“He has a right to be angry.” “She has a right to vote.” “You have a right to peaceably assemble.” “This is right. That is wrong.”
How are these related?
If it would be wrong (morally, legally, or otherwise) for someone to stop you from getting, having, or doing something, we say you have a right to it. If you have a right to something, it is wrong for someone to stop you from getting, having, or doing it.
For example: If you have a right to vote, it would be wrong for someone to stop you from voting. And vice versa: If it would be wrong for someone to stop you from voting, you have a right to vote.
There are many kinds of rights—not all political. You have a right to pursue your own happiness. Our club president has the right to sit at the head of the table. I have a right to spend this money on what I want. A referee has the right to bench the quarterback. The singer has earned the right to some applause. You have the right to remain silent and a right to believe anything you want.
And there are many ways to stop someone from getting, having, or doing what they have a right to. A club member could sit in the president’s chair. I could talk you out of pride you have earned the right to. I could trick you. A mugger can beat me and take my wallet. I could refuse to deliver what you paid for. All these fail to respect someone’s rights.
The concept of a right comes up only when people interact. Alone on an island, you have a right to eat the fish you catch—it would be wrong for someone to stop you. But until there is actually someone else around, you don’t really need the concept.
Political rights are ones enforced by the government. Not all are. The singer may have earned the right to some applause, but I might refuse to clap. You may have every right to be proud; a mean person might talk you out of it. You and the singer won’t get any help from the government.
A big part of political philosophy and political science is determining which rights the government should protect and which it should not.
Not everything you have a right to do is right to do. It’s not called a right because doing it is right. It’s called a right because stopping it would be wrong.
For example, it is wrong to say you love your spouse if you don’t, but legally you have a right to do so. It would be wrong if someone physically stopped you.
Political rights are of two kinds: natural and legal.
Natural rights are yours merely by your being a natural human person. The rights to live your life and pursue happiness are natural rights. You needn’t do anything to earn them. It is merely because you are a living person that it would be wrong for others to stop you from doing those things.
Legal rights are artificial; they are created—ideally to protect people’s natural rights. The right to vote is a legal right. So are procedural rights such as habeas corpus and the right to a fair trial. So too (I claim) are property rights.
For natural political rights, note the causal hierarchy. We first establish, using moral principles, that and under what conditions it would be wrong for someone to, say, forcefully stop you from assembling with others. We then say that you “have the right” to free assembly. The two propositions (“It would be wrong to . . .” and “You have the right to . . .”) are then two ways to say the same thing. But to establish the truth of both, we must appeal to the underlying moral principle first.
So America’s Founders got it backwards when they said we are “endowed by their Creator” with certain rights, if they meant we have been given these rights and that therefore some actions against us are wrong. To validate the claim that we have a right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, we don’t need to go find who handed us these rights. We need to determine by moral principles what interference would be wrong and then restate that discovery as a right.
Legal rights, on the other hand, can be stipulated in the language of rights. That is, the rights can be “given.” The stipulation would then identify what it would be wrong to do. We stipulate, for example, that adults over eighteen can vote. That means that it would be wrong to stop someone over that age from voting.
In a good political system, natural rights are based on sound pre-political moral reasoning, and legal rights then protect those natural rights.
That is, legal rights are created and justified as protections of natural rights. And natural rights are discovered by identifying moral principles that state what we should not do to others. Natural rights are the bridge from moral principles to political principles, legal rights the bridge from political principles to legal ones.
So lying underneath all rights—natural, legal, and otherwise—are moral statements about what it would be wrong for us to stop our neighbors from getting, having, or doing.
That’s why morally right, the right to be angry, the right to vote, and the right to peaceably assemble are all related.
I really like how this post pairs with your previous discussion of property rights. Now I’m going to go back and reread that one.