How Rational Self-Interest Helps to Reinforce Individual Rights
This paper introduces a method of thought by which individual rights can be propagated and sustained through the self-serving interest of the individuals involved. The novel theories outlined in this paper are developed with a practical consideration: to explain and further the idea of individual rights without invoking social-contractual or naturalistic aspects. Doing so allows this paper to refer to rights as a concept in and of itself and helps to avoid absurdities that will become apparent below.
The aim of this paper is not to explain historic developments of individual rights, nor to introduce an overarching theory of how rights came to be. This paper focuses on how each self-serving individual can act in a way that, when adopted by the population as a whole, ensures the continual existence of these rights. The method of thought contained in this paper is useful only insofar as it can act as a set of guidelines by which people can act. The more individuals follow these guidelines, the more useful this method becomes.
Conceptualization of Rights
I use a simple conceptualization of an individual right in this paper. The individual right is the ability to exercise volition without fear, apprehension, interference, doubt, or undesirable consequences, whether imagined, potential, or real. In other words:
“I can pick up the ball-point pen on my desk without the aforementioned traits, thus I have a right to do it.”
In this conceptualization, a right is either latent or realized. The latent right follows strictly the definition above, where it is the ability to exercise volition. The realized right is the act itself, subject to the same qualifiers. While both fall under the envelope of a right, they differ by the actual act. It will become evident in later sections of this paper that the realized right gives rise to the latent right. An example of this distinction:
“As a Canadian citizen I have the latent right to vote, since I am able to exercise my volition by the act of voting without interference. I realized my right to vote by voting in the last election. I still hold the same latent right to vote.”
This paper does not draw the distinction between “natural” and “legal” rights. Similarly, this paper does not draw the distinction between “individual” and “group” rights, nor “claim” and “liberty” rights. I believe that the popular theories of rights suffer from irreconcilable ontological clouding, whereby
- The distinction between natural and legal rights rests on wishful thinking. To suggest that God, or Parliament, or magical-document (e.g. the constitution) create and protect individual rights is to pawn off the difficult task of explaining why these rights exist. This is wishful thinking: it attaches permanence and legitimacy to rights without explaining how or why these rights came to be.
- The distinction between individual and group rights rests on the erroneous claim that a “group” exists as an entity that possesses both volitions to act and weakness to compulsions against action.
- The distinction between claim and liberty rights, or between positive and negative rights, rests on the idea that there are differences between action and inaction. Though this may be true in the realm of moral judgment, the difference is an artificial one in the realm of reality. As voluntary, sentient beings capable of exerting volitional pressure, our actions and inactions are one and the same: voluntary commands from brain to body.
The view of this paper, thus expressed, is that rights exists as long as, and as soon as, the expression of volition can be conducted without being otherwise pressured. This view, in my opinion, renders moot the historic view of rights. Keeping this conceptualization in mind. . .
The Action Axiom
I begin this analysis by introducing an axiomatic rule by which individuals should act:
AA: “One must act in a way that ensures the best possible future of rights that one intends to have.”
The precise definition of “act” and “best possible future of rights” will only become apparent as we apply this axiom. Hence, its axiomatic nature is evident: this rule (“Action Axiom” or “AA”) something we must assume to be a priori in order for the method of thought outlined in this paper to make sense. Likewise, the justification for and strength of AA is found only in its application by a large number of individuals in a population:
AA1: “If a large enough number of individuals in a population act out AA, then it will accomplish its goal of producing the best possible future for rights.”
If the above is assumed to be true, a definition of “act” in the context of AA arises:
AA2: “An action that conforms to AA is an action that allows for the creation of the best possible future for rights if and only if many individuals undertake that same action.”
And from the above definition, a definition for “best possible future of rights” arises:
AA3: “The best possible future of rights as defined in AA is a future in which the rights envisioned by all who act on the basis of AA exist for all who act on the basis of AA.”
AA can be likened to the concept of herd immunity. In epidemiology, herd immunity is an important trait of a vaccinated population. When the rate of vaccination in a population reaches a certain threshold (the precise percentage varies disease to disease), herd immunity prevents the spread of disease among the unvaccinated members of the population. A lone individual acting out AA has no meaningful impact on the status of individual rights within the population — but if the majority adopt this axiom to guide the way they act, then it provides a bulwark of protection for the entire population.
Like a voluntary vaccination, an individual who acts in a manner prescribed by AA do so out of self-interest. One acts for the protection of his/her own individual rights — and in doing so ensures the most ideal future. The axiomatic nature of AA presumes that when many individuals act in the same manner, the rights are protected. Self interest, in the context of AA, must therefore align perfectly with “the best possible future of rights”.
Unfortunately, this is not always true. Humans are not true collectivist animals and it is well known that individual interest does not always align with the interest of the whole group. So far in this paper we have formulated the Action Axiom in a group-centric manner — that individuals must act for the “greater good”, or the “good of everyone”. The group-centric formulation of the Axiom is just as problematic as other philosophical traditions that require self-sacrificial cooperation (e.g. communism). Any formulation of the Action Axiom that requires individuals to presuppose the cooperation of other individuals — that is, any formulation that treats AA as a rule in the abstract — will necessarily fail unless each individual who acts, acts in their own self interest.
Thus, we come across the first problem of applying the Action Axiom:
P1: “How can individuals act in to ensure the best future of rights, when individual self interest often runs counter to this future?”
I can give a very real example of P1:
“You are a Soviet citizen living in Leningrad under Stalin’s rule. Your rights to free speech and free assembly, supposing you believe you have these rights, are being actively suppressed. You realize that the only way to ensure the existence of a future with these rights is to speak out and resist government suppression. You also realize that speaking out constitutes a midnight invitation for the NKVD to visit your apartment, whereby you’ll be sent to Gulag or (if you’re lucky,) shot. Your self interest is clearly to stay silent, thus you must contradict the Action Axiom.”
In other words, P1 describes the possibility where protecting your future rights interfere with protecting your present family, life, and limb. To address this problem, we turn to the interaction between individuals acting out AA. . .
Third Order Knowledge, and the Prisoner’s Dilemma
Let us show that knowledge of a particular thing (or event, action, occurrence, etc.) has at least three orders:
K1: I know.
K2: I know that you know.
K3: I know that you know that I know.
It is worth noting at this point that the above definitions are not definitions of higher order knowledge in the modern philosophical community. K1-K3 only exist insofar as knowledge is in relation to both a particular thing, and other people’s awareness of this particular thing. What I describe in this paper is the extent to which knowledge is shared between two individuals. Later on, in this paper these higher orders of knowledge will be generalized in large populations.
A rough example of orders of knowledge:
“You are sitting at a poker table, holding pocket aces pre-flop (i.e. You have two A cards before the other cards are shown). I am sitting across from you and I have some knowledge about your cards. If my knowledge is limited to the first order, , then I know you have aces. If , I know you have aces, and I know that you know you have aces. If , then I know you have aces, I know you know of your own aces, and I know that you are aware of my knowledge.”
In this example, if my state of knowledge is K1 then I am unsure whether or not you know your own cards. You may not know your own cards, for example, if I see your cards before you have a chance to see them.”
Having different orders of knowledge can produce different results. For the sake of familiarity in analysis, we turn to the prisoner’s dilemma:
“Prisoners A and B are being questioned in separate rooms. Both prisoners are given the choice to stay quiet or snitch. If both prisoners stay quiet, they both get a one-year sentence. If A betrays B and B stays quiet (and vice versa), then A gets to go free and B gets a three-year sentence. If both individuals snitch, then both get two years.”
The prisoner’s dilemma is a game theory scenario that has been thoroughly analyzed. The outcomes for each person are freedom, 1-year, 2-years, or 3-years. A person’s decision affects not only his own outcome, but the outcome of the other participant. The classical analysis of this hypothetical assumes K1 conditions: A knows A’s decision, and no more. Snitching will result in either freedom when the other person stays quiet, or 2-years when the other person snitch. Staying quiet results in either 1-year when the other person also stays quiet, or 3-years when the other person snitches. Thus, under these conditions (and assuming that their decisions have no other social consequences), the only strong Nash equilibrium is when both participants snitch.
This result is analogous to the problem raised in P1. If we are to draw the analogy of snitching -> saving life and limb and staying quiet -> resisting state power (i.e. AA), then we see how under K1 conditions the oppressed individual is always forced to “snitch”, or act in a way that is contrary to the best possible future for his rights.
We can further the analysis by assuming K2 conditions: A knows A’s decision, A also knows B’s decision. In this scenario, prisoner A can modify his choice based on what B is going to choose. As A, your choices are:
- If you know B will snitch, then you also snitch.
- If you know B will stay quiet, then you may choose between snitching and staying quiet
The possible payoffs for A under K2 conditions are freedom, 1-year, or 2-years. We may observe that under K2 conditions betrayal by your fellow prisoner is no longer possible. As A, only you have the option to betray B. In other words, B is at your mercy. Note how the incentive to snitch is partially removed by knowing the choice of B. Prisoner A now has the option to stay quiet when B is also going to stay quiet. In other words, under K2 conditions the individual is now given the possibility of resisting the NKVD without fear of unscrupulous neighbours, provided that all other Leningrad residents do the same thing. This state of mind is traditionally known as “power in numbers”. When French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, they only did so because they knew (or at least presumed to know) that other people were planning to do the same thing.
And for K3 conditions: A knows A’s decision, knows B’s decision, and knows that B is aware of A’s knowledge. This is the ideal degree of mind-sharing in an organized movement. In a perfect labour strike, for example, all the strikers are acting under K3 conditions: they know of each other’s decisions, and of each other’s knowledge — and they can negotiate as one entity. Without invoking the negative connotations of the phrase, I describe as a state of hivemind. Under these conditions, the outcomes are:
- If you know that B knows you will snitch, then you will stay quiet.
- If you know that B knows you will stay quiet, then you will stay quiet.
Your quietness gives B a choice: snitch or stay quiet. B, being a rational man, may think about choosing to snitch for the possibility of freedom until he realizes that under K3 conditions, you will know his choice (i.e. that he is choosing to snitch) and will snitch in response. B is left with 2 choices of outcome: 1-year from staying quiet or 2-years from snitching. Given the possible outcomes, a rational B will choose to stay quiet.
Thus, under K3 conditions the choice of snitching is entirely dispelled. At K3 conditions a prisoner’s only choice is to stay quiet, and analogously the Leningrad resident has no choice but to resist the NKVD.
Applying Higher Order Knowledge to AA
In the absence of communication, human minds are not shared. Only K1 conditions exist for any pair of people in the world. This means that objectively, all we know is that we know. Suppose that you walk down the street and a firetruck speeds down the opposite direction, sirens ablaze. You stop to look. You observe that a fellow pedestrian have also stopped to look in the direction of the firetruck. A thought occurs to you: this fellow pedestrian must also be looking at the firetruck.
. . . Maybe. But it is just as possible that this person is looking at the building behind the firetruck. Maybe this person is blind and deaf, and his neck happened to twitch. Maybe this person is literally an NPC incapable of thought or consciousness. The point is that you do not actually know. Your state of knowledge exists in K1 but because it is necessary for day-to-day social interaction to know the state of mind of others, you presume K2:
“I’m looking at the firetruck. The firetruck is loud and scary and attention grabbing. It grabbed my attention and caused me to look in the direction. This fellow pedestrian is also looking in the same direction, thus he must also have had his attention stolen away by the firetruck.”
The majority of human interactions mandate a K2 presumption. Without presuming a shared mind, we would not be able to interact with each other with any efficiency. In fact, the ability to presume a unique state of mind of another individual set humans apart from other animals. Chimpanzees famously do not have a complete theory of mind. While they are capable of understanding the intention and action of another individual, they lack the ability to comprehend the possibility that another individual may have different beliefs than themselves.
But as history will graciously show, simply presuming the state of mind of others does not by itself resolve our problem. P1 asked how individuals can act in a way that is both self serving (which is the natural state of human action) and also in line with the desired outcome from AA, when the two things are antithetical to each other. In short, an individual whose life, liberty, body, mind, or family is at stake is going to act to save the endangered, even if that action does not produce a future with rights the said individual wishes to enjoy.
This problem does not exist, as I have demonstrated, if individuals have shared minds and intentions. Take, for example, a neighbourhood block in Leningrad in the middle of a NKVD raid. Suppose that three thousand residents are cowering in fear when they realize they can read the minds of each other. The moment these individuals can reasonably rely on the truthfulness of the intention of other individuals, the moment they can begin to resist:
Before: “The NKVD is here to arrest 100 people. If I resist, and everyone else resist, nobody will disappear. If I resist, and nobody else resist, I will surely end up in a Gulag. Since I do not know the intention of other residents, I best not resist.”
After: ” The NKVD is here to arrest 100 people. If I resist, and everyone else resist, nobody will disappear. Since I can reasonably rely on the fact the other residents will also resist, I best resist.”
To put it differently: when you can reasonably rely on the truthfulness of the intention of other people, a change may occur in the optimal path of action to ensure your self interests. If this change happens, it aligns your own self interest with the self interest of other individuals to produce a future that is beneficial to all who participate. Protests, riots, grassroots movements all stem from this principle. It is undoubtedly in the self interest of individuals to not risk arrest and injury, so it is against the self interest of individuals to participate in a protest. Likewise, it is undoubtedly in the self interest of politicians to participate in traditional politics. No rational individual will stand in a street and protest, but the same cannot be said for 1000 aligned minds.
This, then, forms the fundamental basis for collective action. Safety in numbers is only possible when individuals who act together can expect a more desirable outcome compared to each individual acting alone.
Our formulation of AA presupposes individual action towards the best possible future of rights. Only when individuals are presumed to act in such a way does the AA make sense. This is not a flaw in the thinking — rather it is a necessary outcome of knowing about the Action Axiom. If each individual both knows AA, and knows that other people know it, then a presumption K3 of conditions can be made between any pair of individuals, such that:
- A knows about AA, and knows that B knows it
- B knows about AA, and knows that A knows it
The astute reader may find that the above example is only of a K2 mindset. However, since contained within AA is the idea that other people know about AA, from which a K3 presumption can be constructed such that:
- A knows about AA and knows that B knows it.
- A is aware that B’s set of knowledge is identical to A’s, which contains the knowledge that other people know about AA.
- Thus A can safely assume that B knows that A knows.
Thus, with a proper construction of the Action Axiom transmitted to a large enough segment of the population, any individual with knowledge of AA is in a state of presumed hivemind with all the other individuals. Every individual with knowledge of AA, then, is bound by rational self interest to act in a way that ensures their own rights in the future.
All that remains is to deliver this package of knowledge to a large number of people. . .
The Number Problem
One person does not have the capability to act to preserve his/her future rights. Neither does 10, or 100, or even 1,000. How many people, then, must adopt the Action Axiom in order for it to be effective? The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute puts that number at 10%. That is, if 10% of the population holds an unshakable belief, the rest of the population will soon follow. Sociologists call this number the tipping point.
Adopting AA is the same as being aware of it. Rational self interest compels the individual to adopt a well formulated Action Axiom upon realizing it. It is worth mentioning that it is not unreasonable to expect those who are aware of AA to actively spread it, since doing so is conducive to a future of their envisioned rights.
This means that once 10% of the population is aware of AA and these individuals are also aware that many other people also know of it, the individuals are compelled by self interest to both act out and propagate Action Axiom.
The Correct Formulation
With all the aforementioned discussion in mind, we can now attempt to produce a formulation of the Action Axiom that satisfies all the hypotheticals.
“One must act in a way that ensures the best possible future of rights that one intends to have.”
- Act means: an action that allows for the creation of the best possible future for rights if and only if many individuals undertake that same action.
- The best possible future of rights means: a future in which the rights envisioned by all who act on the basis of AA exist for all who act on the basis of AA.
- Conditional on: knowing that many other people are also aware of AA.
We can close off this exercise with the following formulation:
“You and I both know that we should act in a way that will ensure the rights we desire in the future.”
Go forth and spread this idea. Your rights may depend on it. (Or not, idk)
 A payoff matrix for this dilemma, showing that under K1 conditions it is always better to snitch, can be found on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma
 P-zombies are not the point of this paper. Please relax, its just an example.
 Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later Josep Call, Michael Tomasello, 2008
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