If rights can exist without government, does that mean that if individuals don’t have to or are required to protect their rights then those rights don’t exist? It seems to me that what we call a “right” only exists if it’s socially recognized. So if we were individuals living in a state of nature, living alone and relying on no-one else, would we need rights? Surely as lone individuals we have no need of the concept of “rights”?

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12 Comments on “Rights”

  1. ejp90 Says:

    The way I see it, the issue of rights is a moral one. My basic view of rights from a moral perspective is this: You have individual freedoms that end when before they impinge on someone else’s freedoms. Now, I realize that this isn’t the clearest of ground rules, and the trouble comes when people differ on what exactly it means to “impinge”. This is the issue of social recognition that you pointed out. This is why, in this social system, people have to protect their rights, physically, legally, etc.
    However, I believe there are, more or less, objective moral standards we can hold ourselves to that are the framework of rights. These come from a respect and empathy for people and things in the outside world. Sure, ultimately I decide what I consider to be right or wrong or how I treat others and the world around me, but my moral compass comes from thinking about what the consequences of my actions are going to be for others.
    In terms of living alone, assuming you mean a planet with no other humans on it, I would say that even without humans, other living beings on the planet have rights on some level. This is why our treatment of the environment is, in a way, a moral issue as well.

    • gregw89 Says:

      Interesting view. Your definition of your moral compass is a good way of describing how objective moral standards should be determined.

      I meant living alone as in living off the land and surviving solely off of one’s physical labor, as in rural dwellers, etc., basically a situation where an official authority isn’t readily available and it’s “every man for themselves.”

  2. Alan Scott Says:

    ” It seems to me that what we call a “right” only exists if it’s socially recognized. ”

    You are right. Society has to recognize a right. Socially recognition is a vague term. In the United States we use the Constitution to recognize our rights. With out that protection, those rights will be trampled on as various factions gain control of power .

    ” Surely as lone individuals we have no need of the concept of “rights”? ”

    We are not lone individuals. If you have any concept of history and human nature you know that stronger individuals will trample weaker ones with out society enforcing rights.

    • ejp90 Says:

      You seem to be counting on the fact that people will naturally NOT respect others rights, and in our current social system, that true most of the time. But that pattern isn’t set in stone, and even if it were, that doesn’t make it any less wrong. Our current social organization of hierarchical, self-interest-based tendencies is actually a relatively new phenomenon. Before the Neolithic Revolution, human societies were more heavily based on the interests of the entire social group and a non-hierarchical structure. This is how humans lived for thousands of years. Also, here’s an interesting video on the implications of this in the rest of primate world:

      I do agree with on one point though: “We are not lone individuals.” We are social creatures, and you can’t expect individuals to live to themselves.

  3. pbarden Says:


    thanks for getting in contact with the site I’ve just launched. Much appreciated.

    But if I might join the rights conversation without too many formalities (although I haven’t had the chance to peruse the site in its fullness, from which I might say briefly that if appearances count for anything, and they do, I thoroughly approve), that the question of rights you’re discussing can be historically located in the English Revolution (which of course can be prescribed between two historical differences: the Revolution of 1640 and the Restoration in 1688), two epochs that produce two very different and amazingly influential thinkers of ‘freedom’ and the ‘state-of-nature’. Whilst not being a scholar of this particular time in history, the two thinkers I felt pertinent to bring to the conversation are Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, two extraordinary thinkers on the question of ‘freedom’ (of the individual – the subject must initially recognise something other than himself that is either ‘free’ or ‘not free’ to understand the conception), and of the ‘state-of-nature’ (the right of the individual to kill another man, woman, child etc. without recourse to a higher authority).

    For Hobbes, living amongst the chaos of the English Revolution of 1640, he scaffolded together brilliantly his idea of the Leviathan that he happily borrowed from the effective Christian dogmatism of the day – fundamentally, Hobbes’ text ‘Leviathan’ works as a seat of power that creates a third force between both the ‘state-of-nature’ of individuals vying for power (a la the archetypical dead alpha male Apes in the video shown by ejp) as the force not only ‘protecting’ individuals from themselves but also from threats from outside. The question Hobbes raises (quite aptly, givien ejo’s exemplar of harmony within the thirty-year anthropological nature he/she sited) is WHY do we give ourselves up to a sovereign beast who both can kill us and protect us? Hobbes’ sites an apt exemplar of this through (an albeit paraphrased) conception of ‘freedom’ – if a highway man robs you on your way to your destination, and asks you for your money or your life, what do you do? You give up your money. You give it freely. You give it VERY freely.

    So, given the logic of the ‘state-of-nature’ (the every-man vs. the every-man), with the deadlock provided between the conception of the ‘money or your life’ motif, how does the sovereign Leviathan ‘protect’ the individual’s life AND his property?

    This is where ‘rights’ proper enters.

    Not only do I have the ‘right’ to be protected for my life, but the ‘right’ for my property to be ‘protected’ as well.

    For my own part, I reject ejp’s Rousseauean conception of a ‘state-of-nature’ based upon simply the documentary makers’ own assumptions of ‘human nature’. Not only does the camera ‘falsify’ by not explicating the whole ethnography of the ‘tribe’ in a simplistic universal narrative (if there are no alpha males in the tribe, then we’d all get along fine!), but takes for granted both the presence of the ‘Leviathan’ (the possible cause of the plague – the pacifier of the aggressors within the tribe… the camera {chimera} [or what else is the Law but the idea of the watcher?); but above and beyond this, Freud’s topographical, anthropological suggestions that what the Law that we submit to is not based on ‘fact’ (did I enact the thing that I am accused of? Yes/No? Not necessarily important), but whether or not we are ‘guilty’.

    This is an incredibly important division. Action is not necessarily associated with guilt.

    So, is ‘guilt’ the obvious companion to ‘right’?

    Who gives us the ‘right’ to be ‘guilty’?

    As an answer to this question, I like to start with Freud, but I think that I’ve probably already said too much as an introduction. I do hope this is taken in the spirit it is intended, as I think this is an amazing site and I’m more than happy to have a dialogue with rebuttals, refutals or ‘renovations’ of the opinions I’ve expressed. If it means anything (I’ve had some nasty attacks on other sites with the best of intentions – continued diagnosis of our global problems), if I am ever placed in the position to advise the Leviathan of anything, it will be thus: let the people talk.

    Enough for now,

    thanks and bless your good site,


    http://tapism.wordpress.com/ (keep an eye out, we’ll be active proper soon)
    http://peterbarden.wordpress.com/ (the excesses of the day – poets are ignored/endured/enjoyed or exiled).

    • gregw89 Says:


      Thank you for contributing to this site and I hope that you will find it useful in serving its purpose as a forum for debate. You sound like a very well-educated man in the topic of political philosophy and I am impressed with your expertise in this subject of rights.

      You bring up Hobbes and Locke, both of whom I am aware of and also find to be great thinkers in their respective opinions. The Leviathan is a genius invention by Hobbes that serves as the foundation for much of today’s political theory.

      Your comment on guilt brings to mind one thought, the fact that in our system, the courts determine who is guilty, therefore it seems that the courts determine who has the right to be guilty. Ultimately, it seems as though the courts determine our rights, whether justly or unjustly. Does this then give the courts too much power or are they burdened with an appropriate obligation?

      • Peter Says:

        Hey Greg, thanks for the reply,

        just a quick point regarding the role of the judiciary as the determiner of guilt as it is an area I’m interested in, but slightly away from my point about the Sovereign determiner of ‘rights’ (as fundamentally, the courts are given the ‘right’ from the executive and legislative bodies to reside over who is or is not guilty): I’m more interested in how we are interpellated as ‘guilty’ in the wider sociological sense. As a cheap and nasty exemplar of my point (and moreover, why I thought to bring up guilt as the witting companion to right), I’ll use the Santa Claus(e):

        “He’s making a list,
        He’s checking it twice,
        He’s going to find out
        Who’s been naughty or nice;
        Santa Claus is coming to town.”

        If I’m ‘nice’ I have ‘rights,’
        If I’m ‘naughty’ I have ‘guilt.’

        However, I don’t think that the judiciary, executive, legislature or the constitution necessarily (although they do try) guarantee or reside over these rights or guilts.

        So, for me at least, this is where Freud is useful.



  4. ejp90 Says:

    If I could respond to some of the things you said, first of all I’d like to compliment you on adding such a rich perspective to this topic. I realize from your writing though, that we are probably in very different philosophical camps. Choosing just between Hobbes and Locke (I admit I’m only generally familiar with their work) I’d have to say that I subscribe more to Locke’s idea of tabula rasa, than to Hobbes or Leviathan, although none fit appropriately into my worldview. A major influence of mine has been the work of Jacque Fresco and The Venus Project, if you’re interested in seeing where I’m coming from, intellectually. I reject Leviathan’s idea of ‘state-of-nature’ and generally the term ‘human nature’, not on a philosophical basis, but a scientific one. I have not seen evidence supporting the idea of immutable human tendencies with regards to aggression and competition, on which (correct me if I’m wrong) Leviathan’s ‘state-of-nature’ premise is based. That’s just not where the evidence points. Modern developments in genetics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc. are leading to the conclusion that humans are very social, malleable creatures that in the right environment, are capable of building and sustaining a collective value system that negates the need for a ‘Leviathan’, as it were.
    Jacque Fresco points out that in such an environment, there is a system of bio-social pressures that can replace rulers and laws. I see this as fundamentally very different from the Leviathan concept. This has major consequences for what are considered ‘rights’. I stick by my original guideline that “You have individual freedoms that end before they impinge on someone else’s freedoms”, and that the idea of a moral compass comes from empathy and the concept of what is most beneficial to others and oneself (collectively). I believe that this process allows us to determine our own rights. I suppose I am modifying my previous comment on ‘objective’ moral standards, because the concept that we can determine our own rights takes us out of the realm of objectivity. I do, however, think the guidelines above constitute a reasonable process for maximizing the practicality of our freedoms (rights) within the bounds of whatever social system is in place. This sharply contrasts with what I consider to be the failure of law in its inability to provide humans with a reasonable, practical social platform for behavior. Unlike the bio-social pressures that I mentioned above, laws are artificial. They are aimed at controlling people’s behavior by way of threat and consequences, because lawmakers see no actual solution to problems which particular laws address. (As an aside, I’d like to mention that our current level of technology, with some major changes to the social system, could allow us to eventually dissolve all existing laws, based on the work of The Venus Project.)
    Perhaps I’m not clear on which definition of ‘guilt’ you meant to use. Do you mean ‘guilt’ in the criminal/legal sense or ‘guilt’ as an emotional sensation? I will assume the former. Although I’m not familiar with Freud’s suggestions about law that you mentioned, if I am to take it at face value (that laws aren’t based on fact, but the arbitrary ruling of ‘guilt’), then it appears that Freud and I are in agreement about the artificiality of law. (As another aside, one of the most interesting things about the legal use of term ‘guilt’ is that a legal ruling of ‘guilty’ is not always accompanied by emotional ‘guilt’, one of the key bio-social pressures that governs our moral decisions.)

  5. Peter Says:

    Hi ejp,

    Thanks muchly for the compliments, and might I apologise for not stating my utopian ideologies up front, as I’ve my ‘Atlantic’ mission as well to emerge from the depths as much as my practicality can entail for, well, at least this post.

    I’m familiar with the Fresco project and have Bladerunner styled responses to your philosophical positions: If you’ve not seen evidence supporting the idea of “immutable human tendencies with regards to aggression and competition” I don’t understand which sets of scientific logics forgets (at the very least) the first and second world wars, despite science being fundamentally a cause and sure ‘cure’ of the ideological warfare.

    As much as I do enjoy the ‘Venus Project’s’ conception that a technocracy will save ‘us’, the question must be asked first and foremost – what is technology saving us from?

    Historically, Science has been incredibly competent at doing one thing and incompetent at doing another: and we’ve a name for both the competency and incompetency: truth.

    Science, truth and guilt locked in a room will not get along very well.
    Science is looking for it (future), truth has it (present), and guilt… has had it all along.

    My philopophical interest is discovering what this ‘it’ of truth is.

    And before we stretch too far beyond Israel (finally having its ideological state after 3000 years), that science might have some understanding of history before forcing any new states just yet.

    Not just yet. Let’s understand the fictional Leviathan before we bin of why we need fiction to make Science work in the past, present and future.



  6. I think of rights mostly as relevant to the ability to exclude others from some scarce good, such as the rights to land.

    If there are no others then there’s no one to exclude, so I think rights have no real meaning.

  7. ejp90 Says:

    Hi Peter,

    To respond, I’d like to address your point on ideological warfare, but especially your use of ‘science’ throughout your last post. First, the ideological warfare brings up an important issue: humans are prone to experience failures of awareness (‘fallacies’, by another name) that can lead them to misinterpret reality in very fundamental ways. Although this is one of our weaknesses as a species, this tendency toward inappropriate assessment of our environment (and one another) is in no way immutable. The failure I’m referring to with regards to ideological warfare is the failure to recognize that we are fundamentally the same, while instead honoring artificial divisions such as nationalism, racism, politics, religious dogma, etc.
    This ‘allegiance’ to artificial values can be changed and in fact HAS changed throughout history: racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. are gradually dissolving. We are beginning to recognize our near-empirical unity. One of Fresco’s major realizations was that the scientific method applied socially is one of the best means for helping us recognize it. This hardly makes ‘science’ the cause and cure for ideological warfare. Science doesn’t ’cause’ war any more than the mere discovery of something potentially destructive causes destruction on its own. You seem to be confusing ‘science’ with our misguided use of the technology that science helped produce. There is however a relationship between ‘science’ (rather, ‘logic’ or critical inquiry) and ‘curing’ people of artificial harmful ideologies, for if they are examined critically enough, they dissolve.

    As for your question regarding what technology is saving us from, I assume you’d like me to say that it is ‘saving us from ourselves’. First, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that technology is ‘saving’ us from anything. Our own value system has to change in order for technology to have the uplifting effect that Fresco says it can have. As I’ve pointed out, our value systems are capable of being changed, and themselves are capable of changing our environment. Let me point out again that humans, for most of our existence on this planet, have lived in balance with the environment and in relative harmony with one another.

    I’m afraid I don’t quite understand much of the rest of your post.

    “Historically, Science has been incredibly competent at doing one thing and incompetent at doing another: and we’ve a name for both the competency and incompetency: truth.”

    Although I don’t completely understand how you’re relating the competencies and incompetencies of science to ‘truth’, I can tell you what I see as their relationship. Science seeks truth. By ‘truth’, I mean that which is demonstrably in accordance with reality. It does so through a process of constant critical inquiry and refinement of knowledge. Throughout this process, there is the possibility of being wrong. This is not an incompetency of science itself, but a failure on the part of a human scientist.

    “Science, truth and guilt locked in a room will not get along very well.
    Science is looking for it (future), truth has it (present), and guilt… has had it all along.

    My philopophical interest is discovering what this ‘it’ of truth is.”

    I can’t make heads or tails of these sentences. They seem so riddled with philosophical abstracts that I don’t think we can get anywhere with them. This is not to say that your philosophical goal of finding the meaning of the ‘it’ is invalid, just that you’ve lost me.

    “And before we stretch too far beyond Israel (finally having its ideological state after 3000 years), that science might have some understanding of history before forcing any new states just yet.”

    Although I understand (and agree with) what you’re getting at here, you’ve again misused ‘science’. As you point out, Israel is an ideological state and therefore has very little to do with science. You’re making a leap from what you call ‘science’ to war and ideological disasters, when really there’s nothing scientific about them. Also, science does not force new states. That is purely a product of political ideology.

    “Not just yet. Let’s understand the fictional Leviathan before we bin of why we need fiction to make Science work in the past, present and future.”

    Again you’ve lost me. What’s this notion of ‘fiction’ making science work? The fictional Leviathan? I realize that the Leviathan is a fictional creature, but what’s its relevance here? I apologize for my difficulties and hope that in the spirit of good conversation that you won’t mind clarifying some things for me. You have a way about your writing that I find extremely interesting. I also realize that we’ve drifted away from the topic of rights, but I would like very much to continue this discussion and see where it goes.


    • pbarden Says:

      Hi ejp, thanks again for your comments.

      I do apologise for any confusion with the previous post; I feel I haven’t explained a lot of the assumptions I take for granted from my own ideological leanings. Nevertheless, thanks for taking them in the spirit they were intended.

      If I’ll toss my ideological cards on the table for a moment, much of my critical engagement comes from a Marxist/Freudian perspective, so whilst I appreciate what the utopian vision of Fresco and the Venus Project aims for, I’m highly suspicious of some of the assumptions that it (at least from my understanding of the project) takes for granted.

      Fundamentally, I’m not against ‘science’ per se, but there was this great piece of correspondence between Freud and Einstein in 1932 (which is excerpted here: http://www.zionism-israel.com/Albert_Einstein/Einstein_Freud_Why_War.htm {apologies for the weblink, as I’m not a Zionist, but they’ve published the correspondence there – it is a pretty well known set of letters, so I’m sure you’ll find it elsewhere if you look for it}) which pretty much accounts for my doubts of whether the statesman can be a scientist, or whether it is possible to have a scientifically-based state.

      I’d like to pursue this line of enquiry further, but unfortunately I’ve some other pressing matters to attend to, so please forgive my brief answer to your post. I’m sure we’ll have the chance again soon to engage more closely with these questions.



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