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.