly on the crook’s lie, the crook has gained and is now keeping the man’s money against his will. In so doing, the crook is physically forcing the man to act against his judgment. By fraudulently taking and keeping the man’s money, the crook is physically preventing him from spending or saving it as he otherwise would.

Fraud, the act of gaining or keeping someone’s property by means of deception, is a form of indirect physical force. It is physical force, because, although indirect, it physically impedes the victim’s ability to act fully on his judgment. Other types of indirect physical force include extortion, the act of gaining or keeping someone’s property by distant threat of force; copyright and patent infringements, acts of misusing someone’s intellectual property (and thus impinging on his ability to act on it); slander, the act of making false statements that damage a person’s reputation (and thereby retarding his ability to act on it); unilateral breach of contract, the act of refusing to deliver goods or services one has agreed to deliver; and so forth. In all such cases, although the force is indirect, it is still physical: When and to the degree it is used, it physically prevents the victim from acting according to his judgment.

Whether direct or indirect, physical force used against a person stops him from living fully as a human being: To the extent it is used, it prevents him from employing his means of survival—the judgment of his mind.

Importantly, lone thugs and crooks are not the only perpetrators of physical force; nor are they the most dangerous. As history makes clear, the most dangerous agents of force, by far, are governments. “A government,” observed Rand, “holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force.”

No individual or private group or private organization has the legal power to initiate the use of physical force against other individuals or groups and to compel them to act against their own voluntary choice. Only a government holds that power. The nature of governmental action is: coercive action. The nature of political power is: the power to force obedience under threat of physical injury—the threat of property expropriation, imprisonment, or death.38

Everyone today knows that governments such as Nazi, communist, and theocratic regimes have tortured, slaughtered, and otherwise ruined the lives of hundreds of millions of people (and counting). A person forced by a government into a eugenics lab or a concentration camp cannot live as a human being, because he cannot act on the judgment of his mind. A person forced by a government to become a farmer or a dancer or a physicist cannot live as a human being, because he cannot act on his judgment. And a woman forced by a government to wear a burka or to stay with her husband or to stay at home cannot live as a human being, because she cannot act on hers.

But governments can and unfortunately do use physical force against people in subtler, less-obvious ways as well.

Consider, for instance, Anna Tomalis of Clarksville Maryland. In 2004, when Anna was ten years old, she was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer. After surgery and chemotherapy failed to halt the cancer, her doctors told her there was nothing more they could do. So Anna and her parents searched the web and discovered experimental drugs that, in clinical trials, had extended the lives of patients with the same kind of cancer. Anna and her parents were relieved: In their judgment, these experimental drugs were worth the risks involved in her taking them.

But the U.S. government forbade the dying girl to take the drugs because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hadn’t approved them. Asked in an interview what she thought about this situation, Anna replied: “I know there are other drugs out there for me. I’m not happy with it. I don’t think it’s right.” Anna’s mother pleaded with Congress to pass a proposed bill that would have enabled Anna to take the drugs: “Please help her. She wants to survive.”39 But Congress did not pass the bill.

Anna wrote to the FDA requesting a “compassionate-use exemption,” which, if granted, would permit her to take the drugs. But the FDA bureaucrats took their time. Months passed before they reviewed Anna’s request and granted her permission. By then it was too late. Although the drugs might have saved or extended Anna’s life if she had been free to take them earlier, at this point the cancer had spread too far, and the drugs could not stop it. After receiving only one round of treatment, she died of the disease. She was then thirteen.

The issue of people being forced to act against their judgment is a matter of life and death. In some cases, such force results in a subhuman existence. In other cases, it means going out of existence. In all cases, it thwarts people’s basic means of living and thus stops them from living fully as human beings.

Consider a few more of the countless instances of force used against Americans on a daily basis. We are saddled with laws that force everyone to purchase health insurance (ObamaCare), laws that force bankers to lend money to people they deem un-creditworthy (Community Reinvestment Act), laws that force citizens to bail out bankers who go bankrupt (TARP), laws that force homeowners to hand over their property for the “greater good” (eminent domain), laws that forbid businessmen from merging their companies (antitrust), laws that forbid couriers from delivering mail (postal monopoly), laws that force people to pay for the education of other people’s children (government-run schools), laws that force younger Americans to pay for the health care and retirement of older Americans (Medicare and Social Security), laws that force students to “volunteer” in their communities, laws that forbid employers and employees from contracting in accordance with their own judgment (minimum wage laws), laws that force automakers to “contract” with labor unions on terms that are detrimental to their businesses (National Labor Relations Act)—and on and on. In all such cases, people are forced to act against their own judgment—against their basic means of living; thus they are unable to live fully as human beings.

Of course, people can remain alive under these kinds and degrees of force; but insofar as any force is used against them, they cannot live fully as human beings. A human life is a life guided by the judgment of one’s mind.

On the basis of such observations, Ayn Rand established the objective, fact-based case for individual rights.

Ayn Rand’s Observation-Based Principle of Rights

Rand reasoned that because man’s life is the standard of moral value, because each person should act to sustain and further his own life, and because physical force used against a person stops him from acting on his basic means of living, we need a moral principle to protect ourselves from people and governments that attempt to use force against us. That principle involves the concept of rights.

“Rights” are a moral concept—the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others—the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context—the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.40

The moral law that Rand speaks of here is the principle of egoism—the observation-based moral truth that each individual should act to promote his own life and is the proper beneficiary of his own actions. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to the truth of egoism.

A “right,” Rand continues, “is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.”41 Again, the key word is action. Just as on the personal level we need principles of action to guide us in pursuing our life-serving values, so on the social level we need principles of interaction to protect us from those who attempt to interfere with our plans. And just as our ultimate value is our own life, so our fundamental right is our right to our own life.

There is only one fundamental right (all others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)42

Note Rand’s reference to the observable fact that life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. Again, this is a metaphysically given fact; it’s the way the world is, regardless of what anyone hopes, feels, prays, or does. Life depends on such action—and human life depends on rational action, action in accordance with one’s own judgment. Because each individual’s life requires self-generated, goal-directed action in accordance with his own judgment, each individual morally must be left free to act on his own judgment—and each individual morally must leave others free to act on theirs.

Rand further observed that because a right is a sanction to action, it is not and cannot be a sanction to be given goods or services. If a person had a “right” to be given food, or a house, or medical care, or an education, or the like, that would imply that other people must be forced to provide him with these goods or services. It would mean that some people must produce while others dispose of their product. As Rand put it: “The man who produces while others dispose of his product is a slave.”

If some men are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor. Any alleged “right” of one man which necessitates the violation of the rights of another, is not and cannot be a right. No man can have a right to impose an unchosen obligation, an unwarranted duty or an involuntary servitude on another man. There can be no such thing as “the right to enslave.”43

The North fought (and thankfully won) a vital war against the South on the principle that there can be no such thing as the right to enslave. Rand made explicit the fundamental reason this principle is true. The reason each individual’s life should legally belong to him is that each individual’s life does in fact morally belong to him. Each individual is morally an end in himself—not a means to the ends of others. Each individual has a moral right to act on his own judgment for his own sake—and to keep, use, and dispose of the product of his effort—so long as he respects the same right of others.

This brings us to the question: What binds a person to respect the rights of others? Again, Rand’s answer is derived from observable facts—many of which we have seen in this essay (and others of which may be seen in a fleshed-out presentation of the morality of egoism).

In essence, what obligates a person to respect the rights of others is his own self-interest. If a person wants to live and be happy, he must recognize and respect the metaphysically given facts of reality (e.g., the fact that everything, including man, has a specific nature), the nature of man (i.e., the kind of being he is), the basic requirements of human life and happiness (e.g., reason, short- and long-term goals, self-esteem), and the social conditions that make peaceful human coexistence possible (e.g., individual rights, freedom, the rule of law).

Granted, although this truth is based on observation and logic, it is nevertheless highly abstract; to grasp it one must exert substantial mental effort—and not everyone will choose to exert that effort. But the abstract nature of a truth does not alter its truth. Just as the abstract nature of the principles of physics and biology does not change the fact that those principles are true, so, too, the abstract nature of the principles of morality does not change the fact that these principles are true. Just as driving one’s car off a cliff or failing to treat one’s cancer will have a negative effect on one’s life regardless of whether one understands the principles involved there, so, too, being irrational or violating rights will have a negative effect on one’s life regardless of whether one understands the principles here.

Violating rights does not and cannot lead to happiness; it necessarily retards one’s life, leads to unhappiness, and may lead to incarceration or premature death. The evidence of this is all around us: from the “life and happiness” of Bernie Madoff (Wall Street Ponzi-schemer) to that of John Gotti (Mafia “boss”), from the “life and happiness” of Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City bomber) to that of Dillon Klebold and Eric Harris (Columbine murderers), from the “life and happiness” of Bashar al-Assad and Mu‘ammar Gadhafi to that of sundry swindlers and petty thieves who must constantly worry about being caught, who know that they have chosen to survive not as rational producers but as pathetic parasites on such producers, and whose lives and souls are correspondingly damaged. Protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, these are not happy people.

But even if rights-violators could fool themselves into believing that they are happy (which they can’t), the fact remains that by violating the rights of others, they thereby relinquish some or all of their own rights; and rights-respecting people and governments morally may deal with them accordingly. (Rand’s views on the nature and need of government and on the proper application of the principle of rights to the various areas of social and political life are a subject for another day. Our concern in this essay is limited to her derivation of and the essential meaning of the principle of rights.)

Respecting the rights of others, observed Rand, “is an obligation imposed, not by the state, but by the nature of reality”; it is a matter of “consistency, which, in this case, means the obligation to respect the rights of others, if one wishes one’s own rights to be recognized and protected.”44 A person cannot rationally claim the protection of a principle that he repudiates in action.

* * *

We have seen the essential elements of Rand’s observation-based derivation of the principle of individual rights: the truth that each individual morally must be left free to act on his own judgment, so long as he does not violate the same right of others. This principle does not come from God or from government; nor is it self-evident or “inherent” in man’s nature. Rather, it is derived from observation and logic. It is discovered and formulated by looking at reality—focusing on relevant facts about the nature of values, the requirements of life, the nature of man, the propriety of egoism, the value of reason, man’s need to act on his judgment, and the antilife nature of physical force—all the while integrating one’s observations into concepts, generalizations, and moral principles. This is what Rand did. And this is why her theory is true.

Importantly, Rand’s theory does not (as some people mistakenly believe) fall into the category of “natural rights” theory. Hers is a different theory altogether. First, whereas natural rights theory holds that rights are moral laws emanating from “super-nature” (i.e., “God”), Rand showed that rights are moral principles derived from actual nature. On that count, if “natural rights” theory did not have a long history of actually being God-given rights theory, it might have been appropriate to categorize Rand’s theory as one of natural rights. But natural rights theory does have that problematic history; thus it is improper to include Rand’s theory in that category.45

Second, “natural rights” theory holds that rights are “inherent” in man’s nature—meaning, “inborn” and a part of man by virtue of the fact that he is man. But rights are not inherent or inborn46—which is why (a) there is no evidence to suggest that they are, and (b) belief that they are is mocked as “one with belief in witches and unicorns.”

Rand’s theory holds not that rights are “inherent,” but that they are objective—not that they are “inborn,” but that they are conceptual identifications of the factual requirements of human life in a social context. Her theory is, as this essay has endeavored to show, demonstrably true.

Unfortunately, although Rand’s theory is demonstrably true, and although it solves the problems that are inherent in the traditional theories, few people today are willing to recognize and embrace it. Because our culture is steeped in the notion that self-interest is evil—and because Rand’s theory is based on the fact that self-interest is good—many people, even upon reading or hearing Rand’s argument, will ignore or deny it and continue clinging to the old saw that rights come from “God” or are somehow “inherent” in human nature. But ignoring or denying Rand’s proof cannot change the fact that real rights—defensible rights—hierarchically depend on and are indeed logical extensions of egoism.

Whereas the principle of egoism is the recognition of the fact that each person should act to promote his life and is the proper beneficiary of his own life-serving actions, the principle of rights is the recognition of the fact that in order for a person to uphold the principle of egoism, he must be free to act on his judgment. The former principle gives rise to the latter.

Just as the concept of life makes the concept of value both possible and necessary, so too the principle of egoism makes the principle of rights both possible and necessary. And just as to speak of value as apart from life is worse than a contradiction in terms, so to speak of rights as apart from egoism is worse than a contradiction in terms—and for the same reason. “Rights” torn from their foundation in egoism are not rights but stolen concepts—concepts lifted from the foundation that gives rise to them, the foundation that connects them to reality, the foundation on which they hierarchically depend and in which they have objective meaning.

People are free to use words as they wish, but they are not free to wish away facts. Apart from egoism, rights simply have no foundation in reality.

We who want to defend man’s rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness—we who want to live fully as human beings—must embrace and advocate the underlying ideas that support and give rise to the principle of rights. We must embrace and advocate Rand’s demonstrably true theory of rights.


Acknowledgment: I wish to thank Alan Germani for his helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this essay.

1 Sarah Palin’s speech at the Win America Back Conference, Independence, MO, May 1, 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLcQnvpamZU.

2 Rush Limbaugh, “The Smallest Minority on Earth,” March 31, 2009, http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/home/daily/site_033109/content/01125110.guest.html.

3 Newt Gingrich, “A Conservative Plan for Victory,” Front Page Magazine, April 6, 2005, http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=17624.

4 “A Moment of Silence For Glenn Beck and James Dobson,” January 26, 2009, http://malcantro.newsvine.com/_news/2009/01/26/2354412-a-moment-of-silence-for-glenn-beck-and-james-dobson.

5 E. J. Dionne Jr., “The Price of Liberty,” Washington Post, April 15, 2003, http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A26667-2003Apr14&notFound=true.

6 Stephen Holmes and Cass R. Sunstein, The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), p. 17.

7 Quoted in Sidney Hook, The Paradoxes of Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962), p. 8.

8 The phrases “civil rights,” “procedural rights,” “legal rights,” and the like properly include qualifiers in recognition of the fact that the concept of “rights” proper is a moral concept.

9 John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690), chap. 2, sec. 6, http://www.constitution.org/jl/2ndtr02.htm.

10 Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, June 12, 1823, in Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery (Washington, DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1905), http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s67.html.

11 Thomas Jefferson, Opinion on French Treaties, 1793, TeachingAmericanHistory.org, http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=623.

12 First Draft of the Declaration of Independence, Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Princeton University, http://www.princeton.edu/~tjpapers/declaration/declaration.html; letter to Major John Cartwright, June 5, 1824, Letters of Thomas Jefferson, University of Virginia Library, http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=JefLett.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=276&division=div1.

13 Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774, in Writings of Thomas Jefferson, http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch14s10.html.

14 Locke, Second Treatise, chap. 2, sec. 6.

15 This meaning is corroborated throughout Locke’s writing, including in his definition of natural law as “the command of the divine will, knowable by the light of nature, indicating what is and is not consonant with a rational nature, and by that very fact commanding or prohibiting.” (Questions Concerning the Law of Nature [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2nd ed., 2008], p. 101.)

16 Jefferson, Opinion on French Treaties.

17 Thomas Jefferson, legal argument in the case of Howell vs. Netherland 2, 1770, in the Works of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1, federal ed. (New York and London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904–5), http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=800&chapter=85803&layout=html&Itemid=27.

18 The Works of Alexander Hamilton: Miscellanies, 1774–1789, Vol. 2,edited by John C. Hamilton (New York: John F. Trow, 1854), p. 43.

19 Quoted in Scott Douglas Gerber, To Secure These Rights: The Declaration of Independence and Constitutional Interpretation (New York: NYU Press, 1996), p. 106.

20 John Adams, Papers of John Adams, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), p. 112.

21 Ayn Rand, “Conservatism: An Obituary,” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967), p. 197.

22 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), pp. 68–70.

23 For elaboration, see Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964); Craig Biddle, Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Richmond: Glen Allen Press, 2002); Tara Smith, Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000); Tara Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

24 Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 13.

25 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 16.

26 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 16.

27 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 16.

28 For a fuller discussion of this derivation, see Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness; Biddle, Loving Life; and Smith, Viable Values.

29 This question, incidentally, slashes away the entire duty-based approach to ethics that Immanuel Kant and company advocate. If man needs values, then he must need them for some life-serving purpose. What else could “need” mean? If man doesn’t need values, then there is no point in telling him which code of values he should adopt.

30 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 18.

31 Cf. Ayn Rand, “Philosophical Detection,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1984), p. 22, footnote.

32 See Ayn Rand, “Introducing Objectivism,” in The Voice of Reason (New York: Meridian, 1990), p. 4.

33 See Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991), pp. 229–30.

34 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” pp. 32–33.

35 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” pp. 22–23.

36 Of course, a person can act irrationally on occasion and still remain alive. But such actions are nevertheless contrary to the requirements of his life; they do not advance it; they retard, stifle, or thwart it to some extent. For instance, one can shoot heroin into one’s veins occasionally and not die immediately, but, unless there is some genuine medicinal value in doing so, the drug will have a negative effect on one’s life. Likewise, one can fail to exert the effort necessary to achieve the career or the lifestyle one wants, but then one will not thrive to the extent that one could have if one had exerted the effort.

37 Cf. Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1963), p. 134.

38 Ayn Rand, “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business,” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967), p. 46.

39 Rob Hotakainen, “In the Face of Death: Terminally Ill Patients Want Quicker Access to Experimental Drugs,” Boulder Weekly, May 29, 2008, http://boulderweekly.com/archives/20080529/onlineexclusivebandofsisters.html.

40 Ayn Rand, “Man’s Rights,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 108.

41 Rand, “Man’s Rights,” p. 110.

42 Rand, “Man’s Rights,” p. 110.

43 Rand, “Man’s Rights,” p. 113.

44 Ayn Rand, “The Wreckage of the Consensus,” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 227.

45 Some natural rights theorists have claimed that natural moral law—and thus natural rights—are inherent in reality apart from or regardless of God’s existence. For instance, Hugo Grotius, the 17th-century Dutch Jurist, who influenced Locke, wrote that natural moral law “would have a degree of validity even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to him.” But, to my knowledge, neither Grotius nor anyone else (with the exception of Ayn Rand) has ever shown what these natural moral laws are, proven their specific content, or demonstrated how they give rise to rights.

46 And it’s a good thing that rights are not inherent. If rights were somehow inherent in man by virtue of his being man, then we could never punish people who violate rights—because using retaliatory force against them would violate the “rights” that they “inherently” have and that they thus always retain by virtue of being human. Because Rand’s theory is based on and derived from the observable requirements of man’s life, it is not afflicted with contradictions regarding those requirements. On Rand’s theory, rights are inalienable, in that others cannot take away or nullify one’s rights; but they are also forfeitable, in that one can relinquish one’s own rights by violating the rights of others. If and to the extent that a person violates the rights of others, he relinquishes his own rights and may be punished accordingly. His choice to violate rights places him outside the purpose of the principle and thus the scope of its protection. Again, one cannot claim the protection of a principle that one repudiates in action.

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