A Right is Not an Obligation

Precision of language in matters of science is important. Speaking recently with some fellow libertarians, we got into an argument about the nature of rights. My position: A right does not obligate anyone to do anything. Their position: Rights are the same thing as obligations.

My response: But if a right is the same thing as an obligation, why use two different words? Doesn’t it make more sense to distinguish them?

So here are the definitions I’m working with. A right is what is “just” or “moral”, as those words are normally defined. I have a right to choose which restaurant I want to eat at.

An obligation is what one is compelled to do by a third party. I am obligated to sell my car to Alice at a previously agreed on a price or else Bob will come and take my car away from me using any means necessary.

Let’s think through an example. Under a strict interpretation of libertarianism, a mother with a starving child does not have the right to steal bread from a baker. But if she does steal the bread, then what? Do the libertarian police instantly swoop down from Heaven and give the baker his bread back?

Consider the baker. The baker indeed does have a right to keep his bread. But he is no under no obligation to get his bread back should it get stolen. The baker could take pity on the mother and let her go. Or he could calculate the cost of having one loaf stolen is low to expend resources to try to get it back.

Let’s analyze now the bedrock of libertarianism, the nonaggression principle (NAP). There are several formulations. Here’s one: “no one has a right to initiate force against someone else’s person or property.” Here’s a more detailed version, from Walter Block: “It shall be legal for anyone to do anything he wants, provided only that he not initiate (or threaten) violence against the person or legitimately owned property of another.”

A natural question to ask is, what happens if someone does violate the NAP? One common answer is that the victim of the aggression then has a right to use force to defend himself. But note again, the right does not imply an obligation. Just because someone initiates force against you, does not obligate you or anyone else to respond. Pacifism is consistent with libertarianism.

Consider another example. Due to a strange series of coincidences, you find yourself lost in the woods in the middle of a winter storm. You come across an unoccupied cabin that’s obviously used as a summer vacation home. You break in, and help yourself to some canned beans and shelter, and wait out the storm before going for help.

Did you have a right to break into the cabin? Under some strict interpretations of libertarianism, no. But even if this is true, all it means is that the owners of the cabin have the right, but not obligation, to use force to seek damages from you after the fact. (They also had the right to fortify their cabin in such a way that you would have been prevented from ever entering.) But they may never exercise that right; you could ask for forgiveness and they might grant it.

Furthermore, under a pacifist anarchocapitalist order, the owners might not even use force when seeking compensation. They might just ask politely; and if they don’t like your excuses, they’ll simply leave a negative review with a private credit agency (making harder for you to get loans, jobs, etc.).

The nonaggression principle, insofar as it is strictly about rights (and not obligations), is about justice. It is not about compelling people to do anything. Hence, I propose a new formulation of the NAP: using force to defend yourself from initiations of force can be consistent with justice.

This formulation makes clear that using force is a choice. Initiating force does not obligate anyone to do anything. “Excessive force” may be a possibile injustice.

In short, justice does not require force.


6 thoughts on “A Right is Not an Obligation

  1. Well, I certainly agree with you that rights are not the same as obligations. But I think you have still skipped over what exactly “rights” are and where they come from. A right is a useful shared convention in how we avoid trampling on other’s freedoms. It is a defined sacrosanct space. A right to life, liberty, speech, pursuit of happiness, control their established property and so forth.

    Rights are sacrosanct heuristics. Rules which we take as unquestionable considering what others are permitted to do and which we are not permitted to interfere. The usual place where we define limits to other’s rights is where they use force to harm another or their property.

    Rights didn’t emerge like leptons and quarks with the creation of the universe. They are shared conventions which cooperative humans have discovered work well for social flourishing. Yes they are functional, but they are conventions that are so important that we consider them beyond question, because questioning them and treating them instrumentally tends to backfire and cause more harm than good.

    Some might call rights useful fictions. I prefer useful intersubjective beliefs which are so important as to be considered inviolable.

      • Actually, I believe the proper term is “negative” rights. But the intended point to my comment is that to step out of the confusion of what rights imply we need to dig deeper into what the hell a positive, negative or just good old fashioned right is. And they are shared, sacrosanct intersubjective beliefs on how people can and should be allowed to behave in social settings.

        Once we come to grips with this we see some important conclusions. First, they are MADE UP. We created them. They are not God given, “natural”, “supernatural” or built into the fabric of the universe. Second they are instrumental. They serve a purpose and solve various problems specifically related to cooperative human living. Third, though they are made up, they are in absolutely no way arbitrary. They may be subjective in the definition of benefitting us as subjects, but not subjective in terms of anything goes. Fourth, though I just said they are instrumental, treating them as instrumental rather than sacrosanct undermines them all together. They are instrumental or functional beliefs which we need to treat as non instrumental to work. Once we treat them instrumentally, we will be tempted to violate them and destroy the heuristic.

        I wouldn’t say rights are obligations though. But once we agree to how we will behave there is obviously an agreed obligation not to violate our shared agreements on behavior. So rights carry obligations without being obligations.

  2. I find that rights are very subjective, and today rarely fro the community but more for the individual. I agree, rights are not an obligation.

  3. Rights and obligations are not the same, but they are corollaries. If I have a right to peaceful ownership of my body and property (NAP), then that imposes an obligation on everyone else has an obligation to respect that ownership. Likewise, if you want to discuss the idea of positive rights, every enumeration of those rights (examples may include (depending on how much stock you put into the idea of positive rights) health, food, privacy, living wage, education, etc.) puts an obligation on someone (or group of someones) to provide those things. So it seems that one person’s right is, literally, another person’s obligation.

  4. Summing up key ideas from the comments:

    * Rights and obligations are flip sides of the same coin. (JFA) Your obligation to Alice is one side of the coin. The other is her right to what is now her property.
    * Rights are a social construct. (cardiffkook)
    * Rights/obligations/duty/whatever can be defined towards a community, though this seems rarer in the relatively more mobile world of the recent past. (pvcann)
    * Rights are held to be sacrosanct (at least by non-philosophers), which makes them more effective behavioral guides. (cardiffkook)

    I want to build on cardiffkook’s conception because he nicely sums up how I’ve been mulling over the idea of positive (as opposed to normative) rights. Rights emerge through an evolutionary process and so we /tend/ to end up with a set of rights that is non-arbitrary and self-reinforcing in a way that reflects the environment a society operates in as well as their history. But any subset of rights might be arbitrary and/or the product of historical accident.

    Change will be slower to the extent any right is considered sacrosanct. Change will be quicker to the extent philosophers, political operatives, and other social/political entrepreneurs are successful in convincing the median voter of some new right (e.g. right to neutral Internet), or the obsolescence of some old right (e.g. the right to not have to know that gay people are gay).

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