As I’ve shown in various articles as well as in Loving Life, and as Ayn Rand illustrated in myriad articles and books before me, a social system that recognizes and protects individual rights thereby legalizes the practice of egoism. To defend the former, we must embrace the latter. Here, I’d like to discuss another angle on this vital integration by considering man’s basic rights and how they relate to specific principles of egoism.
The Right to Life and the Purpose of Action
What is the right to life? It’s the moral prerogative to act as necessary to live as a human being; to sustain and further one’s life; to flourish in accordance with one’s abilities, efforts, and achievements. Why do we have this right? We have it because the moral purpose of human action is to sustain and further one’s life.
Life is a process of self-generated, goal-directed action. In order to live and flourish, we must take certain actions—we must think, plan, produce, consume, trade, relax, sleep, exercise, and engage in countless related activities. And, importantly, in order to take such action, we must be free to do so.
If the state throws you into a forced-labor camp (e.g., see socialist Venezuela today), you cannot live as a human being; you cannot act as your life requires. Under such conditions, you might remain alive for a while as a slave of the state, but you cannot live a human life. You cannot choose your goals, pursue them as you see fit, or design your life in the image of your values. Your “life” in the forced-labor camp is limited to what the state permits or demands.
And force comes in degrees. Suppose the state applies even greater force. Suppose it throws you into a gas chamber and pumps in hydrogen cyanide (as the National Socialists did to Jews). Then you can’t remain alive at all. The greater the degree of force used against you, the further you will be from the possibility of living a human life.
In order to live a (fully) human life, you must be (fully) free to act as your life requires. The right to life corresponds to and derives from the most basic principle of rational egoism: the fact that the proper purpose of human action and of the principles that guide it is to sustain and further one’s life.
Because we must act in accordance with the requirements of our life in order to live—and because living is the proper purpose of moral action—human beings morally must be free to act as their life requires, so long as they do not violate the same right of others.
The Right to Liberty and the Virtue of Rationality
What is the right to liberty? It is the moral prerogative to act on one’s own judgment, free from physical force initiated by other people or the state. Why do we have this right? We have it because acting on our own judgment is a basic requirement of our life, and because to the extent that force is used against us, it stops us from acting on our judgment.
If you are walking to the store to buy groceries and someone puts a gun to your head and says, “Give me your wallet,” you cannot act in accordance with your judgment; you must do as he says or die. Likewise, if you want to open a school for girls, but the local theocracy forbids girls to receive an education (e.g., see Afghanistan today), then you cannot act as you see fit; you must refrain from opening the school or suffer the consequences (e.g., fines, jail, death).
The right to liberty corresponds to and derives from the fact that one’s own judgment is one’s basic means of living. You have a right to liberty because thinking and acting in accordance with your own best judgment—that is, enacting the virtue of rationality—is essential to your life as a human being.
In order to live and flourish, you must think and act rationally; thus, you morally must be free to do so. The right to liberty enables the virtue of rationality and the fruits thereof—and that is the very purpose of the right. That’s why it exists. Of course, the right to liberty also enables the vice of irrationality—so long as that irrationality does not involve the violation of rights. But this is beside the point here. The point here is that the purpose of the right to liberty is to enable people to act on their judgment so that they can live. Only when the right to liberty is fully recognized and protected can people act fully in accordance with their rational judgment and thus live fully as human beings.
The Right to Property and the Virtue of Productiveness
What is the right to property? It is the right to keep, use, and dispose of the product of one’s effort. Why do we have this right? We have it because keeping, using, and disposing of the goods we produce is essential to our life: In order to live, we must produce goods and either consume them or trade them for other goods we need. And in order to do so, we must be free to do so.
If a person or a government forcibly stops you from producing goods or consuming or using the goods you produce, then you cannot live. If he or it permits you to produce but only to keep or use just enough of your product to survive and takes the rest for himself or others (as slaveholders did in the antebellum South), then you may be able to survive for a while as a slave; but you cannot live as a human being. If he or it permits you to use or consume some portion more of the product of your effort than that slave-level portion—but still not all of it (as is the case in the United States today)—then you might survive as a serf or even enjoy a substantially better situation as a subject of the state. But only when you are free to keep, use, and dispose of all of the product of your effort can you live fully as a human being.
The right to property corresponds to and derives from the virtue of productiveness. You have a right to property because producing goods and using or trading them is essential to your life as a human being. In order to live, you must produce, use, and consume the values on which your life depends; thus, you morally must be free to do so.
The right to property enables the virtue of productiveness and the fruits thereof—and this is the very purpose of the right. This is why the right exists.
The Pursuit of Happiness and the Virtue of Selfishness
The right to the pursuit of happiness is the moral prerogative to seek the goals and values of one’s own choosing. Why do we have this right? We have it because pursuing the goals and values of our own choosing is essential to living and flourishing—and because the moral purpose of each individual’s life is to live and flourish.
If a person or a government forcibly forbids you to choose and pursue your career, your lover, your recreational activities, or the like (e.g., see any socialist or theocratic state), then you cannot live and flourish. If he or it permits you to make some such decisions but not all (e.g., see America today), then you cannot live and flourish fully. Again, force comes in degrees, and the degrees make a difference. But all degrees of force used against a person throttle his ability to live a fully human life. A human life is a life guided by the judgment of one’s own mind.
The right to the pursuit of happiness corresponds to and derives from the overarching principle of egoism: the truth that each individual should pursue his own life-serving values, is the proper beneficiary of his own moral actions, and morally must respect the rights of others to pursue their values and to benefit from their actions. This truth may or may not be explicitly acknowledged by any given advocate of the right to the pursuit of happiness. But the principle of egoism is the reason for the existence of the right. It’s what makes the right both possible and necessary.
Because we must act in a rationally self-interested manner in order to make the most of our life and achieve the greatest happiness possible, we morally must be free to seek the goals and values of our own choosing, so long as we do not violate the same right of others. The right to the pursuit of happiness is the right to the enactment of egoism.
As with the right to liberty, this right enables vice as well—so long as the vice in question does not involve the violation of rights. But, here again, that is beside the point. The point here is that the right to the pursuit of happiness enables the practice of egoism—and this is the very reason the right exists.
In sum, the basic rights that human beings possess—the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness—correspond to and derive from principles of egoism. This is yet another example of why, in order to defend the social system that recognizes and protects rights (i.e., capitalism), we must embrace and advocate the morality that system fully legalizes: egoism.
- Capitalism and the Moral High Ground
- Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights: The Moral Foundation of a Free Society
- Why Religious Conservatives Should Embrace Secular Rights
- Basic Moral Theories Essentialized
- The Creed of Sacrifice vs. The Land of Liberty