The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A—and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational. Any group, any gang, any nation that attempts to negate man’s rights, is wrong, which means: is evil, which means: is anti-life.
Rand gets off to rather poor start in her argument. She claims that the source of rights is “the law of identity.” “A is A—and Man is Man.” She might as well have just said The source of rights is the way things are, for that’s what all this pretentious talk about rights stemming from the law of identity amounts to in the end. Rand here commits the error of begging the question. What we need is compelling evidence that man’s rights do in fact stem from the way things are, not merely the assertion that this is so!
Next we are confronted with an even more mystifying assertion: “Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival.” Now what could Rand possibly mean by this? She comes perilously close to suggesting that rights are requisites of man’s survival, but she evades this palpably absurd conclusion by specifying merely that rights are necessary for a “proper” survival. Now what is this “proper” survival, and how is it distinguished from an improper survival? She intentionally says nothing about this, leaving plenty of wiggle room so that she can easily use the ambiguity to equivocate to any conclusion she pleases.
In the next sentence, Rand merely repeats what she said before, except now she has placed it in a conditional: if man is to live on earth, then, she claims, it is right for him to use his mind, act on his free judgment, work for his values, and keep the product of his work. Yet again, this is not an argument, it’s a merely a vague assertion. Even worse, Rand is once again implying the absurd conclusion that rights are necessary to life.
She offers a second conditional which again implies an absurdity: “if life is man’s purpose,” she argues, “he has a right to live as rational being.” The argument, among other things, seems (perhaps unwittingly) to suggest that a purpose bestows a right. It is not clear at all how this can be so. The fact that I have a purpose in no way grants me a right. Not in the least; I only have those rights which have arisen in the society I live in, regardless of what I might wish or purpose. Most individuals, taken on their own resources alone, have no control over the legal structures that exist where they are born. If you are born in North Korea, you have no rights, regardless of what purposes you might have.
Although Rand’s rhetoric is confusing, what she seems to be attempting to argue is something along the following lines: (1) that in order to live, men must be “rational”; (2) that rights are necessary in order to be rational; (3) that, therefore, rights are necessary in order to live.
If by rationality we mean deliberate, conscious thinking guided by “logic,” premise (1) is almost certainly false. Human beings, as cognitive science has shown, are governed to a considerable extent by the cognitive unconscious, which can hardly be described as “rational.” Premise (2) is deeply problematic. The rationale behind it is the idea that, unless an individual is free, he cannot follow the dictates of his mind. But this assumes that the political alternatives facing mankind are either a complete and total subjugation of the individual on the one side or a complete freedom on the other side. In the real world, it doesn’t work like that. Even a slave has some room for initiative and rationality, and a citizen in a welfare state has a great deal more. So Rand’s argument breaks down completely, which is just as well, because the conclusion is, as I have already noted, absurd. Sorry, but rights are not necessary for life. If men could not survive without rights, the human race would have disappeared long ago.
We next find Rand repeating her oft-stated maxim that “nature forbids [man] the irrational.” What does Rand mean by the “irrational.” Can any Objectivist describe what she means without begging the question? For it clearly won’t do to say: “the irrational is anything contrary reason,” because that just leaves us with the difficulty of describing what “reason” is. To the extent that any empirical meaning can be drawn from this statement at all, it appears to be, at the very best, an exaggeration. If by “irrational” we include “non-logical conduct,” the statement is clearly false, as human beings have been practicing non-logical conduct for centuries without Dame Nature once stepping in to forbid it. Indeed, it would be impossible to bring every aspect of human existence under the exclusive domain of logical conduct, since logic breaks down whenever faced with any great complexity or uncertainty. In a pinch, intuition or trial and error or following an established usage may prove more useful than “reason.”
Rand concludes by asserting, again without offering a shred of evidence or proof, that any group that denies man’s rights “is wrong, which means: is evil, which means: is anti-life.” Once more, we are confronted with a frustrating vagueness in which Rand seems to equivocate between saying something that is clearly contrary to the facts or that is banal. Does she really want us to believe that a denial of “man’s rights” leads to death? Throughout most of human history, most human beings have had virtually no rights at all. Many have been little better than slaves or peasants. Yet somehow the human race has managed to survive, in the very teeth of Rand’s anathema. So what does Rand mean by claiming that a denial of rights is anti-life? She means only this: that she doesn’t like it! Sorry, but that’s not a good argument. Even if you could (per impossible) change society through argumentation, you would never get anywhere with arguments as bad as these!