The Existence of Rights

For a long time, I secretly worried that there was a fatal flaw in my world view. Most of my conclusions are based on the assumption that rights are an intrinsic part of every person, but how can I possibly know that or hope to prove it to anyone else if they ask? Do rights even exist, really?

Someone other than me realized this too and called attention to it, which forced me to finally deal with it. The argument goes like this:

Natural rights do not exist because there is no objective way to measure or test them. Attempts to prove that such rights exists can only take the form of attempts to convince others to share that belief.

Before I get into it, I'd like to point out that our rights are often put aside in the name of some supposed "obligation to society" which, using the above criteria, doesn't exist either. (Nor does love, hate, or life itself for that matter.) So this would be a poor choice of argument if you're trying to explain away rights in an effort to sell socialism.

On the existence of rights, I won't go as far as saying it can't be proven, but I will admit that I haven't found a way to prove it… yet. So I must also admit it's possible that the foundation of my world-view doesn't even exist. Well, that sucks, but it's not the end of the discussion. In thinking about this, it occurred to me that in practice, it makes no difference whether rights exist or not.

What matters in practice is who has the exclusive authority to make the decisions in a person's life, or who "owns" a person. So, who owns you? It can't be your parents. Who owns you when they die? Who owns them? What if you've never even met them? No, that makes no sense. It can't be the government either. There are many governments and they come and go. Who had the authority to make personal decisions before governments were organized in the first place? And who owns you when you travel? The government in your home country or the government in your current location? And on what basis? No, that doesn't make sense either.

Another possibility is that you own yourself. You have the exclusive authority to make personal decisions in your own life. If this is true, the conclusions we reach about how to treat people in practice are indistinguishable from the conclusions that would result from natural rights. Unlike parents or governments, there isn't a single argument against the idea that each person owns himself. I won't pretend this is proof that you own yourself, but all other possibilities are quite easily eliminated, so it's looking pretty good. Based on the information we have, we have to proceed as though each individual has exclusive control of himself. To put it another way, we have to proceed as though each individual has rights.

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