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.
[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.
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…)