The concept of rights is a controversial one, even amongst Anarchists, and I think that is mainly because people have a false notion of what a right is. As I have discussed before, from an Anarchist perspective, all that a right means is that we (as individuals, and by extension as social groups) are justified in using force to defend ourselves in certain circumstances. This is something that very few people would dispute, and thus the concept of rights should not be controversial. The Anarchist framework also eliminates the absurd idea of “taking away a person’s rights” when they commit a criminal action.
One thing that makes people reject the concept of rights is the concept of self-ownership. Most people who believe in rights would say that self-ownership is the foundation of individual rights. Yet this position is absurd, since there is no such thing as self-ownership.
For one thing, there is no such thing as the self, at least in the common conception of what the “self” might be. There is no entity somewhere in me called “Francois Tremblay.” What I might associate with my self- my memories, my personality, my capacity to reason, my recognition of other people, and many other things- are all part of an ever-fluctuating mass of neurons. A more sane concept of the self may be to define the self as a process of experience, not as fixed states.
But even if we take this view, how is the self bounded? Is it the mind, which is the construct through which we receive our experiences? But the mind is an activity of the brain, and therefore we cannot isolate the mind from the brain. So is the self bounded by the brain? But without the rest of the body, especially our sensory organs and nervous system, the brain is useless as a source of selfhood. The self, therefore, if it is to make sense at all, must be a property of the body, not merely of one or the other organ.
This leads us to the rather disappointing conclusion that “self-ownership” means “the body owns the body.” But this is an utterly trivial and useless proposition. When I say “I own this chair,” I mean nothing more than the fact that I legitimately control the chair. But there can be no relationship of control between an entity and itself. If there is no distinction between owner and owned, then no relationship of ownership actually does not, and cannot, exist. The body itself is a moral agent (a “self”), and therefore it cannot possibly be owned by anything or anyone.
If this is true, then how do we define slavery? After all, slavery is commonly defined as the ownership of another human being. But we can see this is quite impossible. A slaveowner does not own the free will of his slave: all he can do is issue orders and back them with threats, and the might of the State (when it is available). If it was possible to actually own another human being, then one would not need any orders or threats, but simply to will the other human being to act in this or that way, just as we do with “our own bodies” (this common turn of phrase, having been disproven, must now be put between quotes).
What the slaveowner owns (illegitimately, may I add) is not the human being himself, but rather the rights of that human being. The slave is seen as being unjustified in any act of force, and the right to use force in defense of the slave is now owned by the slaveowner. The slaveowner is justified in using force to defend the slave, because he wishes to defend his property. But the slaveowner is also justified in using force against the slave, and the slave (according to the doctrine of slavery) has no rights against him. In short, the slave is treated as any inanimate object, a chair, a desk or a plank of wood, which by definition have no rights.
When the State stakes its claim on what we can or cannot do with our bodies, this should also not be seen as claiming ownership over us (unless a statist declares this, in which case it is a contradiction). Rather, we should see it as an attempt by the State to gain more positive rights against us. Indeed, what the State is basically doing by, for instance, banning drug use or abortions is to treat our bodies as something that is contained within the State, that belongs to the State, and that can therefore be protected by force by the State from our own actions. If we accept the democratic premise that we are the government, that we, our bodies, are part of the State, then it is no wonder that we accept such unjust laws, isn’t it?
If self-ownership does not exist, and thus cannot be the foundation that helps us determine the rights that exist, how do we define the nature of rights? Kinsella’s estoppel argument gives us the answer: rights exist because acts of aggression exist. If there were no aggressors in society, we would have no need to defend ourselves, or to examine whether such defense is just or not, and thus we would not talk about rights. But how do we define what is to be protected, which is to say, how do we define aggression? Once again let me give you my favourite quote on the subject of rights:
When I describe a man as an invader, I cast no reflection upon him; I simply state a fact, Nor do I assert for a moment the moral inferiority of the invader’s desire. I only declare the impossibility of simultaneously gratifying the invader’s desire to invade and my desire to be let alone. That these desires are morally equal I cheerfully admit, but they cannot be equally realized. Since one must be subordinated to the other, I naturally prefer the subordination of the invader’s, and am ready to co-operate with non-invasive persons to achieve that result.
Unlike Tucker, I would not say that all desires are morally equal, but I would agree that we should treat one people’s values and decisions are being equal to everyone else’s. I would say self-destructive behaviour is not morally equal to constructive behaviour, but an individual who is acting self-destructively has as much right to act in that way as someone who acts constructively.
That small distinction being made, Tucker’s argument provides us another way of seeing the fundamental point that rights come from the need to respond to aggression. Tucker defined aggression as a “violation of equal liberty,” meaning that, all desires being morally equal, no individual should try to impose his desires over another person’s. In moral terms, I would interpret this as the position that an aggressor is someone whose actions interfere with someone else’s value-expression.
If we take that as a premise, then we can easily see how to derive the standards rights that we know. We have rights to life (and to suicide, which I would say is almost as important a right), liberty, self-determination (both for the individual and for the communities which individuals form), freedom of expression, to be treated equally and fairly by the law (which in Anarchist terms would translate into the universality principle), freedom of movement, property, and so on. All of these can be more simply seen as forms of value-expression, or ways of systemically preserving value-expression (e.g. opposition to State intervention).
This foundation of rights, like self-ownership, refutes the existence of “social, cultural and economic rights” (as opposed to the rights I have just talked about, which are commonly called “human rights”) such as a right to work or a right to education, since these imply aggressing on other people. You could say that I have the right to freedom of education, I have the right to acquire an education in any way I can if that’s what I so desire, just like I have a right to freedom as a whole, but I do not have the right to an education. If I have a right to an education, then other people must be coerced into giving me an education, in accordance with whatever rules are set for this right by the ruling class (for obviously we must define and specify what an education is, in order to give people a right to it). if the educators in a given society refused to dispense such education, or disagreed with the rules proposed, then they would have to be aggressed upon to do so, since they would be breaking my right.
One could argue, using the equality principle, that economic equality is necessary for freedom, and is therefore also a right. I agree with this statement, but only insofar as we are talking about the Anarchist concept of equality, which is not distinct from freedom and therefore follows the same logic. Equality is certainly not an “economic right.” Neither, for that matter, is the idea of collective possession of natural resources. Neither of these imply aggression by their mere existence, like all “economic” rights, and they can both be completely translated in terms of “human rights.”
So, while self-ownership is meaningless, rights can be derived from the justified protection of value-expression. Is it possible for someone to deny that it is justified to protect value-expression? Kinsella’s estoppel argument refutes such attempts, just as it always does. If we claim that protecting one’s value-expression is unjustified, then we are necessarily saying that attacking another person’s value-expression is justified. But if that is the case, then rights still exist: we have merely changed their content to “you can use force to suppress value-expression in others,” in short the only right left in existence is the right to suppress directed actions. But since such a suppression is a directed action itself, it is a contradiction, and thus the scenario collapses.
For more on this topic, also read “Is self-ownership a misnomer?”, from Polycentric Order.