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Why is LIFE a RIGHT?

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"Although Objectivist literature does not use the term "natural rights", the rights it recognizes are based directly on the nature of human beings as described in its epistemology and ethics. Since human beings must make choices in order to survive as human beings, the basic requirement of a human life is the freedom to make, and act on, one's own independent rational judgment, according to one's self-interest.

Thus, Objectivism contends, the fundamental right of human beings is the right to life." - Wikipedia

I agree with this statement completely - man needs to be able to make choices in order to survive as a human being - but why does this make life a RIGHT? What IS a right?

According to who? Why is it INVIOLABLE? Why am I BORN with it? If it's based on my "nature" as a "rational being" then why do CHILDREN have this right? Why do MENTALLY RETARDED individuals have this right?

Just because it is a necessity of my human nature in order to live - why does this make life a RIGHT?

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Thus, Objectivism contends, the fundamental right of human beings is the right to life." - Wikipedia

I agree with this statement completely - man needs to be able to make choices in order to survive as a human being - but why does this make life a RIGHT? What IS a right?

I have a general recommendation about these kinds of questions, which is to consult the writings of Ayn Rand, who created Objectivism. Popular-press paraphrases are almost always wrong when they are not carefully supported with quotes from Rand. The basic work is "The Objectivist Ethics", in Virtue of Selfishness. You should read it, but here is the very brief Cliff's Notes introduction that may get you to understanding Objectivist ethics (this is a hacked up version of her wording, my attempt to point you in the correct direction with mostly Rand's word).

Morality is a code of values to guide man's actions. What are values, and why does man need them? What standard determines what is proper in the context of the existence of a being? The sensation of pleasure indicates that the organism is pursuing the right course of action; pain is a signal of danger, indicating that the organism is pursuing the wrong course of action, in the context of existing. Man has to discover what is good for him, and his survival require the guidance of conceptual values. What are the right goals for man to pursue? That is the to be answered by the science of ethics, which is why man needs a code of ethics.

The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that every human is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others: man must live for his own sake. Can man derive a personal benefit from living in a human society? Yes—if it is a human society. The benefits of human society define what kind of men can be of value: only rational, productive, independent men in a rational, productive, free society. No society can be of value to man's life if the price is the surrender of his right to his life.

The basic political principle is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. No one has the right to assume the role of a criminal and initiate the use of physical compulsion against any man. The proper purpose of government is to protect man's rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence—to protect his right to his own life, to his own liberty, to his own property and to the pursuit of his own happiness. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Now that said, you are starting the question from an intermediate stage: you're asking a question about politics which is dependent on having a foundation in morality. Let's assume that foundation, then: you choose to live, and therefore certain actions are by nature proper or right for that decision. This will lead you into the political question you're asking. But politics without morality is the evil, wicked, immoral philosophy of legal positivism.

Why is it "right"? Because that is what right means.

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I have a general recommendation about these kinds of questions, which is to consult the writings of Ayn Rand, who created Objectivism. Popular-press paraphrases are almost always wrong when they are not carefully supported with quotes from Rand. The basic work is "The Objectivist Ethics", in Virtue of Selfishness. You should read it, but here is the very brief Cliff's Notes introduction that may get you to understanding Objectivist ethics (this is a hacked up version of her wording, my attempt to point you in the correct direction with mostly Rand's word).

Morality is a code of values to guide man's actions. What are values, and why does man need them? What standard determines what is proper in the context of the existence of a being? The sensation of pleasure indicates that the organism is pursuing the right course of action; pain is a signal of danger, indicating that the organism is pursuing the wrong course of action, in the context of existing. Man has to discover what is good for him, and his survival require the guidance of conceptual values. What are the right goals for man to pursue? That is the to be answered by the science of ethics, which is why man needs a code of ethics.

The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that every human is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others: man must live for his own sake. Can man derive a personal benefit from living in a human society? Yes—if it is a human society. The benefits of human society define what kind of men can be of value: only rational, productive, independent men in a rational, productive, free society. No society can be of value to man's life if the price is the surrender of his right to his life.

The basic political principle is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. No one has the right to assume the role of a criminal and initiate the use of physical compulsion against any man. The proper purpose of government is to protect man's rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence—to protect his right to his own life, to his own liberty, to his own property and to the pursuit of his own happiness. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Now that said, you are starting the question from an intermediate stage: you're asking a question about politics which is dependent on having a foundation in morality. Let's assume that foundation, then: you choose to live, and therefore certain actions are by nature proper or right for that decision. This will lead you into the political question you're asking. But politics without morality is the evil, wicked, immoral philosophy of legal positivism.

Why is it "right"? Because that is what right means.

David I appreciate your lengthy reply but I'm not sure you answered any of my questions. It seems to me that what you wrote was a longer version of what was summarized in the wikipedia entry. I understand that it is "moral" to have a right to life if "life is your highest standard" - but I'm asking a question that goes even before that: why is life the highest standard? It you answer this question, it would then be easy to answer these:

Why is "the basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics that every human is an end in himself"? Why must 'man live for his own sake"?

Furthermore, I still don't understand how these questions are answered:

"According to who? Why is it INVIOLABLE? Why am I BORN with it? If it's based on my "nature" as a "rational being" then why do CHILDREN have this right? Why do MENTALLY RETARDED individuals have this right?"

***********************

I completely understand that if man wishes to have life as his highest standard then he needs the preceding right to life in order to live this way, but that still doesn't answer my question of why this necessitates a human "right" to anything.

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I understand that it is "moral" to have a right to life if "life is your highest standard" - but I'm asking a question that goes even before that: why is life the highest standard?
Now I think you're much closer to the core question. So analyse that basic question of yours -- "why is life the highest standard". Standard of what? (Typically, people say "value"). But what is a value -- valuable to whom, for what purpose? (Typically, people don't realize that the answer is "My life"). In other words, ask first, what makes value possible?
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I forgot to mention these points:

"According to who? Why is it INVIOLABLE? Why am I BORN with it? If it's based on my "nature" as a "rational being" then why do CHILDREN have this right? Why do MENTALLY RETARDED individuals have this right?"
This isn't an "according to whom", i.e. it's not a dictate. It follows from the nature of existence, purpose, value and good. Your right to life is in fact violable, because "violable" means that it is possible to violate the right. What people mean is that there is no proper violation of your right to life, and briefly (very briefly), that follows from the non-contradictory nature of existence. You're speaking of political rights, which are recognised, in civilized society, via a code of law, which conceptually states what is proper and improper for man living in a free, civilized society. The fundamental existential fact that the law refers to is that man is a rational animal, and therefore men must have rights. But again, before getting to the highly concrete question of political rights and children or mental defectives, you have to have a good grip on the basic issue of "purpose" and "value".
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I agree with the original poster. When I am working through Objectivism in my head I always have trouble with this one:

Why is life a right?

Once you assume that life is a right, then you can build on that about values, but why is it a right?

I'll try to answer:

As a human being you have volition. An animal does not choose to live, but a human chooses to live. By actively contributing to your survival (getting food, shelter ect.) you are choosing to live. Does an animal have the right to life? No. So what is the difference between a human and an animal? Although both humans and animals can live, as well as be killed, only a human can CHOOSE to die.

So, if you accept that a being has volition (humans) then they have the right to life, because it is the fundamental choice of that being. Without the choice the being should not be considered human. Why does a baby have rights? That is tough, maybe because they will grow into a being that can choose life? But then why is it acceptable to kill a fetus?

Summary

Humans have the right to life, because to be a human you must answer the question "to be or not to be." No one else can answer, therefore the right to life (the most basic right) is in the individual.

Non Sequitor: Once you accept the right to life you build the other rights. If someone has the right to life then they have the right to promote their own life, by using their labor produtivly and using the outputs of their labor.

I hope that answered more questions than it raised... I appreciate feedback from everyone.

Edited by tobyk100
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This is not exactly how Ayn Rand explained the right to life but it may help you to understand the idea better:

Man is a living being, this means that for man has fundamental alternative: to exist or not, to live or to die. Man has the faculty of volition, this means man is capable of choice. These two facts mean that man must choose to live, and must choose to act in such a way that his life is enhanced and not destroyed.

When men coexist, the choices of one man can affect another. One man can choose to kill another, for instance. When someone does this, we have a living volitional being choosing to end the life of another: he is by his actions contradicting his own nature. When you murder someone you are denying the essential condition of your own existence - all men are metaphysically equivalent, if your victim's life is worthless so is your own.

In the same manner, if you choose to not let another man choose you are contradicting the essential character of man. If his ability to choose is worthless, so is your own.

The essential conditions of man's life we call "rights" and these actions that when taken negate your own nature as a living volitional being we call "rights violations". It is wrong to violate the rights of others because in doing so you are contradicting your own nature - denying your own essential conditions for life as a man, your own rights. It is not merely that if you violate the rights of others, others will violate yours - that is merely a consequence. In violating someone's rights you have already damaged yourself by trying to enact a contradiction.

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The answer is very simple. The right to life stems from the fact that we, as a species, need to survive. The only way to survive is to think. But thinking requires work, it requires the active choice to think. This is where the idea of volition comes from. Animals do not have a choice in whether they survive or not because their basic means of survival are their pre-programmed instincts. The same is not true of human beings. We have a choice to think, and we must be able to exercise that choice in order to survive and do so happily (refer to Rand's explaination of "man-qua-man"). Thus, the right to life- which translates as: the right to think. All of the other rights (liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness) stem from this right to think. To survive, the mind must be free, it cannot work under force- thus the right to liberty. To survive, one must be able to keep what he produces (with his mind)- thus the right to property.

Hopefully I've at least partially answered your question.

A much more interesting question is why the pursuit of happiness should be a right. It is not necessary for man's survival as a speicies. I have some thoughts, but they aren't defined very well yet.

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The answer is very simple. The right to life stems from the fact that we, as a species, need to survive.

How does a species "need" to survive? There is certainly no natural necessity, since species go extinct and other new species are created all the time going back billions of years.

Specifically, why does man need to survive and how does that translate into saying that a man needs to survive? For instance, if rights stem from the survival of the species it would seem that it would be entirely consistant to kill off even large numbers of people if it meant preserving the species.

For instance, if there is a shortage of resources such that the group will not all survive, it would be moral to kill enough people until the land would be able to support the remaining few.

This is one of the things which I have never understood about objectivism, namely how a right to life exists is founded on anything other than as a selfish desire of individuals to live. And a desire to live is something shared by animals as well to which objectivists ascribe no rights at all.

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This is one of the things which I have never understood about objectivism, namely how a right to life exists is founded on anything other than as a selfish desire of individuals to live. And a desire to live is something shared by animals as well to which objectivists ascribe no rights at all.

While I share your confusion about realitycheck44's position, I don't understand what your confusion is about the Objectivist position on the right to life. Where did you get the impression that it was something other than "a selfish desire of individuals to live?" Do you perhaps mean something different by that phrase than an Objectivist would?

How much Objectivism have you read? If we recognize rights because it is in our selfish interest as men qua man to do so, then how could you be confused that the same rights are not granted to animals? Obviously, it is not in our selfish interest as men qua man to do so.

Here's a quote, even:

Reason is the only objective means of communication and of understanding among men; when men deal with one another by means of reason, reality is their objective standard and frame of reference. But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion, communication or understanding are impossible. Why do we kill wild animals in the jungle? Because no other way of dealing with them is open to us.
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How much Objectivism have you read? If we recognize rights because it is in our selfish interest as men qua man to do so, then how could you be confused that the same rights are not granted to animals? Obviously, it is not in our selfish interest as men qua man to do so.

The problem is that I don't see a clear logical jump from the propositions "all individual men have a desire to live" to "all men have a right to life." The fact that one man desires to live in no way necessitates that all other men's desires to live are relevant or should be protected as a "right." Because again, I don't see how the line can be drawn based on a meaningful principle.

Why not say that Aryan people have a right to life but don't have to recognize the right to life of Jews or blacks because it is not in their selfish interest to do so?

Certainly it is not possible to reason with animals, but that hardly seems a meaningful line since we extend rights to children and the disabled as well as reasoning adults. The capacity for reason may also matter in areas of conflict or self-defense (where there is no option with animals other than the use of force) but this doesn't translate into the idea that animals have no rights at all, and may be killed at-will for any reason or whim whatsoever.

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I think the major confusion here (I may be wrong) is that some of you are treating the "right to life" as a right to some thing, not as a right to action. The right to life means, in practice, the right for a rational being to take those actions necessary for the furtherance of its own life. One has a right to take action to further one's life, but not a right to live qua guaranteed life, therefore the right to life is not a metaphysical fact, but a metaphysical reqirement of action, it is essentially morality between two or more people. An objective morality states that a man must do certain things to further his life and that those which he does to further his life are "good" are "right," i.e. it is (a) right for him to do those things. Preventing him from doing those things would be a politically immoral thing to do. Right are violable, but not alienable because they derive from the ethical requirements of man's survival. If man is to survive, he MUST act within his rights. This is a requirement set down by his nature and is unalterable. Once he steps outside the limit of his rights, man is acting toward his own destruction; it is life or death, there is no third option.

Animals do not have (freedom)rights because they lack volition, not because we have decided not to give them rights or because its in our better interest to not recognize their rights. Rights are metaphysical requirements of survival, and animal are in no need of (freedom)rights to survive qua animal, they need no freedom to make choices because they lack the ability to make choices. If you want to talk about any "animal rights" then they would have the right to act as animals, which means, to be dealt with by force. That is the only way to deal with them, in reality.

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If I recognize an animal's rights, will it recognize mine in return? If the animals are ready and willing to sit down with us humans and agree on some principle similar to rights, then I would not be against considering their proposition. (Here's an earlier post I did on the topic.)

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I am still not seeing how the arguments connect. Accepting a right to life seems to be based on two assumptions that the right itself can't prove.

1.) The desire of all human individuals to live needs to be protected for some reason.

2.) Humans are metaphysically equal.

I guess I am just not seeing where the justification for a right to right rests for objectivists. Is it a utilitarian rationale, IE that a right to life is a precondition for organized society and is in the best interest of the vast majority of individuals? Or is it a sort of natural law, which admits of no societal justification or modification?

In regards to animal rights, the argument I am seeing against them is because animals are not reasoning beings they don't have rights? I am not sure how this follows either, since human rights are ultimately founded on the desire for humans to live, it seems logical that an animal right to life can be founded on the same justification. Whether or not animal rights can be reciprocal seems somewhat irrelevant in this regard. Saying that because animals don't understand the concept of rights they can't have rights seems to mandate that small children, senile old people, and the mentally retarded similarly have no rights.

It seems that any protection of rights for these classes of humans can exist only as a legal fiction. And if so, why not extend this legal fiction to include higher forms of animals as well?

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That would be an interesting question if we were ever to find a species that were similar to young children and stayed that way even though they were adults.

I don't know what you mean by "utilitarian". A person who is living in a sociaety needs other people to recognize his rights. That the way he doesn't get pummelled by any random thug.

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That would be an interesting question if we were ever to find a species that were similar to young children and stayed that way even though they were adults.

We already know of such species. Not to bring up that talking apes thread again, but I believe many scientists would agree that gorillas have the intellectual capacity of very young children.

What I would like to know is why objectivism makes the following distinctions:

2-year-old human child = rights

40-year-old human with intelligence of 2-year-old child = rights

Brain-damaged 40-year-old human with no conciousness or motor control =rights

Gorilla with intelligence of 2-year old child = no rights

Dog with intelligence less than human child but more than brain-damaged human = no rights

I don't know what you mean by "utilitarian". A person who is living in a sociaety needs other people to recognize his rights. That the way he doesn't get pummelled by any random thug.

By utilitarian I mean that the only justification for a human right to life comes from the need to prevent such violance in society because that is the only way society can properly function. As such, the human right to life depends on the structure and requirements of that society. It would thus not be inconsistant to have a society where slaves have no right to life, or where women have none, or the mentally ill have none, etc. It all depends on what sort of conception of rights best allows for the growth and survival of human society.

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I am still not seeing how the arguments connect. Accepting a right to life seems to be based on two assumptions that the right itself can't prove.

1.) The desire of all human individuals to live needs to be protected for some reason.

2.) Humans are metaphysically equal.

I guess I am just not seeing where the justification for a right to right rests for objectivists. Is it a utilitarian rationale, IE that a right to life is a precondition for organized society and is in the best interest of the vast majority of individuals? Or is it a sort of natural law, which admits of no societal justification or modification?

In regards to animal rights, the argument I am seeing against them is because animals are not reasoning beings they don't have rights? I am not sure how this follows either, since human rights are ultimately founded on the desire for humans to live, it seems logical that an animal right to life can be founded on the same justification. Whether or not animal rights can be reciprocal seems somewhat irrelevant in this regard. Saying that because animals don't understand the concept of rights they can't have rights seems to mandate that small children, senile old people, and the mentally retarded similarly have no rights.

It seems that any protection of rights for these classes of humans can exist only as a legal fiction. And if so, why not extend this legal fiction to include higher forms of animals as well?

Rights are a result of the moral requirement of men to survive. They rest on morality, which rests on the need to choose one's values. Animals don't have rights, because they need no morality. It has nothing to do with organization of society, or the fact that it benefits society. Rights are INDIVIDUAL and their justification is based on the individual, society be damned.

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Rights are a result of the moral requirement of men to survive. They rest on morality, which rests on the need to choose one's values. Animals don't have rights, because they need no morality. It has nothing to do with organization of society, or the fact that it benefits society. Rights are INDIVIDUAL and their justification is based on the individual, society be damned.

This doesn't make any sense at all. Why is it a moral requirement for men to survive? Why isn't it a moral requirement for animals to survive? If animals don't have rights because they can't comprehend the concept "morality" again, why do small children and the mentally retarded have rights?

If rights are based on the individual regardless of society then why should the individual bother respecting the rights of others? At best respecting the rights of others is a form of calculated reciprocity, and where this reciprocity doesn't exist (where the victim has no possibility to harm you) why not violate rights?

I honestly wish I could understand where objectivism bases its conception of the right to life. Once you have a univerally-applicable human right to life, getting to all other derivative rights and political structures becomes easy. It is the foundation of the right to life I am not seeing explained.

Somewhere in the objectivist literature somebody must have explained why the starting assumptions I listed earlier are necessary and why they can be depended upon. As it is, it seems that objectivism plays "fast and loose" with the argument up until the point where a right-to-life is stated and then goes from there with more convincing arguments for derivative rights.

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In order to live, man needs to formulate a code of values, because he is not bestowed with an automatic knowledge of these values. He must choose in order to live, he must be free to choose, to be a volitional being, without infringing upon the freedom of others.

Man needs a morality in order to live.

Morality is not an end in istelf but a means to an end which is life. To live for man means to be moral. Since it is good for man to live, it is good for man to be free. It is right for man to be free. If man is to achieve life, he must act on his choices, without undermining them. It is not right for a man to live as a parasite on other men, for his OWN sake. For a man to live, it is wrong for him violate others' rights, because in as much as he acts toward the violation of the rights of others is the extent to which he acts toward his own destruction, because when you violate another's rights, you act as a destroyer of those same values you wish to take by the act of violation.

Small children and the mentally retarded have rights because they have volition (even if to a lesser extent) a brain dead individual has no rights, neither does a fetus.

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In order to live, man needs to formulate a code of values, because he is not bestowed with an automatic knowledge of these values. He must choose in order to live, he must be free to choose, to be a volitional being, without infringing upon the freedom of others.

I am not disputing the fact that rights are important. I am trying to figure out what objectivism bases a universal human right to life upon. Why should every mans desire to live be protected? Obviously once you accept that it becomes easy to determine that rights are the method of protecting that life.

Small children and the mentally retarded have rights because they have volition (even if to a lesser extent) a brain dead individual has no rights, neither does a fetus.

If volition is just the power to choose, then animals also posses it. If volition includes a meaningful amount of reasoning, then small children really don't possess it nor do the severly retarded. Then again you have the problem that certain higher forms of animals (gorillas, dolphins, etc) also seeminly possess some minimal intellectual/reasoning ability.

Since it doesn't seem that objectivism sees the right to life as a scalar quality, then there must be some bright-line rule distinguishing what has rights from what does not. "Volition" doesn't seem to yeild such a rule, nor is it clear why it should.

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Why should every mans desire to live be protected?
Vladmir, would you agree that it is in your interest that your own desire to live is protected from the arbitrary thugs around you? If so, by what principle do you intend to protect your life, other than by rights? Do you think "become the biggeest thug" is a practical principle?
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Volition is not the same as choosing. Volition is FREE will. The children thing is a whole other mess of worms that I really don't think we should get into.

"Why should every mans desire to live be protected?"

It is not desire to live that is protected, a wish is not an obligation on others. It is the ability to live that is protected. It is right for man to live. A man is right to choose to live, and it is wrong for others to prevent him, thus he is well within his rights to protect himself and when necessary to delegate this right to another body, in the form of a government.

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