What Exactly Are Your Rights?

You, like me, have grown up believing in all the rights granted to you as a citizen of the United States, or some other modern (probably Western and democratic) nation.

We even have an addendum to our founding document that clearly enumerates those rights. We are familiar with most of them, especially those making a lot of headlines lately such as freedom of speech and our right to keep and bear arms.

We learn these at such a young age that most of us grow up believing that rights are innate, as fundamental a piece of our makeup as our limbs, hair, or consciousness, however we may define it. From an extremely early age children learn to use the “its a free country” excuse to speak or behave in ways that their peers might find annoying or offensive.

This is, indeed, a free country and we do all have rights granted by our respective governments. These rights, however, are anything but innate.

While our rights ensure at least of modicum of happiness, protection, and freedom, they are a human invention. They are not a piece of our biology, nor does any spiritual tradition expressly outline the privileges that you are entitled.

Our Founding Fathers and the societal architects from whom they drew inspiration for our Constitution, invented the idea of human rights as a means of equitable and peaceful social control. Control may sound extreme and authoritarian, but I mean control as in controlling for what they believed to be the innate tendency for greed and corruption that exists in large human institutions. Most of the enumerated rights from the original Bill of Rights protect individual citizens from potential governmental injustices.

Rights were invented as a means of protection from abuses of government power. As granted by the government, you have the right that your freedom will not be trampled on, by your government or your neighbor. The idea of a “right” is to prevent anything from obstructing your path along your “pursuit of happiness.” You do not have the right to be granted anything else. While an arguably imperfect solution, rights are meant only to prevent oppression and injustice and ensure your ability to stand up against them.

While we can endlessly squabble over their intention, I believe the Founding Fathers focused on the idea of rights, not to value or strengthen the individual, but to strengthen the social fabric. By inventing individual human rights they sought to hamper the ideas, systems, and people who could divide a populous and tear a country apart.

A team will always function better than a disjointed group of strong individuals. Social fabric is what truly allows a country to thrive.

From this understanding springs the distinction between what I call positive and negative rights.

A positive right adds something to your life or gifts/grants/guarantees that you will have something. For example, the right to education.

A negative right prevents something or removes an obstacle. The right to freedom of speech guarantees that no person or institution can prevent you from voicing your personal beliefs.

While negative rights seek to eliminate oppression and obstacles to freedom, expression, and justice, positive rights seek to grant or give.

Our current system is built on a mixture of positive and negative rights. While both can contribute to a thriving society, positive rights are an extremely slippery slope. We currently have a right to education and an ongoing debate about a right to healthcare and how to provide it. These are positive rights. While both are arguably essential for a healthy and intelligent citizenry, we must be extremely cautious how we grant and apply positive rights.

Perhaps for the first time in history, we now see how positive rights can go too far. The emergence of “safe spaces” and regulations against “micro-aggressions” offer telling examples of excessive expectations for positive rights. While seemingly altruistic and protective, these new positive rights are meant to grant comfort. Never before has a country taken the step to grant a right to happiness, comfort, or safety from offense. We grant the opportunity to achieve such things, and that is a huge distinction.

We value free speech because it offers us the unobstructed opportunity to explore our own thoughts in a public forum free from consequence. This type of unregulated discourse is the only means by which we can honestly move forward in our collective ethical and scientific understandings. Compelled speech, off-limits topics, and the notion that certain words and ideas are inherently offensive regardless of intent stand in the way of honest expression and progress. The right to emotional comfort tramples the right to free speech.

A positive right, taken to its extreme, will always trample an opposing negative right.

Positive rights gift physical or emotional resources. To do so, they must establish roadblocks and take resources from elsewhere. Negative rights seek to remove as many roadblocks as possible. Free speech means that nothing will stand in the way of expression. The right to comfort takes a portion of this freedom away. In order to give, a positive right must first take.

This is not an entirely negative phenomenon. We agree that every citizen has a right to public education. This is a positive right and comes at the hand of tax dollars. The large majority of us support the “taking” required to grant this positive right. We have an ongoing debate over whether we wish to apply a similar trade off to grant public healthcare. These are healthy debates as all positive rights come with an inherent cost, and we must carefully determine the extent to which we want to impede a negative right to grant them (in this case, the freedom to allocate your funds at your personal discretion).

Expecting Your Rights

The current trend for political correctness, social justice, and “safe spaces,” results, at least in part, from a generation who has grown up hearing continually about their human rights. I believe that many have come to a bastardized understanding of what these rights aimed to establish.

They have turned the protection of freedoms into an expectation for certain privileges. The only privilege that our original enumerated rights sought to establish was the removal of obstacles for our personal journeys.

You are not guaranteed protection from offensive language, but you have been given the opportunity to hear, debate, and possibly alter views that you do not agree with. You do not have the right to a job, an income, and a certain lifestyle, but you have an unobstructed path to pursue and create all of these things for yourself.

Negative rights seek to level the playing field as much as possible to give equality of opportunity. Positive rights seek to grant equality of outcome.

Changing How You View Your “Rights”

Those who perpetuate the new PC movement have come to focus on themselves and their personal rights. While our individual human rights are just that, granted to the individual, their intention was less aimed at individual freedoms than at social fabric.

When we exist in small groups, whether a small gathering of friends and family or the tribal communities that characterized the first 99% of human history, social fabric was built on individual social bonds. When all individuals know and care for one another, they behave in accordance with our natural tendency for communal coordination. Only when the group size increases beyond the number of personal relationships that an individual has the capacity to maintain does the social fabric begin to strain. With large groups comes the possibility for the anonymity required to get away with corrupt and tyrannical behavior.

The invention of rights sought to create a landscape that could carry the natural small group social bonds to a much larger scale. It was aimed at protecting the individual from oppression and injustice. Any positive right that seeks to grant the individual something actually creates (however small) an injustice rather than prevents one.

We can debate about the extent to which our current system of rights grants the equal opportunity that it set out to, but we cannot lose sight of its original intent. We can and should continually examine the system for ways that we can improve it, but we must always seek to do so through negative rights first.

Remove your focus on what you expect and feel entitled to as an individual. Our modern system of rights grants you an incredible amount of freedom to both succeed and fail. Rather than look to what you feel you should be given, look to what you can do for yourself. A strong individual grows not from being given advantages but from the work to stand tall. Our system seeks only to remove as much burden as possible to allow you to grow.