How, exactly, do we know rights exist?

“The Existence of Natural Rights.” The Philosophical Forum 7 (Fall 1976): 44–58.

Are natural rights valid claims? Do they truly exist?

Rights do exist. They are more than shorthand references to social utility, yet less than empirical or intuitively known properties. Rights exist because of their “explanatory” status. Rights are necessary to account for certain common human experiences which otherwise would be inexplicable.

For example, consider Paul’s anger because Peter has stolen his coat. What explains this anger? The fact that Paul has a natural right to what was stolen serves as the best explanation of the victim’s experience of anger. Natural rights theory looks upon Paul’s anger as anomalous: all other explanations, except natural rights, won’t account for the anger. Paul’s anger does not become intelligible by referring to the bad results of the theft, or to the psychological or physiological causes of the anger (though these may explain other responses), or to legal rights or disappointed expectations. Nor will reference to conditioned beliefs explain Paul’s anger, since Paul may feel angry even if he knows nothing about abstract rights. Such anger will occur no matter who is involved and no matter what culture we inspect. Without reference to rights, the anger is unwarranted and inappropriate.

This theory, McKee claims, answers such traditional challenges to natural rights as the need to show that such rights are self‐​evident, natural, precise, and absolute (see J.B. Mabbot, State and Citizen, 1958). The present theory shows; (1) Rights are self‐​evident since any rational adult can understand them and their role in explaining human experience, (2) Rights are natural since they do explain certain natural since they do explain certain natural phenomena. A right “is a claim, liberty or privilege” which we need as long as physical, physiological, and psychological laws cause us to experience anomalous anger and similar responses. (3) Rights are precise. The list of claimed rights is often controversial because precise recognition of anomalous responses requires careful attention and difficult skills. (4) Rights need not be absolute in this theory since conflicting rights are explained by conflicting anomalous responses which sometimes we cannot resolve.