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Anarchism & Justice
III. Justice, Property, and Rights
By R.A. CHILDS, Jr.
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We have established what we meant by a need. Now I want to uphold the thesis that justice, and the recognition of rights, are needs of man in a social context. I will not discuss in any detail all the numerous benefits to man of living in society (the division of labor, trade, etc.). These have been detailed by Mises, Rothbard, Rand, and many others. What I want to focus on is the fact that man needs liberty or freedom, in a social context. We have identified the fact that in order to survive and prosper, man's ideas, values, and convictions must be tied to reality by a process of thought. To live and benefit himself, to attain his own needs and values, man must use his mind to identify the nature of things in reality, including his own nature. He must identify the relationships between himself and other things in reality such that he develops a scale of preferences, or values.
Men do not in fact "discover" values in the universe any more than they "discover" ideas already existing in extra-mental reality. But this does not mean that knowledge and values are purely arbitrary products of man's consciousness. In truth, both knowledge and real (beneficial) values are constructed by man's consciousness in accordance with an objective, extra-mental foundation, that foundation being the facts of reality. Man's mind integrates data into new mental entities such as concepts and laws. The structure of man's consciousness, its nature, and the nature of reality, will determine the basic principles of epistemology. The structure of man's life, his nature as a living organism, and the nature of reality, will determine the basic principles of ethics. 
Since everything which exists in reality is individual and particular, there is no such thing as a collective mind, and so no collective qua collective can think about things in reality, make decisions, and so forth. This means that if each individual is to survive and prosper, to act to benefit himself, he must think about those aspects of reality relevant to his own life, make decisions, choose between alternatives, and act to attain rationally derived ends. Each man, in other words, must retain intellectual independence, checking the values, ideas, and conclusions of others against his own knowledge. If he does not, then he is in the same position as the person who attempts to evade the necessity for justification per se.
To act to attain values, every man must think about himself and the world, establish what things are of value to him, and then proceed to implement his choices by means of action. In a desert island situation, there is nothing to prevent him from forming concepts and then testing them out to see if he was correct or not, there is nothing to prevent him from acting on the basis of his knowledge and values. If he is right, then he generally succeeds with his plans, if wrong, he may fail. But there is nothing to interfere with the relationship between his decisions and reality, nothing to stop him from attempting to implement his choices through a process of action.
In society, there is. We know of the immense possible benefits of living in a society of the benefits of living with and interacting with other people. We are aware of the benefits of trade, the division of labor, comparative advantages, and of voluntary relationships in general. But there is another aspect of social existence which confronts man: the possibility of aggression against him, which does, unlike the case on a desert island, interfere with his implementation of his choices through action. Yet what makes the attainment of every individual's values possible in a social context is precisely this ability to implement one's values, otherwise one cannot benefit oneself (this, however, is no guarantee of success).
Since society is only a group of individuals interacting according to their various purposes and plans, society has no "good" apart from that of the units of which it is composed. This is important to note because it means that the only means by which one can judge what kind of a society is proper to man, right for him, is to determine what individual needs men possess, and to construct an appropriate ethical model on that basis.
I have shown that it is only the possibility of attaining of values by individual men in a society which makes society "valuable" to men, and that a precondition of attaining such values is the ability to implement one's values and decisions through actions. Since the only thing in society which could prevent this, literally, is the physical interference of others, we can conclude that freedom from physical interference is a necessary condition of man's acting to attain his values, to implement his choices, in a social context. Since it is only by means of principles that we can define such freedom of action as it is proper and possible for man to have in a social context, we can thus bring in a new concept: the concept of rights. Rights have been defined (by Ayn Rand) as principles defining and sanctioning man's freedom of action in a social context. (Other statements about rights, such as that they are "conditions of existence necessary for man's proper survival in a social context" (Rand), and that they are "principles which morally prohibit men from using force or any substitute for force against anyone who behavior is non-coercive" (Tannehills), are true statements about rights, but they are not definitions.) But notice that we have only stated the concepts of rights in the most abstract terms, and that there are no criteria stated for determining whether or not any specific action is an action by right. The way we develop such additional and co-relative principles is by examining what is involved in freedom of action in a social context.
Freedom of action, being a species of action per se, must involve things to act on. All actions are the actions of entities. Man is a specific entity, and he must use other entities in action, including such things as land for standing room. THERE CAN BE NO ACTION WITHOUT A THING ACTING, OR A THING ACTED UPON. When we speak of freedom of action in a social context, therefore, we automatically speak of the areas which are subsumed by the concepts of ownership, of property, of justice, and of rights. These words all overlap in meaning, deriving their meanings from our identifications of real and possible relations between men and things.
Ownership involves the relation between a person and anything (including his own body) subject to use, control, and disposal. A property is any entity which is actually owned. A right is a principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context. Justice is a code of principles which defines what is due to a man, what he deserves, what he is legitimately entitled to.
My conclusion at this point is that since man needs freedom of action in a social context, and since it is the principle of rights which defines and sanctions man's freedom of action in such a context, every man needs to have his rights respected. (Thus rights are the fundamental means of making the transition from individual ethics to ethics in a social context. Rights are the means of applying the concept of rational self-interest to society they are a function of rational self-interest in a social context, the means of identifying what is fundamentally to man's benefit in society. But this shall be discussed further below.)
Now since actions involve things, or entities, freedom of action will necessarily involve claims to the entities involved in the action, i.e., we cannot discuss freedom of action or rights without reference to property and ownership. And the widest principle of all is the principle of human social relationships the principle of justice. It is the philosophy of justice alone which will enable us to fill in the skeleton, so to speak, of the remaining principles.
In other words, to fill in the meaning of the concept of freedom of action, which has been shown to be a condition necessary for man's survival and well-being in a social context, we must consider the issues of property, rights, ownership, and justice.
Ownership and property can be referred to in three senses: what a man actually does exercise the power of control over (praxeological ownership), what some group (such as the State) claims a man should exercise control over (juristic ownership), and what a man actually has a legitimate claim to, as defined by the principles of justice (moral ownership). These can overlap, but for the time being we will be considering the third category alone, since that will enable us to make sense out of all the rest, and which we shall use as ["and we shall use it as"? ed.] a standard to judge, criticize, and evaluate both the status quo what actually exists and other theories as well.
I have explained that all actions involve entities. Therefore, every claim to freedom of action must include as part of its meaning a claim to use the entities which must of necessity be involved. All rights, therefore (justified claims to freedom of action) must refer to actions over such entities. Since we have called these entities in such relations to men property, we can conclude that all rights are co-extensive with property rights. In other words: CLAIMS TO RIGHTS ARE TRANSLATABLE (CONCEPTUALLY) INTO CLAIMS TO OWNERSHIP OF PROPERTY OR A DERIVATIVE (SUCH AS A JUSTIFIED PERMISSION). To claim that one possesses a right to something without simultaneously claiming a legitimate title (derivative of just ownership) is a contradiction in terms.
Thus, the fundamental need of man in society is freedom of action, which means: recognition of his rights to actions over property which he morally owns, i.e., has a justifiable claim to, which means: JUSTICE.
This is the fundamental need of man, and this is the framework from which we shall evaluate the arguments and alternatives offered by various theories.
Now some people might maintain that while I have shown that every man has an objective need for justice, for his rights to be respected, for his property to remain inviolable I have not shown that he must therefore respect the rights or property of other men, i.e., that he should act justly towards them. While a full answer to this problem cannot be given here, I can sketch one answer to this objection: namely, that consistency demands that each man respect the rights of others.
Note first of all that the only way in which any given person can maintain that he has an objective need for justice, to have his rights respected, is by reference to abstract principles which enable him to define what is right for man ["men"? ed.], what conditions of existence and actions on their part are necessary for them to maintain and sustain their lives as rational beings, to further and promote their own objective well-being. It is these principles which enable him to define and establish the fact that he needs justice, to have his rights respected, to have his property remain inviolable. Therefore, it is only by reference to these principles that he can assert such rights, and such entitlements to justice. But if these principles are to define and sanction the sphere of freedom of action proper for him, by the very nature of the method by which such a principle was derived, they must also apply equally to other people.
Therefore, he cannot consistently claim that the principles apply to him but not to others, for they were derived by reference to the kind of organism which he is, by reference to his identity or nature which other people also possess.  Thus to claim the sanction of the principles for himself but not to allow and recognize their application to others constitutes an inconsistency in his arguments for and recognition of his own needs in a social context.
The only way, the only means by which, an individual can attain, sustain, and promote his own life and well-being as a rational being (and that is the only way that he can act to gain and keep what is fundamentally in his self-interest in a social context) is to act to attain, maintain, and sustain a social system proper to man. It is thus only by recognizing the rights of others, by acting justly towards them, that a man can consistently claim rights and justice for himself, without contradicting reality. I conclude, then, that the recognition of the rights of others is a key aspect of authentic concern for one's own rational well-being in a social context. It is on these grounds (among others) that I maintain that consistency demands the recognition of rights of others on the part of each and every member of a society. Not to recognize the rights of others is to refuse to manifest an authentic rational, reality-based concern with one's own needs as a rational being. 
Posted March 18, 2005
Published by permission of the International Society for Individual Liberty, Vince Miller, president. Art adapted here is by Bob Leet.
This page was created and posted in 2005 by WTM Enterprises.
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