On the Proper Concept of Rights and Free Speech
- NOTE: This is a condensed version of my blog entitled In Defense of Absolute Rights and Free Speech Against Absolute Ignorance. It focuses only on the proper concept of rights.
In any social or political setting, free speech is the most valuable ally of man. This freedom simply means any individual, regardless of his social status, political views, religion or ethnicity, is free from government restraint, intrusion or punitive action. Free speech or freedom of expression does not impose any form on obligation on others; it does not mean that any individual is entitled to any means or monetary support to express his personal or political opinions or beliefs at the expense of other individuals who may not wish to support him. It includes the right to argue and discuss issues with any one or any group, not to listen, not to agree and not to support one’s own enemies.
Free speech has two underlying attributes— man’s freedom to think and to act. The first attribute postulates that man cannot be free if priori restrictions were imposed on him in order to control his thoughts or cognition. Before man can express his views or opinions about any social, political, religious or scientific issues, he must first exercise his freedom of thought. The second attribute posits that man should be free to act or to express his views or opinions without any form of restriction. Thus, free speech means freedom from prior restraints and freedom from subsequent retribution.
The ongoing attack on free speech in many countries today is mainly due to people’s ignorance of the proper concept of rights and freedom. There are two types of enemies of free speech who seek to rob the individual of his freedom to think and to act: first, the advocates of political correctness, and second, the advocates of thought control. It is important to grasp the nature of the battle of these two anti-free speech camps in order to properly understand their strategic means to attack rights and freedoms.
Are rights absolute? What is the definition of a “right” and what makes it absolute? A right is a moral principle sanctioning and defining an individual’s freedom to act and to think in a social context. This is consistent with the definition provided by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which states that “Rights are entitlements (not) to perform certain actions, or (not) to be in certain states; or entitlements that others (not) perform certain actions or (not) be in certain states.” Thus, this means that a right simply pertains to freedom to act— that man should be free from physical interference, coercion, compulsion by the state or other men.
There are two underlying aspects of “rights”—1) the right to think, and 2) the right to act. If any of these two aspects were limited or curtailed by the state or other men, man cannot be said to be free. So are rights absolute? Definitely.
If a “right” is not absolute it means that it is divisible or non-existent. Thus, it can either be limited or totally negated. For instance, if a man’s right to life is not absolute, this presupposes that a powerful political entity (e.g., government) has the authority to limit, curtail, or even disregard it. If a man has a non-absolute right to liberty, it means that he’s a slave or a prisoner.
Absolute rights simply mean that man— every man— has:
- the right to freedom of thought or the right to think;
- the right to freedom of action (it means that he is free to do whatever he wants to do provided that he refrains from violating the rights of others)
- to the right to pursuit of happiness and to live his life according to his free will (this means that man is the master of his soul and that his life belongs to him, not to the state, to any tribe, or to anyone);
- the right to defend his rights and values from any entity or other men.
In her revolutionary book titled the Virtue of Selfishness (p.93), American philosopher Ayn Rand offers the most objective, proper concept of rights:
A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)
The concept of a “right” pertains only to action—specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men.
Thus, for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive—of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights.
The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.
Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.
However, there are some nihilist people who believe that freedom of speech, rights and freedom are just “artificial notion ingrained in our heads by generations of ambient messages.” Those who believe in such a mediocrity or even insanity have already suspended the validity of their minds. This is in fact worse than the claim that absolute freedom or rights are merely a theory.
If freedom and rights are artificial or social constructs, then reality is nothing but a fantasy and we’re just part of the chaos of an unknowable space they call universe. Anyone who embraces this so mediocre a notion needs to be asked: Are you a human being? Is yes, what does your life requires in order to live as a human being and not like any other low life animals in the jungle? Do you believe that you are entitled to your own life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness? If yes, then these are called rights. The word “right” is simply an abstraction, which we use to identify existing concretes or that which exists. Animals cannot perform the process of abstraction; we humans do. If we don’t have a concept of rights and freedom, then any scheming thug or criminal who acquired the power of number or the power of force can easily devour us or turn us into slaves.
Since we are not animals we need a social system or a government tasked with the protection of rights. This concept of government is what the advocates of non-absolute rights fail to understand, as they dogmatically believe that if rights were absolute then there would be chaos. Such a claim is necessarily true because anarchy would ensue if we don’t have a proper concept of government.
In the distant past the nomads lived their lives in an anarchic society or territory. They had no concept of rights and government. Their case is the real, actual proof that rights are absolute and that absolute rights without government would result in chaos. Why is this the case? Because no matter how you claim that rights are not absolute, men still have the free will to think and to act.
Those dogmatically believe that rights are not absolute are simply attempting to negate, distort or deny reality. No one has the power to distort or negate or twist reality simple because it is independent of man’s mind or consciousness. Reality is everything that exists, and man has no power to negate it because existence is existence.
The reality is, man is man with absolute rights and freedom. These two— rights and freedom—are parts of his human nature, thus parts of reality. It took man thousands of years since the beginning of mankind to discover these concepts. More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle, the father of modern science, developed a mental process to understand reality: logic. It is through logic and his discovery of reason that Aristotle grasped that rights and freedom are indispensable, inalienable attributes to man’s existence, thereby proclaiming that man ‘is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others.’ It was Aristotle who discovered that reality is objective and that man needs reason for his survival. He also understood the importance of definitions to man’s cognition. With the highly valuable contributions of Aristotle, Galileo Galilei, Herodotus, and all philosophers, discoverers, scientists, and mathematicians of the olden age to the store of human knowledge, this means that the modern world need not start from zero in order to understand the nature of reality and to discover the things that humans need in order to survive.
Reality has it that man is born with absolute rights and freedom. Anyone who claims otherwise is simply attempting to negate or deny reality. True, each individual has to be accountable for what he does or says, however, that does not justify the claim the rights are not absolute. In a rights-respecting country, anyone—even the “smallest person in the land”— must be protected by law and the Constitution from being silenced by the government or other men. This is reality!
Since man is not infallible and since rationality is a choice, man needs a government to protect his rights. The proper role of government is in fact the answer to those who claim that absolute rights would necessarily lead to chaos. What’s the proper function of government and why is it necessary to human life and affairs? A government, the powers of which should be limited by law, exists to protect man’s rights. We need a police force to protect us from gangs and criminals; we need courts to protect contracts and to settle disputes; and we need a military to protect us from rebellion, treason or invasion. Thus, there is no basis to that assumption that an absolute rights could lead to anarchy.
Freedom of speech and the bill of rights are a protection against possible government abuse or unjustified invasion of private citizens’ freedom and rights. True, when you abuse your rights and injure others, you have to face the full force of the law. This is why a government exists in order to protect people’s rights and freedom. The existence of defamation law or any anti-free speech political measure does not negate the fact that rights are absolute.
Intrusive laws or any political measures designed to stifle, regulate or even abrogate individual rights and freedom are simply acts of men or any dictator or ruling class with a distorted, twisted concept of reality. To them, reality is just like a pretzel that can be twisted or shaped or misshaped according to feelings, whims, and caprices. To control man’s mind, they can simply write laws. To control man’s actions, they can simply issue restrictions and regulations and mobilize an army so to police men’s conduct and affairs. All these scenarios are part of reality in all collectivist/socialist countries like China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Cuba, Venezuela, among others.
Laws or any political edicts do not have the power to distort or destroy reality. A dictator may be able to pass restrictive laws against free speech, but reality has it that men are still free to think and to act. Thus, the only enemy of man’s rights and freedom is a collectivist government, while its most devoted ally are those who believe and support the idea that rights and freedom are not absolute.
The main source of logical fallacies of those who reject the idea that rights are absolute is their misplaced, crude, ignorant understanding of the concept of rights. As already stated above, a right refers to freedom of action in a social context. It does not impose any form of obligation on others. A right to life does not mean that the government or someone must feed your or give you the basic necessities for survival. It simply means you have the right to work and to sustain your life without putting any form of burden on others. If you firmly believe that others are obliged to feed you, it means that those other are condemned to slave labor. The right to liberty does not mean you are entitled to destroy the property of others with impunity and then claim you have a right to do so. In a free society with objective laws, you would be sent to jail for violating other people’s rights. The right to property does not mean others are obliged to give you land or shelter you need; it means you are free to work and earn the fruits of your labor.
In the Philippines and in many parts of the world, there are a lot of people who believe that a “right” carries with it an obligation imposed on others. For instance, many people believe that education is a right so the government must provide it to them at the expense of those who are condemned to pay high income tax rates. Others believe in rights to health care, transport, or any form of welfare services without realizing that some other people are obliged to pay for those extorted services.
- For the listed sources you may read In Defense of Absolute Rights and Free Speech Against Absolute Ignorance