photo credit: I Travel East

Fewer words in our political vernacular have become as distorted as the word “right”. Today, politicians and ordinary people alike regularly mention a “right to health care”, “right to home ownership”, “right to affordable insurance”, and a litany of other supposed “rights” to which all Americans are somehow entitled. Absent any philosophical reasoning explaining why these things are indeed rights, the superficial references become, through constant repetition, an accepted truism that only the unpatriotic and selfish would dare oppose (or so we are told).

The looseness of our collective definition regarding just what a right is has permeated our society with an entitlement mentality where what one receives is often not what one has earned. To speak of individual rights has become an initiative clouded by common communitarian arguments ingrained into people’s minds.

To better understand the nature of our rights, it is imperative that we are aware of their associated elements. Taken out of context and exalted above anything related, one can see how easy it is to so neuter the word that it can apply to just about anything. But when we frame the discussion in its proper philosophical background, many of the so-called “rights” being promoted lose any moral standing upon which to advance their position.

One of the best contemporary treatises on the nature and implication of individual rights is a book titled The Moral Basis of a Free Society by H. Verlan Andersen. Speaking of the ignorance regarding what one’s rights really are, Andersen says:

One who knows not what his rights are can never know when they are taken and is unable to defend them. He is like a man who believes he owns a piece of ground which his neighbor also claims, but he doesn’t know its boundaries. The neighbor continues to encroach further and further onto land he suspects is his, but since he is never certain where the boundary is, he cannot check the advance. Until he takes a firm position and says: “this far and no further,” there is no line.

So, just what is a right? Despite the abundant confusion, it is rather simple to define. A right is that thing for which a corresponding responsibility naturally exists and is enforced. An example of this is life itself: you have the right to your own life, and I (and everybody else) has the responsibility to respect that right by not causing you harm or death. Your right to defend yourself from a would-be aggressor implies a responsibility to learn how best to fulfill that obligation and pursue the necessary training to become proficient. Your right to property demands that others fulfill their responsibility of refraining from trespassing on or damaging what belongs to you.

The above examples show that the onus of a right’s corresponding responsibilities can be on different people. Speaking of our personal responsibilities, Elder Dallin H. Oaks said:

At a time when most of our public discourse concerns rights, it may seem strange to speak of responsibilities. But a democratic republic needs patriotic citizens who are fulfilling their responsibilities as well as claiming their rights. No society is so secure that it can withstand continued demands for increases in citizen rights without producing corresponding increases in the fulfillment of citizen responsibilities. Responsibilities like honesty, respect for personal and property rights, self-reliance, and willingness to sacrifice for the common good are basic to the governance and preservation of our nation.

Referring to responsibilities as duties, H. Verlan Andersen wrote of what our rights require of others:

By very definition a right cannot exist in one person unless there is a corresponding duty in another. Unless there is someone who can be compelled to do or refrain from doing something to give the right meaning, it has no substance.

The substance of a right consists of the power to compel the wrongdoer to make restitution and the substance of a duty consists of being compelled to perform it. Unless the performance of the duty is enforced, the right is without a remedy and the failure to perform the duty without a penalty. It is the enforcement which brings both into existence and gives them substance.

The above quotes (and the rest of Andersen’s excellent book) demonstrate a symbiotic relationship between rights and responsibilities. By focusing primarily (and often exclusively) on what our rights are, we neglect to take into account the obligations they require in order to truly be qualified as a “right”.

A few examples will illustrate that the many rights of our day are anything but. First, the right to education. The right to be educated requires a corresponding responsibility of someone being a teacher. Since this right would require another person to instruct me as I thought best, this means that if the other individual did not wish to teach me for whatever reason, he would have to be forced to do so in order to satisfy my right to an education. As I cannot enjoy a right which compels another person to do something he may prefer not to, and for which he has no natural obligation, education cannot be classified as a real “right”. Similarly, a right to health care would mean that doctors—after having spent a fortune on their education and having dedicated years of their life to their studies—would somehow be duty-bound to give me the care I desired of them. Just about any other so-called right (insurance, home ownership, food, employment, etc.) breaks down under the same analysis.

Summarizing this collection of fallacious rights, H. Verlan Anderson wrote the following:

Is it not apparent that it is impossible for government to “create” rights in one person or group without destroying the rights of another? When it gives special privileges to one it must deny them to someone else. This result is unavoidable because when government creates a “right” in one person, it must at the same time create a “duty” in someone else. A right is without any substance unless there is someone against whom it can be enforced. But the one against whom it is enforced is saddled with a duty he did not formerly owe. The law compels him to do something or refrain from doing something and punishes him if he refuses. But you cannot compel a person against his will, nor can you punish him, without taking from him either his right to life, his right to liberty or his right to property. Thus the law has destroyed his rights in attempting to create “rights” in someone else.

Truth be told, we have very few rights at all outside the limited set delineated in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, anytime you hear somebody talking about “our right to _____”, you can use the above analysis to determine what the corresponding responsibility/duty is, and thus see if society as a whole can legitimately be compelled to discharge that duty. Not being able to meet that restrictive standard, all other psuedo-rights should be exposed for the deceitful counterfeits that they really are.


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