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Natural Rights: Do They Exist?

Yes, but not how you think

Sometimes, even very smart people can be thoroughly convinced of the veracity of some position they hold…right up to the moment where they suddenly become not so sure.

For an example, see this post and comments over on the QandO Blog. The comments are extensive, but what they reveal is that those arguing that natural rights do not exist were initially arguing against a bad formulation of their own design. Of course, the easiest way to stand effectively against some position is to be afforded (or take) the opportunity to state, in your own terms, the tenets of the position you are about to argue against. One should always try to find the best arguments that support (or deny) the position one intends to debate.

If you follow the comments in that entry, you’ll eventually notice how the debate changes, once those claiming that natural rights don’t exist are confronted with the prospect of arguing against what natural rights really are (rather than the strawman argument they’d erected to later knock down).

Here were my contributions (with a few edits for clarity):

Having read a good deal of the comments at this point, I can’t help but conclude that Dale and Jon set up a strawman (unintentionally), and then proceeded to knock it down.

So far as I can tell, everything the two of you have mentioned as the basis of natural rights is indeed false. So, I’m not surprised that you don’t think they exist. If that’s all I had to go on, I’d be worried too.

Billy has been poking holes, trying to get you to get to the right answer on your own, and McQ and McP have been helping you to form a definition, piece by piece.

It’s always best if you can get there yourself. Let me add another piece I haven’t seen mentioned by anyone. Hopefully it’s of some satisfaction, as I did see one of you complain that rights were an abstraction without any referents to reality.

How about choice?, which is as concrete as can be. Right now, sitting there, you and every human being on earth has a choice that is as natural as you can get, and applies to no other animals, so far as we know. That choice is to continue to pursue your life or not—to purposely default on its requirements, or even to explicitly bring it to a close, if you choose. This choice is not granted by anyone else, and it cannot be conveyed to anyone else, in part, because they already have it for their own part.

It applies to everyone equally, at all times—this choice—and it is a product of the nature of human beings through and through.

Now, without finishing the whole thing, can anyone tell me what this natural, concrete, real-as-hell choice implies, as an aspect of human nature?

Someone gives it a shot.

You draw upon the very first implication of this natural choice, which is, by concrete nature, that we have no choice in the matter of whether to choose. We are, by nature, beings who must choose whether to pursue that which is necessary to advance our lives, or not. Refusing to choose is no less of a choice, and amounts to a default on one’s life.

So, if, by nature, we must choose, what does it naturally imply? Let’s look at it this way: see how absurd it would be, once recognizing this inherent choice we have, to then say, "yes, but, everyone who chooses to pursue his life instead of default on it or end it must ultimately get the permission of everyone else."

If nature affords us compels this choice, then it is our choice by nature, which means, it is our right, by nature. It would be absurd to argue that we have a choice imposed upon us by our nature as human beings, but no natural right to make such a choice. The inherent choice subsumes the right to choose.

So, there you have a basic derivation of the natural right to life. The other rights are derivative, for, in order to exercise the natural choice to live, one must naturally be able to acquire things like property and associations with others.

This inherent choice is actually pretty handy. Not only can you derive rights, but morality too. Anyone want to give it a shot?

Someone claims:

I’m defending my life, not my rights.

Most fundamentally, what you are defending is your natural choice in the disposition of your life (reference my previous comments). That is what nature compels you to do, and you can’t get around it, and because you can’t get around that choice, it is your natural right. You can choose to defend yourself (directly or by flight), or you can choose not to, and take whatever consequences come. If you choose not to choose, you still have made a choice.

Of course, if I start poking a grizzly bear with a stick, he’ll defend himself, as well.

Or, he’ll flee (not likely, but animals do one or the other). Nature afforded them no choice in the matter. They are not compelled to choose anything because their behavior is just automatic. They can’t act either actively or passively in their own destruction, so rights and morality don’t apply to them.

Nature made animals one way—survival of the fittest. They all operate within their natural capabilities to forward their own lives and reproduce.

Nature gave us a choice in the matter, and that is our source of natural rights and morality.

Then, another:

Choices – a ’right’ isn’t a matter of choice. It’s either a right, or it’s not.

Our actions are a matter of choice. Nature mandates that you must choose which actions you will undertake with respect to the advancement or ending of your life. Since this choice is mandated, you have a natural right to choose to further your life. Accordingly, you have a natural right to life, and all that derives from that politically.

My final post and summary to the comment thread:

Having only had time to skim the comments since my last, I have a final little summary.

Those who refuse to lose the mysticism will never understand natural rights. You cannot reconcile God or the supernatural with natural rights, and all those who argued against natural rights on that basis are completely correct.

Natural rights and natural objective morality is not anything about mysticism, lightning bolts from the sky, burning bushes, judgment day, or anything like that.

Morality is objective and natural, and is simply a recognition of the nature of human beings, i.e., we are compelled to choose whether to pursue values, disvalues, or not choose. That’s all morality is. The moral actions are those rational actions that attempt to gain values in rational furtherance of an individual’s life, and the immoral are those actions that are opposite (disvalues), or default.

All of this reduces to concretes. There’s no mysticism. Moral judgments are value judgments, and those values are tied to the natures of things. It all comes back to human nature. To draw an analogy, it’s a horror when I come home and see my wife trying to put picture hangers into the wall with my framing hammer, or, cutting through a loaf of bread with my German-made meat carving knife. The essential difference between my "outrage" when I see that abomination to the nature of some inanimate objects, and when I see the rights of human beings being violated is that I value human life far more than I do hammers and knives. But, the way the abstractions reduce to concretes is exactly the same, and there’s no hocus-pocus involved.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More

20 Comments

  1. John Sabotta on March 9, 2005 at 13:28

    A careful study of The Book of Formations will possibly answer this question.

    A more serious answer might be that self-granting is one of the attributes of the Person we're referring to. But I tremble to speculate frivolously on the properties of the Ineffable Name. (And if I had the merest inkling of the answers to these terrible and transcendent mysteries, the mysteries of the chariot, I wouldn't be wasting my time on the Internet. In fact, I doubt I or anyone else could survive knowledge so profound – and I am not joking about this at all.)

  2. George Maddox on March 9, 2005 at 07:56

    Human experiences, over time, have tested actions based on choices and has found some choices harmful and others beneficial. Teaching beneficial choices and the avoiding of harmful choices . . . is morality? So morality is in thught rather than action (with action being a manifestation of thought?)

    I'm not sure you are right about animal choice. Perhaps animals have fewer options, so their choices appear to be automatic, but association with wild and domestic animals reveals them making many choices every day.
    Can you expand on animals and choices?

  3. Mac on March 9, 2005 at 13:13

    As usual, your commentary is right on target, even though the topic is so esoteric it's dull. My master taught, "Sow a thought, reap an action. Repeat an action, form a habit. The sum total of our habits defines our character and, thus, determines our destiny.

  4. George Maddox on March 9, 2005 at 16:18

    An animal may have less capacity for abstract thought (if they are capable at all) but that merely limits their range of options. A choice requires options but it’s not necessary to have more than two options for “choice” to kick in. To suppose animals are following a program, absolutely and without choice, would need some scientific evidence in order to have meaning for me.

    I understand the need to define a difference between animals and humans because it would be hypocritical to deny animals the right to life if they are no different than people.

    How can anyone have a right to control a thing or a power they do not possess. We cannot generate our own lives. It wasn't our choice to bring ourselves into the world. We do not possess the ability to generate our own existence so the right to life is either conferred upon us or we do not have the right at all – because we are not capable of making ourselves. On the other hand, we can generate our own death, so maybe all we possess (and because we possess it can control it) is a right to death. While not in our power to generate our own life it is in our power to terminate our own lives by intention or neglect. Because we possess that power it can be claimed to be our right to control our death. Should anyone interfere with that right they would be violating a “natural” right. It is my right to make the choice, and my right to control my death limits the right of another to impose death upon me.

    It follows that the effort to prevent my death should be accompanied by other rights that allow me to achieve that end.

    G.M.

  5. Richard Nikoley on March 9, 2005 at 09:00

    First, remember that we are dealing with the context of a natural right to _life_. All other rights derive from that (obviously, if you have a right to life, you have corollary rights to certain freedoms that are required in the exercise of that right).

    So, though animals make "choices," those choices are all within realm of advancing themselves. They don't make the most fundamental choice, which is: "do I choose to live or die?" That question is not applicable to animals. They always, without exception, act in accordance with their nature, which is to live and advance themselves. If there are certain species that appear to bring their own lives to an end, that's merely an aspect of that species' nature. They aren't acting individually, determining their own destiny, with some choosing to opt out of nature’s design.

    Moreover, animals generally only thrive in environments and habitats that are suitable to them. When their innate knowledge is insufficient within a given environment, they perish. Humans choose to “give nature the finger” and then mold it to their own benefit.

  6. John Sabotta on March 9, 2005 at 12:41

    "Those who refuse to lose the mysticism will never understand natural rights. You cannot reconcile God or the supernatural with natural rights, and all those who argued against natural rights on that basis are completely correct." – R. Nikolay

    In a certain sense, I agree with you: I certainly believe that God has granted even atheists the means to distinguish between right and wrong.

    Which means, of course, that the gates of Hell swing open just as wide for you as for us if you make the wrong choice. (tee-hee)

    (In iChat, I mentioned to Billy Beck that I was going to make this point on your comments section; he observed something to the effect that "You would.")

    "“Imagination is much stronger pressed by the terrors of Hell” – Lucio Fulci

  7. Richard Nikoley on March 9, 2005 at 12:52

    To which I would ask who granted God the means to grant?

  8. Kyle Bennett on March 10, 2005 at 07:27

    The difference between animals and humans is that humans can think *about* their thoughts – we are concious of the fact that we are choosing. This is an addition of a completely new level of thought, and is a quallitative difference, not just a quantitative one. Animals may "choose" in the sense of taking one of many possible actions, but they do not – as far as all available evidence goes – have any awareness that there are alternatives and apply some process of reason to the selection. As far as I know, this has never been shown to occur in animals. All of the "intellignece" tests thus far applied to chimps and dolphins and the like have shown at best an advanced pattern recognition faculty, and the ability to learn those patterns. It reinforces rather than argues against, a level of concept-forming that never rises above the perceptual.

  9. Richard Nikoley on March 10, 2005 at 08:32

    GM:

    Animals make choices, but as Kyle notes, they are not thinking of it in the context of a freedom to choose amongst alternatives. Moreover, the particular category of choice we are talking about the the most fundamental one–whether to live or die.

    Regarding the right to life, I have not claimed that our right is subsumed by a choice of whether to bring ourselves into existence of not–as that's not our choice. The choice is whether to _live_ (i.e., continue), or not, and that subsumes the a right to live. It's perhaps a semantic difference. I was never claiming we had any right to come into being, just that once here, we have a right to that life that has been actualized.

  10. George Maddox on March 10, 2005 at 20:59

    How do you know animals don't decide to live or die? How do you know the context in which their choices are made? If logic is to have any value it needs to be based on knowledge, in this case on science, rather than conjecture.

    Even if animals did choose to live or die it wouldn't change your point other than to include animals. Is that a problem?

    Resisting death is a right we are born with. And it is natural because it is part of the mechanics of life, the molecular system of life. Death will win,as we have ample evidence, and we will die, but most of us still resist. We cannot stop death, nor can the animals, so we all do the only thing that is our right by any physical and intellectual measure and within our power to do; resist. What then is our natural right?
    Resistance.

    How do people remain free? Resistance.
    How do people remain alive? Resistance.
    How do people defeat hate? Resistance.
    How do people preserve justice? Resistance.

    This then is the only right we are born with. Not the right to life, but the right to resist death. It seems to be a subtle difference, but the concept allows for a clear understanding of the nature of humanity. The right to life is a by product of the right to resist death. Right to resist is more foundational than a right to life because the right to life depends on our right to resist.

    It is an inferior right, I think, than the right to life. But in order to have any right we must own the ability to exercise that right. We have no power to generate our own life or prevent our own death. The only power we have is that of resistance. Even though we may not have the means to resist insurmountable circumstances, we have the right to try. And no one has the right to abridge that right.

    Extended to society, the right to resist harmful choices helps preserve the right of the individual to resist death and preserve life.

    G.M.

  11. Kyle Bennett on March 11, 2005 at 06:45

    GM,

    There is a quantitative difference in human conciousness and reason that differentiates it from animals, even "intelligent" ones. The question is what are the consequences of that difference. You're right, that if any animal species is found to have crossed that chasm into full conceptual consiousness, then it too would have rights like humans. Science does not bear out the idea of any animal besides humans having it, though I suppose there is still a slim chance that it exists undiscovered in certain cetacians and non-human primates.

    Reistance is not the essential consequence of conceptual consiousness. Animals resist death too. Humans are a superset of animals, and thus we resist death, and I suppose you could call that a right, but you are more accurate when you point out that it is an unavoidable and inalienable facet or our natures.

    Rights as such are only valid in the context of a consiousness that, as I said in a previous post, can apply reason to the process of reaching alternatives. Animals do not ponder the consequences of alternatives, and thus an invokation of rights in that context is irrelevant, including the right to resistance.

    The fundamental right that conceptual conciousness creates is the right to choose our alternatives based on our own internal criteria. A corollary to this is the right to use the one resource we are born with – our minds and the physical ability to execute the decisions of the mind – to choose alternatives that benefit us. The common term for the exclusive right to use a resource is property. All other rights are derivitave of that.

    To put it more bluntly, all rights are property rights, and begin from a property right in our own bodies and minds. The ability to hold and use property is what separates human rights from animal nature. This does not, by the way, demean humanity to "mere" property, it exhalts property to the fundamental ethical expression of our unique nature. Reason is *the* fundamental manifestation of our nature, but its manifestation in the ethical realm – the moral context of our interaction with other humans, the context in which rights apply – is in the notion of property.

  12. Kyle Bennett on March 11, 2005 at 06:47

    Ooops, "humans are a superset of animlas" should say "subset"

  13. Richard Nikoley on March 11, 2005 at 06:18

    GM:

    "Even if animals did choose to live or die it wouldn't change your point other than to include animals. Is that a problem?"

    It would not change the fact that humans have the natural right to life, no.

    So, even though I do not think anything remotely close to the same thing applies to animals, it's not the point of the debate, and so I'll leave it there.

  14. Nick on March 12, 2005 at 08:46

    Mr. Bennett, I think your last bit of post there goes deeper than what makes "rights." You say that, in the end, all rights devolve into fundamental propperty rights. That all there is to having a "right" to anything is seemingly to have a right to your own body and self.

    And this view goes into what one's metaphysical beliefs are. I assume you are a dualist — there is body, there is mind, and those are different — and this distinction allows you to reduce all rights to property rights. It makes sense when the MIND can have ownership over the BODY. There's the owning agent, and the thing owned. Does this make sense to you? It seems that your theory that all rights are really property rights, asserts a deeper metaphysical claim about the nature of mind and body and the sort of Platonic ownership of one over the other.

    Well, if this is true (I may be reading too much into this), then what happens if there really is no self, as philosophers like Hume and Locke doubted? If there is no self to be the owner of things, what happens to the things owned? Because surely, we know those things exist. They're out there in the real world, they're material, they're commodities, they're actual things in the physical realm. For instance, the philosopher Daniel Dennett rejects any sense of identity in which Descartes claimed (a kind of "inner being" that is apart from the body, much like your dualism). Rather, Dennett claims that the "self" arises from mental activity acting like a kind continuously written book. This never-ending mental activity propogates itself to such an extent, that though there is no real continuity between these thoughts, somewhere in this stream of consciousness arises a…."self." (Although there isn't one).

    My question is, how would these metaphysical theories pose problems for your rights-from-property-rights argument?

  15. George Maddox on March 12, 2005 at 09:04

    " . . . . the context in which rights apply – is in the notion of property."

    So the origin of life becomes of utmost importance in the question of natural rights.

    Those who believe “chance” is the source of life have no claim to moral or natural rights as understood in the discussion. Rights can not be conferred, inherited, protected or organized in valid way if accident is the cause of life. An accident has no rights because it has no conscience. To assign a point that defines conscience as anything more than a continuation of the original accident violates scientific understanding of evolutionary origins and such a contrived designation weakens, if not invalidates, any claim to natural rights (other than force or power).

    Without property there is no right. If accident or chance is the author of life, only the strong have rights, and those rights are only available as long as there is strength to impose that force and the strength to resist other forces. Force, not conscience, is the grantor or rights in a case where chance or accident is the cause of existence. In this concept of origins the right to life belongs only to the accident most suited to maintain its own organization.

    Those who believe life exists by design have grounds to claim natural rights are real and valid. Design is property and a designer has rights to such property, intellectual and physical. The designer can keep or transfer the rights. It is not logical to accept the present concept of natural rights (other than force) outside the context of an intelligent cause.

    Design is not “mystical”. The manipulation of atoms and particles using quantum physics is no less fantastic than miracle, yet it is possible to discuss quantum physics without sarcasm and prejudice that is present when intelligent design is discussed. Intelligent design is not the subject here, but it has great bearing on thoughts of natural rights.

    I want to point out that if mere chance, using the inherent properties of matter, can form life – it must not be impossible for a designer to use the same properties and intentional organization, to create life. Indeed, science has expended much effort in the attempt and continues to pursue such organization. Property rights are conveyed to people who merely reorganize some forms of life. The possibility of life by design is validated by the acceptance, by science, of life without design.

    Natural rights discussions take on an entirely unique character depending on origins.

  16. Kyle Bennett on March 12, 2005 at 12:39

    Nick,

    I anticipated your question when I referred to the "one resource we are born with – our minds and the physical ability to execute the decisions of the mind". I am not a dualist, though there is obviously a value in some contexts (such as medecine) of adressing the parts of the body as individual entities – and of course those parts are to some extent seperable in even the most concrete contexts. I did not say that the mind has ownership of the body, I said that a person has ownership of his own mind/body. I am a materialist, in that I beleive that conciousness is a property of the physical brain and nothing else. The body is a physical extension of consciousness, and the two are philosophically inseperable. I see no problem with the term property being used self-referentially.
    The metaphysical claim is not that the mind owns the body or vice versa, but that the mind/body (the self) owns itself. This property relationship does have one important attribute found in no other: that is is utterly inalienable, it cannot be transferred. Not inalienable by moral dictate, social construct, or legal grant, but by the physical impossibility of alienating an owner from this particular piece of property.
    If find the idea of there being no self ridiculous and not worthy of argument. If it were true, then the entire discussion – in fact the entire reason for discussing it at all – would be moot.

    GM,

    The origin of life is utterly irrelevant to my argument. I argued from the nature of man – from what it just is – and that argument, if true, is true in all cases where the nature of man is what it is. No alternate path to arriving at that nature will change conclusions deduced from that fact.

    Your argument from design attempts to retain the mystical nature of rights that Richard tried to refute in his original post. It claims, as Nick does, that a property relationship cannot be self-referential, therefore the only way for a self to be owned is if it is owned by another. I am explicitly denying this claim, and without it your argument disintegrates.

    You are correct that if all we are arises from physical material, that that material is potentially recreatable by an intelligent agent as well as by a non-intellignet self-organizing system. Even if this is so, this does not make us property of that designer. Such a designer would still be bound by logic and the laws of reality, and if our property rights arise from our nature by logic, then the designer cannot claim as property something he designed in such a way that logic and reality grant it self-ownership. The act of design does not grant the designer the ability to claim that the thing designed is something other than what it is.

    Your argument also seems to be informed by that great fallacy common to all politics, including, if not especially, libertarian politics. That fallacy is that rights are ultimately enforceable by appeal to outside authority – that rights are granted or conveyed, rather than simply *are*. The refutation of this fallacy leaves us with force as the one single means of addressing a theory of rights only if you stay within the limited context of the defense of rights from others who would have no regard for your rights without an active defense on your part.

    That context exists, but it is not the sum total of centexts within which humans interact. The broader context includes one in which individuals decide whether they will respect the rights of others, not for the other's benefit, but for their own. The theory of natural rights acts in this context to guide individuals not only in how they will defend their own rights, but in whether they will benefit from violating the rights of others themselves. The theory of natural rights tells us both which of our own rights we must defend in order to maintain the integrity of our natures, and how we must deal with others to maintain that same integrity. Focusing on one or the other exclusively undermines that integrity.

  17. George Maddox on March 13, 2005 at 12:42

    Kyle Bennett,

    The nature of man is what it is for a reason; it has a cause (unless you believe in magic). A cause is either accidental or intended. If origin of life is an accident humanity shares only the same rights as the dirt that collided to produce the original chain reaction. Continuation of events originating from an accident will not produce anything other than another accident. Accident cannot produce intent, right, wrong or "rights".

    You are mistaken if you think it is necessary to see, hear or communicate with a designer before we can believe in the existence of a designer. An intelligent designer rearranged atoms to produce a 1956 Ford. I have never communicated with the designer, but I believe, due to the existence of design in the Ford, that a designer existed.

    You clearly haven’t done much reading about the subject; intelligent design science advocates do not refer to any communication with the source of intelligent design, mystical or otherwise, and they do not rely on religion to reach their conclusions.

  18. Kyle Bennett on March 13, 2005 at 13:53

    George,

    Your reductionist argument that nothing exists save for the smallest possible constituent units is widely discredited, and I don't need to repeat the effort here. If you choose to believe that the computer you are using to write these responses has all the same properties as a garden-mole in your backyard, then I can't, and don't wish to, help you. That's a pretty long convoluted way to go to assure that your design theory remains the only possible basis for rights. Unfortunately, your reversal of the correct logical process means that your argument provides no information whatsoever.

    The best you can get from the existence of a 1956 Ford is a hypothesis about it's creation. Without any further evidence, or at the very least a hypothesis about the means of creation that can be integrated with concretes we can observe, it remains merely a hypothesis. Further evidence for the design of Fords, from at least 1956 to the present, is easily obtainable in and around Detroit, Michigan.

    Your thinking is too clouded to assert that you see anything clearly, least of all facts about me. You may wish to do some reading yourself on the subject of self-organizing systems. There is no accident or magic required.

    Design theorists most certainly do use religion to reach their conclusions, but their real problem is that the (pseudo)science comes after rather than before.

  19. Jimmie Twofingers on July 1, 2006 at 22:17

    Theres a lot ideas in this place, but making things simple goes like this. A conscious human being is a possession unto itself and from the moment of birth [which is total separation from the mother and the evidence of willful intake of breath] is an independent INDIVIDUAL ENTITY existing through the process of autopoeisis. This means that this INDIVIDUAL is only 'owned' in and of itself and no other person, place, or thing can 'grant' of 'give' the inherent RIGHT to continue that INDIVIDUAL life as a SELF REGENERATING BEING. The individual right to be is bestowed entirely through the individual itself and it's ability to exist under it's own power. Thus, individual 'rights' come from the ownership of the self and extend to include property owned by that individual. That right can not be 'bestowed' from anyhwere else, it is inherent to ownership of the individual. Rights are not resultant to choices, rather choices are resultant to rights. As individuals existing under self ownership the right to choose and make choices is also inherent to the individual. One can not choose to not think. Yet the right to choose exists due to the ownership of the thought process.
    Lastly, as conscious beings in possession of consciousness [the highest power in the known universe] the rights of human beings supercede all other sentient life and represent the supreme value of mankind.

  20. bubblez on January 31, 2007 at 16:46

    ok…if i really had rights,i would have the right to live, which i have, i would have liberty, which i also have,i would also have the right to the pusuit of happyness, which i DONT have. im stuck in freaking school all day working my butt off. if i had the right to the pursuit of happiness then i would be able to not go to school for two weeks and not have the school nagging at my ass to come back. if im really THAT SICK that i HAVE to be home for TWO frigging weeks, DOC'S ORDERS, y do they want me back, do they want me to barf all over the place? our walls are already frigging puke yellow! no one would even notice! the other thing that would allow me and im sure, many of you, would be no taxes. why do I have to give the govt. all MY MONEY to clean up the frigging mess they made with Iraq 20 years from now?!? I HATE IT!yea, so, im only 13…but you screwing up MY FREAKING FUTURE…i should have a say in this. so i know i wont be heard, at least not by many, but think about what WE WANT, let us mess up our own fieaking future!

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