Let's Talk About Natural Rights
When various skeptics question the soundness of the American political system, one of their targets is the idea of human nature. After all, the founders took their political philosophy mainly from John Locke who thought human nature does exist and, based on what we know of it and a few other evident matters, we can reach the conclusion that all human beings have certain rights. This is what is meant by holding that there are natural rights and that they are pre-legal, not a creation of government.
This is the idea that is rejected today by one of President Obama's top advisers and the man in charge of the federal government's regulatory operations. Cass Sunstein, who is now a professor of law at Harvard but is on leave to work with the administration, rejects any notion of rights not fashioned by government. And one reason for this may well be, although I am not certain about it, that Professor Sunstein does not agree that human nature exists.
Certainly many prominent legal and political theorists share this skepticism. I recently read one of them who argued that because in some cultures there is no reference to human nature anywhere, let alone in the law, the idea of human nature cannot be right. As if consensus determined whether human nature exists; as if it were impossible that some folks could be entirely ignorant of what human nature is, so much so that they might even deny its existence.
When the idea emerged in philosophy that things have a nature – e.g., starting with Socrates and his pupil Plato – it was thought that the nature of something resembled geometrical objects by being perfect and timeless. So if there is a human nature, it must be something perfect and a-temporal. But because none of us is going to live to eternity, none of us can establish anything as timelessly true. If human nature has to be something like that, then skepticism about it would be warranted.
But human nature – and, indeed, the nature of anything else – need not be timeless. What makes us all human, our human nature, can be the most up to date, well-informed specification of attributes, capacities, or properties so far. Anything else would be unreasonable to ask for since, as I already said, none of us is going to be here till the end of time and can thus establish that what we understand as human nature will not need some modification or adjustment. The principles the American founders rested on human nature were understood as capable of being updated, which is why the U.S. Constitution has provisions for its amendment. This, however, does not justify fundamental doubt or skepticism about either human nature or the principles based on it, such as our natural rights.
So at least one source of skepticism about our basic rights, rights that do not depend upon government's grating them (even if their protection is government's main job), can be set aside. But there is more. We are all dependent upon knowing the nature of things so that we can organize our knowledge of the world. We know, for example, that there are fruits – a class of some kind of beings – and games – another class – and subatomic particles – yet another class – and so on and so forth. These classes or natures of things are not something separate from the things being classified but constitute their common features, ones without which they wouldn't be what they are. Across the world, for example, apples and dogs and chicken and tomatoes and, yes, human beings are all recognized for what they are because we know their natures even when some cases are difficult to identify fully, completely, even when there are some oddities involved.
So there is good reason that governments do not create rights for us – we have them, instead, by virtue of our human nature. And this puts a limit on what governments may do, including do to us. They need to secure our rights and as they do so they must also respect them.
Posted by Jahfre Fire Eater on 09/12/10 02:23 PM
I do not believe anyone "has" rights. What human's share is the liberty to exercise rights. Only when those rights are being exercised or when their exercise is being defended so these rights exist. Having the liberty to exercise a right in no way limits the consequences of doing so. That is a role for society or government.
Posted by Ian Nun on 09/11/10 09:42 AM
Re: Owen Jones. Your statement "In the US the people are sovereign" deserves some consideration. The problem is what is meant by [we] "the people". If in fact this means 'the state' or 'the government', I can understand what you said. The sovereignty of the individual which is one basis of individual rights, extends as far as the sovereignty of the state allows it to.
Generally this means I can do what I want – usually considered as I have the right to do what I want – unless the state has in place, a restriction on this right.
It all reduces to the question who carries the bigger gun?
Posted by Bad Santa on 09/11/10 04:26 AM
Is it possible that the founders of our great country were referencing the moral restraints of their day? Is it not also true that our founders most probably anticipated that because of "human nature", we as a nation would turn our backs on our Christian heritage (meaning a REAL self restraint driven by honor and integrity}?
Posted by Bad Santa on 09/11/10 04:19 AM
I recognize that collectivists see a different world from libertarians in this respect. But much of that difference I surmise is due to their differing views of the essence of human nature.
Very interesting interchange of ideas hear. I'm a newbie (I've been keeping up but not chiming in) and I find this subject intriguing.
In reference to the "collectivists": I am assuming that you are referencing to the common assumption that a "collective" is a group of Marxists or at the very least the socialists. I would venture to say that ALL collectivism is not bad, in fact in many cases, it actually creates a NATURAL rule of honor and respect for one's neighbor or brother (or sister of course). A great modern day example of this in the U.S. would be the Quaker style communities. There one does not steal (or take undue advantage) from his neighbor.
The integrity is true and it is self policed. Policing one's self IS in essence Integrity...is it not?
Posted by Scott Bieser on 09/10/10 01:02 PM
I've said this before but I suppose it bears repeating:
Natural Rights are not some sort of magic armor that protects us against predations from the state or lesser criminals. They are simply a moral claim we make against our fellow humans with whom we interact in various social contexts -- to the extent those claims are honored, we have a better chance of creating happy, fulfilled lives for ourselves. To the extent those claims are not honored, we are thwarted in our pursuit of happiness.
Posted by Zenbillionaire on 09/10/10 02:45 AM
"there is good reason that governments do not create rights for us ‒ we have them...by virtue of our human nature... this puts a limit on what governments may do"
No Tibor, it does not. It only points to a hypothetical limit on what an individual will suffer. It places no limit whatsoever on what others may choose to do; they too have a "nature".
What you're proposing is that there is a "natural human right" enforced by a power *which is not human*. Until such a power is discovered, the the only source of enforcement is in fact the individual, therefore any discussion of an absolute human right is pointless beetle tracking.
Nothing is guaranteed. You pay your money and take you chances. Have a good life.
Posted by David Alan on 09/10/10 02:36 AM
I appreciate the article here & all the comments, too.
It's a great study to flesh out what the founders referred to, in the Declaration of Independence, as the "...Law's of Nature and the Law's of Nature's God...."
If we break that down it would appear to be 2 parts:
1) Natural Law ('laws of Nature')
2) God's Law ('law's of Nature's God)
No, I'm no expert on these weighty matters, just an interested layman, but it would seem that a firm view on the existence upon Natural Law and also Biblical Law (the Judeo-Christian worldview) would provide some specifics that we could 'hang our hat on'.
It would seem the onslaught of Humanist thought & Darwinism has sort of washed the Western Civilization venerable underpining of the Biblical understanding of Rights (and Duties, as well) out of our societies, at least as a known standard that should govern leaders, to limit & attenuate their abuse power.
State run media & schools can hardly be expected to teach about eternal Principles that would serve to limit their (presumed) authority, right ?
I think the tyranny of politicians & elites across many Western democracies, pandering to the worst impulses of our natures, unlimited by Law or Conscience, is the result of this abandonment of a knowable, definable & objective standard – a God in the heavens, who is eternal and is perfectly Just and shares that standard with us, in our weakness, calling us to be strong & complete, in Him.
This latter Truth is only hinted at by Natural Law, but fully laid forth in 'Revealed Law' or what the Founders called in the Declaration of Independence, ".......the Laws of Nature's God...".
Even the balance of Justice & Mercy is laid forth, so that both sides of the continuium of human perspective (conservative vs liberal) are acknowledged:
"He has shown thee O Man what is good; and what the LORD does require of thee, but to Do Justice & Love Mercy, and walk humbly with your God" – Micah 6:8
This is called the "Micah Mandate".
Notice that Justice comes first, then Mercy.
When individuals & families & churches govern themselves by this 'Micah Mandate' – the state remains very small.
When Self, Family & Church government atrophy – the State grows exponentially – and then we have Statism, which is the state cannibalizing these other governments.
Statism even attacks Free Markets & economic Liberty, these being the voluntary (thus self governing) & honest dealings Virtuous men perform – quite without direction from elites !
Patrick Henry said:
b"Bad men cannot make good citizens. It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains.
A vitiated state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom..."/b
Edumund Burke said:
B "Men are qualified for civil Liberty in exact proportion of their willingness to put moral chains upon their appetites."/b
I think "we the people" hold the key to the problem – our bad leaders simply reveal our wretched state.
They are the result of it, not the cause of it.
If we purpose to start (or keep) obeying the voice of God, in our conscience, by His Word, at all costs – if we value Liberty that belongs to a people of a clear Christian conscience – the tyranny & fascism will leave our lands, like the spirits cast out by Jesus during his earthly ministry.
iBut Will We ?/i
Posted by Philip Mccormack on 09/10/10 01:24 AM
Try and snatch a young baby from a mother, then you will see what human nature really is. Happy days. Pchilip
Posted by Jason on 09/09/10 11:05 PM
"Collectivists seem to believe other humans are threats and need to be controlled. Free thinkers tend to believe other humans naturally desire positive relations; they can generally be trusted."
Boy, I think you got awfully close to the truth on that one, William. Central to any debate on human-controlled activities must be a recognition of human nature. Although we, as a species, provide a continuum of interpretations on our fellow man, there do seem to be natural groupings of thought within that continuum.
Most of us reading this site are in the latter group but we all know someone in the former. Let's hope we can breed faster that they can :-)
Posted by Mpresley on 09/09/10 06:10 PM
This should be a multi-part report; something more in-depth. Some starting points:
In general, the idea of natural law precedes any idea of right. Beginning at least with Hobbes there began an inversion, and right became the starting point. Indeed, for Hobbes, the idea of a natural law was a misunderstanding of language--law was essentially conventional--a product of civil society.
At the same time, the idea of a general equality of men issued forth and was repeated in modified form by the major players, ultimately taking it's most serious and disastrous effects within the thinking of Marx and Engles.
Some argue that late medieval Scholastic nominalism began the inversion (if only "things" exist, but not universals, then how can we posit a universal human nature?). This was really a logical argument, but one that could be refuted within the Aristotelian hylopmorphic doctrine. Yet, after Hobbes, and certainly by the time Descartes had been digested, Aristotelian thinking was seen as something naive and not particularly useful. It was soon forgotten.
In any case, this topic is fundamental and should be explored more deeply. I'm hoping the Bell and Tibor Machan offer more along these lines.
And more interviews too. We like interviews, you know.
Posted by William3 on 09/09/10 04:32 PM
I had never considered that some people question if human nature exists. This article made me think about it.
I recognize that collectivists see a different world from libertarians in this respect. But much of that difference I surmise is due to their differing views of the essence of human nature.
Collectivists seem to believe other humans are threats and need to be controlled. Free thinkers tend to believe other humans naturally desire positive relations; they can generally be trusted.
It seems more a convenience on the part of those like Sunstein to just say human nature doesn't exist than to state their real motives -- to abjure human rights.
Thanks for informing me there are many who declare human nature doesn't exist.
Posted by A Mann on 09/09/10 03:48 PM
@ Erik's ?
Well, I'd say everything "We" / Humans have done so far.
Posted by Erik on 09/09/10 01:12 PM
What is Human Nature?
Posted by Herbert on 09/09/10 01:09 PM
It's scary to think that a guy like Cass Sunstein with his nutty theories is actually a professor, teaching young Americans any of his loony ideas, for example animals should be able to sue humans! It's even scarier to know that the narcissist in charge of this great country hired him as his top advisor! It's like Glenn Beck said: "Cass Sunstein is the most dangerous man in this country!"
God save the USA from these lunatics, morons and thieves!
Posted by Bewer on 09/09/10 11:30 AM
Definitions again. In order for a govt to secure our rights and respect them, they must be defined for that organization. The US Constitution does a good job of that; unfortunately our elected leaders dont follow it or dont understand it; but WE keep electing them!!!!
Posted by Bernardpalmer on 09/09/10 10:32 AM
Excerpt from 'What is the Primary Fundamental Right?
"The Primary Fundamental Right is the most basic of all human rights. It is the innate right of a person to the ownership of their own body and the right to do what they want to that body.
People who don't believe that the Primary Fundamental Right exists should ask themselves this question; can you do anything you want to your body and not have the possibility of going to jail for doing so? The answer is definitely no. Because of legal constraints we are all slaves. We are not a free people, regardless of what we may think. Therefore all the freedoms we think we have are really illusions unless we own our own bodies. Remember, only slaves cannot make decisions about their own bodies.
Every one of us, including the politicians, are now owned by our respective governments because of numerous iniquitous laws, including the drug prohibition laws and statutory rape laws that they the politicians have enacted supposedly on instruction from the majority of voters. In reality we have all been caught up in a swirling Socialism torrent sliding downwards towards Totalitarianism for over 100 years. The drug prohibition laws are a symptom of that progression, but not the root cause.
The Primary Fundamental Right exists because everything, with the possible exception of God, has an opposite and the opposite of Totalitarianism is the Primary Fundamental Right."
Click to view link
Posted by Owen Jones on 09/09/10 10:31 AM
Which came first, the "state" or humans?
The state is made up of humans – some with a good grasp on the nature of humans and some who grasp what they can by force or trickery. Unfortunately, those who would seek power over others often do so to benefit themselves and their co-conspirators.
The Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights point out that the people do have inalienable rights before the "state" even exists.
@ Ian Nunn: In the US the people are sovereign, not the Queen or government. Granted, tyrants practice their selfish ways to usurp that sovereignty, but their actions, successful or not, do not invalidate the peoples' sovereignty. They just contest it, and the people invariably win in time.
Posted by Ol' Grey Ghost on 09/09/10 09:57 AM
The only Rights one has – Constitutional, civil, human, or natural – are those that one is willing to kill one's fellow human beings who try to prevent one from exercising. That is the unfortunate fact about human nature...
Posted by Tibor R. Machan on 09/09/10 09:27 AM
My books, Human Rights and Human Liberties (1975/2010) and Individuals and Their Rights (1989) develop the natural rights approach in far greater detail than does this missive (which one might consider one of my mind-teasers about various vital matters).
As to natural rights being fiction, no, not any more than the principle of integrity or honesty. But their reality is complicated, as is the reality of quarks or minds.
Posted by Ian Nunn on 09/09/10 09:09 AM
As a Canadian, I reside in a country that is preoccupied with "rights" and have given them considerable reflection.
Firstly, what is a right? The Oxford dictionary has a good definition: "the state of being entitled to a privilege or immunity or authority to act". The key thing is that a right exists only at the discretion of an authority or power that can enforce it, revoke it or overrule it.
"Natural rights" are a philosophical fiction with perhaps the exception of the right to die. There are no "basic rights" outside of what your government declares are yours, such as the right to bear arms in the case of the US. There are no "women's rights" outside of what the state has legislated or authorized. Most of the rights that people claim on a daily basis, do not in fact exist.
Rights are a sovereign entitlement which is why bodies such as the UN cannot create rights – it is not a sovereign entity. The only case were the rights created by one sovereign can be trumped is the case where a stronger sovereign with more power (bigger army) can intervene. However, it still remains an issue of sovereign power.
Sorry, but that's what your rights are all about.