Reflections on Ayn Rand’s theory of rights

One of the most important questions a liberty advocate should ask is: what exactly are we fighting for?

Rights, explained

It’s easy to say that we’re fighting for liberty, but how do we respond when someone asks us why we are entitled to it? Liberty is the freedom to act on your own judgment, to live your life as you see fit. As such, it is essential to affirm that rights exist in order to validate the necessity of liberty and defend our claim to it.

The concept of rights is as old as civilization. The founding fathers of the United States used the phrase “inalienable rights” to describe something so important as to be critical, something inherent and not within the power of man to regulate. Several schools of thought debate the origin of rights. To some, rights are ‘God-given’ or rooted in natural law, inherent in mankind. Others view rights as political policies, or freedoms granted by the government.

Ayn Rand’s definition of rights

Ayn Rand rejected all of these explanations of the origin of rights, demanding something more tangible. After all, rights based on natural law and God cannot be proven, and a right granted by a government (a fallible system) is also not an acceptable definition.

She considered morality to be “a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life.” These “values” helped form the basis of Ayn Rand’s theory of rights.

Rand observed reality and determined that a value is something a person acts to gain or keep. All living things pursue values. Rand, questioning why they seek these values, came to the following conclusion:

“There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life coexistence.”

Unlike animals who rely on instinct, humans must use reason as a means of survival. We must turn thought into action in order to meet our needs and sustain life. As humans, we possess free will and the ability to act upon our own judgment. Therefore, acting on our own judgment is not merely a whimsical capability reserved for forming superficial preferences, but rather a vital trait, crucial to survival. Any entity that attempts to regulate that judgment is tampering with our way of survival.

Based on these observations, Ayn Rand developed her theory of rights stating:

“Rights are a moral concept—the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others—the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context—the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.”

A right is more than just our desire to live freely but rather our need to live freely in order to simply live. Our ability to lead happy and fulfilling lives relies on our ability to exercise our own judgment to lead us to happiness and fulfillment.

We have a right to be free

Mankind is, by nature, self-governing and rational. We, as a species are possessed by rational thought and free will, and have a right to govern our minds and bodies as we see fit. We are born as individual entities capable of independent survival. As such, we hold jurisdiction over our own bodies.

It’s not a radical concept. We have a right to be free. No matter where, who, or what you believe this right emanates from, it holds true. It’s in the philosophy of Ayn Rand, in the Declaration of Independence, and in the hearts and minds of every person, whether they realize it or not. This is what we are fighting for when we say we want liberty. We are fighting for nothing less than our right to live.

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Written by Christine-Marie Dixon

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.

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