Why I don’t “believe” in Natural Rights
Before I start in on my reasoning. Let me say that this is a broad topic on which many great minds have labored. Any explanation I give is my own view and there are many different formulations of what natural rights are, and how they work. I don’t seek to rebut everyone, only those as I understand them and see them applied by others in my life experience. I’m happy to entertain different views on the subject or just information anyone thinks is relevant. I am not a trained philosopher or even that well read on the subject. I’m an opinionated amateur at best, but always open to new ideas.
I also want to say that I very much like natural rights. That is to say, I am very much for the notions of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Each gives me joy and comfort. To summarize the argument I’m about to make it would be that this enjoyment of these ideals is the real underpinning of natural rights, not some construct of God or logic or virtue.
What Are Natural Rights?
For purposes of my critique, natural rights are inborn and inalienable rights said to be possessed by human beings based on the fundamental nature of human beings. Classic formulations nearly always include the right to life and liberty, though others have added property, the pursuit of happiness, and others. Some people call them “negative rights” in that they are not created by society but merely defended by it.
They arise in the context of arguing about what is the proper moral role of government and society. Why should we obey government authority and what is the moral obligation of said government. The old standard of most societies was that the King ruled by the moral authority of god (whomever that be in a given case) and duty to god meant duty to the king. The natural rights answer to this was that men possessed inalienable rights, given by nature or god, and that government’s moral duty was to ensure those against the aggression of others. A government which does not respect these rights is morally in the wrong.
Of morality and authority
Morality, absent any kind of authority is to my view meaningless. Imagine a man alone in the wilderness. No other man is there to judge his actions or punish him for them. No god intervenes in his actions. Only nature rewards or punishes and it is always circumstantial. The man could invent some moral code, but it is only as strong or meaningful as his will to maintain it and no more.
Only with authority can we have some kind of morality. I don’t advocate that authority must be absolute, only that it have some measure of force which is applied to establish and maintain moral behavior. For humans, and other social animals, the family or tribe is the most quintessential form of authority. Children are dependent on their parents for survival and thus must obey to some degree to survive. They are also simply weaker and a parent wishing to enforce its will has no barrier. In a tribe, the members are all dependent upon one another for survival and prosperity. Their mutual need for cooperation acts as an authoritative force to coerce conformity to group standards. Now we have a clear idea of authority and a moral code with real implications on life.
It is this latter state that is real for us. The man alone is a fictive idea. No man can exist alone for longer than his natural life. Were that the reality of human existence it would have been over long ago. We have to live, in the very least, a family setting. From there the nature of our limited environment and innate desire to breed has led us to ever larger and more complex forms of social organization and cooperation leading to the international community of nation states.
Of differences and similarities
We human beings are both similar in many respects and different in many respects. This is the nature of living organisms with genetic diversity. We are enough the same that we can breed and understand one another’s basic drives and ideas. We are different in a wide range of details often making for very significant differences in our abilities and attitudes. Even those of us with near identical genetics have widely varying experiences that result in marked differences among us. These two factors play out in our social constructs.
Similarities create unity and harmony, often in shared purpose and desire, sometimes in other ways. Differences can create disharmony and dissent but also allow for specialization and a wider range of adaptive abilities to a changing environment and circumstance. Morality and Authority come into play here on the side of similarity. Morality is a code of common behavior, and authority exists to help ensure adherence to that code. This is something of a balancing act. The force of society comes from some portion of its members, and thus the code needs to be agreeable to a sufficient number of people such that it can sway others to follow it and not rebel to change it. Furthermore, too much control can create too much conformity and destroy the value inherent in differences.
Of Choice, Power, and Motivation
I think much of human experience can be put in terms of choice, power, and motivation. Motivation comes first and we humans have many of them, some elemental to our survival, some derivative of it or perhaps wholly detached from it. Choice describes our ability to consider options for action and then put one of them into effect. I don’t want to get into free will and the like, but let us say that whether it be by cosmic fiat or ordained behaviorism, we consider options and make a choice. We make choices with the idea that they will lead to some outcome to satisfy our motivation. Of course, we all know that we don’t always get what we want. The differences among us are what lead to different choices.
Which brings us to power. Power here is our ability to see that the choice we make leads to an outcome satisfying our motivation. Human power is considerable but finite. There are innumerable ways in which our plans fail. Often it is the simple forces of nature that thwart our actions, more commonly it is the interaction of different individuals in the context of society that aid or resist one another that determine an outcome.
Moral codes are a mechanism that seeks to restrict choices by virtue of power. Ultimately it comes down to a contest of power between a social norm that establishes the moral code, and the individuals in that society who choose to embrace it or choose to oppose it and then contest their power against the authority seeking to resist that choice.
But what about natural rights?
We are getting there. Rights are best described as what we are morally entitled to as persons. So a right to life means I am entitled to my own life by some moral precept. Anyone trying to deprive me of my life is violating that moral right and thus is doing something immoral. The natural part is generally not to mean nature aka our environment, it is to mean what we have without any other person or circumstance providing it to us. Thus any living person naturally is in possession of their life. And every living person naturally can make choices. Thus we get the natural rights to life and liberty. Others are a bit more complicated.
Others are a bit more complicated. Property is often claimed as a natural right, but people don’t intrinsically have property by virtue of being people. It is a product of our actions and circumstances that we attain it. It can be seen as derivative of choice and power in consent creating property and thus it is a part of us. It can be seen as a necessary thing to preserve life. No food or shelter and you will be dead pretty quickly.
Here is where I take issue. Rights are about morality, and morality is only relevant int he context of authority, and we only find that in the context of society and government. Thus, while life may be intrinsic to man, the morality for one person not to take it from another only exists in society and society is not an intrinsic property of any given person. You may come to society with life that is your own, but once you enter its authority there is no intrinsic reason society must protect it.
The whole case for natural rights, to me, is an attempt at justifying the protection of life, liberty, and property by trying to summon some outside authority, in this case, intrinsic quality, to justify a set of moral values that says, that which we intrinsically have, society should not take away. I could argue we intrinsically have diseases so it is thus morally wrong to try and cure them. I could also say it is intrinsic in our nature to die so society should encourage death. I just don’t see that things which are intrinsic are good.
So why should we not kill one another?
So having made an argument as to why “natural rights” is both definitionally a problem and based on a principle that leads to self-evidently undesirable behavior, are we left with the idea that it is OK to take another person’s life? No, I don’t think so. There are two reasons why I think we can easily justify the same moral principles offered by natural rights without the need for elaborate metaphysical justifications.
The first and simplest answer is that we don’t want to be killed. Thus when we create a society together we readily and easily agree that one of the moral rules is that we don’t kill one another. Making rules that are to our benefit is a big part of how we organize society. The same can be said for liberty. We would like to make most choices free of coercion by the authorities so we agree to live and let live as the default position, only abrogating it when we deem there is some stronger pressing need than our desire for freedom.
The second justification is a little more complicated. The central idea is that these moral codes are simply good for the maintenance and growth of the society so those that follow them will prosper and those that do not will falter. There are a number of ways in which this plays out. For starters, dead citizens are of minimal value to society and live ones are so protecting life is valuable. Secondly, the popularity of life and liberty among humans means that any society that fails to honor them is going to meet a great deal or resistance and revolt. One that embraces such popular ideals will enjoy good moral and social cohesion. Finally, murder and assault breed dissent and chaos, while embracing liberty allows for diversity and the benefits that flow from it.