When you offer a defense of liberty, you may be tempted to frame the argument in terms of outcomes. Freedom is a good thing, you say, because it results in good things that benefit people such as human flourishing, so this is a principle we should adhere to. While there is a utilitarian case for liberty, it is far more important, compelling, and legitimate to defend liberty from the perspective of individual, inalienable rights.
Where do individual rights come from?
When you make the case for a rights-based conception of liberty, the first issue you come across is the source of these individual rights, a question that has plagued political philosophers for centuries. This usually comes in the form of the divine, government, nature, or some combination thereof.
However, in each of these cases, problems quickly arise. Divine right is very much a gamble. If God exists and the rights of humanity are in accordance with sacred texts, you’re good to go. If God doesn’t, you’re back to square one.
To accept that our individual rights derive from government or society would involve a belief that these rights are not fixed and are subject to change according to the prevailing political ideologies. In this instance, rights are conflated with law and might be violated or abrogated by a simple majority vote at any time.
The source of rights in nature is also tricky: you run into the issue of how nature has some sort of philosophical bedrock that provides rights, and even then they don’t seem to be particularly visible in man’s primordial state of warfare and tribalism.
Ayn Rand’s theory of rights provides a coherent defense of liberty
As part of her philosophy of Objectivism, Ayn Rand, one of the leading pro-liberty thinkers of the twentieth century, developed her own theory of rights that provides a coherent framework from which to defend liberty.
Central to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is the faculty of reason, which is our means of acquiring knowledge, and underpins our understanding of reality. Indeed, Ayn Rand described the rational faculty of our species as our essential characteristic, with our mind being our basic means of survival. Conversely, force is the ultimate negation of reason.
As such, it is essential that each individual is free to act on their own judgement in their pursuit of happiness. Individuals must be free from coercion in order to be able to pursue their own rational self-interest.
In her essay, “Man’s Rights,” Rand explained that individual rights are the crucial moral principle underpinning capitalism, and by extension a free society. Rights are to be understood as a moral concept, but this has been distorted by the various collectivist and altruistic codes of ethics which have been dominant throughout human history. These statist interpretations of morality have involved impositions on individuals to the detriment of their rights.
According to Rand, “Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.”¹ Consequently, the limitations set out through the principle of individual rights represent a defense of liberty from “the brute force of the collective.”²
Furthermore, Rand’s theory of rights establishes an individual’s right as their property, which goes against the widespread idea of rights merely being granted by society. The one fundamental right from which our individual rights derive is each person’s right to their own life.
In order to make a coherent defense of liberty, it is important not to neglect the philosophical and moral considerations that underpin our individual rights.
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¹Ayn Rand, “Man’s Rights,” in Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: NAL, 1964), 122 [statement italicized in the original text].
²Rand, “Man’s Rights,” 124.
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This piece was first published on the Students For Liberty website.