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Contrary to what some believe there are no “natural rights”. Rights are a social construct. To see the apparentness of this, consider a situation where someone is stranded on a deserted island. Nothing except the person’s own initiative prevents him from starving to death, suggesting that a “right to life” is not a natural law, otherwise the laws of nature would prevent his or her death. But it does not prevent his or her death. Thus, the “right to life” only exists in so far as people agree to adhere to it. It is an artificial right.

Even though such rights are not natural, this does not mean they are not useful. Most people would agree that such rights as a “right to life” a “right to liberty” and a “right to property” are generally beneficial to individuals and society. But what happens when such rights conflict?

Take for example the situation in which a man is able, through perfectly legitimate means, to take control of the entire world’s water supply, and decides to sell this water at $100 a bottle. At such a high price many of the poor who make less than a $1 a day, would be unable to afford the water and would be in serious danger of dying of thirst. A proponent of inalienable rights would argue that the right to property is somehow sacrosanct, and followers of the Non-Aggression Principle would say there is no justification for taking away this man’s monopoly on water. And yet, are not all these people who cannot afford the water, is not their right to life being violated?

Locke argued in favour of a Proviso that would limit property rights in this instance. But where is the moral basis of this Proviso? I would argue that the basis of the Proviso is substantively the other rights to life and liberty.

To that extent there are clearly occasions in which rights can conflict. And when such conflicts occur, what can be done? I propose simply that rights should be ordered hierarchically, ranked such that the right to life has greater primacy to the right to property. For without life, one cannot enjoy property. Therefore, if we rank rights as follows:

1) Life

2) Liberty

3) Property

It becomes apparent from this that there are times when violating the right to property can be justified for the sake of the right to life, or the right to liberty. Thus, state redistribution methods such as progressive taxation, can sometimes be justified, even under a rights model.

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Page last modified on July 23, 2014, at 03:00 PM