PostHeaderIcon Natural Rights Explained

A typical comment directed at me elsewhere, inspired some cogitation resulting in the following explanation of ‘natural rights’:

“What is the point of the constitutional phrase right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness if you can murder babies in the womb? We only have a right to life if we are already born? That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

That phrase is found in the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, and it was part of the sentence declaring the equality and natural rights of all ‘men,’ not babies, or children, and certainly not fetuses. In our Founder’s time, it probably did not even include women, and for an embarrassingly significant percentage of them, it excluded the entire negro race. Allow me to offer another way to look at this business of natural rights, which may help you make some sense of them.

When Enlightenment thinkers developed the philosophical concept of natural rights, it was in the context of individual sovereignty. The extant paradigm for Western civilization at that time, was that one was necessarily born into servitude, to the sovereign potentate claiming dominion over the territory in which one was born. There were different classes in society, enjoying differing levels of privileges; but all were born subjects of their king, whether serf or gentry. Supported by the clergy, the king had the divine right to rule over his subjects. He could order a subject’s head detached on a whim, and a serf was not permitted to relocate or change occupations without permission.

Set aside for a moment, the Orwellian ploy to redefine the word ‘baby’ to include a developing fetus, and think of fully formed men (for my own purposes here, the terms man, men, and masculine personal pronouns, are intended to subsume both genders, and all races). One’s natural rights are meaningless, unless one is also a sovereign, with full authority over one’s own life, and not subject to rule by others. This requires that one be a self-sufficient individual, able to assert and willing to defend one’s own natural rights, which place no obligations on other sovereigns to suspend theirs.

You wish to live? Then go live, and don’t bother me about it. It is not my job to feed, clothe, or provide you shelter. You wish to be free? Then go be free; I won’t try to stop you. Someone is trying to enslave you? Then fight them, it is not my job to protect you, unless you wish to hire me to perform that service for you. Or, perhaps it would behoove we Liberty loving sovereigns to cooperate in a mutual defense pact. It might be a good idea for the whole voluntary community of sovereigns to join it; but no one has a right to force another to do so, just because he happened to be born in the same arbitrarily delineated territory. Conversely, however, if one chooses not to join, others are not in the least obligated to defend him.

You wish to own property? Then earn the money and go buy it from a willing seller. It is not my obligation to provide it for you. I am only constrained by my philosophy from taking it away from you; but you best be prepared to defend it, for not all men will acknowledge such constraint, and it is not my obligation to protect it for you (See your options for mutual assistance above). You wish to be happy, then go be happy. It is not my obligation to do things that make you happy. Nor, are my choices any of your damn business, if the things I do to make me happy displease you.

Do you get the idea? Life, Liberty, Property, and the Pursuit of Happiness are not free. They must be earned, defended from trespass, and they place no obligation whatever on anyone else. A man who cannot earn and defend his natural rights, has no grounds to assert them, and doesn’t really have them, does he? If he chooses the life of a moocher, he abdicates his sovereignty, and is not a free man. He has voluntarily placed himself in servitude, one way or another, to the benefactor providing his sustenance.

Now, walk this concept back into childhood, during the multi-year process of creating a man. There is a reason the legal term for a court order, giving a child early independence from parental authority, is ’emancipation.’ Children are dependent on their parents for survival, so their parents get to make the rules by which they must live. They are not yet ready for sovereignty and the responsibility of earning and defending their natural rights. They are essentially in servitude to their benefactor parents, until such time as they become self-sufficient competent adults.

This is not a bad thing, although in many modern households, it can get a bit testy from the point of puberty on. Biologically, they are ready to assert their rights; but in the modern quest to extend (or even perpetuate) a carefree playful childhood, they are generally woefully unprepared for the attendant responsibilities of adulthood. (This was never a problem for our Founder’s generation, who were not being deliberately held back from maturity. Franklin was a printer’s apprentice at the age of 12. Washington was the official county surveyor at 17. Jefferson had already graduated from college, and was gainfully employed as a law clerk, at 18.)

The farther one regresses, the more dependent and less responsible a child is. Just because a child desires the freedom to do something, which a parent deems dangerous or ill-advised, doesn’t require the parent to permit it. It is actually rather silly to suggest that a two-year-old is a sovereign with natural rights. It would be the height of irresponsibility, for a parent to permit him to assert them. If allowed to run into the street, or taste all the liquids found under the sink, he likely would not survive to become a man.

An infant is clearly at the mercy of his mother’s benevolent good will. Even if food, water, and the other essentials of life are at hand, the infant is incapable of even feeding himself, much less walk, talk, change his own diapers, or defend himself from predators. He is off to a good start, in the process of becoming a sovereign man with natural rights; but he is a very long way from attaining that goal. Meanwhile, his parents have their own natural rights, to choose for themselves the rules for living in their household, how best to raise their children to maturity, and yes, whether they even wish to take on the awesome responsibility, of engaging in the process of creating competent men.

So-called society may very well decide to interfere with the natural rights of these sovereigns, and coercively impose ‘community standards’ on unwilling parents; but it is a slippery slope that must be approached very cautiously, with a lot of careful thought. Who gets to decide what the ‘community standards’ are? What if the Progressives want an earlier shot, at programming our children’s malleable minds to conform to their preferred worldview, not ours, and enact mandatory attendance from the age of three, in a government run preschool?

The next step back, in the years-long process of creating a man, is in the womb. Skip the third trimester, with its issues of viability. Skip the second, where the fetus is taking human form, and the anti-abortion advocates like to tug at our heartstrings, by pointing out how it already looks like a tiny baby. By all means, skip the reptilian stage in the first, where it is still sporting its long tail, which raises all manner of uncomfortable questions regarding evolution. Go all the way back to the freshly ‘conceived’ zygote, which has yet to attach itself to the uterus, and begin dividing the cell into two, to initiate the process of forming a developing fetus.

Yes, it is a form of life, by the scientific definition; but by no means what our Founders meant, when they employed the term. One could accurately say the same, about a cancerous tumor or a parasitic tapeworm, without the proper philosophical context. Some say a woman (or young teenager, as the case may be) is somehow obligated to sustain that cellular life form, whether she wishes to or not, and must invest the next two decades of her own life, dedicated to the process of growing it into a man.

This view suggests that her own sovereignty and natural rights have somehow evaporated, even if the zygote is the unwelcome seed of the cretin who raped her. That strikes me as immoral, although those who hold it think the opposite. In any case, it is a philosophical question, not a Federal level political one. Moreover, I must conclude that the notion of a zygote as a sovereign individual, with natural rights, is rather preposterous. The anti-abortion advocates need to find a better political argument, for their religious agenda. The natural rights of sovereigns, just doesn’t apply in the womb. â—„Daveâ–º

13 Responses to “Natural Rights Explained”

  • Larry Andrew says:

    Thanks for that Dave. Brilliant as usual and proof that, even at my advanced age, I can occasionally find new information that supports my already well-formed views on such matters.

    • Thanks, Larry. I do my best thinking while writing. I cleared some cobwebs while penning this. For years, in response to the frequent assertion about ‘god given’ rights, derived from the ‘endowed by our creator’ phrased in the DI, I have been saying that we were ‘born with our rights’ as a condition of our humanity. That isn’t really so… Then, the whole issue of children’s rights gets very muddy. I’ll have more to say about that soon. â—„Daveâ–º

  • Troy says:

    I recently heard a presentation by a fundamentalist minister in which he described a number of things that have us (as in U.S.) on the high road to destruction — things which, of course, should be corrected by amending our Constitution. These included such old favorites as abortion, same-sex marriage, stem-cell research, atheists, etc.

    Regarding abortion, he assured us that life begins at contraception and this is why abortion is murder. Three things came quickly to mind:

    The first is that life actually began millions of years ago via a process that, for all we know, might have been singular and unique, although the sheer numbers of “things” existing in the universe make a singularity unlikely. All any given act of contraception does is to propagate that life, not originate it.

    The second is that, if killing a crude arrangement of cells, such as a human zygote is an act of murder, how can the people who believe this possibly approve of the killing of a complex life form such as a cow or pig? Or, worse yet, a chimpanzee?

    The third is that most of the people most vocal regarding the supposed horror of abortion seen to have no problem whatever with the wholesale execution of criminals, despite growing evidence that many of those executed were wrongly convicted. And, these same folk seem to regard war, especially when waged against people of a different religious faith, as a downright wholesome exercise for the betterment of humanity.

    Being a simple ex-Arkie, it has always seemed to me that killing is killing. Some things need killing, some don’t and still others I don’t care about one way or the other. I the case of abortion, it seems far more efficient (and humane), IMHO, to destroy the unwanted before it develops into a full-fledged human than to let it be born (at public expense), then suffer neglect (again, at public expense) until it is old enough to kill others then to ultimately imprison and execute the miserable beast (again, at public expense). And this usually after the beast in question has planed his own evil seed in several young females, thus steadily expanding the madness. Yet, it is not a total loss because a number of the beasts do live to be 18 and vote Republocrat at least once.


  • Troy says:

    Do you get the idea? Life, Liberty, Property, and the Pursuit of Happiness are not free.

    Could it be fair to say (and including Equality in the list), that while we all have the “natural right” to these things, there is no guarantee that they will be bestowed upon us? In other words, to say that a “right” describes an opportunity and not an outcome?


    • Thanks, Troy. That is an intriguing perspective. I like the suggestion of ‘opportunity vs. outcome’; but I would push back hard at ‘bestowed.’ The connotation of bestowed, would suggest the largess of a benevolent ruler, which could be withheld, or repealed and taken back, by said authority at will. That I could not abide, as it is clearly antithetical to the very concept of natural rights. Let’s work on it, because I perceive even more clarity available to us for the effort. You have my mental gears turning again. More soon… 🙂

      • Troy says:

        OK. Instead of “there is no guarantee that they will be bestowed upon us”, might I say instead “there is no guarantee that they will benefit us”. I referred to what one might call “fate” or “result” rather than a ruler.

        My point was that one could possess all the natural and civil rights that might exist yet, for any number of reasons, not be able to fully enjoy or prosper from them. Further, while while there is no end of people who would deny us our rights, my experience has been that far too many of us perceive obstacles that are not really there, and that we let ourselves be constrained by these imagined obstacles.

        Like everything else in life, rights benefit only those who would exercise them — rights never exercise themselves with no effort or risk on the part of those who would enjoy them. Therefore, to possess a right, in theory, but to take no action upon it is the same as not having said right to begin with.


        • That is much better, Troy; and I totally agree with your rationale. After your comment here, my mind had been toying with the idea that it was individual sovereignty that was the actual natural right, and all the rest followed from that premise. The king gets to do whatever pleases him, because there is no authority above him to say no. The very premise of natural rights, is that there is some authority; but that said authority is not legitimately permitted to violate certain rights. The sovereign really doesn’t need to enumerate his natural rights, he has them all, and there is no authority to violate them.

          Now, however, I have a whole new understanding to factor in here. Have you ever wondered why, exactly, our Founders edited Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, to replace ‘property’ with ‘the pursuit of happiness?’ It has always struck me as odd, and even trivial. Thanks to a link I was offered in a comment to this post, where I published it in another venue, I now completely understand it. After the titles and credits for translations and edits, it began with this:

          “The natural right of man in its primitive and most comprehensive sense is, the right which man has to whatever is advantageous to him; or, as the author, some of whose works I now publish, says, ‘the right which man has to whatever is necessary to his enjoyment.'”

          …which appears to be a statement by an editor/publisher at some point, of a 1765 “Treatise on Natural Rights” by one François Quesnay.

          The theme that the basic natural right, from which all others flow, is the right to pursue one’s own happiness/enjoyment is found throughout the treatise, and he makes the case well. I highly recommend reading it, with one caveat. I have good reason to doubt its complete authenticity, for several reasons.

          For the first clue, note the website it is published on, which blew me away. Then, one presumes that it was originally written and published in French, translated, and republished more than once as part of a collection of other works. That lends it to being edited at any stage in the process, long after the author died. The real mischief, however, appears to be recent and related to the ideology of those involved with publishing it in digital form.

          You will notice numerous errors of the type caused by character recognition software. Supposedly, these should have been edited out by whoever scanned them from an old book, into digital format. The header suggests that someone was assigned that task; but he obviously did a poor job of it. However, this step offers a perfect opportunity to edit the content as well, not just the OCR glitches.

          I have good reason to think this was in fact done in places. While reading it, notice how often you encounter the term, ‘redistributive justice.’ Then, tell me if you believe this term for the Marxists’ Robin-Hood-ism was actually being thrown around circa 1765! I sure as hell don’t. 😉 â—„Daveâ–º

  • Chris says:

    Good discussion gentlemen. I have added my nickels worth to this over on Tspeak. I didn’t post them here because I don’t want to change the direction of your conversation and I actually posted it before reading this thread. Dave, your article took my thoughts in a completely different direction. LOL Who would have thought. We can arbitrate and discuss rights and when you get them and what they are all day long. Thing is it’s all above our pay grade. Some things just are.

    • Thanks for checking in, Chris. Yes, I have replied to your comment over there, and you did take it in a different direction. In fact, I have posted this blog in four different venues, and the direction it took was different in all of them. Each site seems to have its own personality. 😉 â—„Daveâ–º

  • Troy says:

    Have you ever wondered why, exactly, our Founders edited Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, to replace ‘property’ with ‘the pursuit of happiness?’

    My understanding is that they were embarrassed because of the “peculiar institution” How could one, in one sentence say that ALL men are created equal then, in the next, allow that some of them are property?


    • Yes, I had heard that the reason they dropped ‘property’ was to take the Constitutional argument away from the Southern States, who viewed slaves as their property. Always remember that to the slaveholders themselves, they would not have been conflicted; because they didn’t consider the negroid race as sufficiently advanced to be considered humans in the proper sense. They regarded them rather like draught animals.

      What I was referring to was, whatever the motive for the edit, why change something as substantial as property into an apparently frivolous construct such as “the pursuit of happiness.” I had not taken that to be a very serious issue; but according to the essay, it is the central one, and he makes the case rather well. â—„Daveâ–º

  • As usual, the accurate use of language, is important to clarifying complex thinking. In another venue last night, I was replying to a fulsome comment, which kept referring to how our natural rights might be ‘granted,’ or how we might have been ‘endowed’ with them. This caused me to offer an important point, which I would like to share here for discussion. Note how I incorporated Troy’s opportunities and outcomes:

    “Before proceeding, perhaps it would be helpful to clarify that natural rights are not perceptible ‘things,’ they are ideas. The term ‘natural rights’ is merely an abstract mental construct, expressing a political concept regarding the relationship of an individual to other individuals, within another mental abstraction called variously, community, society, collective, nation, etc. They should be regarded more as ‘opportunities’ than ‘outcomes.’

    “One can have the right to Liberty; yet very well may choose not to exercise that right (opportunity), opting instead to comply with a tyrannical authority, for the benefit (outcome) of security, etc. Ideas are not ‘granted’ or ‘endowed.’ They are constructed in a fertile mind, shared, discussed, modified, and discussed some more. If and when they are found worthy, they are accepted or adopted and perhaps, volitionally acted upon.”

    I think this is an important piece for explaining the nature of the opportunity to exercise the natural rights of a sovereign. …Whoa!… Composing that last sentence, caused another important thought to click in place. There are not multiple copies of the right to Liberty kicking around to be gathered up and stowed for safekeeping. There is but one universal mental abstraction, called the right to Liberty, which is available to be exercised by any man.

    It is inaccurate to suggest that some men have natural rights, and others do not, because of the political environment in which they live. If one man has a natural right, all men share it, they just may not all have the sovereign ability to exercise it. So, you don’t have your rights, and I have my rights, we share access to the same universal one-off set. We are getting there. 🙂 â—„Daveâ–º

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