Power does not infer or imply right. Life does. The fact that we are alive grants us certain rights, beginning with the right to life itself.

Also, equality and freedom are not only principles: they are rights as well. We have the right to be equal, and also free, including not to be subjected to discrimination.

We have many other rights as well, and these are expounded in such things as the United States Bill of Rights, which is the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

These rights are also known as civil liberties, in other words, personal freedoms, both things that we should be free to do, and other things that we should be free of, which should not be done to us.

The freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights and later constitutional amendments include:

- Freedom of speech, and assembly, and the related freedoms of the press and of dissent.

- Freedom of religion, including to join or leave any religion, or not to have religious belief at all.

- Freedom to bear arms, which implies a more general right to self-defense.

- Freedom against unreasonable search and seizure, which implies a right to privacy.

- Freedom from unfair criminal prosecution, including the right to due process of law, to a speedy and public trial by jury, and to not be subjected to cruel and inhuman punishment.

- The right to vote.

- Freedom from slavery.

Such rights, in the United States and many other countries, are codified into law. Also, they are guaranteed to everyone, through the associated right of equal protection under the law, and the related idea that no one should be above the law. (The latter dates to the Magna Carta, which restricted the rights of the English king.)

These rights are further known as individual rights. They are translated into practical every day freedoms through the legal code – what is against the law and what is not; through contracts that people sign; and even through social norms and conventions.

It is important to note, though, that not only individuals have rights. Institutions do so as well. The Bill of Rights lists freedom of the press, which guarantees the right of freedom from repression for the media. (One can also argue that rights include corresponding obligations, for example, for the media to be truthful.)

The Constitution also describes what the government may do, and not do. The government has many rights, and restrictions. In addition, the U.S., like most countries, has multiple governments, both federal and state, and it describes their respective rights as well.

Businesses – corporations – also have rights, but not only through being subject to the law and via the contracts that they sign. In the U.S., as a result of a Supreme Court decision, corporations are legal “persons.” They are considered the same as people and are guaranteed many of the same individual rights. Such treatment for corporations is now the norm around the world.

The existence of both individual rights and institutional causes great confusion. In areas where there is a conflict, which should prevail? A basic principle of democracy is not only that individual power is supreme, individual rights are as well. But in the modern world institutions have gained so much power that individual rights are often trampled.

In addition to individual rights and institutional, there is the question of the rights of life: of other species and even of nature as a whole. While it may seem incongruous for a species that is a predator to worry about the rights of others, that is what is beginning to occur.

One foundation for this is the realization that we have a flawed perspective of reality. We see ourselves as separate from the natural world when in a very important way we are not. The earth is an ecology. Everything is interconnected and interdependent. What this suggests is that life has rights if only to protect ours. For instance, corporations view nature as a resource, only to be exploited. But if we allow companies this freedom, nature will be destroyed – it is being destroyed – to such an extent that our own lives are threatened.

We must conform to the characteristics of our planetary ecology, including its opportunities and constraints. Individual and social prosperity are inextricably linked to the earth’s health.

However, the rights of other forms of life lie deeper than this, than their connection to what we need. If life grants rights, this necessarily applies to everything that is alive. And, if we are all part of the same thing, then everything deserves the same level of respect, and protection.

In addition, there is the philosophical question of purpose. No one knows the purpose of life, or even if it has one. But we certainly live on the basis that it does, and in the broadest sense this means a lot more than our personal goal to stay alive.

Life exists to evolve, to establish a better, more balanced relationship with its environment, and perhaps in pursuit of higher goals as well. This ability, to evolve, is a fundamental right. Therefore, we, as the dominant species on earth, do not have the right to deny it for everything else.

The idea that all life has rights has many ethical consequences. It implies that we should reduce the impact of our species on nature to the greatest extent possible, through controlling our population, consumption and use of technology. Further, we should work to restore natural habitats, and the populations of other species, so that their own evolution is viable. And, we have no right to tamper with the evolution of other species directly, through manipulating their genetic code.

Democracy is predicated on a basic set of rights. These rights must be extended to everyone: to every living thing.

A concluding remark, though, which will put all of the forgoing in a different light, is that in life, in a very important sense, there is no such thing as a right. Rights exist only insofar as they are earned. A right without this is the same as a consequence without an associated action. Indeed, not having rights, rights that you are supposed to have, makes you in some way a victim.

In concept, the rights to equality, and freedom, to food and water, appear so obvious that they can almost be taken for granted. But in practice, it is a different story. A right that is not won, and defended, is nothing. If it does not exist now, it never will, and if it does exist, it could easily, perhaps inevitably, be taken away.

A more accurate formulation of rights is that they are goals, or needs. To the extent that we can only survive if our needs are met and our goals are fulfilled, so it is with rights. We can only survive if we have them.

Do children have rights? Only if adults fight to win them, and defend them. Does the environment, and do other species, have rights? Again, only if we win and defend them.

Rights are not entitlements. They are goals and needs. Nothing in nature is free. Life entails no such gift, other than its creation.

© Roland O. Watson 2008