What Are “Natural Rights”?

I have written several times about rights and their source:

The last item includes some comments about Timothy Sandefur’s views on the subject of “natural rights.” Sandefur has responded to those comments. In this post, I take Sandefur’s response as a starting point for a further examination of “natural rights.”

To begin with, I’m pleased that  Sandefur seems to agree with my observation that

rights can’t be rights if they can’t be held universally, without cost to others. The right not to be murdered is such a right; the right to live on the public dole is not. We can, in theory, forbear from murdering each other, but we cannot all be on the public dole except (possibly) at different times. And even then we must impose on others (including those who would prefer to be on the public dole at the same time).

All of this is a way of stating  the doctrine of negative rights, which is the basis of libertarianism. But negative rights can’t be applied universally if there are some holdouts who want others to give to them without having to give to others.

But the doctrine of negative rights  is simply a logical consequence of a definition of rights: they “can’t be rights if they can’t be held universally, without cost to others.” There’s nothing in that definition to suggest that it’s the only possible definition of rights.

In fact, there are many who would disagree that negative rights are the only rights. Leftists, for example, would assert various positive rights: to a “living wage,” to “decent housing,” and the like. (See, for example, the UN Declaration of Human Rights,) Such positive rights, a leftist would say, are universal, in that they could be enjoyed by everyone at one time or another. Furthermore, the fact that their enjoyment would impose a cost on others (those not then enjoying them) should be of no consequence. A right is a right, after all. Moreover, as I will show, the argument for “natural rights” advanced by Sandefur (and many others) lends itself to the recognition of positive rights as “natural” ones.

What are “natural rights,” as Sandefur understands them? A search of his blog yields some evidence of his views. There’s a post in which he quotes approvingly the following statement:

[E]ach person should be free to do as they please so long as their actions do not harm another person against their will, take away their equal liberties, or rob them of the fruits of their labors. There is no right to murder or to steal within the natural rights framework for the obvious reason that it deprives the rights of others.

In another post, Sandefur makes a similar statement:

[T]he natural rule against taking the “goods of another” is not an arbitrary postulate…. [T]he basis of the right against deprivation is equality—that is, the fact that no person is naturally justified to rule over another.

These are restatements of the doctrine of negative rights, which — as I’ve pointed out — is a matter of definition, not necessity. Sandefur would disagree, of course, because he sees “natural (negative) rights” as an inherent feature of the human condition:

[W]hat the word “natural” means is simply that these rights are not merely conventional. They do not exist just because we have agreed to them; they are not simply a matter of agreement or habit. Their existence is on account of something outside of, or prior to, mere convention, in the way that, say, the human capacity for language, or sexual desire, or the law of supply and demand, are not simply products of convention, but arise from the nature of the people or the things involved.

I find this unenlightening, because it is teleological. Sandefur might as well say that it is in the “nature” of a baseball to be

a sphere formed by yarn wound around a small core of cork, rubber or similar material, covered with two strips of white horsehide or cowhide, tightly stitched together. It shall weigh not less than five nor more than 5¼ ounces avoirdupois and measure not less than nine nor more than 9¼ inches in circumference.

However, the “nature” of a baseball, as I’ve just defined it, is a matter of human design. It doesn’t arise “naturally” from the baseball.

Perhaps, then, Sandefur would say that it’s in the “nature” of a baseball to be thrown, hit, and caught, just as it’s in the nature of humans to have certain rights. But, again, the nature of a baseball to be thrown, hit, and caught is a matter of human design — of convention, if you will.

Sandefur, I’m confident, would reject the premise that humans and their “natural rights” are designed, but (as far as I know) he is loathe to explain how humans have come to possess a “nature” that incorporates certain rights. Perhaps those rights arose spontaneously, as humans evolved from primordial ooze to homo sapiens. But that leaves me wondering where they’re located. As far as I know, they’re not in any part of the body or brain that’s been identified by medical science. Perhaps they’re just floating around us, like souls.

The latter notion is consistent with an earlier post by Sandefur, where he states the following: “Our natural rights and our liberty derive from nature, more specifically, from our nature as human beings.” The link leads to a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence, which contains this famous phrase:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Does Sandefur, an avowed atheist, believe that “natural rights” are endowed by a Creator? I doubt it.

Sandefur would reject such a notion because it smacks of a supernatural explanation. Rights, according to him, are natural; that is, it is in the nature of humans to have rights. But that strikes me as a circular argument, which can be stated as follows:

  • All humans possess certain rights by virtue of their nature as humans.
  • It is inherent in those rights that no person is naturally justified to rule over another person.
  • Therefore, all humans, by their nature, have the right to be left alone by others, which implies a reciprocal obligation to leave others alone, except in the defense of life, liberty, and property.

The conclusion simply restates and elaborates the assumptions contained in the major and minor  premises. I am looking for something like this:

  • Einstein’s special theory of relativity states that when two bodies move at different speeds, time passes more slowly for the faster of the two bodies.
  • Many experiments have confirmed the theory; none has refuted it.
  • Therefore, it’s very likely true that time slows as velocity increases.

That is, I’m looking for evidence, not supposition.

Perhaps there’s something in Sandefur’s reference to “the human capacity for language.” It’s true that humans have a capacity for language, but language doesn’t simply emerge spontaneously from that capacity. Sounds do, but language doesn’t. Language is a convention, shaped by eons of application and evolution. Two facts attest to the conventional nature of language: (a) there are so many languages, each of them originally developed in a circumscribed geographical area, and (b) there is so much hue and cry (in some quarters) about the violation of “rules” and the coinage of new words and phrases. In other words, the human capacity for language doesn’t give rise to a single, “natural” language that flows automatically from the brains and tongues of all humans.

What about the human capacity for sexual desire? There’s nothing mysterious about it; it has a physiological explanation. In that sense, it’s entirely natural. The problem is that sexual desire is an active consequence of physiology, whereas “natural rights” — in Sandefur’s accounting — are simply there. They just exist, in the same way that human physiology exists. But human physiology can be explained in physical (natural) terms, whereas there is no similar explanation for the mysterious thing known as “natural rights.”

Turning to the “law of supply and demand,” Sandefur says:

The nature of scarcity is such that when something is in demand, and there isn’t enough of that thing, its price will go up—whether we want it to, or not.

I don’t know what it means to say “the nature of scarcity.” Scarcity isn’t an entity with a “nature” of its own. Scarcity is a condition that can be characterized by saying that “there isn’t enough of [a] thing.”  Defining it doesn’t give it an independent existence and a “nature.”

Similarly, the “law of supply and demand” isn’t really a “law,” it’s a description of the willingness of buyers to buy and sellers to sell particular goods and services under a variety of conditions, price, quantity, marginal cost, and marginal utility being among them. There’s no freestanding “law of supply and demand,” there’s simply what we observe of human behavior and its (relative) predictability under certain, specified conditions. The “law of supply” and demand — like “scarcity” — is the description of particular aspects of human behavior, not an antecedent of human behavior with a “nature” of its own.

What does it mean, then, to say that it’s in the nature of humans to have “natural (negative) rights”? It means that Sandefur begs the question of the source of rights. I want answers, not circular statements. If rights are innate in humans, which is another way of saying that they arise from the nature of humans, I want to know how they get there.

I’m not asking what humans want, because Sandefur would spot the trap in that. When humans want things, they bargain with each other in an effort to get them. But Sandefur insists that rights — “natural” ones, at least — don’t arise in that way. They just “are.”

Having failed to find a natural explanation of “natural rights” in my gleanings of Sandefur’s blog, I must turn to other sources. Sandefur points the way, in this passage from his response to my earlier post:

What natural law or natural rights theories actually do (or attempt to do) is to explain political society in terms of nature—that is, by avoiding the ipse dixit argument that rights exist because Somebody says so, or because that’s our tradition, or our social consensus, but by instead saying that these rights or these principles are implied by human nature and the nature of the world in which we live. As [Randy] Barnett writes, “natural law describes a method of analysis of the following type: ‘given that the nature of human beings and the world in which they live is X, if we want to achieve Y, then we ought to do Z.’” Natural law or natural rights theory simply holds that the political society is bounded by pre-political principles, logical, normative, physical, and so forth. One need not agree with such a method of reasoning to admit that there is nothing mystical or arbitrary about it.

We shall see whether it is mystical (my characterization) or arbitrary.

I don’t possess a copy of the book by Barnett to which Sandefur links. But the relevant discussion is found, verbatim, in Barnett’s article, “A Law Professor’s Guide to Natural Law and Natural Rights.” Here’s a helpful passage, which comes soon after the one quoted by Sandefur:

Defining justice in terms of rights, especially natural rights, will invite confusion, however, unless we are clearer about what it means to call something a right. A nice description is provided by Allen Buchanan:

[A]ssertions of rights are essentially conclusory and hence argumentative. An assertion of right is a conclusion about what the moral priorities are. At the same time, because it is a conclusion, it is an admission that it is appropriate to demand support for this conclusion, reasons why such priority ought to be recognized. And it is vital to recognize that there is a plurality of different kinds of considerations that can count as moral reasons to support a conclusion of this sort and that the conclusion that an assertion of a right expresses will usually be an all-things-considered judgment, the result of a balancing of conflicting considerations.

Thus, to call something a natural right is to assert one’s conclusion; it is no substitute for presenting the reasons why this conclusion is justified. What makes natural rights natural is the type of given-if-then reasons that are offered in support of its conclusions, based as they are on the “givens” of human nature and the nature of the world in which humans live. What makes such concepts rights is the “natural necessity,” to use H.L.A. Hart’s felicitous term, of adhering to them if we are to solve certain pervasive social problems that must be solved somehow if persons are to achieve their objectives.

There’s more in Barnett’s working paper, “The Imperative of Natural Rights in Today’s World“:

So natural rights addresses the question: given the nature of human beings and the world in which we live, if you want a society in which persons may pursue happiness while living in close proximity to others, then you ought to do Z. What you ought to do (Z) is properly define and respect the natural rights or liberties that enable persons to pursue happiness without interfering with the like pursuit of others with whom they interact. What you ought not do is violate these properly defined rights.

Later in the same paper, Barnett says:

[T]he whole point of a natural rights analysis is to address the problem of human vulnerability and interconnectedness. No one person is strong or independent enough to pursue happiness in the face of concerted opposition from the masses or from a concerted handful of other people—or from even a single obsessed or evil individual. Natural rights attempts to identify conceptually the space within which vulnerable people need to be free to make their own choices about the directions of their lives, which includes crucially the choices of how to acquire, use, and dispose of scarce physical resources. Once these rights are identified, it a somewhat but not entirely separate matter of institutional design to see how they can best be protected in a world in which others are more than willing, if given half a chance, to interfere with the well being of others.

Natural rights, therefore, do not enforce themselves. They are rather a mode of normative analysis used to evaluate and critique the positive law that is needed to reinforce them. But nevertheless, if they are correctly formulated, there are real world consequences for violating these rights. Human wellbeing will suffer and die. No society will survive as a society if these principles are disregarded completely….

Natural rights attempts to identify conceptually the space within which vulnerable people need to be free to make their own choices about the directions of their lives, which includes crucially the choices of how to acquire, use, and dispose of scarce physical resources. Once these rights are identified, it a somewhat but not entirely separate matter of institutional design to see how they can best be protected in a world in which others are more than willing, if given half a chance, to interfere with the well being of others.

Natural rights analysis can identify the fundamental liberties that all human beings require to pursue happiness while living in close proximity to others—the rights of several property, freedom of contract, first possession, self defense, and restitution.

Natural rights, then, are not “natural” in the sense that they inhere in humans. Rather, they are “natural” in the sense that they are the rights that humans ought to possess if they are “to be free to make their own choices about the directions of their lives,” that is, “to pursue happiness while living in close proximity to others.”

Moreover, as Barnett says in his “Guide,” natural rights do not proscribe how rights-holders ought to act towards others. Rather they describe how others ought to act towards rights-holders.” That is to say, in a regime of “natural rights,” (quoting Barnett’s “Imperative” again) each person would accord all others “the rights of several [private] property, freedom of contract, first possession, self defense, and restitution.” Such rights — as I understand them — are necessary complements to the essential “natural right”: the right to be left alone as one leaves others alone. That right, when you think about it, must flow toward its holder, not from its holder.

At this point, let us turn to Objectivism, of which Sandefur is (or was) an adherent. According to the article, “Ayn Rand,” at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, these are Rand’s views on the subject:

The concept of rights, says Rand, “provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others… Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law” These natural rights are basically rights to action, not to things or outcomes, and can be violated only through the initiation of force or fraud. Hence, all natural rights are negative, that is, claims on others’ non-interference, and not claims on them to provide one with certain goods or outcomes.The fundamental right is the right to life: the right to take the actions necessary for sustaining the life proper to a human being. All other rights follow from this right. Thus, the right to liberty is the right to act (including to write and speak) on one’s judgment; the right to the pursuit of happiness is the right to pursue goals for one’s own fulfillment; the right to property is “the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values”

“Claims on others’ non-interference” equals “natural rights do not proscribe how rights-holders ought to act towards others. Rather they describe how others ought to act towards rights-holders.”

I must now admit that there’s nothing mystical about such reasoning. But I must say that it’s arbitrary, for reasons I’m about to adduce.

At the risk of associating myself with utilitarianism, which I reject, I find Jeremy Bentham apt:

Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense–nonsense upon stilts. But this rhetorical nonsense ends in the old strain of mischievous nonsense: for immediately a list of these pretended natural rights is given, and those are so expressed as to present to view legal rights. And of these rights, whatever they are, there is not, it seems, any one of which any government can, upon any occasion whatever, abrogate the smallest particle.

…What is the language of reason and plain sense upon this same subject? That in proportion as it is right or proper, i.e. advantageous to the society in question, that this or that right–a right to this or that effect–should be established and maintained, in that same proportion it is wrong that it should be abrogated: but that as there is no right, which ought not to be maintained so long as it is upon the whole advantageous to the society that it should be maintained, so there is no right which, when the abolition of it is advantageous to society, should not be abolished. To know whether it would be more for the advantage of society that this or that right should be maintained or abolished, the time at which the question about maintaining or abolishing is proposed, must be given, and the circumstances under which it is proposed to maintain or abolish it; the right itself must be specifically described, not jumbled with an undistinguisable heap of others, under any such vague general terms as property, liberty, and the like.  (“Anarchical Fallacies: Being an examination of the Declaration of Rights issued during the French Revolution“)

Bentham’s intemperate language aside, there is truth in what he says. The truth is that the language of “natural rights” obfuscates their essential arbitrariness, which is revealed by looking more closely at Barnett’s formulation:

[G]iven the nature of human beings and the world in which we live, if you want a society in which persons may pursue happiness while living in close proximity to others, then you ought to do Z. What you ought to do (Z) is properly define and respect the natural rights or liberties that enable persons to pursue happiness without interfering with the like pursuit of others with whom they interact.

What aspects of “the nature of human beings” are relevant to the inquiry? Human beings are complex organisms with many needs and desires, the most basic of which (survival) requires food (everywhere) and clothing and shelter (in most places). Those things may not be attainable “without interfering with the like pursuit of others with whom they interact.” If I have a “natural right” to survive, because the instinct of survival is in my “nature,” why do others have the “natural right” to withhold from me that which I need to survive just because those others claim a “natural right,” as Barnett puts it, to “fundamental liberties … require[d] to pursue happiness while living in close proximity to others—the rights of several property, freedom of contract, first possession, self defense, and restitution”?

And what about my health? Don’t I have a “natural right” to the enjoyment of good health? Otherwise, how can I pursue happiness to the extent of my innate ability? If I’m unable to afford medical attention, others are obliged to pay on my behalf. Likewise, I’m obliged to pay for the health care of others when I’m able to do so.

My ability to deduce positive rights by applying the  “given-if-then” formulation leads me to suspect that the formulation can be (and is) used to deduce a long list of positive rights. The UN Declaration of Human Rights includes at least a dozen statements of positive rights, including some open-ended ones. Another example is found in the writings of a philosopher, Mortimer Adler:

… What is not the product of legal or social conventions must be a creation of nature, or to state the matter more precisely, it must have its being in the nature of men. Moral rights are natural rights, rights inherent in man’s common or specific nature, just as his natural desires or needs are. Such rights, being antecedent to society and government, may be recognized and enforced by society or they may be transgressed and violated, but they are inalienable in the sense that, not being the gift of legal enactment, they cannot be taken away or annulled by acts of government.

The critical point to observe is that natural rights are correlative with natural needs….

For example, if I have a moral — or natural — right to a decent livelihood, that can be the case only because wealth, to a degree that includes amenities as well as bare necessities, is a real good … and thus indispensable to a good life. The fact that it is a real good, together with the fact that I am morally obliged to seek it as part of my moral obligation to make a good life for myself, is inseparable from the fact that I have a natural right to a decent livelihood….

Our basic natural right to the pursuit of happiness, and all the subsidiary rights that it encompasses, impose moral obligations on organized society and its institutions as well as upon other individuals. If another individual is unjust when he does not respect our rights, and so injures us by interfering with or impeding our pursuit of happiness, the institutions of organized society, its laws, and its government, are similarly unjust when they deprive individuals of their natural rights.

Just governments, it has been correctly declared, are instituted to secure these rights. I interpret that statement as going further than the negative injunction not to violate the natural rights of the individual, or deprive him of the things he needs to make a good life for himself. It imposes upon organized society and its government the positive obligation to secure the natural rights of its individuals by doing everything it can to aid and abet them in their efforts to make good lives for themselves – especially helping them to get things they need that are not within their power to get for themselves [emphasis added]. (“Natural Needs = Natural Rights“)

In other words, the identification of “natural rights” with negative rights is entirely arbitrary. Those who prefer a regime of negative rights can use the “given-if’-then” formulation to find them “natural”; those who prefer a regime of positive rights can use the “given-if-then” formulation to find them “natural.” I can only conclude that the identification of anything as a “natural right” is arbitrary, or — as Bentham says — nonsense upon stilts.

Contrary to Sandefur’s assertion, “natural rights” are the result of an “ipse dixit argument that rights exist because Somebody says so.” The Somebody is whoever happens to assert that a “given-if-then” analysis happens to produce a certain “natural right.”

If the identification of “natural rights” weren’t an arbitrary exercise, there would be no concern about the consequences of such rights. But there is, as Barnett admits in his “Guide”:

Is a natural rights analysis utilitarian? Although I do not have a strong view on this question, for what it is worth, my answer depends on how the term “utilitarian” is used. If utilitarian is viewed as a consequentialist approach that evaluates practices by their consequences, then the conception of natural rights sketched here appears to be consequentialist, though only indirectly….

If utilitarianism is viewed as a general theory of ethics or morality, however, then the natural-rights approach presented here, though consequentialist, is not utilitarian….

…For the indirect consequentialist analysis presented here suggests that respecting natural rights, not the calculation and aggregation of subjective preferences, promotes the common good. And the common good is viewed, not as a sum of preference satisfaction, but as the ability of each person to pursue happiness, peace, and prosperity while in acting in close proximity to others.

Barnett has more to say about consequences in “Foreword: Of Chickens and Eggs — The Compatibility of Moral Rights and Consequentialist Analysis“; for example:

A natural rights analysis does not rest content with generat­ing a set of substantive and procedural precepts of justice and the rule of law from general observations about the nature of the human condition. It also “tests” the conclusions such an analysis provides by examining the consequences of adhering to these precepts. This may be done hypothetically or empiri­cally. If it is revealed that a particular form of jurisdiction actu­ally retards rather than enhances the ability of persons to pursue happiness in society, this showing does not automati­cally refute the rights being scrutinized. Instead, the analysis must return to the legal precepts used to elaborate moral rights to see if the original precept can be refined to better deal with the problem or if an entirely different precept would be better.

In short, a supposed “natural right” can lend itself to many instrumental interpretations. When the consequences of a particular interpretation are tested and found to be wanting, by some criterion that is thought to be relevant to the “natural right,” it’s back to the drawing board. The example subsequently offered by Barnett suggests that it’s merely a matter of attuning the law to enforce negative “natural rights.” But that’s because his preconception of “natural rights” is that they are of the negative variety. And, as I’ve discussed, it’s just as easy to arrive at “natural rights” of the positive variety.

All of this leaves me standing precisely where I stood before — entirely unsympathetic to the notion of “natural rights” — even though I now agree that “natural rights” needn’t be the product of mysticism. The latter fact, however, doesn’t prevent leftists, bleeding hearts, and do-gooders from conjuring positive rights and arguing for their imposition because it’s the “right thing to do,” as if the resulting curtailments of liberty and economic growth were of no consequence.

In any event, philosophical arguments will not persuade the proponents of positive rights and their enablers (including much of the voting public) to abandon their quest for Nirvana on Earth through statism. If liberty (negative) rights are to be defended, the only hope of defending them effectively is a double-barreled appeal to

  • liberty as an end in itself, which — on the evidence of the popular response to Obamacare and “stimulus” — hasn’t lost its appeal to a large fraction of Americans, and
  • the dire consequences of positive rights, even for the intended beneficiaries of such rights.

I am tempted, at this point, to drop the subject of “natural rights” and take up concrete issues. But my ruminations on “natural rights” have led me to revisit a related subject: the Golden Rule. I take it up in the next post.

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