Question: How is it in the self-interest of one to respect the rights of another? Are my rights limited to those which it is in the self-interest of others to respect?
Answer: Objectivism's social ethic (which underlies its theory of rights) is based on the recognition of a complex fact about rational beings: that there is a harmony of fundamental interests among rational people. The basis for this claim is that each person's means of survival is production, i.e. the use of his rational mind to discover how to create the goods and other values he needs to prosper. Furthermore, reason allows us to adjudicate disputes based on negotiation and appeals to objective evidence. This means that human beings can flourish by dealing with each other as independent traders, giving and receiving value voluntarily in all of our social interactions. The alternative to being a trader is to live as a predator or a mooch. The mooch begs others to do his work for him, the predator uses force to try and take the fruits of others' labors.
The individual right to life, liberty, and property allows everyone freedom to live as a trader.
The individual right to life, liberty, and property allows everyone freedom to live as a trader (or to suffer the consequences of mooching), and secures our freedom from people who would use force to seek values from others. On the Objectivist view, individual rights are principles the provide the foundation of a just legal and political order. Individual rights are in one's self-interest both because one needs the liberty they protect, and because it is not in one's interest to deal with others as a predator.
Two common concerns often arise when people consider the Objectivist view of rights. (I should mention that David Kelley discussed this issue in some detail during his "Perennial Questions of Objectivism" lectures at our Summer Seminar in 2001.) Perhaps one of these lies behind your question.
The first is that an ethic of self-interest is contrary to the idea of rights. Rights, in this view, are duties we have to respect the freedom of others. They are strict, categorical, and disinterested. But the Objectivist ethic is practical and self-interested. A fully self-interested person will be too pragmatic to respect rights as moral law. Objectivism holds, however, that one has a strong self-interest in being a person of principle. One may well respect the rights of others out of naked self-interest and greed for one's own long-term well-being, and do so in a principled manner. I have a short essay on the Objectivist view of principle which is available online, if you would like to pursue this further:" Why should one act on principle" . An essay by David Kelley, "Ruled or Principled?" is also helpful: Or take a look at Rand's comments on integrity in Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged .
That first objection concedes that by and large living by trade is the practical way live and succeed.
But the second objection I would like to mention breaks with this view and argues that for at least a significant minority of people, a rational and prudent policy of preying on others is the way to success in life. Examples are dictators, successful criminals, even Bill Clinton! This again is an issue one must think through in detail, and the considerations are more than I can fully cover here. But, in the first place, while Objectivism holds that wealth is a value, it is not the most basic of values, and is only worthwhile in its proper context. So seeing a person get wealthy at the price of their health, social relations, life satisfaction, and overall happiness, is no example of pursuit of self-interest on the Objectivist account. It is true that from time to time there are people who live as thieves or tyrants who seem to survive the experience in good shape, but these cases are quite unusual, and may well be put down to chance. In fact, almost all people who pursue lives of predation pay a spiritual and a material price for it (I thought the story of the financial con artist Martin Frankel, who appeared to have escaped punishment a wealthy man, was a good example of this in all respects: he had no real friends, lost all his wealth, lived a miserable, paranoid, haphazard existence, and is now in prison--and THAT'S self-interest?).
If you would like to read more about this, of course Rand's classic essays "The Objectivist Ethics" and "Man's Rights" (both in The Virtue of Selfishness) are the best place to start. For a more technical account, you might be interested in an essay of mine: I gave a talk a few years ago at our summer seminar about the theoretical underpinnings of Objectivist rights theory. David Kelley and I have been working on a book, The Logical Structure of Objectivism, that will cover the logic behind the Objectivist social ethics and the argument for rights, among other issues. Drafts of that book are available online.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.