There Are No Rights, Only Material Needs & the Need for Personal Sovereignty

A system does not have to honor its every part’s every request.  But it does have to accommodate its every part’s every true need.

The system of a bacterium, for example, does not exist to serve only its DNA, or only its lipid membrane, or only its tRNA.  But it does have to obey the physics that define what each of those parts can and cannot do, and what they need to exist and to change, or else the bacterium ceases very quickly to be a bacterium any longer.

Likewise the system of a multicellular organism, such as a dog; the dog cannot give all of its energies to the brain, no matter how eager that brain is for glucose, lest the dog’s other parts shut down and the dog lose its whole self.  But the dog must give each cell what that cell needs, in terms of temperature, materials, and protection from mechanical or chemical damage.

A society of organisms is no different.  A society of human beings is no different.  But when we get to human beings, the individual needs which the society as a whole system must answer, become more subtle and complex.  Put a spider in a foodless dark chamber for a month, and it will emerge unscathed, ready to hunt and mate anew.  Put a human being in a foodless dark chamber for a month, and it will emerge with long-term physical and psychological damage.  It’s the psychological damage that merits the most discussion here–not that humans are distinctly social animals, but that our psychosocial needs are unique.  For example, while it’s widely known and accepted that human beings need affectionate physical contact and lingual interaction, it’s not so often considered that human beings need a distinct kind of mental privacy in order for their minds to function correctly.  Viz., human beings need to have, if not complete privacy in their thoughts, then complete security in knowing that their private thoughts will not result in punishment from the society to which the mind belongs.

Evidence of this need is everywhere:  show me a country in which people face a penalty of death for seeming to think an unpopular viewpoint, and I’ll show you a country with a relatively low index of personal satisfaction, a relatively low productivity per capita, a relatively low rate of invention and innovation per capita.  These are not false correlations–the act of creative thought cannot succeed in discovering novelty if perturbed by anxieties about said process getting the thinker killed.  This problem is compounded by the fact that our most novel thoughts are those that most require our communicating them with another person.  Another compounding factor, is that all communication carries with it the risk of misunderstanding, making it very difficult for a creative thinker to know which thoughts–and which ways of communicating thoughts–he must avoid in order to avoid extreme punishment.

Societies which thus honor this human need, are said to be “free” societies, insofar as they minimize punishments against thoughts and communications.  A corollary of this need, I propose, is the need for each individual to control his or her own body.  To honor this need serves society in much the same way as the practice of honoring free thinking and free speech–a human being cannot function optimally unless guaranteed of his or her physical safety and autonomy.  Show me a place where laws against rape are not well enforced, and I will show you a society, such as South Africa c. 2010, where 28% of men admit to raping women, and 100% of women are psychologically and physically restrained by a reasonable fear of rape.  Show me a place where laws against murder are not well enforced, and I will show you a society where individuals do not aspire to longevity nor any accomplishments predicated upon longevity.   Show me a place where kidnapping is relatively common, and I will show you a society where vital forms of interaction and transaction are seriously hindered.

When seen as individual needs or rights, these rights to free thought and speech, and rights from murder, kidnapping, rape, etc., seem like an open list with no unifying principle.  But I propose that one principle does unify these rights:

A system does not have to honor its every part’s every request.  But it does have to accommodate its every part’s every true need.

In terms of human society and the human individual, the individual’s needs can be divided into two simple components:  the need for certain materials, and the need for sovereignty within the physical boundaries of the individual organism.  Nonfree societies always mistake the first component for the whole of an individual’s needs–these societies aim to ensure that they provide, quite constantly and intentionally and from a centralized source, all of the individual’s material needs–from the aforementioned affectionate touch and interaction with others, to food, water, air, health care, shelter, clothing, transportation, entertainment, education, and so on.  I call these material needs in contrast to the other component mentioned above.  Note that communism’s self-professed materialism, makes sense in this context, and communist societies are marked by a remarkable equation of all individual needs, with this component I call “material needs.”  But other societies are equally materialistic in this same sense, notably theocracies such as Saudi Arabia and North Korea.

Free societies are marked by a radically different understanding of individual needs.  For a free society, the individual’s needs still include the material, but also include the right to self-sovereignty–the need for an individual to have maximum authority over everything that happens inside her own skull and skin.   Free societies thus double the list of needs they see their constituent parts as requiring for optimal performance.  Forced to attend to double the needs, free societies’ governments must inevitably focus less energy on providing for material needs.  However, by maximizing individual sovereignty, these governments maximize the ability of individuals to provide for their own and each others’ material needs at a maximally local level (this principle of maximizing how many social processes are done at the most local, least central level, is called “subsidiarity”).  Thereby, free societies maximize the brainpower which the society as a system can devote to the provision of material needs.

But to honor the human need for individual sovereignty, the society must allow the individual the freedom to commit acts which if they happened outside the individual’s personal organism, would be crimes.  And so it must be, for sovereignty is an actual need, in the deep sense that the individual ceases to exist without it.  Just as an engine would cease to exist if it destroyed the iron atoms that compose it, so a society ceases to exist insofar as it destroys the individuals that compose it.  Now of course, in any human society, some individuals will be incapable of personal sovereignty due to the absence of a complete decision-making mechanism–some because they are too young to have developed this mechanism, some because they have lost it due to age or damage, some because of developmental problems that prevent them from ever knowing complete free will.  However, all societies make legal provisions for such cases, granting custody and guardianship for such individuals to those most capable of caring for them as they would care for themselves.  In free societies, the aim is to maximize the amount of personal sovereignty distributed, and thus to minimize the cases in which an individual cannot be granted personal sovereignty.

Another way to think of the same paradigm we’ve been describing:  while a society is a set of individuals and the interactions they give rise to, a society’s government is just a set of said interactions, and thus only exists between people, not within them, and has jurisdiction only between individuals, not within them.

Seen in this light, wherever a society’s government intrudes upon an individual’s property, it risks damaging the individual sovereignty which the society’s every part requires in order for the society to continue to function.  And when a society’s government intrudes upon an individual’s very self, upon the boundaries of his person, it most certainly damages the individual sovereignty which the society’s every part requires in order for the society to function.

This principle will as technology advances become more and more essential to the continued existence of human societies–we currently have MRI machines that give some indication of what an individual is thinking, and whether an individual is lying, in a given moment.  Surveillance devices, long the bogeyman of paranoid schizophrenia, are fast becoming so cheap and efficient as to erode all privacy right up to the border of the individual mind.  These advances will continue.  But already our technologies make a proper understanding of individual human needs essential.

For example, we debate the right to abortion and the identity of the fetus as a separate human being without considering that both stances might be correct–the fetus is a separate human being, whose location within another individual’s body places his physical protection outside the proper jurisdiction of any government.  The principle of personal sovereignty as a human need, allows us to render an otherwise inscrutable verdict, one which answers both lines of reasoning in the abortion debate–abortion is an act of murder that takes place outside any government’s rightful jurisdiction, and therefore no law should abolish it.

Note the abortion issue did not exist until humanity had developed methods that enable a mother to terminate her pregnancy.  Likewise, humanity has developed refined substances capable of permanently destroying the user’s mind, through addiction or dementia.  Because these effects amount to the destruction of an individual, most societies’ governments have attempted to forbid the individual use of at least some of these technologies.  The effectiveness of such laws is a matter for another debate.  The point here is that by defining human needs as neatly divided into personal sovereignty and material needs, and by defining a society as being functional only insofar as it answers its parts’ needs, and by defining personal sovereignty simply as the inalienable right to control what happens within the boundary of one’s own body, we can see how even extreme individual drug use could be legalized without fostering a sense that absolutely any consensual activity must ultimately be condoned.

Similarly, by redefining rights as one of two kinds of individual human need, we safeguard against the very real possibility that the inviolability of rights may come to be eroded through overextension.  For inevitably, in a free society, with the government’s first efforts devoted to the protection of individual sovereignty needs over material needs, claimants to material needs will always resort to claiming their material need as a human right.  The problem that arises is the same that arises in a materialist (nonfree) society’s government–material needs cannot be ensured as universally as personal sovereignty needs, because human societies cannot ensure the limitless availability of any material, be it a certain kind of commodity, a certain kind of good, or a certain service.  In point of fact, a government’s ability to protect one’s personal sovereignty is in some sense just as limited as its ability to provide for material needs–hence the better law enforcement services in richer communities–but in another, very real sense, government can always provide some guarantee of personal sovereignty, in that it itself is one of the principle threats to an individual’s personal sovereignty and can in every case provide the individual an infinite supply of freedom from at least governmental intrusion into the person’s thoughts and other bodily activities.

If a society seeks to honor only the letter of the principle described herein, and not its spirit, such can easily be accomplished–but to dishonor the principle’s spirit will deprive the society of its own full potential.  Similarly, if a society seeks to honor an individual’s need for personal sovereignty alongside her material needs, but does not understand the principle that undergirds this effort, then it will not long be able to sustain the effort, and will revert into a nonfree society, where only material needs are acknowledged, and government’s jurisdiction extends into and erodes the individuals which compose the society in question.

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