My Identity Grants Me Rights
Updated: Aug 12
“The source of man’s rights is not divine or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A – and Man is Man. Rights are the conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival.”
- Ayn Rand (Galt Speech from Atlas Shrugged)
Most of us recognize injustice – when we’re its recipient. We feel infringed upon, wronged or violated when others do us harm. Even if we can’t fully explain natural rights or human rights, we seem to know when our rights have been violated.
Ayn Rand, the novelist, experienced injustice. She was a child living in Russia when the country fell into the chaos of the 1917 revolution, the oppression of Marxist communism and the control of the Soviet state. When her father’s pharmacy was confiscated, she knew it was unjust. When liberties were denied, she felt the sting.
The Soviet government believed they had the right to take property, assign roles in society, reallocate resources, silence dissent and banish opponents. The citizens of the Soviet Union, in turn, had the responsibility to comply with the dictates of the state. The “people” could retain their homes, but had no right to own land, natural resources or key businesses. They were also restricted in making many key decisions for themselves – the individual was subservient to the state.
Where do rights originate?
Rand was an atheist, so she didn’t see God as the source of her rights. And, human institutions could clearly be arbitrary and unjust – they couldn’t be the true source of rights. To her, there could only be one true source – her own biological identity as a person. Her perspective was simple – because I exist as a person, I have a right to exist and to do and possess what I need to exist.
Was she correct? Can identity grant us rights? If Ayn Rand was correct that God doesn’t exist, then nature is the only evident cause of our existence and identity. But is nature the source of rights – human or otherwise?
Can nature grant us rights?
Most atheist philosophers and scientists say nature doesn’t grant rights. It can’t. To them, nature just is – rights, value, morality, meaning and purpose require a conscious intelligent source. Matter, energy, space, time and laws of physics are incapable of possessing opinions about any of these things.
Alex Rosenberg, an atheist philosopher, is a good example. He wouldn’t agree with Ayn Rand about natural rights. He says that our ultimate identity is our composition – matter. And, from the perspective of matter, we have no rights:
“There are no natural rights – rights one has just by virtue of being human. To put it crudely, lumps of matter (and that’s all we are) can’t have natural rights just by virtue of their composition...”
It makes sense that particles, atoms, chemicals and rocks don’t have inherent rights in the way we would ascribe them to people. But what about living things, do they have rights by virtue of their biological existence or identity?
If nature were to grant us biological rights, it seems they would be the right to fight for survival. After all, if a lion’s existence depends on its ability to find edible prey, does it not have the right to eat me? And, if my existence depends on it, do I not have the right to shoot the lion?
Erwin Schrödinger, a physicist and Nobel laureate, took a pessimistic view of nature and human rights. He observed:
“Nature has no reverence toward life. Nature treats life as though it were the most valueless thing in the world.”
If nature can’t grant us even the right to live, are our rights only based on our opinion or personal preferences?
Can we grant rights to ourselves?
Can we grant ourselves right? Could Ayn Rand say, “because I exist, I have the right to do and possess what I need to exist and to do so in a rational manner that enables me to pursue my personal happiness?”
Mind you, I do agree that we possess rights. However, it’s not because we grant them to ourselves. After all, do we actually have any more authority to ascribe ourselves rights than someone else has the authority to take them away?
Can a group of people grant rights?
Ayn Rand rejected the idea that her rights came from other people – the Soviet state or the US Congress. She knew people and governments can be wrong. They can even be intentionally unjust. She experienced this.
If others can grant you rights, can they not take them away or grant some people more rights than others? Even the officials we freely choose in elections can display favoritism and enact unjust laws. Where, then, do real rights originate?
Are rights God-given?
Ayn Rand agreed with the signers of the US Declaration of Independence that people have unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. She also believed our rights to be equal. Where she and the signers would disagree is the source of those rights.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence saw their right to reject the governance of Great Britain to be God-given. From their perspective, people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  They also appealed to God to as the “Supreme Judge” for the rightness of their cause and declared their reliance on God for protection.
The signers believed that to possess real rights – inherent rights – requires a just, unchanging, independent authority to grant them. Their authority was God.
Back to Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand, however, believed rights are based on “the law of identity.” To her, because a person exists, they have the right to exist as a person. Yet she was inconsistent with her own logic.
Rand believed “Man is an end in himself.” By this, she meant existence as man is man’s purpose. Yet what about fetuses? Rand’s opinion was that they have no rights. Why? Is not a fetus’ existence its purpose too? Does Rand have the right to deny purpose to other people who are about to be born?
If Rand thinks it valid to claim rights based on identity, what aspect of our human identity grants us rights – our material or chemical composition, our status as biological life, our use of language, our moral awareness, our intelligence, our physical development or something else? This is a slippery slope to travel.
Ayn Rand’s claim that our rights as people are based on our identity falls short.
It seems that America’s founding fathers had the right idea. If God is not the ultimate grantor of human rights, our rights are not real or unalienable – they’re either illusions, other people’s opinions or our own desires.
About Ayn Rand (1905-1982)
Ayn Rand (Alissa Rosenbaum) was a Russian-born writer who gained commercial success in America. Her most famous novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), were also made into movies. Rand, an atheist, founded a philosophical system called Objectivism. At it's core are the ideas of "rational self-interest" versus collectivism and forced altruism and "man's existence as man" being mankind's purpose. Objectivism is a form of biological existentialism.
 Galt Speech from Atlas Shrugged, as included in The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z, edited by Harry Binswanger (New York, NY: Meridian Books, 1988), 213.  Private ownership of property was later liberalized, allowing for limited ownership.  Harry Binswanger (editor), The Ayn Rand Lexicon (New York, NY: Meridian Books, 1988), 213.  IBID, 213.  Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2011), 288.  Schrodinger, Mind and Matter, appears is his book What is Life? (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 138. Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (London, England: Penguin Books, 1964), 36.  https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript, The signers of the Declaration of Independence did mention the “Laws of Nature.” However, they appealed to their Creator (who is “Nature’s God”) as their authority.  Ayn Rand Lexicon (New York, NY: Meridian Books, 1988), 214.  Ayn Rand Lexicon, 343.  Ayn Rand Lexicon, 217.
Copyright 2022 by Patrick Prill
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