The Nature of Humanity and Rights

'What's in the box?'


So it was that the Reverend Mother tested young Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert's seminal masterpiece Dune. 'You will feel pain in this hand within the box. Pain. But! Withdraw the hand and I'll touch your neck with my gom jabbar-- the death so swift it's like the fall of a headsman's axe.'

The test was more than a simple endurance challenge. It was a test for humanity. The Reverend Mother explained, 'You've heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a trap? There's an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to his kind.'

Of course, the test doesn't literally define whether one is human. Some people would judge death to be more desirable than the temporary pain they must endure to continue living. But the test does hit upon the fundamental characteristic of humanity: the ability to act. 'A human can override any nerve in the body.'

Action versus Motion

Humans, like all animals, gather information about the environment through the senses. Unlike other animals though, this information does not dictate a human's movements. Only a human may act, in the sense that he can work toward a goal that is consciously self-chosen. Therefore we can differentiate between the action of a human and the apparent action of an animal. The latter may be more aptly termed motion.

Certainly the basis of an animal's movements are complex. The important point, though, is that an animal only moves according to instinct. There is no rational faculty at work, for example, when a cat walks across the room and claws at the sofa. The ends of an animal are intrinsically bound in its nature.

One may argue that the action of a human in an illusion as well. After all, aren't we just as much governed by the electrical impulses of the body as the animal is? Aren't our ends intrinsically bound in our nature as well? As Herbert showed above though, the answer is no. The test of a human is whether one is capable of moving in a way that is counter to the impulses of one's body. In other words, only a human can consciously manipulate the body and other objects to achieve desired ends. And even if humans are influenced by feral impulses, that does not change the fact that in the end, a human must decide whether to act upon these impulses or not. The desire to procreate may be well embedded in people, but nevertheless, having sex remains a conscious choice.

The consequences of man's ability to act versus an animal's motion are seen in their relationship with the rest of nature. An animal moves in response to its surroundings in such a way to meet the needs for its survival and the survival of its species. This motion is more complex, but fundamentally no different than the motion of a tree. For a human, though, action demonstrates preference.

A human uses reason to decide what ends he should try to obtain. With this question, though, another one arises: What objects should be manipulated in order to achieve this end? Another question that must then be answered is whether it would be proper for him to manipulate those objects. Thus, the field of ethics is born. The question of whether one may properly use a resource is unique to humans because only a human is capable of consciously manipulating an object. Ethics sorts out the question of use: Who may properly use an object?

Crusoe Ethics

Imagine a man alone in the world (or on an island). Instead of investigating how he will fashion a stick to knock down coconuts, as an economist might do, we will look at what actions he may properly undertake.

In order to survive, the man (let us call him Jack) must act. Jack, as a human, will be in a continual state of action. He must decide how he is going to manipulate the resources around him to meet his desired ends. Since Jack must act, he must use resources. This is because every action requires the use of something, even if it is only land to stand on and a body to inhabit.

The economist can state the fundamental axiom that man acts. This statement is self-evident because to refute it, one would have to act. Likewise, we may state that Jack has the right to act. This right does not derive from a fundamental right to live but rather from the fact that its alternative is a contradiction. If we were to say, for example, that Jack does not have the right to act, then we would equivalently be saying that he may not use any resources around him, including his body. In other words, he must cease to exist. But the only way Jack could fulfill our demand would be for him to kill himself, and this would require that he use his body. If he must use his body in order to satisfy the proposed ethic that he cannot use any objects, then the ethic must be incorrect.

Once it is established that Jack has the right to act, we turn to the next question: Which resources may Jack manipulate? First of all, in order to act, he must have the proper use of his whole body. It would be meaningless to say that he could use a piece of land but not his feet. Since Jack's body is intrinsically part of him, the right to act necessitates his proper control over it. Again, the only alternative is a contradiction: If Jack did not have the right to use his body, then we would be demanding that he separate it from his mind. But in order to do this, he would have to use his body to kill it.

So then, what about the environment around him? Does Jack have the right to manipulate the land, animals, and trees? Clearly, he must use some resources; his body must exist in physical space. If we were to say that he could use no resources but his body, this would again lead to contradiction. The use of his body requires the use of extrinsic resources. But since the nature of all the objects around him are ethically equivalent, Jack may manipulate any of them.

Jack encounters no ethical conflict with anything around him since he is the only being that can use resources. Again, the word 'use' is defined as the conscious manipulation of an object to achieve a desired end. As a result, the movements of an animal are ethically equivalent to a tree or the air. Since an animal cannot act, it has no right to the use of any object. Perhaps we could derive a similar right for the animal as the right to move (since the animal must move). But this would not limit Jack's actions, since all objects are at all times moving. An animal cannot engage in self-directed movement (which we call action), so it matters not whether the animal is moving as a living animal or as a dead one.

Rights in Society

Now let us introduce another human onto Jack's island. We'll call her Sue. The ethical analysis that follows should be sufficient to apply to a larger group of people.

If Sue and Jack were located on opposite ends of the island, with no interaction between them, then the situation is similar to above. Each has the right to the use of all the resources they find around them.

The potential for conflict arises when Sue and Jack approach each other. The first question to settle is whether Sue may make use of Jack's body (or vice versa). The answer can be found by referring back to the fundamental human right to act. Jack and Sue both retain the proper use of their own bodies. But can one use the body of the other? If Sue uses Jack's body, then Jack is himself excluded from its use. They cannot both use his body. But Jack must always retain full ownership of his body in order to satisfy his right to act. If, for example, we granted Sue the right to use Jack's body, we would require that Jack not act. But since his body is intrinsically part of him, this would require absolute acquiescence to Sue's will. This itself would require Jack to act, and we are caught in a contradiction. The only way out of the contradiction is to recognize Jack's absolute ownership of his body, and we conclude that Sue would be acting unethically in making use of his body. She would be infringing upon his rights, or acting criminally.

One may wonder at this point why we do not say that an animal would be infringing upon Jack's rights when it attacks him, or nature when he finally dies. The answer is that rights, or ethics, settle who may make proper use of what resources. An animal does not make use of anything, though, as we described above. The animal cannot act; it simply moves. As such, an animal cannot infringe upon Jack's rights.

Now the question turns to extrinsic resources. We have seen that Jack and Sue retain total ownership of their own bodies. What of the resources around them, though? The most common libertarian derivation of property is that it is an extension of the right to own one's body. In The Ethics of Liberty, Rothbard states, 'If every man has the right to own his own body, and if he must use and transform material natural objects in order to survive, then he has the right to own the product that he has made, by his energy and effort, into a veritable extension of his own personality.' Rothbard's analysis is an extension of the Lockean idea that an object becomes property when one mixes labor with it.

The same conclusion is reached with regard to property when one starts off with the right to act. As with the case of Jack's body, only one person may make use of an object at any given time. If Jack acts by using a rock to weigh down a piece of paper, Sue cannot simultaneously use the rock to knock down coconuts. If Jack was the first to find and use the rock, then he has the right to use it, at least until Sue arrives. As was discussed before, though, the right to act means that Jack must be able to use the resources he finds in a state of nature. Sue may no more take control of his rock than she may take control of his body. Sue would be infringing upon Jack's right if she were to make use of it, and the rock is Jack's property as long as he cares to make use of it.

The situation is not any different when many people are added to our theoretical land. Every individual has the right to act, which means each owns his own body and those objects that he makes original use of. Subsequently, trade will occur. Contracts form that specify exchanges of property ownership. When every individual respects the rights of others, no one is aggressed upon. The right to act is in fact equivalent to the libertarian non-aggression principle. This is that one may act in any manner one wishes unless doing so initiates force on another person or his property. The right to act forms the fundamental natural law of ethics, and it applies to all humans everywhere.

Government versus the Right to Act

Few people have been able to penetrate the root of government as lucidly as Lysander Spooner. In No Treason Number VI, Spooner compares government to a highwayman:

'The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber'. Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you, as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful 'sovereign,' on account of the 'protection' he affords you'. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.'

Both the highwayman and government infringe upon your right to act when they rob you. However, Spooner is correct when he states that the highwayman is more honorable. He sees a situation that he judges he may take advantage of, and he subsequently takes control of objects that you rightfully have control over. In this capacity he has violated your nature as a human being.

But at least the common thief only treats you as an object to be controlled by him that once. He does not provide any argument that he rightfully owns your property. Proponents of government, on the other hand, argue just this. To them, your body and property are not yours to properly control.

The government does not leave you as a human being. It leaves you as a slave, an object to be controlled at any time. To the government, you are not a human being. A human being has the right to act and therefore the right to manipulate resources found in nature. But the government treats you as it would any other resource that can be used in nature. You are an animal, or a tree, to be manipulated as politicians see fit to achieve their desired ends.

There exists no rationalization that can justify government. There is no justification ever for one human being using another human being as a natural resource. Your right to act exists no matter how much property you justly acquire or how many people vote to take control of your life. When the government does infringe upon your right to act, its criminality does not derive from any social contract or utilitarian concerns. It derives from the fact that it has violated your intrinsic nature as a human being.

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Jacob Halbrooks lives in New England.