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Individual Rights

by Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.


Individual rights is a moral concept, the transitional concept between how an individual ought to live morally in the face of reality and how men ought to be treated in a social context. As Ayn Rand states it, a code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality. A code of morality sets the principles upon which a man will act in order to sustain his own life whether he is dealing with reality on his own or he is living in a society of other men. If a man has a personal code of values – those things which he thinks he ought to pursue to further his own life – he needs to extend that code to how he ought to treat others and how he thinks others ought to treat him. A code of morality applied to a social context is the basis for the Objectivist concept of individual rights. There is a sense in which morality is between man and reality, what he decides to do with his life in the face of alternatives that life offers; and other men as an aspect of reality needs to be taken into account or the process of being moral is incomplete.

If a man has a rational morality, he understands that he must think things through to his best effort of understanding what is good for him and what is bad for him, and act accordingly. On a deserted island where it was just him and reality before him, he would be free to act on his own best judgement to pursue, acquire, and build those things that would sustain his life. If he were so isolated, he wouldn't have to worry about other people or how to treat them or how they should treat himself, but would be free to live his life according to his best rational judgement. If he found himself hungry, he could go out and hunt for food or set traps or go fishing or make a garden for fruits and vegetables; he could build a shelter or find a shelter like a cave and do with it what he wanted to make it a suitable place to live for a human being. And he could do all of this without having to worry about how he might be effected by other men or how they might be effecting him. He would have the freedom to deal with nature on his own rational terms according to his best understanding of what was good for him by his own standards. But most men are not so isolated and live in a society of other men, so the question is how would he be able to have the same type of freedom he could have in isolation when he is in a society of other men?

For the normal situation of man living in a social context, he needs a code of behavior to guide him in such dealings. Since rights are morality applied in a social context, he needs to be cognizant about the best way to deal with others, as this will make it possible for him to pursue a much wider range of values compared to if he lived alone and had to build everything himself from scratch. When a man is isolated, he only has his own mind to figure things out and to deal with nature on his best terms, but he is limited in his knowledge and cannot pursue values beyond the limits of his own mind. In a society of other men, he has the added benefit of being able to take advantage of knowledge than he himself is not capable of obtaining in his lifetime if he lived totally by himself. For example, it is by living in a rational community of other producers that he is able to buy things like radios, TV's, automobiles, and computers, as well as great literature, paintings, dramatic movies and TV shows -- without himself having to have all the knowledge or techniques of building such devices or creating such works of art. If he is rational enough, he may realize that the best way to get these types of items is by trading his best efforts for the best efforts of others. He can work for a living and earn money and use this to trade for the goods and services others may offer. He can discover that dealing with others as a trader rather than as slaves to himself is the best policy in getting what he wants or needs to sustain his life in a community that recognizes that trade as a primary in dealing with others. This idea that others must be dealt with as human being rather than as slaves serving him for no gain of their own is one of the basis for the idea of individual rights. In this type of situation, he would be free to live his own life according to his own standards so long as he agrees to the equal rights of others to live their lives and to trade value for value in the open market place.

What the concept of individual rights does for a rational man is to give him the moral self-assurance that he ought to be free to live his own life according to his best rational judgement even when he is living in a society of other men. Since force or the threat of force against him is the only way others can stop him from acting on his own rational judgement, the concept of individual rights basically tells him that others ought to keep their hands to themselves and not threaten him with force – they shouldn't force him to act against his own rational judgement nor should they try to take things away from him that he has earned. Individual rights are moral self-assertiveness applied in those cases where he must deal with other men. And this type of moral stance regarding the proper relationship between a man and reality and a man and other people is best expressed in a rational morality, of which the Objectivist Ethics is one such moral code.

The Objectivist Ethics was developed by Ayn Rand when she integrated what she knew about the nature of life as such, and what she knew about man in particular. Since life is self-sustaining, self-generative action, a man needs to seek those things and do those things which will further his own life. That which benefits man is the good, that which is a detriment to man is the bad (or evil if done intentionally by others). Ayn Rand codified the Objectivist ethics taking these facts about the nature of life and the nature of man into account in such a way that she arrived inductively at certain principles about how a man ought to live by reason that are both intellectual and existential. The Objectivist ethics requires a certain type of thinking – in accordance with the facts – and a certain type of action – those actions which benefit that thinker. As a tree is a type of living entity that requires it getting sunshine and water to remain alive, so a man has certain requirements to sustain his own life, and Ayn Rand held that it was both proper and moral for a man to sustain his own life. But unlike a tree, a man does not sustain his life automatically because he has free will and must make decisions as to what to pursue and what to avoid if his own life and man's life as an abstraction is the standard of morality. Because man has a volitional mind (free will) he needs to know what he must do in order to remain alive and flourishing, and this requires him to have knowledge that can be codified into an integrated set of principles geared towards telling him what he ought to do with his mind and what values he ought to pursue.

The Objectivist Virtues are those principle that a man ought to follow in order to live a good life that is not in contradiction to what he actually is as a metaphysical entity, as a living entity of a certain type. These virtues are rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride. These are specific types of both mental and existential actions he must take in order to gain and or keep values that will further his own life. Rationality is the recognition of the fact that the facts of reality must be taken into account, or a man is continually fighting those facts and will not be able to sustain his life in any rational manner. Independence recognizes that each man and each mind is individual and that a man must come to his own conclusions by the use of his own thinking abilities. Integrity means thinking and acting in accordance with those facts as a smooth integration of mind and body as is necessitated by the very fact that he lives in reality which is one place. Honesty is the recognition that the unreal is not real and that he can gain nothing if he pursues goals or values that are not factually based. Justice requires a man to recognize certain facts about himself and other men, that because man has free will he does things intentionally, that each man thinks and acts certain ways due to his own volitional efforts. Productiveness means that he will use his mind to figure out the requirements of life and to seek or to make those items he needs for his own survival. And pride is his self-assertiveness that his own life is worth living according to the very best, rational standards that he can think of.

Some examples of these principles are given by Ayn Rand in her two most well-known novels “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” where the heroes of the stories are virtuous according to a rational standard. Howard Roark is the exemplar of the virtues of independence and integrity whereby he designs and creates buildings according to his own artistic standards. John Galt is the exemplar of the virtue of rationality, of thinking about all aspects of life and the requirements of living as a rational man. Though these stories are set in a fictional context, these novels are great guidelines as to how one ought to live one's own life. For example, when Howard Roark is offered a commission to design a building contrary to his own standards, he turns down the commission rather than violating his rational artistic principles. Likewise, John Galt is shown in a variety of settings whereby he is challenged to give up his rational view of life, but he doesn't acquiesce and continues to live a rational life even in the face of a world that is becoming hostile to reason and a rational code of values.

In relation to a man and reality, it must be understood that each of these virtues must be followed by an act of free will. A man does not have an automatic code of values that can lead to an objective, fact based morality. At any given moment, he could be thinking incorrectly or avoiding the facts, and the only way to tell if he is living in accordance with the facts is by the volitional effort of his own mind to comply with the facts of reality, because it is the only way to take the rational requirements of his life into account. Even if a man lived in complete solitude and was only dealing directly with nature and not other men, he would still need these virtues to gain and to keep that which will further his own life. It is the facts of reality and the facts of man's nature that lead to these specific virtues that a man must follow in order to lead a successful life in the face of reality.

To concretize this a bit, anytime one is dealing with reality in an effort to support one's own life, the Objectivist virtues come into play. In order for a man to assess the facts of reality and how they relate specifically to his own life, he needs rationality. It is only by an act of thinking things through that a man can tell the difference between a deer, let's say, and a lion; one of which he can hunt for food, while the other may well hunt him for food. And it is only rationality that can guide him in knowing the difference between a shop owner who wants to sell him beneficial things for his own well being versus those who seek to enslave him which would be a detriment to his life. The question of independence would not come up much if a man were isolated, as he would only have himself to rely on, but it would come up in those cases where, say, he might have heard of something before he became isolated and had to think it through on his own. In a community of producers, he would realize that it was only by the judgement of his own mind that would tell him if he ought to spend his money paying down doctor bills or spending his money foolishly on any given whim. Whether a man is isolated or living among other human beings, he needs to have that smooth integration between how he thinks versus what he does. In the wilderness, the lack of integrity might mean that if a storm comes up and he knows he should seek shelter that he would fail to do so. In a society, he could further realize that while he might know how to do something to improve his job performance, it would be best if he actually did it so that he could improve his relationship to his boss. Since honesty is the recognition that the unreal is unreal, it wouldn't do him any good in isolation if he were to claim, contrary to the facts, that he could eat the branch of a tree and still remain healthy. Likewise, in a society, he would have to realize that honesty is the best policy, and consider a bad man to be a bad man if that bad man sought to gain control over his life in a detrimental manner, such as holding him up to take his money or his property. The concept of justice would apply insofar as a man would have to be honest with himself as to what his intent was in any given situation. Let's say he sought to build a shelter but it didn't come out the way he planned in isolation, he would still have to realize that he did what he could do and not punish himself, so long as he was intentionally trying to build that shelter rather than doing something else when he needed shelter. In a society, he would have to learn to deal with other men as living beings who did things to him or for him with full intention, such as making products that he could buy that were safe and effective as advertised. Whether he was in isolation or living in a society, he would have to realize that those things he needs to sustain his life do not all grow on trees but rather have to be made by him or other men. He would realize that the bow and arrow he needs can either be fashioned by him, or that the automobile he seeks to buy must be produced by him in the form of earning enough money to pay for it. As Aristotle said, pride is the crown of the virtues in that it leads a man to realize that insofar as he is alive, he deserves the best for himself provided he has been rational and deserving of that best. So, even in isolation, he would have to realize that while nature did not provide him with sustenance, he has the moral right to seek it or to make it. And likewise in a society were there might be others who claim he doesn't deserve the best because he is rational and following his own code of behavior, pride will give him the fortitude to seek the very best that his fellow man can trade with him, such as, say a new computer when his old one is no longer adequate.

And if man's life and the facts of reality are the standard, then a man has the absolute moral right to follow this type of fact-based morality, especially in dealing with other men, who may stand in his way with the threat of force trying to get him to act against his own best judgement. That is, he has a moral right to self-defense in the face of others who may seek to force him to follow some other non-factual code of morality. This is where the issue of individual rights means the enforcement of a moral code – the moral code that says it is right for an individual to live and act according to his own best judgement. It says, in effect, that a man has the moral right to be rational because it is only by being rational that a man can survive in the face of the facts. In any conflict between other men and the facts of reality, it is reality that takes precedent because to follow an irrational code of values means that he is fighting against the facts of reality and this will not be beneficial to his well-being as a living organism. Since force or the threat of force is making him act against his own best judgement, a rational man has the right to self-defense to follow his own mind and his own thinking; which means that in a society of other men the necessity of the rational man to follow reason and the facts is encoded into the law. In essence, a rational man is free to follow his own thinking on any issue so long as he leaves others the same freedom to act on their rational minds, with neither he nor they initiating force. But to secure this type of freedom to be rational, there needs to be a system of counter-force to protect him – a proper government -- and that counter-force would be guided by rational principles geared towards leaving him free of the initiation of force by others. A proper government seeks to place the use of force under rational principles dedicated to protecting and upholding a man's right to live his own life according to his own standards in a society of other men.

As examples of what would be forbidden in a rational society based on individual rights, consider the case whereby a man has come to the conclusion that Man-made Global Warming is a hoax and he needs to build that new factory using fossil fuels to power it. Under the provisions of individual rights, he would be free to build that factory and use that fossil fuel even though there would be many irrational men against him doing so on dubious if not downright irrational grounds. If those irrational men sought to stop him by force, a proper government would step in to use counter force against them, as the rational man building the factory would have the absolute moral right to build it and they would have no right to stop him. Or let's say he owns a website or a blog and writes essays and posts that are counter to the prevailing wisdom or lack thereof. If this were the case, a proper government would recognize his absolute moral right to speak his mind without having the fear that he may be attacked physically at any time due to the controversial nature of his writings. Like the man building a factory, the man building a weblog or a system of ideas would have the right to do as he rationally thought he should act, even in the face of others who may well disagree with his positions.

It is important to realize that while the issue of individual rights is the enforcement of a moral code, such that a man has the moral right to live his own life as he chooses and this must be secured by an agency of counter-force set up to enforce his rights, it would not impose a morality onto those who sought a different code of values. In other words, one could choose one's own code of value or one's own code of morality, provided one did not initiate force against others. A code of values accepted by choice means that no moral virtues would be forced onto him, such that the government would tell him he must be rational or go to jail. Objectivism recognizes that mind and force are opposites and that one cannot force the mind of another to accept rationality. The Objectivist virtues only operate within the confines of a man choosing to abide by them, and one cannot force another man to think. So, a man would be free to live his own life by his own code even though the rights of the individual would be encoded into the law according to rational principles and a rational code of ethics. It would make it possible for a rational man to be rational and free of the initiation of force, but it would not force another man who chooses to be irrational to abide by a rational code of conduct, provided that irrational man does not initiate force to get his values. The enforcement of a moral code in this understanding simply means that the rights of the individual to be free from the initiation of force would be upheld, but it would not force a given man to abide by the rational code of ethics it is based upon.

It is interesting to note, however, that violating the Objectivist Ethics -- to be viceful by a rational code of ethics -- implies the initiation of force or a violation of other people's rights. As rationality means dealing with the facts in a logical and non-contradictory manner, being irrational means that one will not have the right attitude about other men and how they, too, can be rational and beneficial to oneself. If one were to try to deal with men as non-men, as something other than the rational animal, one would soon find oneself trying to force others to act against their better judgement. As independence means thinking something through on one's own, too much reliance on others implies that one may very well try to make them into chattel. As integrity means acting according to one's best rational thinking, the lack of integrity means that one will not be taking all the facts into account when dealing with others, including the fact that they have free will and have certain rights that must be taken into account. As honesty means recognizing that the unreal is unreal and cannot be of benefit to oneself, being dishonest can lead to cases where one is defrauding another, which would be a violation of their rights. As justice requires taking into account the fact that each man acts according to his own free will, denying justice can mean that one will force others to act in ways that imply that he is an automaton and can be handled like a machine. As productiveness means that one will create the values necessary to secure one's survival, being unproductive implies stealing from others to get what one wants. As pride means moral self-assertiveness, being pride-less or humble implies that one will eventually force others to not be as self-assertive as they ought to be, to enslave both their mind and their body.

So, the whole concept of individual rights rests on the foundation of a rational ethics – one that takes the facts of reality and the facts of man into account across the board. Since a rational man is the one best suited to gaining values actually geared towards the life of a human being – of creating those values that are factually beneficial to any given man – the proper society must be set up to insure his rights as this will bring the most benefits to everyone involved. It is only by securing individual rights that civilization has progressed to the point where we have a wider variety of choices as to what to pursue in a social context. It was a government set up on these types of rational principles that made it possible for our current Western civilization to progress from horse and buggies, for example, to airplanes and automobiles. It was by securing individual rights that the Internet was born and flourishes; it is only by securing individual rights that a man can work for a living earning more wages than he needs for basic sustenance, so that he has money for buying things in life that he could not get in the wilderness on his own. In a proper and rational social context, each man has the right of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, which is what he will pursue if he is rational about his own life. The idea that individual rights is the enforcement of a moral code in a social context simply means that a man has the moral right to live his life even when dealing with others. If force is used against him, then he can protect himself with counter-force, because it is only by living a life guided by reason that he can survive in reality as a rational being. The enforcement of the rational moral code by a proper government means that each man would be free to be rational in a social context, which means free from the forceful interference from others so that he can still deal directly with reality by his best rational judgement; and it also means that a given man can live an irrational life, so long as he does not force others to go along with him.

In this understanding of living in a human society, freedom is the ability to be rational in a social context without the fear of being forced to hold counter opinions or knowledge or being forced to act against one's better judgement. While it is geared towards the life of a rational man, an irrational man would not be forced to think or to be virtuous, but would be prevented from using force against others to satisfy his needs. In a proper, rational society, the initiation of force would be outlawed across the board, and this would also protect the irrational man within the limits of him not forcing his positions onto others with a gun or a club or some other means of using force irrationally. This means that a rational man would be free to speak his mind and live his live according to his own standards, free from the fear of force initiated by the irrational who may disagree with him and seek to stop him with force.

Ayn Rand said that morality is a code of values accepted by choice, and in a society set up according to Objectivist principles, including the enforcement of individual rights, living free means one can hold and act upon the morality of one's choice so long as one does not initiate force against others.

For further reading:

Man's Rights by Ayn Rand


Addendum, added 11/29/2014:

A friend of mine who read this essay on individual rights says that I should have included the idea that individual rights are both inalienable and necessary if human civilization is to continue to flourish; and I agree, though I think it was implicit in what I wrote above. If man has a specific factual nature, then everything a man does and how society treats him ought to be based on those facts about man qua individual living entity. Individual rights are inalienable in the sense that they are based upon man's factual nature – specific facts about man, such as the fact that each man is individual and each man has his own mind to guide him as he lives his own life, give rise to the idea that a man ought to be free to live his own life. It is these types of facts that cannot be taken away from a man, even in those cases where force is being used against him. No amount of force can change the fact that a man operates his own mind and makes his own decisions as how he ought to live his life. As Ayn Rand puts the case, force can be used to destroy an individual or his individual mind, but it is not the same thing as persuading him to make another decision based upon reason and the facts.

Individual rights are necessary for the same reason. All that is good that comes from man was made possible by individual men thinking things through in their individual and logical manner and making great achievements they can trade with others. Without the recognition of their rights to live their own lives and to profit from such beneficial types of trade, there would be no human civilization to speak of. It was the working of many individual minds after individual rights were recognized by the West and especially by the United States of America that led to a type of human civilization where science and reason could prosper, and the life expectancy of the individual could go from roughly 25 years old to well over 75 years old. Recognizing individual rights is both beneficial and necessary if man's life as the rational animal is to move beyond range of the moment values. In other words, it was the recognition of individual rights to various degrees that made it possible to move from literal starvation of the vast majority of men to what we have now in civilized countries whereby a man doesn't even have to farm for himself but can go to the grocery store and buy all the food he needs to sustain both himself and his family. Without the recognition of individual rights man would once again be plummeted back into pre-civilized eras where a man could only expect to die at a young age and was starving for most of the time he was alive. In other words, the recognition of individual rights are necessary if a man is to live at all based upon his factual nature. As a man needs oxygen to be able to breath, so a man needs the freedom to live his own life, or he perishes at the hands of a pack of human wolves intent on taking his life and freedom away from him. So, it is basically the protection of individual rights leading to life, or savagery leading to death; and there is no middle alternative.

Added 04/20/2020 Covid-19 comment:

[Note 03/17/2021 update: The false premise, which I held for a short time, is that it is the government's job to real in Covid-19 spreaders by locking down everyone until they are found. ]

Rights as Contextual

[Edited 05/06/2020: I want to make it absolutely clear that under a rational code of morality and living with individual rights in a civil society, that a general county-wide and state-wide type of lockdowns as we experienced here in Pennsylvania and elsewhere across the country that a proper government **does not have that kind of authority as stated in the Constitution**. Such lockdowns, quarantines, and cordons are only for a limited area (less than a city) for a limited and specified time period and highly conditioned upon the nature of the contagion and the medical advances possible at that time. Today we do have a test for Covid-19 that is fast and mostly accurate, so they could have tested people who lived in an area that had high contagion cases, and then quarantining those who had it and were spreading it, while letting everyone else go about their business. And in certain cases, if you are known to have come from an area that has a high infection rate of many people having the disease, forced testing before entry might be required, but the terms of this would have to be decided by both medical specialists and legal specialists (both pro and con) so that the contagion could be gotten in order quickly before more people were killed by it. So, what I have tried to say in this addition is that the issue of individual rights is contextual and you still have them even if you are caught up in some sort of official and rights protecting drag net, but it has to be a small area and very specific in the law; and if it is not so specified in the law, then the government cannot do it.]

For more on the proper role of government in a contagious disease situation I would recommend the following hour and a half video discussion: 

And this two hour long Power Hour interview with Alex Epstein as host and Onkar Ghate as guest: