[This is, in some ways, a fairly advanced bit of mutualist theory, but I don't think there's any point in delaying the introduction of Proudhon's complex view of "rights." Originally posted at Two-Gun Mutualism and the Golden Rule, April 25, 2010]
In War and Peace, Proudhon defined "rights" in this way:
RIGHT, in general, is the recognition of human dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives. There are thus as many special rights as humans can raise different claims, owing to the diversity of their faculties and of their exercise. As a consequence, the genealogy of human rights will follow that of the human faculties and their manifestations.
The right of force is the simplest of all and the most basic: it is the homage rendered to man for his strength. Like every other right, it exists only under the condition of reciprocity. Just as the recognition of the superior force in no way implies the negation of the inferior, the right which belongs to the first does not destroy that of the second. If the earth is attracted by the sun, the sun is in its turn attracted by the earth and the other planets: by virtue of this double attraction, the center of the whirl is not at the center of the sun, but at a distance proportional to the power of reciprocal attraction of the sun and the planets.
This is obviously not any of the conventional theories of rights, and, ultimately, the question of "human rights" is just one aspect—though obviously a critically important one for us—of a larger question of the rights of individualities.
If that phrase—"the rights of individualities"—sounds like nonsense to you, then you face a dilemma: You can either make sense of it, on Proudhon's terms, or go find other reading material. Attempting to shoehorn one set of definitions into a system built on an entirely different set is a common enough practice, but not a particularly useful one.
For Proudhon, recall, JUSTICE meant BALANCE, and the various forms of justice formed a SERIES, starting with balances of physical strength and cunning—force and fraud, ultimately. The emergence of cunning as a balance to physical strength initiated not just a change in the criterion of justice, but an increase of complexity, a multiplication of criteria. In the bad old days, when the "equals" or 'heroes" hardly extended between the strongmen and the con-men (according to Proudhon's account), we already see the possibility of a multiplication of recognizable strengths. Division of labor—a two-edged sword, like most of Proudhon's concepts, but not the pure negative of some anti-capitalist theory—opened the possibility for the recognition of additional strengths, and thus the striking of more complex balances. Most importantly, it opened the possibility for a more complete participation by more individuals, or individualities,—all of them (all of us) "differently abled" (as they say)—in the general balancing associated with justice.
Justice was a balance—or a level—and Right (droit) was not much more than a straightedge, a means of plotting the straight or right line of individual development—whether of faculties, or human individuals, or collective individualities. For Proudhon, after all, every individual was a group, and every group with sufficient unity of action to be worthy of the name could be identified by its organizing LAW or principle. So that a concern for Right was a concern with "the recognition of human dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives"—but in a thoroughly mutualist fashion, so that the recognition could not be limited to a single scale. To say that "the state has its rights," or to focus on the level of faculties or attributes, is obviously to use a different sort of language and argument than is generally used in the debates on "human rights." As close as Proudhon gets to identifying something like "natural rights," he remains essentially descriptive in his treatment, and, of course, multiplies those potential rights—"...dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives"—in a manner that escapes easy normative judgments.
Indeed, the normative component of Proudhon's system doesn't extend far beyond the Golden Rule—the principle of RECIPROCITY—and the commitment to progress and the process of perfection-by-experiment or approximation. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (sometimes in the negative form, "don't do to others what you wouldn't want done to you")—and then do better, and better, and.... I've argued that the positive form of the injunction imposes the sort of uncertainty that forces the conscientious mutualist to "aim high," which amount to paying close attention to those "dignities" that we might miss if we're too wrapped up in our own present perceptions of what constitutes (our) dignity.
This careful regard isn't—or isn't just—other-directed. The Proudhonian individual subject is a player on a variety of scales-of-being. It marks a particular intersection of the lawful unfolding of multiple individualities on these multiple scales. (We could say the individual is a product/producer of a polycentric system of natural laws—if the apparent familiarity of the language didn't pose its own problems...) If we were to take up the question of "property" in the same, mostly descriptive manner that Proudhon applied to justice, law, and rights, we're probably going to come up with a similarly complex, polycentric system, on multiple scales, where individual property may not be "private" or exclusive—or where "private property" emerges as a result of a general gift-economy. Again, Leroux's notion of "property rights in the other" or Whitman's "every atom of me as good belongs to you" are useful signposts in this realm.
[For those current readers who weren't in on the discussions of Leroux in 2008, here's a key passage: "The life of man then, and of every man, by the will of his Creator, is dependent upon an incessant communication with his fellow beings, and with the universe. That which we call his life, does not appertain entirely to him, and does not reside in him alone; it is at once within him and out of him; it resides partially, and jointly, so to speak, in his fellows and the surrounding world. In a certain point of view therefore it may be said, that his fellow beings and the world appertain also to him. For, as his life resides in them, that portion of it which he controls, and which he calls Me, has virtually a right to that other portion, which he cannot so sovereignly dispose of, and which he calls Not Me."]
The obvious problem of a primarily descriptive system—particularly one where "justice" describes nothing more than balance, "right" means something like "orderly expression," "property" simply describes the present extent of a given individuality, etc., is that it doesn't give us much guidance. Even the law of reciprocity seems one possible response cobbled together in a situation where no response is either imposed or adequate to the circumstances.
There's no dodging the difficulties. It seems clear that Proudhon sees ethics as something we have to build for ourselves. And a large part of his writings is an attempt to show, through social science, why taking reciprocity as a model is a smart choice. He portrays much of his argument as a historical account. It may or may not be good history, but it's a pretty good illustration of how a mutualist ethics might develop by experiment.
Proudhon starts with a world of ABSOLUTES. Individualities, including human individuals, develop in accordance with their laws, encountering one another as others, antagonistic and incommensurable. Every subject is a hammer, and every object a nail, and everything is both subject and object to every other thing willy-nilly—and, ultimately, the apparent conflict is the manifestation of an absolute law at another level, so all is merely the flux of being—except for FREEDOM. Proudhon distinguishes between "free absolutes" and all others, with the distinction being that the former are self-aware, can say "I," and can, therefore, also be other-aware. The free absolute is lifted out of the general flux into general warfare, by the ability to distinguish self and other. At the point where free absolutes recognize one another as other-selves, as other free absolutes, or fellows in some sense, then ethics becomes possible—and some form of ethics become necessary. Self-knowledge comes in large part from the encounter with the other-like-me, who is presumably another manifestation of the same general law. The problem of the differences among things that are "the same" is the opening to self-knowledge, and self-knowledge begins with the sense that perhaps everything is not fore-ordained for an individual like ourselves. As we explore our individual differences and our collective connections and similarities, we can hardly help but alter both our selves and our relationships. Physical laws still apply at their level, naturally, but their absolute grip on us loosens as we become more adept at seeing difference and possibility, and begin to manipulate them—or our position with regard to them. Much of the Economic Contradictions is an attempt to lay out a logical series by which the unknowns and apparently contradictions present at ever stage of human social development open the door to transformations of human relations. The account has a lot in common with the more deterministic sorts of "universal history," but the emphasis on "contradiction"—on antinomies—is what makes it a specifically libertarian account. For Proudhon, freedom was a quantity inherent in a given individuality, based on the complexity of its organization and the number of its connections to other individualities. Liberty was a manifestation of everything in a given organization that delayed, baffled, or resisted simple determination. If, as he claimed, "the genealogy of human rights will follow that of the human faculties and their manifestations," and, as I have been claiming for some time, the general trend is towards more and more complex "manifestations" and more and more complex recognitions (as the pool of recognized rights-bearers, or potential rights-bearers, grows), we would see, on various social scales, an increase in liberty, and, on the human scale, both an increase in liberty and a potentially alarming increase in the complexity of ethical questions—with no easy way of uncoupling the two phenomena. And this would be as true for the thoroughgoing egoist as for the altruist (though this is an issue I won't attempt to do justice in an already too-long post today...)