Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Absolutely Not Absolute, II: What is a “Right”?


In yesterday’s posting we raised the issue of people who don’t know what they’re talking about when they start pontificating about rights.  There is massive confusion over whether rights are, or are not “absolute.”  There is even a bit of confusion over what, exactly, a “right” is.

So, are rights absolute, or are they not absolute?

"And a good judge, too!"
We can only answer that question by first answering the question as to what a “right” is.  As defined in Black’s Law Dictionary, a right is “a power, privilege, faculty, or demand inherent in one person and incident upon another.”  The definition continues,

“‘Rights’ are defined generally as ‘powers of free action.’  And the primal rights pertaining to men are undoubtedly enjoyed by human beings purely as such, being grounded in personality, and existing antecedently to their recognition by positive law.”

No rights exercised here
The most obvious thing we get from this definition is that a right means that someone who has a right has the power to do something, or not do something in relation to other persons.  Is there a question of “rights” when it’s only Robinson Crusoe on a desert island?  No. It’s only when Friday shows up that there is an “other” against whom rights can be exercised — or (as in Friday’s case) whose rights can be taken away.

This is because Friday was Crusoe’s slave.  A slave is someone over whom someone else exercises absolute power.  Black’s Law Dictionary defines a slave as, “a person who is wholly subject to the will of another.”

In other words, a slave is someone against whom someone else exercises rights absolutely — and this gets us back to our original point: are rights absolute, or aren’t they?

. . . . and the answer is . . . yes.  And no.

The fact is that rights both are, and are not “absolute.”  Whether you answer the question about whether rights are, or are not, absolute depends completely on which aspect of a right you’re talking about.

We see from the definition of a right in Black’s Law Dictionary that rights are “inherent in one person.”  Saying that something is “inherent” is another way of saying that it is part of what it means for something to be that thing.

A “person” is defined as “that which has rights.”  Specifically, a person is “[a] man considered according to the rank he holds in society, with all the right to which the place he holds entitles him, and the duties which it imposes.”

Recall that when we reviewed Hohfeld’s analysis in yesterday’s posting we learned that the definition is, in a sense, the thing.  If having rights defines someone as a person, you obviously can’t have a person who doesn’t have rights.  That’s an oxymoron, something that contradicts itself.  To say that you have a person who does not have rights violates the principle of contradiction, the first principle of reason.

Both absolute and not absolute.
We therefore necessarily conclude that rights are absolutely a part of what it means to be a person.  Simply in order to be a person, someone (or something) must have rights, or he, she, or it is not a person.  That is absolute, by definition.

Furthermore, rights being inherent in persons, the State does not grant them.  People have rights simply because they are persons.

Rights are absolute.  That’s the answer . . . right?

That’s the answer . . . half right.

Now we come to the part of our analysis that confuses most people.  We have to distinguish between having a right, and exercising a right.  These are two different things.

Persons have rights absolutely (natural rights, anyway).  No one in the history of the human race has ever exercised rights absolutely.  Even in the case of slavery, ancient law codes have always recognized some kind of protection for slaves, even if only as somebody’s property.  Someone couldn’t do whatever he wanted to someone else’s slave.

The very fact that laws codes have existed for every human family, culture, and civilization since the dawn of time tells us that, however absolutely someone may have rights, rights are never exercised absolutely.

It is an astonishing breakthrough for most people to realize that rights can be absolute in their possession, and not absolute — limited — in their exercise.

Thus, when “liberals” claim that rights are not absolute, and “conservatives” claim that rights are absolute, they are both right — and both wrong.  The fact is that violations of the first principle of reason, whether the principle of contradiction or the principle of identity (whether you want to state it negatively or positively, respectively), are rampant in today’s society.

Justice University? Now, there's an idea . . .
This highlights the need for a project that CESJ has been working on for a while: “Justice University.”  Frankly, knowledge and understanding of the basic principles of justice, of right and wrong, to say nothing of their applications in the understanding of rights and duties and the social structures within which people carry out their daily lives, has reached a nadir.

Furthermore, the cost of what passes for a “higher education” these days is all out of bounds.  It consists of extremely expensive training for jobs that don’t exist — another topic we should address, but not today.  It’s time for education to return to its primary purpose of . . . educating.

#30#

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