The Two-Dimensionality of Signed Rights

After discussions with Libertarians and AnCaps about rights, it’s become clear to me that these kinds of groups have very solid ideas of what they think rights are and should entail — but they limit themselves to a very simple model of rights. This model is the “positive and negative rights” model, which has a lot of criticism as well as support. For more information regarding the ins and outs of these rights, see the Wiki page, but I’ll provide a few relevant definitions here, too, so don’t worry.

Upon my investigation into the positive and negative rights paradigm, I came across another rights paradigm, “liberty and claim rights”, which, according to Wikipedia, are an orthogonal way to look at rights from positive and negative. Where a negative right means essentially “no one is allowed to do x to you” and a positive right “others are compelled to prevent/mediate x”, a liberty right means “permission to do x” and a claim right “others are responsible to ensure x”. I know they sound similar but they’re not quite: the claim/liberty rights are inverses of each other, while the positive and negative rights express whether others are obligated to interfere. A realistic example is necessary.

Let’s take the right to life under the claim/liberty paradigm. A liberty right to life would mean only that you are not inherently wrong for being alive, but no one has to help you live (they can let you die) and others are not wrong to kill you. A claim right to life could include a claim that others must not kill you; to take it further, others may be obligated to save your life under certain circumstances (police officer or doctor). Most of us wouldn’t want to live in a world of just liberty rights, and we need both a liberty and a claim right to describe what a negative right to life states and implies. So switching paradigms, a negative right to life means that others may not kill you - no one is obligated to save you. A positive right to life means only that others have an obligation to prevent your death, i.e. give you free food or provide free medical services.

In the positive/negative paradigm, it feels like there’s something missing. After all, in America at least, people love the idea that they have a right to self defense. And that wasn’t included in the negative right to life — the only right to defense comes from the positive right to life, and that seems to only cover other people helping you. Yet the idea of self defense still seems a natural corollary to the negative right to life, because if your right isn’t defensible by at least yourself, it isn’t much of a right at all. So let’s take the one-dimensional idea of positive and negative rights and expand to two dimensions:

Two dimensional plane describing positive and negative rights (y-axis) versus their enforcement (x-axis)

The y-axis (Axis of Rights) is our idea of positive and negative rights from before. Let’s normalize and say it goes from 0 to 1, where 0 means you don’t have the right and 1 means you absolutely do have that right. The x-axis (Axis of Enforcement) is liberty versus claim, in the sense of the liberty/claim paradigm, and it explains whether a right should be enforced through other’s inaction, personal action, other’s action, or a void on other’s actions. So in quadrant I, the upper right hand quadrant, are the positive rights, the lower left quadrant (III), are negative rights.

Quadrants II and IV are dependent rights. These are the necessary and sufficient components to rounding out positive and negative rights. A dependent right in Q IV exists in a “defense of” relationship with it’s corresponding (independent) negative right in Q III. So a negative right to life in Q III has a dependent right in Q IV, which is on the claim side. So this right in Q IV is enforced by personal action, or a claim to action by an individual who feels their Q III is being violated against the violator. In the right to life example, this Q IV right is the right to self defense. A right to self defense does not make sense without the idea that others may not kill you, that is why it is dependent.

Q II is a little different. It is the dependent rights associated with Q I. Again looking at right to life, the Q I right states that others are obligated to save your life (police or doctors, let’s say). This idea is also incomplete. For instance, the notion of “do not resuscitate” is not covered in any of Qs I, II or IV, yet it exists in the American legal and healthcare systems. Q II’s dependent right associated with Q I allows for this idea. It is a positive right, and therefore involves the compulsion of others to assist you, but it is enforced through liberty, or inaction, therefore implying that an individual has a right to deny the actions of those who would otherwise be obligated to act. This is not the same as right to death — right to death would be a negative right such that no one can interfere with a suicide (like the police can now in the US), with a positive right that would imply someone is obligated to assist you in suicide.

What about a transition from Q III to Q II? Shouldn’t there be a dependent right there, too? Or is this whole two dimensions to rights idea some bullshit being peddled by a grad student who should really got to law school instead of reading Wiki articles?

The transition from Q III to Q II doesn’t make any sense as Q III’s right is described. A positive right to life with negative enforcement already implies what the negative right to life implies: others cannot threaten your life. Let’s tweak the definitions of rights in Q I and III, and see if we can make sense of the transitions Q III => Q II and Q I => Q IV.

Starting with Q III again, instead of the negative right to life, we’ll assume the liberty right to life described at the beginning of this article. That is, you have a right to live, but no one has to let you live, and anyone may kill you. Our transition from Q III to Q IV is still the right to self defense; your right to life implies an individual responsibility to defend it. From Q III to Q II, we move from a negative right to life to a positive one, but the enforcement is still negative. This implies the “negative right to life”, or your right to impose on others not to kill you. Now our transition to Q II means something. In all, our Q III right to life means three things now: 1. That living is not itself criminal (sorry sin-at-birth believers), 2. That others may not threaten your life, 3. That you are responsible for your own self preservation upon threat to your life.

Now we will tweak the definition in Q I from an obligation on others to act to permission for others to act. In example: a person who sees you, say, hung by the neck by some rapscallions, has permission to cut you down whether or not you say anything. The transition from Q I to Q II implies again that you have a right to deny help, or in other words that you have a right to obligate someone to refrain from helping. From Q I to Q IV is an obligation to help when that help is in defense of a negative right; an obligation to not refrain from helping you down from a noose. So if you have a positive right to life, it implies three things as well: 1. That others have permission to uphold your right, 2. That others may be obligated to help you, 3. That others may be obligated to not help you. In the noose example again, 1 implies that a passer-by may safely (without fear of legal or personal repercussion by you) cut you down from the noose; 2 implies that someone, say a Sheriff, may be obligated by either you or the law to cut you down from the noose (barring the Sheriff didn’t put you there herself); 3. implies that if you start kicking the passer-by away, they must refrain from cutting you down. What we get in the Right to Life example:

The diagram shows a practical example of a two-dimensional view of rights, focusing on an individual’s right to life.

Under these new definitions, there is no natural transition between Q III and Q I, because the new definitions transformed positive/negative rights into the liberty/claim rights definitions, which by definition are DeMorgan dual (inverse). Are we well defined yet? Probably not, but I think this paradigm of very simple initial definitions of rights (Qs I and III), with necessary dependencies that recognize the enforcement styles of those rights (Qs II and IV), is a more rigorous and clear paradigm for discussing rights than the linear and overly simplified positive/negative rights paradigm.