PostHeaderIcon Natural Rights Rebutted

After some fruitful discussion on my “Natural Rights Explained” essay, posted here and elsewhere, my blogging partner, Troy, posted his “Natural Rights Refuted” post, neatly dismissing the whole concept. This is my rebuttal to that.

We may be twisting ourselves into semantic knots here, Troy. Suggesting there is no “such thing,” comports with the understanding we had already developed, which suggested that natural rights are ideas, akin to opportunities, rather than things. Yet, as Chris pointed out, ideas are ‘things’ too.

I had been working on the notion that it was sovereignty itself, which was the primary, and the concept of natural rights were mere corollaries of that proposition. Then, the Enlightenment era treatise by Quesnay, suggested that it was the right to pursue one’s own pleasure, which was fundamental and gave rise to the notion of sovereignty, and the other so-called natural rights.

In any case, I entirely agree with your assessment of the intention of Jefferson, et al. That was precisely the point I was making in my original “Sovereign Rights” essay back in ’07, when I interpreted and restated his most famous line about self-evident truths, in the Declaration of Independence, thusly:

“We freeborn Americans are sovereign individuals, each on par with King George III himself, with the inalienable right to live our lives as freemen, pursuing our own happiness, subservient to no one.”

Do natural rights exist? As ideas, they most certainly do. The meaning, validity, and/or effect of those ideas can certainly be fairly challenged; but their existence cannot, and more importantly, probably should not. I think we need to back up and look at the big picture, to assess the whole point of this discussion.

As I implied, I wrote my essay to challenge the commonly held belief, among those most inclined to speak of natural rights, that somehow we each were issued a gilded set of our own, at a precise and fortuitous moment, while our parents were pursuing their own rightful pleasure, by engaging in some social calisthenics. Well… at least one of them was; the other might well have been a victim of aggression, experiencing anything but pleasure.

To hear these anti-abortionists tell it, we also received in that magic moment, the equivalent of a ‘conception certificate,’ proclaiming our legal status as an official ‘pre-born’ citizen, of these United States of America. This then legally entitled us, from that moment forward, to all of the rights, privileges, and Federal protection for same, afforded to all other citizens. Then, in some manner that has never been explained to my satisfaction, our spanking new set of rights, trumped our mother’s own set.

Even if our father was a brutal rapist, and our mother was an innocent teenaged victim, she somehow became obligated to incubate us through birth, before she would be permitted to reject unwelcome motherhood. Apparently, to these morally challenged absolutists, taking an abortifacient to reject a zygote she isn’t even sure exists, is sinful and should be illegal; but abandoning a baby she had given birth to, to the bureaucracy of the state, is laudatory and celebrated as a victory for ‘life.’ Go figure.

However, the moral and legal gymnastics required to sustain this conclusion, is a bit beyond the point. It does seem that we both agree that the above worldview, regarding natural rights for a zygote, is wrong and ought to be cleared up. Yet, I am not ready to discard the utility of the venerable concept of natural rights entirely, in order to do so. The basic term ‘rights,’ is too ubiquitous in our political lexicon, and too cherished by the voters, to ever eliminate. Human rights, equal rights, civil rights, property rights, minority rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, employee rights, welfare rights, voter rights, etc., ad infinitum.

With all of these subjective ‘rights,’ which are vulnerable to political manipulation, having a class of basic ‘rights of man,’ declared inalienable and beyond the reach of government bureaucrats and/or politicians by our Founders, is not a bad thing. While they generally go under the rubric of ‘Constitutional rights,’ introducing the Lockean notion that they would still apply in the absence of government, takes several issues (such as eliminating our right of self-defense, by repealing the Second Amendment), off the table. It may be a bit pragmatic for your tastes; but couldn’t you agree to the utility? An artifice, perhaps, but what possible harm is done to the cause of Liberty, by employing it? 😉 â—„Daveâ–º

4 Responses to “Natural Rights Rebutted”

  • Troy says:

    It seems to me that if there were truly “natural rights”, there would also be “natural protections”, ensuring each individual’s ability to enjoy such rights. We know from long experience that such “natural protections” do not exist, leading me to deny that “natural rights” can exist in the first place.

    I will readily agree that “natural rights” can exist in a philosophical context but such “philosophical rights” may or may not be exercisable by any given individual. Those rights that we can actually exercise, I prefer to call “practical rights”. I then contend that “practical rights” become exercisable only when free individuals make a compact with each other to mutually respect such “practical rights”. This is, by no means, a “natural” act.


    • In the real natural world of predator and prey, dominated by contests of tooth and claw, man’s only means of survival is to live by his wits. It is the mind of man, and our proclivity for mutually beneficial alliances with others, which won and maintains our position at the top of the natural food chain. Thus, I would contend that there could be no more natural an act, than working out a mutually satisfying arrangement for said alliances.

      Semantics again, Troy. Since the whole notion of ‘rights’ was developed in a philosophical exercise by thinkers, what other context could there be? We apparently do not even share a common definition for the basic term ‘rights,’ whatever the modifier. I addressed the circular dictionary definitions of the term, in my original “Sovereign Rights” essay referenced above; but when I employ it (with such modifiers as we are here discussing) I do so in the dictionary sense of, “freedom to do something.” Thus, to the natural man, living alone in the natural world, absent any societal constraints whatever, ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ would be nearly synonymous terms.

      Of course, he would have no use for them in his natural state, as they are mental abstractions referring to aspects of man’s relationship with others in society. Alone in nature, he has the absolute freedom, and thus the absolute right, to do any damn thing that pleases him, precisely because there is nobody to object, challenge, or interfere with his choices. He even has the right to commit suicide, by pestering a mama grisly bear’s cubs, if he so chooses. There is nobody to stop him, much less pass a silly tyrannical law against such foolish activity, purporting to protect him from himself.

      Now, to explore this further, lets create a society of two, just you and me… I started to make it four, by throwing in a couple of wives, so you didn’t get any funny ideas; but like the real world, the addition of the fairer sex really complicates societal issues. So, to keep it simple, I am just going to have to trust that you would find me rather unattractive. Since I have already seen a picture of you in a pleated skirt (well, OK, it was a kilt) I know for certain that you need not worry about me. 😉

      So, one day we are both out hunting in the wilderness, and encounter each other. We have some immediate decisions to make. Are we primitive hunter-gatherers, thoughtlessly competing over limited resources; or might a strategic alliance be mutually beneficial? The former would suggest combat to try to either permanently eliminate the competitor, or subjugate him to our will. The latter suggests a social compact between equals, and the rudiments of civilization. Bright thoughtful fellows that we are, we would at least explore the possibilities of the latter, before resorting to the former.

      The term sovereign means, ‘independent’ – ‘self-governing’ and not ruled by any other; so, whether or not we might have used or even known the terms, we met as two sovereign individuals, each in possession of complete freedom (i.e. rights) to do as we wished in pursuit of our own pleasure/happiness. We were accustomed to doing so at will, without the slightest concern for what anyone else might have thought about our way of achieving such, had they even known of our existence, much less our lifestyle proclivities. Obviously, if we are now to achieve the many benefits of cooperating together as a community, we are both going to have to relinquish a small measure of our individual sovereignty; but by no means all of it.

      Your heretofore absolute right to place your foot down wherever you please, is going to have to be moderated to exclude the real estate currently occupied by my toes, or this compact isn’t going to work. My right to swing my fist wherever I like, is going to have to be moderated, to end at the point in space where your nose begins, lest our nascent civilization dies aborning, as we revert to option A, post haste. Yet, our societal rules of engagement need not be complicated or onerous.

      Since we are rational thinkers, such mutual considerations between sovereign equals would strike us as common sense, which would not need to be codified. If necessary, they are easily encompassed by the Golden Rule, which is ancient universal wisdom, common to most moral traditions. In the East, it is usually stated more sensibly, as a prohibition against trespass, rather than an appeal for kindness: ‘Do nothing to another that you would not wish done to you.’

      Add to that, the libertarian motto: ‘I care not what others do with their lives, as long as they do not forcibly interfere in my own,’ and we have created an idyllic society. I fail to see how it could be improved upon. It is essentially the creed by which I live my own life that I jestingly call: ‘the gospel according to Dave’ – ‘Do right, and leave others be.’ It also comports with Jefferson’s notion of ‘Rightful Liberty,’ which I discussed in my “Liberty vs. Piety” post last spring.

      Please note how impossible that discussion would have been, without employing the philosophical abstraction of natural rights. As I said above, the concept is too useful to abandon over semantics. If it helps, just substitute the term ‘freedom’ wherever you encounter my use of the term ‘right(s),’ and you will readily understand the intended meaning of my communication. Of course, freedom is a philosophical abstraction too… is there such a thing? 😉 â—„Daveâ–º

      • Troy says:

        Although we approach the notion from different angles, it seems to me that we are in agreement. Since we presume to live in a civilized society in rather crowded conditions, “practical rights” seem to me to be all that is available. Ergo:

        Philosophically: “all men are created equal and are endowed with…”

        Practically: we enjoy only such freedom as the members of our civilization willingly grant to each other.

        If you object to this interpretation, please explain exactly why because nothing in it seems (to me) inconsistent with anything you have said.

        The example you give of the two primitive hunter-gatherers is interesting because, several years ago on a Reason cruise, I had a similar conversation with a famous author. We concluded that the dawn of cooperation between “wild” humans probably began when some nominal enemies encountered a mutual danger that was a greater threat to them both than they were individually to each other.


  • Yes, since we usually are in philosophical agreement, Troy, I am struggling to find the disconnect on this one. If you can substitute the term ‘freedom of action’ for the term ‘rights,’ as you appear to have now done, and still maintain your position, I am almost flummoxed. While there is a kernel of truth in what you say regarding the ability to assert one’s sovereign rights in a large complex society, it misses the point entirely. It is akin to saying that ‘practically,’ a slave has no human rights, because he finds himself in chains.

    Surely, this is not your intent; but if society at large condones slavery and regards him as property, they will not ‘grant’ him the freedom of action required to pursue a different condition. Thus he has no ‘practical rights’ either. Yet, it seems axiomatic that there is something in the nature of man, that yearns to be free; so nobody should be surprised by his desire to escape his oppressors. It is also true that a good many of us would sympathize with his plight, be rooting for his success, and probably assist him in any way we could, society be damned.

    This may reveal the crux of our disconnect. Whither our warrant to challenge the collective wisdom of society in such matters? If natural rights, human rights, sovereign rights, civil rights, personal rights, et al, are all off the table, what precisely may we name the principle that impels his desire for Liberty, and compels so many of us to bellow in outrage at the injustice? Shouldn’t there be a term for it? And, before anyone suggests it, ‘equality’ just won’t do.

    I have zero desire for (or to be reduced to) parity with the busybodies in society, trying to tell me how I should live my life. I want to be completely shed of them. I am the sole master of my fate and captain of my soul. I’ll choose for myself how I wish to live my life, and as long as I am doing no harm to others, it is none of their damn business. That same mysterious principle is what motivates me to declare my independence from the bleating herd, and assert my [unnamed principle / unpractical right] as a sovereign freeman, to pursue my happiness my own way.

    If philosophical principles no longer matter, and we are reduced to only what is practical, as defined by the collective, then the game is over, we lost decisively, and it is time to retire from the field with our tails tucked between our legs. For practically, we are no longer a Constitutional republic, which protects the rights of citizens from tyranny, and the rights of a minority from the whim of the majority. We are effectively an altruistic collective, organized on the principle of mob rule, and now you are suggesting that all ‘practical’ rights are defined and ‘granted’ by the mob.

    If we must accept this as a given, and our only recourse for reclaiming our Liberty birthright, is to convince enough citizens to abandon their love affair with Robin-Hood, all is lost. Any suggestion that the stupid sheeple could be persuaded to stop voting for a living, and work for it instead, is a naïve pipedream. Our only ‘practical’ options are: 1) Give up, join them, and signup for a government teat; 2) continue to diligently produce enough to satisfy their plunder, with a little left over to feed our own family; 3) hunker down, be fleet of foot, and avoid their pillage as much as possible; or 4) abandon the now oppressive land of our fathers, and move to a freer country ASAP.

    I long ago chose option three. If I were younger, I would now choose option four in a heartbeat. Yes, option three placed very real limitations on my entrepreneurial endeavors; and thus my life has not been nearly as economically successful as it might have been, had I chosen to play the game by their rules. Yet, I have lived a remarkably free life by my rules, pretty much ignoring the existence, much less acknowledge the legitimacy, of any so-called ‘authorities,’ which I have no reason whatever to regret.

    I may not have been ‘granted’ any unpractical rights by my neighbors, but I never bothered to ask them for any. I just unilaterally took them of my own volition, and enjoyed the hell out of them as a freeman, quietly living among serfs, who are largely incapable of understanding the difference. If we give up now, and stop trying to educate them with philosophical notions, suggesting their servitude to the collective is not a compulsory obligation, they never will.

    As you are wont to say, Troy, think about it; because if we don’t, at the rate we are devolving, our grandchildren’s children won’t even know how. 🙁 â—„Daveâ–º

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