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A right to live/exist?

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I am seeking clarification on whether humans have a "right" to life, or whether life is the presupposition and necessary condition from which rights arise. I've included this in the Political forum because the question came up as I was debating property rights with a group of anarchists. Before we could discuss property rights we had to understand more basic ideas about the nature of rights.

In OPAR - Individual Rights as Absolutes, Peikoff says:

"The fundamental right is the right to life. Its major derivatives are the right to liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness."

I didn't used to question this, but unfortunately I don't understand it well enough to explain to others. How is the right to life conferred? What gives us the right to life? Is it because man is rational that he has a right to life, whereas a plant does not have a right to life because it is not rational?

A second problem which I am embarrassed to say I couldn't refute in the course of the discussion, was someone's assertion that a slave owner is NOT infringing upon the slave's "fundamental right" of the "right to life." I indicated that the slave owner was infringing upon the right to a life proper to man. Do you have any clarification on this?

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Here's something off the top of my head:

First, recall that "A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context."

Second, recall that "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.)"

Finally, recall that only humans have a choice to live - plants and lower animals act more or less automatically. It is this fact - man's nature as a volitional being - that is the source of his right to life.

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Both, of course. Life is one of the necessary conditions for a right to life, obviously, and humans have a right to life because it is a condition required by human nature to preserve a man's life and well-being in a social context.

The right to life is not conferred or given, it's a matter of causality applies to man's nature and the nature of reality. E.g., If you want to remain alive, you ought to be free from murder.

Man's mode of survival is one of the main facts of his nature than give rise to his need of a right to life. More fundamentally, the plant has no right to life because the plant has no consciousness, volition, or rationality and therefore does not choose or act purposefully between alternatives, and a thing that does not have to choose its actions can have no need of morality, and therefore can have no rights.

Your response on the slave argument is basically right, that when we say right to “life” in this context, we mean a lot more than just mere morgue avoidance. The reason why the slave's right to life is being violated is that since life is the ultimate value, every man's life is an end in itself, meaning the slave is being used as a means to the ends of others, thus violating his right to life, in other words, his own life for his own end.

Understanding Rand's ethics from the ground up is obligatory to understanding her conception of individual rights and the right to life. See Rand here and here.

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Second, recall that "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.)"

Finally, recall that only humans have a choice to live - plants and lower animals act more or less automatically. It is this fact - man's nature as a volitional being - that is the source of his right to life.

Based on this, it would appear that the severly retarded do not have any right to life.

*** *** Mod's note: For continued discussion on retarded human beings, see this thread. - sN *** ***

Edited by softwareNerd
Moved some post to a more appropriate thread
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For the property rights portion of the original post:

What is Property? Putting the Pieces Back Together

Adam Mossoff, George Mason University School of Law

What is property? Is it merely a linguistic term, denoting a complex aggregate of separate rights that have been merely “bundled” together for ease of reference? Is it a matter of only excluding other people from one’s possessions? Or is it something more—a concept that represents an integrated unity of the exclusive right to acquire, use and dispose of one’s things? The complex institutions that have been created around the concept of property are omnipresent in our society today, but the pressing question remains whether there is a theoretical account of property that can sufficiently describe and guide these institutions.

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I didn't used to question this, but unfortunately I don't understand it well enough to explain to others. How is the right to life conferred? What gives us the right to life? Is it because man is rational that he has a right to life, whereas a plant does not have a right to life because it is not rational?

To be precise, rights are not "conferred" by anything or anyone. Rights are simply an objective necessity of any social system designed to allow those living under it to live and flourish. We determine this by looking at human nature; specifically, the fact that we survive through the use of reason. This use of reason relies crucially on our ability to live by our own independent judgment; to think for ourselves and act upon our conclusions. Rights for Objectivism are not 'real' in the sense that they are for some natural rights theorists; rather, rights are simply a concept denoting the actions we must be free to take if we are to live by our own judgment. Thus, any social system properly designed for man will protect the right to life for those living under it. From this brief derivation, it should be obvious why the concept of rights does not apply to organisms that do not use reason.

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Along with what others have said, these articles (available online at ARI) -- especially the first one, "Man's Rights" -- might be of help:

"Man's Rights"

"Collectivized Rights"

"The Nature of Government"

"The Objectivist Ethics"

From "Man's Rights," the succinct answer is:

“The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A—and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational.” (Atlas Shrugged) [bold mine]

Edited by Trebor
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  • 2 weeks later...

I would add that there is a difference between a 'right to live' and a 'right to exist'. A right to live is the right to take life sustaining actions, to pursue a certain course of action. But I don't see how there can be such a thing as a 'right to exist'. To exist is the payoff of a successful living, but it is also an outcome, and there can be no such thing as a right to an outcome. We have a right to pursue wealth, but not a right to wealth.

Rand admired the intellectual precision of the Founding Fathers when they said Man has a right to the pursuit of happiness, not a right to happiness. We have a right to pursue something, to take action, but no right to the outcome.

Does that help?

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A second problem which I am embarrassed to say I couldn't refute in the course of the discussion, was someone's assertion that a slave owner is NOT infringing upon the slave's "fundamental right" of the "right to life."

This is something a person would say UNTIL they were the slave. Additionally, slave owners typically enforce their will on slaves with the leverage being torture, mutilation or death. Slaves aren't slaves because they are asked nicely to do things.

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I would add that there is a difference between a 'right to live' and a 'right to exist'. A right to live is the right to take life sustaining actions, to pursue a certain course of action. But I don't see how there can be such a thing as a 'right to exist'. To exist is the payoff of a successful living, but it is also an outcome, and there can be no such thing as a right to an outcome. We have a right to pursue wealth, but not a right to wealth.

Rand admired the intellectual precision of the Founding Fathers when they said Man has a right to the pursuit of happiness, not a right to happiness. We have a right to pursue something, to take action, but no right to the outcome.

Does that help?

You are correct that it is not a metaphysical entitlement on the universe to keep on existing. Rights are directed at other people, not at the universe or at reality as a whole. I think what is meant by "right to exist" is usually the same thing as "right to life," only in a more narrow sense of "right not to be murdered, i.e. taken out of existence by other people."

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I was just talking about this in another forum; glad to see it here too. It's a very important topic. This is what I wrote there; I think it applies here too...

"Another common misconception is the notion that rights cannot be violated—they most certainly can; rights only give us a basis for justice. That way we can identify that any violation of said rights is wrong. I hear the left claim "right to a job", which is an appeal to justice, they think it unjust that they are without work; but in order to come to that conclusion they would have to ignore reality to make way for their desired "reality". The root of rights is not a whim or desire, but reality and nature. Where in nature do jobs come from? Which tree do they grow from? They know that they don't come from nature, but they think that we don't know it or at least they think that we don't know that that fact matters—it most certainly does as a matter of life or death.

"Rights, which are derived from nature and reality, come from the premise that life is good; more specifically the thought that "my life is good". The idea that "my life is good" allows us to set our first value—life. Certain conditions must exist for mans ability to thrive and further his life; among these are his free reign to seek, acquire and maintain what he values [like food, water, shelter, and more complex values]. It is natural that he lives for himself since no one can do that for him. Therefore, right to life, liberty, property and others are natural rights, which you'd see man practice, if he were isolated in nature. The idea is that in a society, man would still require these rights to thrive because the conditions necessary for his life doesn't change. By preserving these rights, the code that we set for society is the code of life—i.e., man's ability to live for himself. What is their code—those who clamor "right to a job", "right to a home", "right to healthcare", "right to forfeit your property and liberty for their need"? I'll give you a hint—it is not life."

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