The ill Definition of Rights

To exist is to be something, as distinguished from the nothing of nonexistence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes.”
Rand, A (1976). The Ayn Rand Lexicon from A to Z. New York: Meridian.

Before we can review the definition of “Rights”, we first have to be distinguish between an abstract idea and a concrete idea (one that actually exists).

All ideas are abstract concepts
Some ideas exist as concrete percepts

Rand goes further to explain that the attributes of a percept can be perceived by one or more of man's five senses. In addition, she writes, attributes cannot exist by themselves, they are merely the characteristics of such a percept.

An entity also may have “operations” Operations also cannot exist by themselves, they are merely the behaviors and actions of a percept.

Object Oriented Programming

Object oriented programming (OOP) is a programming paradigm based on the concept of “objects” which may contain attributes and operations (behavior).

In OOP, a “class” is the definition of the attributes and operations for a given set of entities (objects). An “object”, which sometimes correspond to entities in the real world (percepts), is defined as an “instance” of its class.


How to Define an Idea – a Philosophical Perspective

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913), defines an idea in terms of what her refers to as a “sign”. For Saussure, the sign consists of a signified (abstract concept) and at least one signifier (the perceived attributes e.g. sound). So for example, the word “cat” (the concept) and the sound of the word “cat” (the perceived attribute) together form the sign i.e. the actual “cat” being perceived, signified or being referred to.

Figure 1. Class Diagram of a Cat

Figure 2: Sign by Saussure

By today’s standards, this is a very crude model of abstraction. Recall Rand’s adage that attributes cannot exist by themselves; attributes are merely the characteristics of an entity.

Consider the following sign defined with OOP in mind. Quite simply, a sign consists of a class (concept) and an object (percept). The class declares and defines the entities attributes and operations and the object (an instance of the class) assigns values to the attributes and behavior to its operations.

An idea consists of two components; the concept (abstract by definition) that declares and defines the attributes and operations for the class and an instance of that class (the percept) an object that assigns values to those attributes and implements its behaviors. So the linguistic sign today would look like this.

Figure 3. OOP linguistic SIGN

So how do we use this “remix” of Saussure’s SIGN to demonstrate that the concept of “Rights” is ill defined? Let’s look at a lexical definition of Rights; “a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way”. This is essentially the definition of a set of operations or behaviors; “to have” or “to act”. As we mentioned above, operations cannot exist by themselves, so here we do not have a definition of a concept but rather the operations of a concept. Interestingly enough, this definition supports the thesis that Rights do not exist as concepts outside of morality or the law.

Rights is a poorly defined concept. Do Rights exist as concrete entities? There are pundits out there that advocate that Rights have spatio-temporal qualities, that they exist as natural entities in space and time. An entity that exists in space and time can be perceived directly or indirectly by one or more of the senses. This is clearly not the case so it really goes without saying that Rights do not exist as concrete entities or percepts.

How to Define an Idea – The View from Logic

In his book, A Concise Introduction to Logic, Patrick J. Hurley describes how logic is the study of meaning and definition.

“The cognitive meaning of terms comprises two kinds: intensional and extensional. The intensional meaning, or intension, consists of the qualities or attributes that the term connotes, and the extensional meaning, or extension, consists of the members of the class that the term denotes. “

Hurley, P (2015). A Concise Introduction to Logic. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.

The intensional meaning of the idea “cat” for example consists of its attributes and operations (the class definition) while its extensional meaning consists of the set of all cats in the universe, basically the objects.

According to Hurley, when defining an idea, intension determines extension. The intensional meaning of a term serves as the criterion for deciding what the extension consists of. The 'intension" of the term "cat" serves as the criterion for determining what is and what is not a member of the class of cats.

“Extensional definitions by themselves cannot properly serve as precising definitions for the following reason: The function of a precising definition is to clarify a vague word, and vagueness is a problem affecting intensional meaning. Because the intention is imprecise, the extension is indefinite. To attempt to render the intension precise by exactly specifying the extension (as with an extensional definition) would be tantamount to having extension determine intension which cannot be done.”

Attributes and operations cannot exist by themselves, independently of the class. Consider our real world cat; if all the cats pointed to are furry and have four legs (it’s attributes), then the observer could vaguely conclude that all furry animals with four legs are cats. Extensions can suggest intensions, but they cannot determine them.
There are several ways to indicate members of a class: these include pointing to them (demonstrative) and naming them individually (enumerative) and naming them in groups (definition by subclass).

Demonstrative – right to life, right to property…
Definition by subclass – Human Rights, Natural Rights…

“The purpose of a précising definition is to reduce the vagueness of a word. Vagueness is a problem affecting intensional meaning. Because the intension is imprecise the extension is indefinite”. To attempt to render the intension precise by specifying the extension would be tantamount to having extension determine intension which cannot be done. Extension can suggest intension but they cannot determine them.