The Right to Life
Posted by Jerry on July 5, 2007
A commentor asked me if I had written anything on the Objectivist standpoint on the right to life. Since Ayn Rand’s own works have exhaustively and explicitly covered the topic of man’s rights (in other places besides The Virtue of Selfishness), I had not written anything that directly touched upon the topic.
Nevertheless, in order to present a very distilled introduction to the Objectivist theory of rights, and to serve as a quick reference to general readers and passers-by, I wrote up the following. Of course, I cannot write anything like this without borrowing heavily from Rand’s own essays:
In Ayn Rand’s words, “life is a process of self-generated and self-sustaining action.” Rand pointed out that stillness and stagnation are antithetical to life. Thus, the only fundamental alternative facing living organisms is the alternative of existence (life) or non-existence (death). To live, one must act.
The need to act, which is a requirement of life, gives rise to the question of how to act in order to continue living and what actions to take. Such knowledge of action is automatic to other animals in a sufficient degree, i.e., they automatically engage in survival or progenitive behavior only to the extent necessary and not more; that is, animals only act to survive and procreate, not flourish.
However, human beings do not have an automatic knowledge of the course of actions to ensure their own survival. Man needs to consciously identify, learn, know, and determine how to act, what actions to take, and to what extent. Thus, man faces a need for guidance in helping him learn and identify the proper courses of action to ensure his survival, i.e., man needs a moral or ethical theory that is consonant with the requirements of living life that is proper to him as a human being.
Since morality requires the existence of alternatives and the ability to choose, the actions open to and possible to man are actions open to moral scrutiny, because they are acts that are chosen in the face of alternatives against the backdrop of survival. Thus, even if a man were to live alone on a deserted island with no other human beings around him, he cannot escape the need for a moral code, i.e., a system of moral principles that will give him the proper knowledge to ensure his survival qua human being.
Now, the concept of rights arise in a social context–when men live amongst each other. “Rights” are moral concepts that guarantee man’s freedom of action in a social context. Now, remember also that life is self-sustaining and self-generated action. Also note Rand defines rights as moral principles pertaining only to actions in a social setting. This is because in order to live (i.e., to act), man must be guaranteed the freedom to act (which can be denied him by others in a social setting), i.e., he must be guaranteed the freedom to live–this guarantee is his right to life. If he is denied the freedom to act, he is denied the right to life; as a corollary, if one man denies another man’s freedom to act, he has denied the other man’s right to life. In other words, rights define and sanction man’s freedom of actions. The right to life is the source of all other rights, and his right to property makes all his rights practiceable in the real world.
This is the Objectivist standpoint on rights in general–and the right to life in particular.