One of the most serious problems of modern society is that few persons have any idea what a “right” is, and why such a thing might be both more and less important than they suppose. Take, for example, the seemingly trivial issue of whether people should be forced to wear seatbelts, and the claim that imposing legal sanctions against people who refuse to “buckle up” violates the right of anyone to do as he or she pleases with his or her own life and property.
The immediate reaction of a normal person in a democratic society is to jerk a knee and claim that any coercive act by the State or other duly constituted authority is, by that fact alone, a violation or infringement of individual rights. “It’s my life/property/body, and I can do as I please with it . . . can’t I?”
This reaction, admittedly normal, shows a lack of understanding of just what a right is, as well as other critical concepts such as “person,” and “society,” to say nothing of humanity’s special (possibly unique) characteristic of being (as Aristotle put it), “a political animal.” First, let’s look at this concept we call “right.”
A right is legally defined as the power vested in a person to do or not do some act in relation to others. A right necessarily imposes a “duty” on those others to allow that act or non-act, that is, a “duty” is the essential “correlative” of a right. Thus, a right cannot be exercised in a vacuum. “Others” are necessary, or the right doesn’t make any sense: there must be others on whom a duty is imposed.
Given the legal definition of right, we realize that “person” also has a special meaning: “that which has rights.” Persons can be “natural” (such as individual members of the human race), or they can be “artificial” (such as a State or a business corporation), but all persons have one thing in common: they have rights. A natural person has rights by nature, while an artificial person only has those rights that natural persons have delegated to it, but the existence of rights is what defines something as a person, nothing else.
Right, duty and person are thus social concepts, that is, they only have meaning in the context in which other persons are present, i.e., “society.” Society alone, however, is not sufficient. Humanity is not merely social. Ants and herd animals are social creatures. They have societies, that is, a structured environment within which members of that society carry out the business of existence.
In most social animals, however, society always takes the same general form. You will not find significant differences among ant colonies or bee swarms, no matter how many you examine, nor has this changed in eons. Even those instances in which non-human social animals exhibit learned behavior and introduced some change in their society, it is, apparently without known exception, superficial in nature. Basic social relationships remain unchanged. A certain task or occupation might be done in a different or new way, but it remains the same task, e.g., the bands of monkeys that learned to wash sand from sweet potatoes before eating them, and communicated this to others in some fashion. Learned behavior, true, but it introduced no fundamental change in the society.
Humanity is different. Human society takes a seemingly infinite number of forms. It remains recognizably human, but the tasks, even the end or ends for which the society is organized can be completely baffling to other humans. An atheist, for example, might tend to view a monastery as incomprehensible, where the monks inside would have no real appreciation of the atheist’s pursuit of material goods.
This is because human society is political, that is, a possibly unique combination of individual rights exercised within a consciously structured social order. Unlike other animals, humanity is not individualistic, nor social, but individuals that organize socially to protect and exercise one’s individuality by securing and protecting individual rights.
Nor is this a contradiction when we realize that there are two “parts” to every right. There is having a right . . . and there is exercising a right. Both are essential. If we do not have a particular right, we certainly cannot exercise it. On the other hand, if the exercise of a right is defined badly, we might as well not have the right.
For society to function, then, individual rights must not only be recognized, secured, and protected, they must be properly defined as to their exercise. In general, no right can be exercised in any way that harms the right holder, other individuals (including their property), other groups, or society as a whole.
Let us (finally) return to our example, the question as to whether requiring persons to wear seatbelts violates their rights.
This is not the place to debate the validity of the data, but a preponderance of evidence suggests that seatbelts save lives. There are, of course, always exceptions in this sort of thing, but, as the legal aphorism has it, “hard cases make bad laws,” that is, you can’t cover all contingencies by trying to pass a law that will take care of everything. That’s what, in part, a judge’s role is.
Further, the costs associated with the incidence of persons not wearing seatbelts appears to be material. Given the fact that most people have insurance of some kind, the cost of not wearing seatbelts is usually not an individual cost, but one spread out among a risk pool. Even for the uninsured, many costs associated with not wearing seatbelts may have to be written off (and absorbed by others) due to inability to pay.
Given, then, that the general rule for the exercise of rights requires that others not be harmed by their exercise, forcing others to pay the cost of someone who insists on not wearing a seatbelt clearly harms those others. A law that mandates wearing seatbelts cannot, therefore, be considered as violating someone’s individual rights, for the presumed right not to wear a seatbelt obviously violates the right that others have not to be harmed by being forced to pay the costs of the exercise of that presumed right.