There is an intrinsic tension between what is good for individuals and what is good for a group of individuals. Now this is not to say that the two are necessarily opposed, in many cases giving individuals what they want is good for the group; it isn’t the case that when the group is benefited some individual must suffer, as some seem to think. But there are cases in which what is good for the group demands sacrifices from individuals. Thus when thinking about ethics, about how to structure society, striking the proper balance between these two demands is always a matter of concern. One way of managing this problem is to give each individual certain rights which guarantee their ability to engage in certain activities without restriction so long as they don’t interfere with the rights of others. Obviously the existence of such rights tends to favor the individual over the group, in fact I would argue that as they are usually thought about they are overly in favor of individuals. But, fortunately for us, no society implements rights in this pure form, although some may pay lip service to doing so, which is more evidence, I think, that rights are not the correct solution to the tension between individual desires and the welfare of the group.
The idea of rights emerged, it would seem, as a kind of reaction to social structures that overly favored the group, and those who exercised more power in the group. Naturally those social structures were themselves appropriate at one time, because how much individuals must sacrifice for the group depends on how close the group as a whole is to being wiped out. When the labor of every individual is needed to keep society afloat naturally there isn’t much room for individual freedom. But, as things progress, societies have more leeway, and when they do the best way of structuring society is to pass that leeway, or at least most of it, on to individuals. As we would expect such reorganizations are not equally beneficial to everyone in society, and thus some individuals may try to keep society structured restrictively, to the detriment of the group, but to their own benefit. Despite this society will eventually self-correct, whether they like it or not, and I think rights emerged during one of these self-corrections, where power was being taken away from the few and being distributed to a larger number.
But the idea itself is an over-correction, it would give too much to individuals and too little to the group. A society really composed of individuals with inalienable rights would simply fly apart. Consider freedom of speech. Free speech seems like one of the rights that it would be no problem to grant to people in a basically unrestricted sense. However, free speech is not without the potential to be harmful to society. Deceptive speech is still speech, and not only does that allow one person to effectively harm another without consequences, so long as they do it without touching them, but it allows deception en-masse through deceptive marketing, and so on. If people are allowed to lie to each other whenever it suits them this puts a serious strain on the fabric of society, even if in only an economic sense, where accurate information is key to markets working properly. Naturally in all existing societies free speech is restricted to prevent these sorts of abuses, so it isn’t really an inalienable right in them, and they are probably better off for it. However, the patchwork nature of such corrections is somewhat problematic in its own right. For example, if you start out with the assumption that people are free to say whatever they want and then start enumerating specific cases where they can’t you are liable to miss a few. It would seem that government officials, for instance, are free to deceive the public, so long as they don’t do so under oath, which is clearly detrimental to a democratic society. And the same can be said about every other right, although how they might be abused differs from case to case.
Now some might suggest that we could alleviate these problems not by limiting rights but by adding more of them. This might sound preposterous, but remember that the exercise of rights is usually considered restricted where it might interfere with the rights of others. Thus adding rights is to restrict the rights of other people, although without ever having to admit that you are engaged in the business of restricting rights. Unfortunately, it is hard to see what rights might be added so as to correct for these problems. We might, for example, consider giving people a right not to be harmed, but such a right is highly impractical. Certainly people shouldn’t be harmed in most cases, but there are situations in which some harm is necessary. For example, firing someone from their job is harmful to them, but the ability to fire people is also necessary if we expect companies to exist. Now we might argue that not firing them would be harmful to the company, but the company is not a person, nor does it have a right to make as much money as it possibly can. And this is just one example of a situation where harming people may be necessary. The problem with rights then is that by being unqualified, and necessarily so, they always force us to an undesirable extreme.
If we must have something like rights I would suggest that we modify them, so that each right come along with a social obligation, such that we are only guaranteed our ability to exercise that right where we are fulfilling our associated social obligation as well. For example, the right to free speech could be coupled with the obligation to speak without deception. In this way the socially harmful potential of that right could be curtailed while still allowing people the freedom to basically do whatever they want with it. I think that the other rights could be similarly qualified, so that they can’t be turned to socially harmful ends. The right to property, for example, could be qualified so that we have a right to properly so long as we pay for the burdens that wealth places on the community and for the cost of maintaining society. Which means, essentially, that we have to pay taxes. I could go on, but doing so would require a list of rights, and that is something which there is no general agreement about.
If rights really are natural, in the sense that we somehow are intrinsically entitled to them, then these obligations can be seen as the price of joining society, over and above restricting the exercise of our rights so that they don’t interfere with the rights of other people. However, I would dispute the idea that right are natural. Certainly those things that are rights usually have some reflection in our natural capacities, meaning that I have the capacity to say whatever I like and so I have the natural capacity for free speech. But just because we have a certain capacity doesn’t entitle us to the exercise of that capacity. Or, at the very least, the entitlement would require some other, non obvious, facts to warrant it. As I see it both rights and obligations are a product of society, a conclusion I draw from the fact that it simply doesn’t make any sense to speak of them outside that context. A right is something that society shouldn’t restrict you from doing, and an obligation is something that society should force you to follow. For both it is hard to make any sense of the terms without society to define them in terms of. Certainly you can do whatever you want when no one else is around, but to call that a right seems a gross misuse of the word. In any case, no matter who is in the right about rights, it is useful to understand them as a tool for social organization. And thus what rights we have and to what extent they are inalienable must be judged by how well that helps them serve their function. And here I have assumed that the function of rights is to strike a balance between individuals and society, giving individuals the freedom to do whatever they want, so long as it isn’t detrimental. Now it is certainly possible to understand rights as only serving the interests of the individual, but then we would need some other factor, X, which serves to balance the interests of individuals and that of the group, and thus this X would have to supercede individual rights in order to be effective. And that seems contrary to the idea of rights, because what purpose does the idea serve if we simply turn around and make them secondary to something else? We might as well simply have started with just X then, and left rights out of the picture. Thus I see rights as properly understood as agents of that balance, if we are to have them at all, and thus in need of modification if they don’t serve it.