In my writing I frequently make allusion to “rights” without properly clarifying what these are. This is no minor detail as the term can mean very different things whether it is used by a Marxist, religious fundamentalist, or a Founding Father of the United States. If we accept the dictionary.com definition of the term, definition #19 which describes it as “that which is due to anyone by just claim, legal guarantees, moral principles, etc.”, it is apparent that the meaning of the term is necessarily contingent upon which set of moral principles are presumed.
The fact that the premises of the countless ideologies in existence are in many cases contradictory with each other gives rise to the erroneous idea that morality is itself relative. While it is true that viewpoints of morality are relative depending on the beliefs and experiences of the observer, it does not then necessarily follow that moral absolutes do not exist. The proper basis for rights is human nature. Ideological tenets that conflict with human nature are inhumane and must be rejected as such. This is not to say, however, that since human nature sometimes impels people to commit murder that murder is therefore ethically permissible. It means simply that, in order to ascertain what constitute human rights, it is necessary to weigh natural human drives and aspirations versus what expectations we can logically expect of our fellow man. If everyone had the right to murder then no one could be said to have the right to life. Since rights cannot conflict with other rights, the right to murder fails in that respect.
A better example would be property rights regarding inheritance. Most societies recognize the right of a person to bequeath to his heirs (or whomever he chooses) property upon his death. If a society or government were to mandate that inheritance rights no longer existed and that all property must revert back to the state (a concept actually proposed in the Communist Manifesto), this would be an example of a policy that is in violation of human nature. It is in the nature of humankind that we prefer ours close relatives and friends over other members of our own community. Humans are not like bees or termites who share most of the same genetics with their entire hive or colony and make no distinction among individuals. The dynamics of genetic commonality, reciprocity, and evolution have resulted in a human drive to show preference to those with whom we are more closely related and associated and it is therefore logical that our right to bequeath inheritances to relatives and close friends should not be constrained. Any principle that would violate that right would therefore be an improper principle to apply to human beings, improper both because it runs against our very nature as human beings and also because ill-conceived policies such as these prove unsustainable in the long run. Humankind violates these rights at our own peril (I do not use the term “abolishes” when speaking of rights because an inherent right cannot properly said to be taken away, its non-recognition is always a violation and should be stated as such).
If we accept as a premise that the duty of a government is to secure the rights of its people then an ethical system flying against human nature is a contradiction because on cannot secure a person’s rights by violating them. A trade-off of rights is possible (e.g., sacrificing the right to free speech in the name of securing personal safety) but is an entirely different kind of evil than a wholesale violation of rights for the so-called “good of society”. Incidentally, “society” cannot possibly benefit from the violation of individual rights inasmuch as society itself is merely a concept and a word to denote a collection of individuals and the whole of a macro-organism cannot benefit when each individual is harmed (if you’re thinking about making an example of a sports team succeeding by operating collectively, save it because sports teams operate by cooperation which is the precise opposite of coercion as practiced by governments).
Writer’s note: The majority of the above are ideas that originated with Ayn Rand and can be found in her written works although I haven’t quoted her verbatim, the recapitulation of her ideas is mine and consequently any corruption, deviation, or even change for the better from her ideas in the above is also mine. Although I agree with the majority of what she has written, I disagree with her on a few subtle points and on other occasions I have no idea what the fuck she’s even talking about so I can neither offer agreement or disagreement, I usually drift off and start thinking about tacos. She’s not my favorite Russian though, that honor would go to Fyodor Dostoevsky and his character Grushenka if she was a real person. Am I the only person with a crush on a fictional character?