Conservatives, like the Founders of America, substantially recognize the need for objective rights—rights derived not from governments but from immutable facts—rights people possess prior to the existence of governments—rights governments are properly formed to protect. And conservatives acknowledge that the leftist notion that rights come from governments implies that governments can dispose of said “rights” when and as they see fit (e.g., “We’re going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good” —Hillary Clinton). Conservatives understand that in order to defend rights against the left’s assault, we need a conception of rights based on solid ground.
But the widely held and long-asserted conservative idea that rights come from “God” does not fit the bill. And this is why the left is winning—as evidenced by (among other things) the extent to which outright socialists and rights-denying pragmatists are rising in popularity and power.
Although the notion that rights come from God served to establish America, it has not served and cannot serve to sustain America. This is because no matter how many people believe that rights come from God, there is no evidence for such a being, much less evidence that rights somehow emanate from his will.
Since the founding of America, positivists, utilitarians, and “progressives” have taken advantage of this fact. They’ve argued that the idea of “rights anterior to the establishment of government” is “nonsense upon stilts” (Jeremy Bentham), and that the idea of absolute, inalienable rights is “one with witches and unicorns” (Alasdair MacIntyre). Why? Because, they say, there is no evidence to support such rights. Accordingly, they profess, rights 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.” Insofar as rights exist at all, say Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein, they are “granted by the political community” and they exist only to the extent that the legal system protects them.
To defend inalienable rights against the left’s relentless assault, we need an evidence-based, demonstrably true conception of rights. Never has this been clearer than it is today.
If conservatives want to protect rights, to defend liberty, and to save America, they must acknowledge two facts:
- Because there is no evidence for the existence of God, the effort to defend rights by reference to the idea that rights come from God is worse than hopeless—it is disastrous.
- If a secular, evidence-based, demonstrably true foundation for rights exists, advocates of liberty need to understand that foundation and use it in their efforts to defend rights—even if, on a personal level, they want to maintain that rights somehow also come from God.
You’ve heard the social-media cliché, “Pictures or it didn’t happen.” In regard to rights, the fact is: “Proof or you can’t defend them.”
Fortunately for conservatives who truly want to defend rights, proof of their existence exists. And although the proof is complex and was difficult to originate (thanks Ayn Rand for providing that), it is not difficult to understand.
Toward an understanding of the evidence-based case for inalienable rights, consider some key connections between such rights and observable facts. (For a fleshed-out explanation of the secular foundation for rights, see “Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights.”)
The fundamental rights we must defend if we are to preserve liberty and thus America are (not coincidentally) the very rights that the Founders created America to secure:
- The right to life, which is the prerogative to take all the actions necessary to sustain and further one’s life;
- The right to liberty, which is the prerogative to be free from physical force (including indirect force, such as fraud) so that one can act on one’s own judgment;
- The right to property, which is the prerogative to keep and use the products of one’s efforts;
- The right to the pursuit of happiness, which is the prerogative to pursue the goals and values of one’s own choosing.
To see the essential connections between these rights and perceptual reality, we need only ask and answer the question: Why do we need these rights?
Either we need them or we don’t. If we don’t need them, then we don’t need them, and there’s no point in worrying about any of this. If we do need these rights, however, then grasping the reason why we need them will provide us with the essential facts that give rise to them, the facts that anchor them in reality, the facts that make them facts.
We’ll take them in turn.
1. Why do we need the right to life?
Why do we need freedom to act as our life requires? The answer is: in order to live. If we want to live, we must act as our life requires—and in order to do that, we must be free to do so. These are observation-based facts. No faith or belief in God is necessary to grasp them. We need only look at reality and think.
If you don’t act as your life requires—if you don’t think rationally and act accordingly—you will soon die. For instance if you don’t identify the goods that are necessary to support your life and either produce them yourself or produce something to trade with other producers to acquire them, you will not live for long (unless you survive parasitically on the life-serving thoughts and actions of others).
Likewise, if a person or government forcibly stops you from acting as your life requires—for instance, if someone shoots you in the head, or throws you in a concentration camp, or seizes the money you would have used for retirement—you cannot act as your life requires.
There are, of course, degrees of force and thus degrees to which your life can be throttled by force. Being shot in the head is an extreme instance, which most likely would end your life. Being thrown in a concentration camp is a slightly lesser degree of force, which might leave you alive for some time even though it renders you unable to live a human life. And having your retirement savings stolen is a substantially lesser degree of force, which might leave you free to act as your life requires in many other ways, but which nevertheless stops you from doing so with respect to your retirement funds.
So, although force comes in degrees, and although the degrees matter, any degree of force used against a person stops him—to some extent—from acting as his life requires. If and to the extent that people or governments forcibly stop an individual from acting as his life requires, he cannot act as his life requires. No faith and no reference to God is necessary to understand this. It is an observable fact.
The reason we need the right to life is that it is a factual requirement of human life in a social context. To the extent that people or governments use force against you, they stop you from acting as your life requires; thus, they violate your right to life. Having a firm, observation-based grasp of the right to life enables you to know and to say to those who use or attempt to use force against you that they are factually wrong in doing so—and that you (or an agent on your behalf) are objectively warranted in using whatever retaliatory force in necessary to stop the force-wielders from violating your right to life.
Now, a leftist (or an irrationalist of some other stripe) might ask, “Why does it matter whether or not you can live?” And the briefest answer to this bizarre question (if you deign to answer it) is: because if you can’t live, then nothing matters. Life is the fundamental condition that gives rise to the possibility of anything mattering or not mattering. Life is what gives rise to the possibility of any evaluative concepts—whether “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong,” “should” or “shouldn’t,” “matters” or “doesn’t matter.” Such ideas have meaning only in relation to life.
This is why the right to life is the fundamental right: Life is the fundamental condition that gives rise to the need of choices, actions, values, principles, or policies.
These are facts—facts that anyone who chooses to look at reality and think can observe. No faith or belief in God is required. And these and related facts are what give rise to the right to life: the observation-based fact that you should be free to take all the actions necessary to sustain and further your life (so long as you do not violate the same right of others).
2. Why do we need the right to liberty?
Why do we need freedom to act on our judgment? The answer is: because our rational judgment is our basic means of living.
Whether we agree with each other about what constitutes rational judgment in a particular instance, we all can observe that human beings live by means of their rational judgment—that is, by thinking rationally and acting accordingly.
We look both ways before crossing a street, why? —because it’s rational to do so. We don’t try to live on a diet of pizza and ice cream to the exclusion of all other foods, why? —because it would be irrational to do so. We seek sound professional advice if we become seriously ill, why? —because it’s rational to do so. We think about our futures, decide what we want them to be, make plans to achieve our goals, and act accordingly as our judgment dictates, why? —because doing so is rational. And those of us who have children teach them to think before they act, why? —because we know that acting on one’s rational judgment is one’s basic means of living. Such facts are clear to anyone who chooses to observe reality and think.
And just as we can observe the fact that our rational judgment is our basic means of living, so too we can observe the fact that if we are not free to act in accordance with our judgment, we cannot live fully as human beings.
If your rational judgment tells you that you should put your health-care dollars into a savings account for possible medical needs or emergencies in the future—and if the government then forces you to put that money instead toward a government-approved “health care” policy, then you cannot act in accordance with your judgment on this count. You can’t put your money where you think it should go. You can’t act in accordance with your basic means of living: the judgment of your mind. Likewise, if your rational judgment tells you that you should deny that “climate change” is a problem, or that you should speak out against the murderous religion of Islam, or that you should marry your gay lover, or that you should try an experimental drug that might save your life—and if the government forbids you to do so—then you cannot act in accordance with the judgment of your mind.
As human beings, our reasoning mind is our basic means of living. If we are fully free to act on our rational judgment, we are free to live fully as human beings. To the extent that we are not free to act on our judgment—to the extent that other people or governments force us to act in contradiction to our judgment—we cannot live as human beings: We are forced to live as something less, as pieces of property or serfs or subjects of the state.
Again, there are degrees, and the degrees matter. But the fact remains that our basic means of living is our rational judgment, and when we’re forced to act in contradiction to it, we cannot act in accordance with it.
A human life is a life guided by the judgment of one’s own mind. This is why slavery is wrong. It’s why serfdom is wrong. It’s why rape is wrong. And it’s why it is wrong for government to force people to act against their judgment in any way—whether by forcing them to purchase Obamacare, or by forcing them to join the military, or by forcing them to pray, or by forcing them to bake a cake. Forcing people to act against their judgment is factually wrong and properly illegal because it stops people from acting as their life requires. Stated positively: People have a right to act on their judgment (as long as they don’t violate the same rights of others) because acting on their judgment is a factual requirement of their life as human beings.
The right to liberty, like the right to life, is derived from observable facts about the requirements of human life. And everyone who is willing to look at reality and think can see these facts. No faith is necessary. No God is necessary. All that’s needed is observation and logic.
3. Why do we need the right to property?
Why do we need freedom to keep and use the products of our efforts? The answer is: because human beings survive by transforming the raw materials of nature into goods that can sustain and further human life—and then using or consuming those goods. If we are fully free to do this, we can live fully as human beings; to the extent that we are not free to do it, we can’t live as human beings.
In order to live, we convert elements of nature into life-serving values. For instance, we take fish, blueberries, and asparagus from nature, and we transform them into foods that sustain and further our lives. We take trees, clay, and tar from nature and create timber, bricks, and shingles; we then use these products to build homes, factories, and sports stadiums that sustain and enhance our lives. We take iron, aluminum, and nickel from nature and transform them into automobiles, airplanes, and air conditioners—which we then power with fuel we create from petroleum, coal, and natural gas that we extract from the earth. And so on.
In order to live, we must transform raw materials of nature into goods that can support our lives—and we must be free to consume or use them. If people or governments forcibly stop you from keeping or using the products of your effort—whether blueberries or bricks or a business you built—then you cannot use the product of your effort; thus you cannot live fully as a human being.
Here, too, degrees exist and matter. But the existence of degrees doesn’t change the relevant facts—which, in this case, include the fact that forcibly stopping a person from keeping or using the product of his effort is contrary to the requirements of his life as a human being.
If you produce food but are forcibly forbidden to eat it, you will die of starvation. If you produce a shelter but are forcibly forbidden to use it, you will die of exposure. If you produce a bakery but are forcibly forbidden to run it in accordance with your judgment, you might not die from the force, but you cannot live fully as a human being because you cannot act fully on your means of living: the judgment of your mind. These are the kinds of facts and observations that give rise to the right to property. And once these facts are spelled out, anyone who chooses to look at reality and think can see them. Neither faith nor God is necessary.
4. Why do we need the right to the pursuit of happiness?
Why do we need freedom to pursue the values and goals of our choosing? The answer is: because the whole point of life is to pursue the values and goals of one’s choosing.
Life is all about pursuing the values that will fill one’s life with meaning and joy. If we can’t pursue the things that will make us happy, there is no point in living. This is true not only for you and me but for every individual.
Whereas life is what gives rise to the possibility of anything mattering or having value at all, the pursuit of happiness—that is, the individual’s pursuit of the goals and values that matter to him—is the very purpose of life. This is why the Founders sought to protect the right to the pursuit of happiness: Pursuing happiness is what life is all about.
If you want to pursue a career as a musician because you think that will make you happy, but the state forces you to be a tax collector instead because “that’s best for the common good,” then you can’t pursue your happiness. Similarly, if a girl wants to pursue an education because she sees it as essential to her happiness, but the state forbids her to do so because “women shouldn’t be educated,” then she cannot pursue her happiness. Likewise, if a man wants to attend church because he feels that this will make him happy, but the state forbids him to do so because “that’s contrary to the values of the community,” then he cannot pursue his happiness.
Again, the existence of degrees doesn’t change the relevant facts, which in this case include: We need freedom to pursue happiness because we need to pursue happiness in order to live a human life. And we need the right to the pursuit of happiness so that we can know and say to those who forcibly interfere with our pursuits that they are factually wrong in doing so—and that we are objectively warranted in using retaliatory force as necessary to secure our liberty.
What we can see by way of the above (and related) facts and examples is that each of the major rights on which America was founded is ultimately grounded in perceptual facts of reality. The reasons we need these rights are themselves the very facts that give rise to and support these rights. And everyone who is willing to look at reality and think can see this.
Of course, some people are unwilling to look at reality and think. They include leftists, “progressives,” jihadists, and theocrats. But everyone who genuinely cares about liberty and is willing to look at reality and think can see that the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness are based on facts—namely, the factual requirements of human life in a social context.
If conservatives want to maintain belief in God—and even if they want to maintain belief that rights somehow come from God—that is their prerogative. But if conservatives want successfully to defend rights and thus to defend liberty and America, then they must acknowledge that an evidence-free argument for rights is profoundly inferior to an evidence-based argument for rights. They must recognize and embrace the fact that an evidence-based, demonstrably true foundation for rights exists, and that it is essential to the protection of rights.
Given the foregoing, there is no reason for any genuine advocate of liberty not to embrace the secular foundation for rights. And there is a whole world of reasons for all advocates of liberty to embrace it.
The secular foundation for rights is the one thing that can unify and fortify the right against the left. Everyone on the right who cares to defend our rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness must recognize this fact and act accordingly. To fail to do so is to relinquish one’s claim to being on the right.
- Theist Embraces Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights, Urges Others to Do So Too
- George Will: A Conservative “None” in Need of Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights
- George Will Is Thinking in the Right Direction about Rights
- Is Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights Properly Classified as a “Natural Rights” Theory?