Recently there was another brouhaha on Strike the Root, about rights. Some writers and forum commentators, led by the suspected government plant Paul Bonneau, say nobody has any. Rights - notably the fundamental right of self ownership, which is the source of all other valid rights - are the very roots of liberty, so to the extent that this nonsense is tolerated there, STR is becoming an unreliable source of understanding about freedom.
The latest to follow Bonneau is Alexander Knight III, a very talented writer of horror fiction, and it's sad to see him lose track of rationality in such a way. In one of his comments he actually scorned the idea of rights, by ridiculing the fact that they are concepts; he wrote 'The "concept of rights." Imagine that!'
There's an interesting perception; that if something is conceptual rather than substantive, it's not real. A right is not of course like a piece of baggage, a tangible object we carry round or have strapped to our persons, separate from the individual. It's an integral part of the person, as much as a heart or a mind or a will.
So I thought to test that, here. Are there any other abstract concepts, to be tossed aside as unreal?
One that sprang to mind was inspired by Alex' own choice of verb: "Imagine." Imagination is also integral to a person, yet is not tangible or separable or readily pinned down on the laboratory bench. Yet we all have some, to one degree or another. Alex has plenty; when writing sci-fi he moves it into overdrive. Imagination is only a concept; but it's very real. It's a human attribute, as is the right to life.
So are abilities that we may have, such as the ability or skill to write - including horror stories like Alex' very scary The Morris Room, which had me gripping the chair arms. We know the ability exists, because we can read its output. Similarly there is the concept of musical ability, either to play an instrument or to compose. It's an intangible and invisible concept, hard even to define; but its results are among life's greatest pleasures.
Another attribute is the ability to speak several languages. Probably all of us have this skill to some degree, if we work at it, but some can learn much more readily than others. But can this conceptual ability be identified when dissecting a cadaver? - I don't think so.
Concepts are pretty useful too in mathematics. The idea of "two" or "three" is conceptual; we can sense two bricks tangibly, but I don't know how to touch "two." Math is real and valuable, for all that. So are the concepts of philosophy and economics and most other kinds of knowledge. We humans would not have come very far without them.
The fact then that a "right" is something conceptual does not detract at all from its vital importance or value, or of course suggest that it doesn't exist. The right to live and to own and operate one's life for as long as it lasts is central to what freedom is about, and central too to the concepts (!) of right and wrong, and of justice. We can be certain that that right of self ownership is real, by testing the alternative; if each of us did not have the right to own and operate our own lives, who does and how did he get it? - an unanswerable question.
For completeness however I should mention one concept - the idea of "God" - which is not real. It is not to be dismissed on the grounds that it's conceptual, but on the grounds that the concept is riddled with contradictions and lack of supporting evidence. For starters it has never even been defined, so probably cannot be; someone told me recently that "God" is "energy." Hmm. In the world's two largest religions the entity so named is said to think and speak and act, and it's a tad hard to visualize energy talking. Not a good definition.
Since the entity isn't defined, nobody can know what it's all about, but if somehow we skip over that logical impasse and check what theologians say about it/her/him, we find a mass of contradictions. God is said to be benevolent, yet also the author of storms and earthquakes that kill living things he allegedly created. Those beautiful animals he made can in many cases survive only by eating the flesh of other beautiful animals; so if arguendo this concept were real, it is also capricious and cruel, contrary to the asserted attributes of goodness and love (aha! two more concepts!) Lastly (or rather firstly) the concept of "God" is said to have created the universe, but there is no clue anywhere about who or what created him (or her, or it.) So the concept of a creator adds nothing to our understanding of origins at all; it merely pushes the question one stage further out.
So I reject that concept, not because it's a concept, but because it's an irrational concept. There are concepts which are rational and others which are not; two that are not are God and Government, and in one holy book the first is said to have instituted the second. One irrational concept setting up another... LOL!
In the referenced brouhaha there was one other notable objection to the concept of rights; namely that they are of little use. If they are being violated (and government people never do anything else) what defense to they provide? If government is about to kill you (in a gas chamber for example because you are a Jew) to cry "You can't do that, I have the right to live!" will not have any effect. Tragic, but true. But the only reason it's "tragic" is that you did have the right to live, a right that was being violated! Absent that right, the whole Holocaust would have no more moral significance than the destruction of an ant hill.
So my answer to that is that even when violated, the existence of rights is the foundation of ethics and justice. Even freedom itself is something we can claim, and protest when it is denied, only because we have the inherent right to it! Absent the right, the rule would be that "whatever is, is right" or "might makes right." Totally repugnant. There would be no just grounds for accusing killers or torturers or thieves of wrongdoing. There would be literally no rational basis for ethics.
Here's a final example of a concept that is entirely real: conscience. Oskar Schindler enthusiastically supported the German Government and made a fortune by taking advantage of its laws enslaving Jews, but experienced a radical change when in Krakow he saw a little girl in a red coat being herded towards her death. From then on he spent all he had to preserve the lives of the Jews in his factory, in one of the most benevolent acts of the 20th Century. Like rights, conscience never shows up on an X-ray or CAT scan, but is a real and vital ingredient in human experience.
So if human society is to recognize right and wrong, and have a justice system to rectify wrongs (literally, to restore damaged rights) rights must in the first place be asserted and recognized as rational. Those are pretty important uses; a recognition of rights is essential to human society.