Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Intro: Part One


The enormous expense of Governments has provoked people to think, by making them feel; and when once the veil begins to rend, it admits not of repair. Ignorance is of a peculiar nature: and once dispelled, it is impossible to reestablish it. It is not originally a thing of itself, but is only the absence of knowledge; and though man may be kept ignorant, he cannot be made ignorant.
Rights of Man, Thomas Paine, 1791

Here is a simple question: what is a right? The question became important when I became involved in the formation of the American Conservative Party. As a gay conservative I was constantly dealing with individuals that ‘knew’ exactly what rights we had and it was often a rather short list. In discussions on the limits of government and the principles of liberty, rights were constantly being debated.

In May 2008 I was challenged during an online debate to state my system for determining what rights were ‘correct’ and which were no more than the ranting of a lunatic or the justification of a tyrant.

You are going to have to answer the question of where our rights originate before this discussion can go anywhere. Just saying that we have them isn't an explanation, but the absence of an explanation.

At the time I had given my positions some thought but the challenge galvanized me into spending time and considerably more effort on giving those positions substance. In the process certain aspects changed. Some will consider my journey to be one deeper into the rabbit hole. For myself, I am willing to go where the premises I set took me. I don’t always like some conclusions, but if they are sound, my like or dislike is irrelevant.

What premises do I stand by? 1) The individual is sovereign. We are the masters of ourselves. 2) All rights are inherent in us. Rights exist because we exist. The foundation of rights can be found in each of us.

If I were going to honestly take up the challenge, I was going to have to find support for my premises AND where they led me.

It took a year to find my starting point. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were known to the Founding Fathers. Thomas Paine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were contemporaries. Many of the concepts of liberty and rights stated by these men influenced our founding principles. Our founding codified individual liberty and rights in ways that changed the world.

In Thomas Hobbes’ (1588-1679) Leviathan (1651), Hobbes took his observations on the natural state of man…

“Nature hath made man so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind that another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable…”

…and considered the State necessary for human progress:

“…that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of war which is necessarily consequent, as has been shown, to the natural passions of men when there is no visable power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants…”

When John Locke (1632-1704) struck pen to paper, he made the same observation Hobbes declared as a natural state of man:

“Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of Nature, equally with any other man…”

He came to a similar conclusion – government was necessary

“…and that therefore God hath certainly appointed government to restrain the partiality and violence of men. I easily grant that civil government is the proper remedy for the inconveniences of the state of Nature...”

Not just necessary and proper, but with authority forever over all…

“The power that every individual gave the society when he entered into it can never revert to the individuals again, as long as society lasts, but will always remain in the community”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) published The Social Contract in 1762 seeking to:

“…examine whether, in the ordering of society, there can be any reliable and legitimate rule of administration, taking men as they are, and laws as they can be.”

After much effort to establish man as the source of legitimate authority for “administration”, he all but takes away man’s freedom, subjugating it to the Society as controlled by the State, for their freedom and benefit, of course.

“In order therefore that the social pact should not be an empty formula, it contains an implicit obligation which alone can give force to the others, that if anyone refuses to obey the general will he will be compelled to do so by the whole body; which means nothing else than that he will be forced to be free; for such is the condition which, giving each citizen to his country, guarantees that he will not depend on any person. This condition is the device that ensures the operation of the political machine.”

Ordered liberty, or ordered existence? Edmund Burke (1729-1797):

“I should, therefore, suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France until I was informed how it had been combined with government, with public force, with the discipline and obedience of armies, with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue, with morality and religion, with the solidity of property, with peace and order, with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things, too, and without them liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long.”

Burke, a favorite of today’s conservatives, was firm in his opinions on the French Revolution and the concept of a government by the people:

It is claimed that “…the people of England have acquired three fundamental rights, all which, with him, compose one system, and lie together in one short sentence; namely, that we have acquired a right
“To choose our own governors.”
“To cashier them for misconduct.”
“To frame a government for ourselves.”
This new, and hitherto unheard-of, bill of rights, though made in the name of the whole people, belongs to those gentlemen and their faction only. The body of the people of England have no share in it. They utterly disclaim it. They will resist the practical assertion of it with their lives and fortunes. They are bound to do so by the laws of their country, made at the time of that very Revolution which is appealed to in favour of the fictitious rights claimed by the Society which abuses its name.“


“The very idea of the fabrication of a new government is enough to fill us with disgust and horror.”

Paine destroyed Burke’s assertions on the benefits and necessity of rule by monarchies:

“Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil, in its worse state an intolerable one.”

“A greater absurdity cannot present itself to the understanding of man than what Mr. Burke offers to his readers. He tells them, and he tells the world to come, that a certain body of men who existed a hundred years ago, made a law, and that there does not now exist in the Nation, nor ever will, nor ever can, a power to alter it. Under how many subtilties or absurdities has the divine right to govern been imposed on the credulity of mankind! Mr. Burke has discovered a new one, and he has shortened his journey to Rome by appealing to the power of this infallible Parliament of former days; and he produces what it has done as of divine authority, for that power must certainly be more than human which no human power to the end of time can alter.”

His passionate arguments in Common Sense helped to fan the flame of independence. Paine thought government necessary, but the best government was the simplest:

“Here then is the origin and rise of government; namely, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world; here too is the design and end of government, viz. Freedom and security.”

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) of course disagreed with Burke; in the Declaration of Independence took square aim at government and fired a devastating broadside:

“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Government was and is the servant; the people, as sovereigns, were the masters and only the free exercise of sovereignty by the people gave government any legitimacy and authority. Fundamental rights and authority began and remained with the individual. Government and society were beneficial as long as they served the individual.

It is a natural progression from individual to family to community to society but at no point is government as an entity either natural or preordained. Up to that point, man was a beast and needed to be tamed. The American Revolution said, no. Man could order his affairs. Individuals had the right to do so. Government was but a tool of society, not the pinnacle of it:

“Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them;”

But society was not and is not in every state a blessing as John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) would note in On Liberty (1859):

“Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.”

His response made clear the limits of a beneficial society (or State):

“…to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Looking back at the writings of Hobbes, Locke, Paine, Jefferson and Mill, the thread is there to follow: man (beast that he could be) was the source of legitimate government and authorities. If a system of constraints could be formulated that would limit his more base passions without creating despots and tyrannies, the result would benefit all mankind. Jefferson laid the foundation:

“…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But on this point he was very wrong:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”

My goal is to define what a right is, determine their origins, and establish their limits.

After reading the authors quoted here, it was clear the issues had been of concern long before I came around and that one set of answers formed the foundation of our United States. So many of their concerns are still relevant today and their observations continue to enlighten.

The world and society were slowly evolving 230 years ago, a process that has sped up considerably in the last 50 years. It is time to revisit the questions and some of the observations. In his introduction to Common Sense, Thomas Paine offered more hope for his point of view than I do mine:

“Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”

In Part One I lay out a definition and origin for rights. In Part Two I look at how rights serve as a foundation for government management of rights and in Part Three I discuss some of the issues and considerations.

PART ONE: The Origin of Rights

…we must consider what estate all men are naturally in…

The Natural State of We, the people…

Alive. We know the mechanism now. One sperm, leaving the man; one egg leaving the ovary. Both alive. And when the sperm finds the egg, cleaving the surface and entering, becoming one. Alive.

The zygote and the gamete are both human cells. Carrying genetic material, by themselves, they are dead ends. Only joined together do we get true potential. Together they carry the genetic blueprint but without purpose, without a goal.

The genetic blueprint begins with a very basic function: Grow, divide; grow, divide. Eventually the cells begin to differentiate, to specialize. But there is no free will, no decisions; no choices are being made. The first cell grows and divides according to the blueprint. The cell becomes a million cells and still, no decisions are being made, no choices are being considered. Living and yet doing only what is laid out by the genetic blueprint.

As cells differentiate, structures form and coordination between the various parts form patterns we recognize as a ‘human’. The coordination is not choice, it is not a consciousness imposing direction or control. The child, however recognizable, lacks the structure and internal integrity to exercise any control over itself. S/he, is still just following the genetic blueprint already provided.

Yet, somewhere down the line, after 18-20 weeks, the child stirs . The first actions are not according to any blueprint, they are not written into the genes. No protein map that says on the 149th day, kick the left leg. Is it a choice? A decision made? Or just a random firing of neurons beginning to establish pathways and connections?

We know the brain begins to show activity well before this point, but all the action appears to be ‘internal’ to the brain structure.

First, intermittent electroencephalograpic bursts in both cerebral hemispheres are first seen at 20 weeks gestation; they become sustained at 22 weeks and bilaterally synchronous at 26 to 27 weeks.

Actual physical control of the body by a specific ‘thought’ in the brain - if it is occurring - is beyond our ability to detect. Even if it is occurring, it does not appear to be anything more than a localized biological response to some stimuli. It does not appear that the brain is telling a part of the body, move.

For all the technology available to us today, we can see brain activity but we can not tap in and listen to the ‘conversation’. Those first thoughts, maybe fleeting sparks of awareness, belong uniquely, within the brain. For the entire life of the child each thought will occur away from anyone else’s knowledge or understanding - unless s/he chooses to share them with others. And from those first thoughts, the plan built into our genes begins to turn over control of the body to the consciousness growing and learning within.

Despite the growing complexity of brain activity, there does not appear to be a ‘thought process’ going on. The child’s brain is reacting to its body, which is reacting to the environment it is in. Stimulus causes reaction. The mother hums a tune, eats a spicy meal. Becomes scared, becomes excited. Each of these events causes the environment the child is in to change and the child’s body reacts. Specific sounds excite or calm the child. Is the child thinking, “ah, mom is singing that song I like”? Does the mother’s state of mind while singing cause a release of hormones that cause a specific reaction in the brain of the child? Is this thinking? Is this the infant brain making choices? Relax? Rest? We don’t know. Our technology can register the reaction, see the change. We can measure the change in hormones, know that they have an impact, but KNOW if there is a specific choice being made?

“There be in animals two sorts of motions peculiar to them: One called vital, begun in generation, and continued without interruption through their whole life; such as the course of blood, the pulse, the breathing, the concoction, nutrition, excretion, etc; to which motion there needs no help of imagination; the other is animal motion, otherwise voluntary motion; as to go, to speak, to move any of our limbs, in such manner as is first fancied in our minds.

…And because going, speaking, and the like voluntary motions depend always upon a precedent thought of whither, which way, and what, it is evident that the imagination is the first internal beginning of all voluntary motion.”

Many of the first actions we take as humans are based on direct reaction to specific environmental stimulus. The actions are basic, almost completely automatic. Our bodies make demands, we respond. That does not change, will never change. From birth until death, we will seek food when hungry. We will seek sleep when tired. We will seek a bathroom (or similar) when we need to relieve ourselves. We can decide to ignore those bodily demands, for a time. Eventually the body will override our decisions. In a few cases, even when hunger is ignored for days and weeks, the body will respond, until it can no longer survive.

The process of learning how to react, how to respond, how to control our bodies begins as the brain begins to assume control over the body before birth and continues with certain immediacy after birth. It is a process that will go on for a lifetime.

With very few exceptions, this is the process every human goes through. With very few exceptions we can predict the process with a high degree of accuracy. Whether our parents were rich or poor, educated or not, king or pauper, each of us began this way. We are all born with certain characteristics regardless of race, gender, class, religion or income. We have a heart that beats, lungs that breathe, a body that moves and a brain that thinks.

“Nature hath made man so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind that another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he.”

The Law of Nature or the Character of Nature

“The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions;”

A law of nature, lex naturalis, is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved.”

Hobbes and Locke suggest that the law of nature has two components: state – that condition of being equal and independent, and consequence - the result of reason no one can harm another.

Of the state of nature:

We know that in each species, there is a set of characteristics that apply to all offspring, each equal and independent. We know there is a considerable range of possibilities within those characteristics: weight, height, potential for intelligence, propensity for exceeding – for better or worse – the parents. These natural variations give rise to diversity in the population. It is the purpose of nature to encourage this diversity. However, nature does not need that all individuals survive or that any one should prevail. The goal of nature is to give each species the chance to grow and thrive, but it is indifferent to individual life. To Nature each individual is as good for it’s purpose as any other is.

Each species however has a great desire that each individual survive. Unlike Natures indifference, each species seeks to nurture those individuals most likely to help carry the species into the future. For the weak, infirm, and elderly incapable of perpetuation the species, there is no future. The species seek the strongest at the expense of the weakest and will cull itself of the non-performers. Each species has a biological imperative that force beneficial (to the species) behaviors on individuals. In humans we call it morality.

Nature may be indifferent to the individual, but we are not. Unlike other ‘species’, we have free will. We can ignore the imperatives and support the weak, the infirm and the elderly. We have the ability and liberty to choose for ourselves; individuals can choose to ignore or conform to the purpose of nature.

“And because the condition of man (as hath been declared in the precedent chapter) is a condition of war of every one against everyone, in which case everyone is governed by his own reason…”

Of the consequence of nature:

Hobbes and Locke may reason that as a consequence of all being equal and independent, we should not harm ourselves or each other, but that ignores the nature that they find us in ‘a state of war’. Here is how I think they get to their erroneous conclusion:

All equal means none have more claim or authority than any other on resources needed for survival. As the species grows in number, competition for resources increases. The diversity inherent in human characteristics grants a natural INEQUALITY in abilities; some individuals will be able to take more than their share of resources. It benefits all individuals to work together to insure everyone has access to resources. For Hobbes and Locke (and many others), in the face of natures competition, working together insures that all survive.

Reason dictates that if an individual threatens another, the transgression can call down upon him or her a forceful response threatening their own survival. It is a form of self preservation that dictates to individuals that threats to others should be avoided.

Nature has no such reason. Nature does not need nor expect that all individuals survive or procreate. Competition within and between species is one of the characteristics of the law of nature. Once an individual ceases being useful, a species is as indifferent as nature itself.

In early humans, competition often resulted in death. It is the ‘state of war’ that Hobbes spoke of. The only change that has occurred over the centuries is we have channeled that competition into non-fatal (usually) sports. Species (even homosapiens) continue to encourage competition; the biological imperative is strong.

Like the state of nature, humans can impose reason over competition; we can impose free will over the biological imperative. Liberty is not bound by nature. The law of nature is for the unthinking animals. Humanity, expressing a thought, exceeds the limits of nature and sets for itself, each one of us, our own path through life.

Such is the human condition: a part of nature, but by free will, unbound from the indifference of nature and free to choose compassion over competition. These characteristics are part of the human condition and are the foundation of the statement: all men are created equal.

“I think….”

What is the nature of thought? Thought is the physical action of the brain. When thought occurs, our body responds. For a thought to occur we need some things. The brain must have structure and integrity, it must have resources such as nutrients and energy, and it must have impulse such as internal or external stimulus.

When these things are in place, thought is possible. From thought comes action. The body responds to the brain’s thoughts. Whether it is autonomic such as breathing, or conscious, such as running, the thought proceeds the action. A specific thought expressed as an action is unique to each individual human; the process of thinking and acting is integral to the physical structures of each human.

The human condition grants no one greater, nor less authority or station than another. At birth, the groomsman and the prince share the human condition equally. Every human needs air to breathe, food to nourish and water to drink. These needs are the primary or fundamental impulses that stimulate thought.

Never, have our thoughts been subject to review, interpretation, interception or modification by another person. Every thought that has ever moved within our minds belongs to us. We may choose to share them with others, we may act in ways that people can interpret as a response to a thought we have had, but the thought is ours alone forever. It can not be taken by another, it can not be restricted, or limited by another. The owner of the thought is without question, the human in which it is formed.

Thought is an expression of free will. It requires effort on the part of the individual. A thought is the sole property of the individual. A thought, by itself, exists only as long as the individual holds it. Whether the thought continues, whether it is expanded, or restricted is the choice and responsibility of the individual.

This is freedom – the source of liberty. The absolute, unrestricted act of thought that finds its expression in every single human being. It does not find its source in government or society; by document or decree. It occurs without leave or permission from another or all. It is inherent in every human, by nature of our existence. It can not be denied or refused; it is inalienable. The absolute freedom exists as long as we exist.

Our thoughts are ours until we decide to share them with others. It is always, in every way , our choice whether a thought comes out from behind the curtain. We own our thoughts and we own the actions that result from those thoughts. As the means of having and holding those thoughts is ours, the thought is ours. This ownership is the essence of individuality.

“In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”.

If we own the thought then we own the action that expresses that thought and the consequences thereof. You can not separate the act from its consequences. The structure that allows thought, the thought held and expressed by an act and the consequences of that act form an unbroken physical chain unique to each individual. This is part of the foundation of personal responsibility.

Actions are an expression of our thoughts. In order to satisfy the needs of the human condition, we need to express our thoughts with certain actions. All actions necessary for the continuation of an individual are fundamental to their existence and the need to freely express those acts is absolute. The human condition demands that we express those acts.

“But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence; though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it.”

The actions are required because we exist and because our existence depends on them.

Before there is an act, there must be a will to act. And before there is a will to act, there must be a thought. Without thought, there is no free will. Free will is the physical expression of thought. It can not be restricted except by our own desire/choice. It can not be denied except by our own limitations.

Two impulses create thought: needs and desire. We share needs – they are part of the human condition. Desire is that aspect that Jefferson called the ‘pursuit of happiness’; it is no less fundamental to the human condition. We are more than bare existence. We seek to satisfy our fundamental needs but they are more than just breathing, eating and existing. We seek companionship and we seek to extend ourselves with children and accomplishments. The actions that allow us these pursuits are as necessary to our well being as the food we eat. Each of these needs stimulate thoughts that seek to be expressed by actions.

Thought exists within the individual, unless the individual expresses that thought, either directly or by expressing an action, it remains out of sight from others. This is the foundation of privacy. Every act belongs to the individual as do the consequences of those acts. Privacy is ownership of thought and the individuals ability to limit the expression of that thought.

Attempts to restrict the free expression of fundamental actions are a threat to the individual. We have the need to protect our freedom to express fundamental actions. This is the completion of the foundation of personal responsibility. It is a fundamental characteristic of the human condition to desire to continue to exist. The species seeks to maximize the individual and each individual seeks no less.

Threats to the individual can be dealt with by any means such that the threat ceases to be either imminent or persistent.

“And consequently it is a precept, or general rule of reason: that everyman ought to endeavor to peace, as far as he hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war. The first branch of which rule containeth the first and fundamental law of nature, which is to seek peace and follow it. The second, the sum of the right of nature, which is: by all means we can defend ourselves.”

“In transgressing the law of Nature* the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity, which is that measure God has set to the actions of men for their mutual security, and so he becomes dangerous to mankind;

….the execution of the law of nature is in that state put into every man’s hands, whereby everyone has a right to punish the transgressors of that law to such a degree as may hinder its violation.”

* that being all equal and independent, no one ought
harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.

Obviously Locke is not suggesting that the character of “equal and independent’ is being transgressed, but rather the violation of consequence or the precept that one should not harm another or self. It is the state of nature that competition exists and that competition is often fatal. Competition does not always exist between individuals and species. If the needs of the individual or group are being met, there is no competition for resources. Among humans, if each individual’s needs are being met, competition is social interaction. Unlike species of animals, humans have the ability to work together (in situations of scarce resources) rather than in competition. Once again, humans can exceed nature by exercising free will. However, individuals (or groups) that act to obtain more than their needs at the expense of others have interfered in the ability of others to satisfy their needs, such an act is the nature of the transgression.

There is nothing in the human condition that prevents such transgressions except reason. These types of acts are threats to others. When they are acts expressed solely for the pleasure of individuals, we call them evil. When these evil/threatening thoughts are expressed, it is part of the human condition to seek to limit, restrict or stop them. This is the foundation of self-defense.
I have the need to breathe, if you attempt to prevent me from fulfilling that need, you have proclaimed to all humanity that you are willing to deprive others of their needs; that your reasoning has determined denying the needs of another is acceptable or desirable. Such reasoning is a threat that needs to be faced or addressed, as you would do any such threat to your existence.

What actions are fundamental? If eating is fundamental is gathering food fundamental? Is preparing or cultivating food fundamental? Any action necessary for the free expression of a fundamental act is not subject to limit, restriction or denial EXCEPT when the act threatens others.

The individual has the need to express fundamental thoughts and to defend against attempts to limit, restrict or deny those needs. Actions by individuals, groups or societies to limit, restrict or deny that freedom are a threat to the individual and all individuals and are therefore subject to any action to prevent or eliminate that threat.


At this point, we need to define responsibility as it relates to the individual expression of actions. Any stimulus can provoke a thought, but our free will determines what happens next. Do we keep the thought or dismiss it? Do we express the thought through action? These are our choices; this is our free will in action. We can be coerced, threatened or encouraged but it is our choice what happens next. It is the fundamental nature of thought that gives us both the ownership and the responsibility for them. Many people will make lots of arguments that coercion can be extreme, that stimulus can be so well known and defined that specific thoughts can be forced to be expressed. In each and every case, once the thought exists, it is the free will of the individual, the choice of the individual, to dismiss, hold or express a thought. Individuals are solely and always responsible for the expression of a thought by their actions and the consequences thereof. I can not hold you responsible for my thoughts and actions. I own my thoughts, I choose to express them by acting. I am responsible for them. You can not hold me responsible for your thoughts and actions. You own your thoughts, you choose to express them. You are responsible for them. Each of us have thoughts, express them and are responsible for those actions. As long as those actions do not threaten another, there is no limit to the number of possible actions we may take.

“…though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself…”

In this Locke was wrong. He said it but either couldn’t see it or wouldn’t see it. Slavery was/is a choice. If every thought belongs to you and every act and consequence likewise, then being a slave is a consequence of the choice to accept servitude or the alternative (often death). There is no slavery except by choice:

“For whenever he finds the hardship of his slavery outweigh the value of his life, it is in his power, by resisting the will of his master, to draw down on himself the death he desires.”

Death can be a choice. When the burdens of life exceed the value an individual holds for it, they choose to die or not to continue to fight for life. For many, this is the final expression of a fundamental thought and they have just as much freedom to express it as any other fundamental act.

The Island

Last night you went to bed, comfortable in your life. This morning you awoke, alone, on an island somewhere in the middle of an unknown sea or ocean. After the required yelling to find out who is playing a trick on you, or where the cameras are hiding, you determine you are, in fact, alone. Your sense of organization kicks in, or is it just your hunger, and you set off to find the necessary requirements for sustaining your life, at least for the next couple of hours.

A day spent exploring your island confirms a growing suspicion that if you are going to survive, it will be up to your imagination, your abilities and the resources available to you. Today, you are the king of your domain. Survivability is the only rule. Over the next several weeks, you gather food, water and the materials to build some shelter. You took what was needed, you choose a place to build, and you soiled the previously pristine environment. You did what was necessary to survive. Soon, certain routines became established, but whether something was done on a Monday or a Thursday was as irrelevant as whether it was Monday or Thursday. You sought food and water when necessary, repaired your shelter when it needed it. Whether you sat back and waited for whatever came next or strove to alter your circumstances, each day was devoted to ensuring the next.

Without exception, every action you took was either to further your survival, or increase the comfort of your situation. You required no permission, no license or grant. If you could imagine an action, if you had the ability and the resources, you could take that action. Every action had direct consequences. A failure to obtain water meant thirst. Cause and effect came unbuffered. Soon you learned which actions would benefit you, and which would make you uncomfortable or take you to the brink of death. Those choices became rules for your survival.

If you were the type that thinks from a philosophical point of view, you would probably note that you had absolute freedom to do whatever you wanted. Only your imagination, abilities, resources and the consequences of your actions could limit your choices. It doesn’t take many false steps to realize the need to consider both choice and outcome. Yet, there is no denying the freedom to express whatever thought comes to your mind.

No one granted you that freedom. It was not handed to you, or provided by decree. That ability to act with complete freedom is inherent in the situation. Alone on an island, there is no government or society to impose limits on your actions. On the island, you have the complete freedom to act in any way that your imagination, your abilities, the resources and the consequences allow. You are the king of the realm, the sovereign of the island.

Then one day, another person appeared. After the requisite yelling and shouting, you stood staring at each other. Effective immediately, all your resources were cut in half...or were they? What did you owe this new person? You had already ascertained food and water resources, built shelter and established your domain. What right did this new person have to what you had worked so hard to establish?

Here was someone, like you, stranded. A short conversation revealed he too went to sleep one night and woke up to find himself relocated, no lock, no stock, no barrel. Although two would now divide your available resources, you gained the additional human resource of new imagination, new abilities and a second pair of hands. Knowing that your food and water resources would be sufficient to support both of you, you offered your new domain partner support and friendship. In return, he offered friendship and a chance to double your labor pool.

As of that day, your freedom to express yourself completely and freely ended. Some boundaries would be established, some limitations imposed. You would teach your friend the rules you learned the hard way. Society had come to your little island.

Your ability to express yourself did not end with the appearance of a second person, you imposed a limit on it. Society, such that it exists on the island, imposes limitations upon you. It is done with your agreement because you want to ‘improve’ your situation on the island, not create dissension. This is the fundamental purpose of society, to create a means for individuals to freely express their actions and to establish boundaries for each member in doing so. For the benefit of all, each of us gives up some freedom to act. Our ability to express ourselves does not disappear, the options available become self-limited.


How many of the actions we take for granted today didn’t exist three thousand years ago? How many actions are based on knowledge that didn’t exist two hundred years ago? Today, children are taught actions in elementary school based on knowledge that was unique to specialists just a decade or two ago. As knowledge grows humans take that information and combine it in new and unique ways, thinking new thoughts that need new actions to express them. While the number of possible acts is infinite, there are only three types of limits on the ability to express thoughts through actions:

Limits by Nature: Knowledge, ability and resources.
Limits by Self: Consequences, free will.
Limits by Force: Individual, State/government

Limits: By Nature

There are natural limits on the actions that individuals express. As many will attest to, I am tone deaf. I can sing, but most people want me to avoid it at all costs. When I sing it generally offends people in earshot. The first person to sing did not know about scales or tone. They just ‘sang’. (I acknowledge the first ‘singing’ was probably more like humming, non-information bearing sounds that were pleasing to the singer and hopeful those around him or her.)

There is a foundation of knowledge that must exist prior to the thoughts that require a new action. Individuals are limited by their own knowledge and abilities and any thought they express is equally limited. Each new action is based on the knowledge and actions of those that preceded it.

The ability and knowledge to act are part of the human condition. Without the ability to make sounds, there is no singing. Without the ability to hear, there is no need (or desire) for singing. This does not mean that a deaf person can not sing. Singing exists in the knowledge base of humanity and is therefore available to all with the knowledge of it, with or without the ability to express it.

The knowledge base of actions belongs to all humans. Once established, the action is universal even to those of us without the ability. If one person lacks the resources to act specifically, the act still exists. For each human, singing exists even if they lack the ability (tone deaf) or the resources (vocal cords).

Some actions are so basic that only individual abilities, knowledge and resources will limit their expression. With few exceptions, every individual will be able to express them as their abilities as humans expand with their knowledge. The range of actions has expanded slowly as history progressed. Limited access to natural resources and individual abilities made basic actions all that could be imagined. Small groups of nomadic humans formed to expand the abilities and resources available so that they could express their few actions with fewer inherent limitations. A new action might be expressed in China but not seen in Europe for decades or even centuries. Other actions were resource dependent to the extent that groups closely guarded access to the resource, limiting the ability of other groups to know or express an action such as bronze making. Every new resource would prompt a flurry of innovation of thought and action.

Every action requires physical qualities and knowledge that the action is possible. For most basic actions, the physical qualities necessary exist in virtually all of us, but the knowledge must be learned. From sitting up, to walking, to eating, to sex, humans spend years learning to use the physical qualities of the human body. Many of the basic actions humans take are fundamental – they satisfy a basic need of the human body. They are also often beneficial – they have a range of possible actions that can equally satisfy the basic need.

For those that lack an ability (deafness for example), some individuals will be able to overcome the obstacles or limitations. Others will learn new abilities, or obtain resources not previously available. But not everyone will be able express every action. It does not make the actions less universal.

Our ancestors could not imagine knives or forks because they had no knowledge of metallurgy or even (far enough back) tool making. The knowledge base was shallow, the abilities available to them limited. For them, all acts were fundamental. The need to provide food and shelter left little time for anything else.

We truly stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. Our knowledge base, our universe of actions has been established by the painstaking acts, thoughts and imaginations of millions of forebearers. Every act had consequences and only through trial and error, success or death, accomplishment or failure did humanity learn which acts were beneficial. Humans spend their waking time in thought and action. The process of learning determines which thoughts deserve action and what acts deserve repetition. As the consequences of acts are learned, new knowledge is combined with the existing and new thoughts occur. The process is repeated in each of us throughout our lives. The process is part of the human condition, a consequence of our characteristics. It can no more be restricted or denied than breathing.

Beneficial actions ensure, assist, improve or satisfy the needs of the human condition. I asked earlier if eating is a fundamental act, what would procuring or preparing food be? Such actions are the nature of beneficial acts. The range of actions that are possible in order accomplish beneficial tasks are broader than fundamental actions. Breathing is breathing; not many options to accomplish it. Eating is fundamental, but what is eaten, when, how, how much are all variables with various degrees of freedom. Beneficial actions are still necessary actions and have the same demand on freedom of expression, but we can control the expression of such acts well enough to consider the consequences. Beneficial acts are the foundation of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They are necessary for the health and well being of humans and therefore are part of the human condition.

I knew a woman many years ago that gave birth to a child with no swallow reflex. It was painful to watch her deal with the slow death of her child. Many of us take eating for granted. It is one of those ‘bodily’ functions that we just do. But any parent will tell you that babies and eating are a messy combination. Our physical ability to eat is built in, but we must still be taught to eat. From a basic eating process to the more creative preparation and savoring of a seven course meal, we learn TO eat, WHAT to eat and even when to eat. Satisfying a fundamental need can often be done using beneficial acts.

Learning what foods are safe or useful has been a human endeavor from the beginning of our time. A child is exposed to many foods that have already been vetted by his/her parents. How often have we wondered how and why someone decided something would be good to eat? The entire concept of caviar makes my stomach lurch yet many people love the texture and taste. (YUK!) Over thousands of years humans have built up a knowledge base of acceptable foods that include a significant portion of the plant and animal matter on the planet. Yet, even acceptable foods to a parent sometimes are bad for the child. The learning process must be repeated for each human. Our learning process did not just include which foods were acceptable, but how they were prepared. Consider wheat. We mill the grain, combine it with water and other items. Tools to plant, harvest, mill, and cook all had to be developed and tested. Each act had to be expressed, the consequences determined and the results assessed. If the act were beneficial, it could be used again and it could lead to further developments. The need to eat can be expressed in as many ways as there are individuals. Whether it took thousands, or just hundreds of generations, eating became more that just satisfying the fundamental need to nourish.

What happens to people with food allergies? The fundamental need still exists however people with allergies will be limited in the foods they can eat. The limit is not imposed from outside, but as a result of the consequences of eating inappropriate foods. Children learn they are lactose intolerant, or have a peanut allergy. Those foods are keep from their range of possible acts. But even these type of situations stimulate thought and actions. Soy milk and lactose free milks were developed and made available, increasing the knowledge base of possible foods for all humans. Individuals have taken the knowledge of food and allergies and applied different preparations in the process added to the knowledge and range of expressed actions that constitutes the human condition.

When a new action has been expressed, the knowledge of it can be spread to others with the appropriate physical qualities where it can be combined and expressed. The range of physical qualities and knowledge grows and changes. We would barely acknowledge the basic sounds and efforts of our distant ancestors as speech and they would be confused and probably terrified at the range of noises we consider normal speech today.

Once an action has been expressed, it becomes part of humanity’s knowledge base. They are part of our heritage that is passed down by generation after generation. As humans gain knowledge and combine it with the existing, we innovate. We think new thoughts and each new thought needs new actions to express it.

There is an infinite range of thoughts. The range of actions needed to express those thoughts is equally infinite. Each action awaits someone to imagine it and to consider acting in a specific way that expresses each new thought. Until someone does, the action remains unknown. Until the first person sang, there was no singing. Until the first person danced, there was no dancing. Once the first person sang, others, upon hearing, could sing. As knowledge spreads, actions spread.

Many of our actions are part of the human condition. They exist in every society and from archeology we can find evidence of many common actions in every grouping of humans from the earliest history. For many actions, their first expression resides tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of years in the past. Many more actions await our imagination in the future. Our universe of known actions continues to grow with each succeeding generation.

The source of every thought and action is the individual. An individual, using their knowledge, experience and thought, considered an action and expressed it. Every thought and action finds its source in the individual. Every expression of an action is by individuals, either solely or with the assent or joining of others. However, while each thought may belong to an individual, each act that expresses it belongs to humanity.

Limits by Self: Consequences, free will

The abilities and resources of the individual naturally limit the free expression of an action. Limits can also be self-imposed by the individual. All actions have consequences. When an action has been expressed for a long time, the consequences of its expression are well known. Often those consequences are precisely the intent of our action. Over history the expression of certain actions has resulted in specific consequences so consistently that the action and its consequences are tightly correlated. If this is the result you seek, this is the action you take. If this is the action you take, this is the result. Further, if the consequence of a specific action satisfies a need of the human condition, the action associated with it becomes fundamental to our behavior. Consider procreation.

However, new thoughts often require new actions that might have poorly understood consequences. If each human can express an action to the limit of their abilities and resources, the effects of those actions can extend and potentially threaten the free expression of other individuals. When this happens and the people know each other, it is possible for them to work together to either minimize the impact, or share the consequences. Individuals can choose to limit their actions to the extent that the consequences of their actions do not extend to the others. This self-limitation helps individuals function in groups or society.

The action continues to exist but a limitation has been imposed upon its free expression. The individual on the other side of the fire will bash my head in if I attempt to express my desire for his spouse. I can still act, if I am willing to live with the consequences. The learning curve for such self-limitation was probably pretty steep but those that survived the process passed along that knowledge along with the knowledge of the action itself.
Over time the consequences associated with particular actions became well understood, yet there remain inherent dangers not only to the individual, but also to those around him or her. The limits of the individual’s abilities and resources reduces the risks to others, but most individuals will impose additional limits on the free expression of their own actions in order to obtain the consequences they seek. Within a range of behaviors where consequences are well known and defined, individual actions with limits of expression become the established norm, or tradition.

When acts are rights

To this point, we have talked about how thoughts originate in the individual. Thoughts are owned and controlled by the individual. Thoughts are then expressed outwardly by actions. Thoughts and actions that support the fundamental needs* of our existence are part of the human condition that we share with every individual. These actions are the foundation of rights. A right is the ability and freedom to express a thought through action.

An inalienable right is the ability and freedom to express a thought through action that satisfies a fundamental need. You can not deprive the individual of the freedom to take these actions without depriving the individual of those needs required to continue to exist. These inalienable rights are part of the human condition. Deprive individuals of the freedom to satisfy fundamental needs and you are a threat to the existence of ALL that share the human condition.

Yet, not all rights are inalienable. Beneficial acts are rights to the extent they ensure, assist, improve or satisfy the needs of the human condition. I must have the freedom to obtain food in order to satisfy the inalienable freedom (right) to eat. The freedom however is limited. Actions that threaten the freedom of others are limited by force imposed by others (individuals, groups, communities, and or the State). Self-defense is an inalienable right.

Rights exist because we have the need to express thoughts fundamental to our existence. The historical source of our rights is not some government or document, but in the human need, freedom, and ability to express thoughts by action.

Every right finds its source in the individual. The freedom to act is not a function of society; it is part of the foundation of the human condition, to live, to exist. From your first expression of free will, you have the freedom to act to satisfy the needs of the human condition. Consider:

Unfortunately, not everyone has the abilities or resources to express every act. This does not deny them the action, only the ability to express it. Every action has natural limits. Actions we express are limited by our imagination, our abilities and the resources we have available. We also impose limits ourselves as we learn the consequences of our actions and finally, if we wish to participate in society, whether that is just one other person, or millions, we chose to place limits on our actions in order to improve our situations.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the abilities or resources to express every right. This does not deny them the right, only the ability to express it. Every right has natural limits. Rights we express are limited by our imagination, our abilities and the resources we have available. We also impose limits ourselves as we learn the consequences of our actions and finally, if we wish to participate in society, whether that is just one other person, or millions, we chose to place limits on our rights in order to improve our situations.

If my life is mine, not just to live, but to do as I chose with it, then liberty is that freedom of action.

Without exception on the island, every action you took was either to further your survival, or increase the comfort of your situation.

Joining with others in society is a beneficial act. How much you limit your actions for that survival and comfort is both an indicator of the value of the society you belong to and the value of your contribution to it.

Not every act will be fundamental or beneficial. Inalienable rights are not subject to restriction or limitation – we need them to continue to exist. Beneficial rights can be restricted or limited because there are multiple means to accomplish the goal of satisfying a part of the human condition.

Evil acts are those actions calculated to deprive others of their freedoms to express their thoughts or deprive them of the ability to satisfy the needs of their human condition. While an act that threatens others could satisfy a fundamental need, the act itself creates in others the fundamental need to stop it. This defines the limit of a right: actions that satisfy a part of the human condition that does not threaten other humans.

Each human has needs that must be fulfilled and as long as each can fulfill those needs, there is no cause to interfere with anyone else’s actions. In early human history, our planet offered abundant resources and virtually unlimited space. Humans formed small groups to increase the available resources (hands and brains) and to accomplish more than one or two could do themselves (bringing down a large animal). As long as each individual was allowed to fulfill their needs, the social groupings were beneficial.

For those early societies, a human that took the needs from another was no different than a beast attempting to attack a human and was probably treated no differently, either running him off or beating and leaving behind. From these early beginnings we have the concept of property. THIS is mine. THAT is yours.

“Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a ‘property’ in his own ‘person’. This nobody has any right to but himself. The ‘labour’ of his body and the ‘work’ of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to It something that is his own, and thereby makes it is his property.

In general, the following conditions are required in order to justify the right of first occupancy for a given piece of land. First, the land must as yet be uninhabited; secondly, no more must be occupied than is needed for subsistence ; and in the third place, possession must be taken not by empty ceremonies, but by work and cultivation, the only mark of ownership which ought, in default of juridical title, to be respected by others.”

Items that fulfilled the needs of the human condition were acquired and the effort to do so created ownership. Berries on a bush were available to anyone that came by and picked them. However, once picked, the effort to do so gave the person that picked them greater claim to them. Property is a characteristic of the effort of the individual. Before great societies a piece of land had no owner. The land existed. When someone came upon the land and then put labor to it, they held a claim against the land and against any other. If the land fulfilled a need of the human condition only with the effort of an individual, that individual had a claim on the fruits of his labor that exceeded any others. This is the foundation of private property.

Limits by Force: Individual, Government

“For though they that speak of this subject use to confound jus and lex, right and law, yet they ought to be distinguished, because right consisteth in liberty to do, or to forbear; whereas law determineth and bindeth to one of them: so that law and right differ as much as obligation and liberty, which in one and the same matter are inconsistent.”

In the island society, it was mutual agreement that guided choices and actions. But what happens when one breaks that agreement? Such issues on the island must be resolved by the two, but in a society of millions, the mutual agreement that exists is the system of laws that each society creates. Laws do not prevent the actions of their focus; they punish infractions. Those punishments establish consequences that people can use to make choices (such as civil disobedience). However, some punishments carry the penalty of incarceration. The forcible restriction of liberty is the only limit imposed by others we freely accept as a necessary component for the function of society. The authority for that force is granted by individuals to a government.


What is authority? When one or more other individuals have agreed to act in agreement with me, our actions constitute a single right to act that does not exist individually. It allows each individual in the agreement to call upon others in the agreement to act in concert. Its simplest form is created when we enter into a personal relationship with another individual. This is the foundation of marriage. It is an outward declaration that two individuals act as one and have claim on the freedom to act of the other.

Other forms of authority create communities, companies, organizations and governments. We give others the ability to call upon our freedoms either directly, or by agreeing to limit our actions for the benefit of the larger group. Locke called it the social contract.

When we grant an individual or organization the freedom to act in our name either for personal benefit (such as an attorney) or the benefit of the community (government), we have granted them authority. Our lack of consent revokes or denies the freedom to act in our name. This grant of authority is limited as to allowed acts and duration.

Our right to self defense is an example where we give the State to authority to act in our stead. It has authority because it has our ascent to do so.

Introduction to Part Two

Originally, this section was part of that online debate. If at times it appears that I am answering a question from an audience, I was. There are other beliefs as to the foundation or origin of rights. The two most common are morality and traditions.

Morality foundations find their support in the idea that God has ordained or prohibited certain behaviors and it is appropriate to make laws for all based on those proclamations. Where God has been quiet (privacy?), no right exists.

When morality based on religion fails to define rights sufficient to our current period in time, we get argument that tradition and the vast experience of our forebearers defines the full extent of our rights. Our ancestors have tried all the variations and only what is left, works; that our institutions and historical precedent guide the range and extent of rights.

Both foundations or origins fail to move forward with human knowledge and experience. Leprosy is not the corruption of the skin by sin; seizures are not the outward manifestation of the inner battle against demons; fabrics are just clothes; pigs are just another meat that needs careful preparation; gays are natural variations in the human species; and our fathers do not want us to grow up with nothing more than they have or had.

Our rights are more than just the experience of our past, or the limits of our beliefs. They are the infinite expression of our free will.

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