Against Rights


Human rights constitute the dominant language of justice today. Injustices are qualified and quantified in terms of human rights. I’d like to offer a few thoughts on why rights are not worth fighting for in and of themselves.

Where did the rights that people have today come from? The will of people to stand up and take them. Once you can stand on your own two feet, alongside other people standing up, you can take what you want and rights are merely the closest thing at hand. But what counts is not the taking, but the standing; not the rights, but the power necessary to get rights. Building power to get rights, and then valuing only the right and not the power thereafter, is like valuing a trophy and not the work and skill that went into winning the trophy.


Those who value rights are too quick to let their power recede when some authority on high has given them rights. Those who value power will take their rights and keep them, and then go beyond. It takes power to win, and with it you can win again and again. With rights alone, all you can do is hope they aren’t taken away tomorrow or the next day. Insofar as one person’s right infringes slightly on another person’s ability to exercise power, someday, someone with power will come along and squash your rights if you haven’t the power to fight back. (Might all injustice be attributed to one agent having more power than another and therefore being able to violate unjustly another’s integrity?)

A person with all of the possible disadvantages of life can have all of the rights in the world and yet be powerless to do anything in the world. To take a not unheard of example, someone from a working-class neighborhood might be heavily recruited, join the army, go to war, suffer trauma, acquire PTSD, become addicted to drugs, and end up living on the streets on food handouts, neglected by society.  The right to not starve to death is merely the right to be miserable. What have rights afforded this person?

Imagine that people considered unlucky or unfortunate had not the right to be so, but had the power to have control of their life. But who would give them their necessities: the right to food, shelter, expression and equality under the law? Themselves, and those who stood in power with them.

The discourse of rights is about securing fixtures of decency from some agent more powerful, but presupposes an entity above that can dispense with rights when it sees fit. The fight for rights is always an appeal to authority. The fight for power is a struggle against arbitrary authority and for the authority of communities to rule themselves.

Not that we should abandon using the language of rights instantly and altogether. The word “rights” bears the meaning that people in today’s age attribute to fairness and justice, so by all means, use it to your advantage. But know what you’re really fighting for and spread where you can the gospel of power.


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