If rights were no more that fancy ways of expressing preferences – in short, if morality and politics could only produce emotional expressions—there would be no doubt about the possibility of conflict between rights. Those who embrace the emotivism of the likes of Thomas Hobbes and David Hume (e.g., Michael Oakeshott, Karl Popper, and, I assume, many economists) must admit to the possibility that an assertion of a right to, e.g., private property or freedom of speech, could be in conflict with an assertion of a right to, say, political participation. That is because these asser tions are for them, in the last analysis, no more than expressions of private or collective emotional preferences.
There is, however, the alternative of the natural rights classical liberal tradition. Within its tenets, which I believe make better sense than alternatives do, a conflict of true rights claims cannot exist. It is one vital contention of this tradition that when a claim is made as to someone’s having a basic right, the claim may be confirmed by reference to a correct understanding of human nature. That such an understanding is possible is itself a controversial issue. Yet it seems to me that skepticism here, as in many other cases, stems from a wholly unrealistic conception of what it takes to know something. With a conception of knowledge such that when we know something, we have the clearest, most self-consistent, and most complete conceptualization possible to date of what it is we supposedly know.
The natural rights position sees human nature as one category of reality that rests on our achievement of a grasp of reality. And with human nature we discover, according to this tradition, that a new aspect of reality, unlike that we are familiar with outside the human world, has come into focus, namely, morality and politics. We need to answer a question concerning ourselves, namely, “How we ought to live?” – since we haven’t the programming of other living beings that will just take care of living for us, that will avoid mistakes automatically. We need, also, to answer the question “How should we organize ourselves in communities?”
In both these human spheres of concern we are dealing with reality and just as anywhere else – say between economics and biology – no conflict is tolerable between true claims, so in ethics and politics no such conflict is possible. The reason is metaphysical, in the last analysis, justified in Aristotle’s defense of the Law of Non-Contradiction, a defense that still hasn’t been adequately challenged and the challenge of which will always be self-defeating.
In particular, the natural rights classical liberal tradition identifies the rights to life, liberty and property as basic for human community organization. These rights are not, however, basic to human life – no concern with rights arises on a desert island for Robinson Crusoe. They derive from human nature and the ethics of individualism, to whit, that each person ought to live an excellent human life, a life of freely chosen rational conduct.
From the right to life and liberty there emerges, with suitable analysis, the right to private property. It rests on two considerations: (a) human beings require sphere of individual or personal jurisdiction, so that they may carry out their moral responsibility to choose to do the right thing; (b) the choice to acquire valued items from nature of trade is a moral responsibility, the exercise of the virtue of prudence.
Any bona fide political system must be organized in large measure so as to protect the rights to life, liberty and, in the practical respect of both of these, the right to private property. Thus any political rights – to be free to engage in decision-making vis-à-vis political matters – must not violate those basic rights. Political rights include the right to vote, serve in government, take part in the organization of political campaigns, etc. Practically speaking, the exercise of one’s political rights may have an impact on who governs, various internal rules of government, and the organization of political processes. But there is no political right to override anyone’s right to life, liberty or property. Any evidence of some community’s legal system overriding these rights is ipso facto evidence of the corruption of that system from a bona fide political one into one of arbitrary (even if majority) rule.
As we judge communities across the globe, we must keep in mind that what is comparatively best is not always the best possible. Thus we can affirm the greater merits of certain political communities or countries despite their evident violation of basic rights. Just as in personal assault cases we can distinguish between major and minor ones, as well as those in between, we can also tell when communities rest on principles that render them entirely corrupt, those that simply are confused and messy, and those that come reasonably near to meeting the standards of basic human rights.
In an informal way we already apply this method of judging communities, even if not for all purposes. We should go much farther and apply it more strictly and substantively, including as we appraise our own country’s laws.
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