On Rejecting Human Rights


It is commonly assumed by those who believe in individualism that it is in one's self-interest to respect the rights of others.

Is it possible that one can espouse individualism, yet at the same time assert a case against human rights? In analyzing this question, REASON Associate Editor Tibor R. Machan, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at State University College, Fredonia, New York, offers his views on the paramount significance of human rights.

Not much more than a year ago a new attack on human rights has been launched, this time from a very unlikely source. Most people are aware of the usual rejections of human rights: they are social and political principles by which capitalists gain but workers suffer, they cannot be proven to exist, we never never agree on what human nature is, they restrain the law so that it cannot serve a growing society, etc., etc. Most of those who deny that there are human rights clearly reject individualism and egoism. That is just their point against human rights—if a legal system implements them and if governments protect and preserve them, people will be able to seek after what they want, without having to pay dues to everyone.

But the most recent attack is different. The only thing close to it in political thought is Max Stirner, a thoroughly subjectivist individualist. The idea is that a consistent individualist, acting in terms of ethical egoism, has to reject that his actions ought to be guided by considerations of what others have a right to. That would be, the argument runs, to violate one's ethics—not to act only on the basis of what is in one's best interest. To yield to the edicts of human rights would be to concern oneself with what is in the interest of others.


The argument is given support by the following example: suppose I encounter a drunk in a dark alley, sprawled on the ground; the drunk is loaded with cash and my interest would at this time be well served if I could purchase something for which I do not have the money; I know the drunk cannot prevent me or retaliate; is it not clear that it is in my self-interest to take the money and simply disappear? It must be.

To look at this a bit more closely it would be nice to have a detailed argument to refer to. Unfortunately the people who have advanced these views have not put out anything quite cogent enough to grapple with. I have seen little two-page essays here and there, found myself under attack at this or that meeting I attended for defending human rights, and have heard of private lectures being given proclaiming that human rights are "spooky" or "mythical." In view of this, my own tactic will be to take on just the above and give a very brief defense of the compatibility—no, interdependence—of human rights and ethical egoism. (A far more extensive discussion may be found in my forthcoming book on human rights as well as in Professor Eric Mack's paper, "Egoism and Rights" in THE PERSONALIST, Fall 1972.)

In brief when the argument we just encountered denies that it is in one's self interest to act in terms of what the moral/political principles we call human rights require. If we recall that those who advance the argument are anarchists, this makes a bit better sense. For anarchists there cannot be any political principles—for a consistent anarchist, politics is immoral. So political principles must be flawed—or designed to serve the goal of evil.


The example which supports this argument already shows the rejection of politics. No mention is made of the political context—the broad context of life in which one's encounter with others, drunk or not, must be understood, in order to formulate the sort of conduct which will benefit oneself. If, for example, the drunk has his money marked and chemically identified with me after I take it, I will not likely be able to learn if he can retaliate. If he has an army waiting just around the block—or just a very big and nasty dog sitting nearby watching over the master—my rational self interest is far from being served by my move to take the money he has on him. Whatever the wider social, technological, economic circumstances are will have to figure into the answer to "What is in my best interest concerning that money sticking out of this drunk's pocket?" Let me enlarge on this a bit.

To act rationally toward others, we need to know something about them. We would be well off to know that others are agents and can acquire things on their own, without having to hurt anyone. This will inform us of the fact that people get attached to what they have acquired—first discovered, created, traded, etc. From all this it seems quite reasonable to conclude that if others are rational, they will act to insure what is theirs, to protect against those who would take it either by accident or intentionally. As we proceed to act towards others in the most rational way available to us—based on numerous valid generalizations and lots of details—the above data will make a difference to what is or is not rational action. Rational people will guard against potential threats to either life or acquired items, property. They know that people are free to be irrational, to evade that something belongs to one, another thing to another. So they will do the best to make the effects of such irrationality as minimal as possible, given the circumstances.

It is true that in many societies people do not do this systematically. Some don't do it at all. In some places like communes, there is such closeness among people that no help from outsiders is ever needed to secure decent conditions, to insure against violations of self interest. Mutual self interest is very directly tied to the self interest of individuals. (But even though, most communes fail even more dismally than larger societies.)


Now if we reconsider the example, what is its problem? Once we know that in society people will, on the whole, act to ensure against those who will not abide by the fact that this belongs to one, that to another person, the drunk's money won't even appear to be so accessible to me. Granted I may not be caught. Granted that even if the drunk or his friends catch me, I can fight back successfully. Yet, as a generalized approach to life, I am better off living by taking only that which no one has claimed or someone is willing to part with to me.

Human rights identify social conditions that are good for people because they are people. Their human nature requires them. In this human rights are standards of conduct derived from the nature of man—only they pertain to a social context. They are politically basic—as certain principles are basic in physics but not in metaphysics, or basic in organic chemistry but not in chemistry as such. Human rights are not ethically, only politically basic.

There is no politics for anarchists. So these standards are inconsistent for them, what with their commitment to antipolitics. The concession that human rights are standards of political conduct would lead to the question: how do we best insure that we abide by them, so that we can engage in the purposes of human community, peaceful, mutual development of our lives in each other's company (division of labor)? Well, we could organize and hire some people to supervise the venture. If people do not abide by the requirements that make it possible (and to their interest as well as ours), we remove them for a while, throw them out of the community, etc. And the agent that will do it will have to be kept extremely good at his job so he does not, like a bad doctor, injure the client more than help him.

Just how people might do this is precisely the issue of political theory (Cf. IN DEFENSE OF POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY by Jeffrey H. Reiman, a Harper Torchbook that responds to Robert Paul Wolff's IN DEFENSE OF ANARCHISM). But an anarchist cannot admit that this is possible. So he needs first to deny that human rights exist around which such a scheme might be organized.


Obviously there will be occasions when the standard of political viability must be violated. Political principles, those standards by which we ought to conduct ourselves in a human community we joined voluntarily, derive from more basic ethical standards. The principle of justice toward others as the best means by which to establish mutually beneficial relations among men, derives from the most basic human value of rationality. And when the conditions do not exist where justice could exist, it becomes pointless to say that there are cases when justice must yield to some other values. In short, the "life boat" cases of ethical and moral dilemma simply tell us that human rights are inapplicable, not that they have to be violated on moral grounds. Obviously if one cannot do something, it is silly to ask him to; it is especially silly to identify it as his moral responsibility.

One of the advantages of a contextual approach to human understanding and knowledge is that we can justify by it our confidence that people have the capacity to respond rationally to unknown, unanticipated situations. So while we cannot generate principles for "life boat" cases, that is just their point: they are the stress cases, the borderline cases, which all fields of knowledge from physics to ethics exhibit; neither need we say that they are unmanagable. People are active agents, capable of generating answers to questions that have not arisen before. Only passive beings require some ready-made formula for every eventuality—some instinct, commandment, authority. The egoistic ethics that gives rise to the political theory of a free society, and human rights, has nothing much to do with that—even if some people labeling themselves libertarians say to the contrary. (We all have to make our considered judgments as to whether to accept when someone identifies himself as this or that. Surely he has the capacity to make a mistake about that, too.)

A final note. Among those who reject human rights are some calling themselves anarcho-capitalist or capitalists. That self-identification makes no sense. With the rejection of human rights—and property rights—must go any adherence to capitalism, free market economics, laissez-faire or the like. Without the general standard of human rights, how would one identify what belongs to whom, whose privacy includes this property, what may someone trade off as he wishes, etc. All these essential aspects of what makes capitalism viable get wiped out with human rights gone!

The fact is that in human history, human rights theory came up with the best solution to man's political problems. It answered the question: By what standards of conduct can a human community be successful? To reject this in the name of self-interest is a travesty.