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What are Rights?

Descriptions of libertarianism generally emphasize individual rights and property rights. But rights come in all sorts of flavors, such as the right to work, the right of free speech, the right to keep and bear arms, the right to free medical treatment etc, they go on and on. Most folk, including most libertarians, separate the rights into two piles labeled "real" and "not real". Sorting rules are part of each ideology.

Perhaps the feeling of having rights is related to the feeling of being in the right and rights can be understood as emotional experiences. Our pets experience a range of emotions without much abstract thought, consider a dog's right to a bone. If you don't think the dog has this right you will deal with the dog's teeth. Although the dog has no explicit conception of rights, he behaves just as if he did. The only thing in question is your agreement with the dog.

Suppose we replace the word "right" with "agreement". What's changed? For one thing, there is little misunderstanding about agreement and a lot of misunderstanding about right. Suppose we had an agreement of free speech, an agreement to keep and bear arms, an agreement to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. With whom would we have these agreements? With each other? With the government? Do rights exist for those who disagree? Do rights exist whether anyone agrees or not? Is it possible to have rights you yourself disagree with? It is certainly possible to not have rights that you think you have, witness someone explaining their right to free medical care to a libertarian.

To a human being in isolation, rights are irrelevant. Therefore the word must describe some human interaction. What human interaction is referred to by the word 'right'? Perhaps restraint from violence. If you believe someone has the right to bear arms and speak freely then you don't believe in using violence to stop them. Either you believe in the rights, or you believe in using violence to stop the behaviors. The word right might mean negative violence, nonviolence. Cold is just the absence of heat and rights are just the absence of violence. If rights can be seen as the right to nonviolence and rights can be seen as agreements, then rights can be seen as agreements to nonviolence.

People who believe I have a right to free speech will not violently interfere in my speaking. People who agree with my right to property will not take it from me violently. People who believe a dog has a right to a bone won't take the bone from him. One major difference between rights and agreements is that rights are abstract and presumed to apply to everyone whereas agreements are concrete, individual things created by the people interacting. There are a limited number of rights, but the number of agreements is huge. Many feel oppressed, that their rights have been violated. Try saying instead that the agreement has been broken. Rights are not something you have or don't have in any absolute sense, they are the agreements between you and the people around you.

My agreement with a dog's right to a bone may be based on abstract principles, fear of being bitten, or just laziness. The dog doesn't care except to add to my fear of being bitten by growling. If I take the bone he may hide it next time making my agreement unnecessary. In the same way, I would not expect the police to respect my right to own a bag of marijuana. If I were to own such a thing I would surely keep it secret from them and only share knowledge of it with people who agree with my right to keep it.

It is difficult to ponder "Do I have a right?" when a new situation arises. Much easier to ask "Do I have an agreement?". Those who believe in the right to free medical care are promoting an agreement to pay for each others medical care. The amount of agreement determines the strength of the right. I'm sure there are strong arguments on each side of the right to go barefoot but if it is looked at as an agreement with those around you there is little to argue about. The only thing that distinguishes a nudist park from anywhere else is that the people there have an agreement of nonviolence regarding nudity. In a nudist park there is a right to not wear any clothing, a right which doesn't extend to the neighborhood grocery store.

The question of what rights do we have becomes what agreements have we made. Perhaps the concept of rights as agreements can help bridge the gap between the abstract principle of rights and our day to day dealings with people around us.