Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”

This post is so long that I have put the main text below the fold. The following annotated outline may tempt you to read on or prompt you to move along:

I. Why This Post: Background and Issues

Do humans have natural ends that have arisen through evolution? If so, does this somehow imply the necessity of negative “natural rights”?

II. Natural Teleology –> Negative “Natural Rights”?

A. Evolution as God-Substitute

A supernatural explanation of “natural rights” will not do for skeptics and atheists, who find that such rights inhere in humans as products of evolution, and nothing more. Pardon a momentary lapse into cynicism, but this strikes me as a way of taking God out of the picture while preserving the “inalienable rights” of Locke and Jefferson.

B. Teleology as Tautology

Survival is the ultimate end of animate beings. Everything that survives has characteristics that helped to ensure its survival. What could be more obvious or more trivial?

C. Whence the Tautology?

Evolutionary teleology boils down to “what happened as a result of breeding, random mutation, geophysical processes, and survival of the fittest and/or luckiest, as the  case may be.” The term “natural selection” is inappropriate because — unless there is such a thing as Intelligent Design — no one (or no thing) is selecting anything.

III. Persisting in the Search for Negative “Natural Rights” in Human Nature

A. Pro: Evolution Breeds Morality

“Darwin saw that social animals are naturally inclined to cooperate with one another for mutual benefit. Human social and moral order arises as an extension of this natural tendency to social cooperation based on kinship, mutuality, and reciprocity. Modern Darwinian study of the evolution of cooperation shows that such cooperation is a positive-sum game…”

B. Con: Human Nature Is Too Complex and Contradictory to Support Biologically Determined Rights

The account of human nature drawn from evolutionary psychology suggests that there is much in human nature which conflicts with negative rights in general (whether or not they are “natural”). And who needs a treatise on evolutionary psychology to understand the depth of that conflict? All it takes is a quick perusal of a newspaper, a few minutes of exposure to broadcast news, or a drive on a crowded interstate highway.

IV. A Truly Natural Explanation of Negative Rights

A. The Explanation

The Golden Rule represents a social compromise that reconciles the various natural imperatives of human behavior (envy, combativeness, meddlesomeness, etc.). To the extent that negative rights prevail, it is as part and parcel of the “bargain” that is embedded in the Golden Rule; that is, they are honored not because of their innateness in humans but because of their beneficial consequences.

B. The Role of Government

Government can provide “protective cover” for persons who try to live by the Golden Rule. This is especially important in a large and diverse political entity because the Golden Rule — as a code of self-governance — is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons.

V. What Difference Does It Make?

The assertion that there are “natural rights” (“inalienable rights”) makes for resounding rhetoric, but (a) it is often misused in the service of positive rights and (b) it makes no practical difference in a world where power routinely accrues to those who make the something-for-nothing promises of positive rights.

VI. Related Posts

See especially:
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State

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On December 7, 2010, I posted “Positivism, ‘Natural Rights,’ and Libertarianism.” Timothy Sandefur responded on December 11, with “Some Odd Confusion about Natural Rights.” I followed up with with “What Are ‘Natural Rights’?” on December 12. Sandefur’s comments on that post appeared on December 22, in his “Teleology without God.”

With that chronology out of the way, I will venture some comments about Sandefur’s latest entry in the series.  But first, some context. This is from my post,”What Are ‘Natural Rights’?”:

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.

In “Teleology without God,” Sandefur responds:

[I]f I understand correctly, our difference is that P&P does not believe man has any natural ends, so that the assertion that man has rights cannot be true by necessity, only by convention—although he and I would agree on the qualities of those rights once their existence is granted.

This is a reasonable argument, and I certainly don’t have time to defend the idea of teleology in full in a blog post right before Christmas. But I will clarify one point. P&P seems to find it inconceivable that I might be at once an atheist and a believer in the idea of teleology. In fact, there is no inconsistency in holding the position…. Human beings were not designed by a conscious being who created us with an end in mind, but that does not mean we do not have ends. We just have ends in a different way. Living beings have ends because life is capable of continuing or being destroyed, as inanimate matter is not, and, being capable of self-generated action, they naturally seek the end of further survival. That pursuit is not a matter of social convention, but is natural in the relevant sense. We are not the products of intentional design but we are the product of a design process—the process of natural selection, which selects in terms of the capacity to reach certain ends. This is not a claim that all our ends are determined by biological imperatives (a position I reject) but is intended only as an example of the fact that something not intentionally designed may nevertheless be said to have ends. Reproductive success is an example of a system in which, even absent a conscious designer, an entity can be said to pursue a goal and to succeed or fail in terms of that goal. Or language; it is not designed, but it definitely has an end. Francisco Ayala, Harry Binswanger, Den Uyl & Rasmussen, and others have addressed these questions very well, and I’ll leave the curious to inquire there.

Sandefur’s post raises two questions: Is there such a thing as natural teleology? If there is, does it somehow imply the necessity of negative “natural rights”? Even if humans have ends by virtue of evolutionary “design,” I wonder whether and how those ends give rise to “natural rights,” which — in Sandefur’s words — “are not simply products of convention, but arise from the nature of the people or the things involved.” Moreover, I wonder whether and how those ends give rise to “natural rights” that are only negative rights. Perhaps Sandefur means only to defend the possibility of natural teleology, but the context of his defense suggests a belief that negative “natural rights” inhere in humans qua humans.


A. Evolution as God-Substitute

The modern articulation of “natural rights” is due mainly to John Locke (1632-1704). However, Locke invoked God, rather than evolutionary “design,” as the source of “natural rights.” A supernatural explanation of “natural rights” will not do for skeptics and atheists (e.g., Ayn Rand), who find that such rights inhere in humans as products of evolution, and nothing more.

Pardon a momentary lapse into cynicism, but this strikes me as a way of taking God out of the picture while preserving the “inalienable rights” of Locke and Jefferson. On that point, I turn to Edward Feser’s essay, “The Trouble with Libertarianism“:

…From the work of Ayn Rand (1905-1982) onward, … theorizing [about natural rights] has been dominated by Aristotelianism, and in particular by some version or other of the idea that natural rights are ultimately to be grounded in the sort of natural end or purpose that Aristotle held all human beings to have. Now sometimes libertarian theorists try to cash out the idea of a “natural end” in only the thinnest of terms – in Rand’s case, in terms of the need to survive as a rational being. Notoriously, however, such an approach fails plausibly to yield a distinctively libertarian conception of rights: one might need some sort of rights in order to survive, but it is hard to see why one would need the extremely strong rights to liberty and private property (rights strong enough to rule out an egalitarian redistribution of wealth, say) libertarians want to affirm….

I will have much to say about the substance of Feser’s point that there is no necessary connection between a “natural end” and “the extremely strong rights to liberty and private property … libertarians want to affirm.” But first things first. What is (are) the “natural end(s)” that (supposedly) dictate, necessitate, or justify negative “natural rights”? (I am unsure of the proper choice among “dictate, necessitate, or justify” because I am unsure about the nature of the connection between “natural ends” and “natural rights.”)

B. Teleology as Tautology

It is true, as Sandefur says, that “something not intentionally designed may nevertheless be said to have ends,” but that may be nothing more than an after-the-fact explanation of an evolutionary outcome. (Teleological explanations of evolution seem to be controversial among biologists.) Sandefur asserts, for example, that “we are the product of a design process—the process of natural selection, which selects in terms of the capacity to reach certain ends.” But natural selection is not a “design process”; it is a process that results in living organisms whose functional complexity gives them the appearance of having been designed. Evolutionists are quick to point out this distinction when they address Intelligent Design.

Natural teleology seems to be known by various names (e.g., teleonomy, evolutionary teleology, biological teleology), all of which are somewhat controversial aspects of the rather speculative fields of evolutionary biology, sociobiology, and biological information. Teleonomy

is the quality of apparent purposefulness and of goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms that derive from their evolutionary history, adaptation for reproductive success, or generally, due to the operation of a program.

The term was coined to stand in contrast with teleology, which applies to ends that are planned by an agent which can internally model/imagine various alternative futures, which enables intention, purpose and foresight. A teleonomic process, such as evolution, produces complex products without the benefit of such a guiding foresight. Evolution largely hoards hindsight, as variations unwittingly make “predictions” about structures and functions which could successfully cope with the future, and participate in an audition which culls the also-rans, leaving winners for the next generation. Information accumulates about functions and structures that are successful, exploiting feedback from the environment via the selection of fitter coalitions of structures and functions.

Francisco Ayala, to whom Sandefur refers, has more to say about the matter in “Teleology and Teleological Explanations,” at Evolutionary Biology:

[T]he essential characteristics of teleological phenomena … may be encompassed in the following definition: “Teleological explanations account for the existence of a certain feature in a system by demonstrating the feature’s contribution to a specific property or state of the system.” Teleological explanations require that the feature or behavior contribute to the persistence of a certain state or property of the system: wings serve for flying; the sharpness of a knife serves for cutting. Moreover, and this is the essential component of the concept, this contribution must be the reason why the feature or behavior exists at all: the reason why wings came to be is because they serve for flying; the reason why a knife is sharp is that it is intended for cutting….

It is useful to distinguish different kinds of design or teleological phenomena. Actions or objects are purposeful when the end-state or goal is consciously intended by an agent. Thus, a man mowing his lawn is acting teleologically in the purposeful sense; a lion hunting deer and a bird building a nest have at least the appearance of purposeful behavior. Objects resulting from purposeful behavior exhibit artificial (or external) teleology. A knife, a table, a car, and a thermostat are examples of systems exhibiting artificial teleology: their teleological features were consciously intended by some agent.

Systems with teleological features that are not due to the purposeful action of an agent but result from some natural process exhibit natural (or internal) teleology. The wings of birds have a natural teleology; they serve an end, flying, but their configuration is not due to the conscious design of any agent. We may distinguish two kinds of natural teleology: bounded, or determinate or necessary, and unbounded or indeterminate or contingent.

Bounded natural teleology exists when specific end-state is reached in spite of environmental fluctuations. The development of an egg into a chicken is an example of bounded natural teleological process. The regulation of body temperature in a mammal is another example. In general, the homeostatic processes of organisms are instances of bounded natural teleology.

Unbounded design or contingent teleology occurs when the end-state is not specifically predetermined, but rather is the result of selection of one from among several available alternatives. The adaptations of organisms are designed, or teleological, in this indeterminate sense. The wings of birds call for teleological explanation: the genetic constitutions responsible for their configuration came about because wings serve to fly and flying contributes to the reproductive success of birds. But there was nothing in the constitution of the remote ancestors of birds that would necessitate the appearance of wings in their descendants. Wings came about as the consequence of a long sequence of events, where at each stage the most advantageous alternative was selected among those that happened to be available; but what alternatives were available at any one time depended, at least in part, on chance events.

Elsewhere, Ayala writes:

Knives, birds’ wings, and mountain slopes are used for certain purposes: cutting, flying, and climbing. A bird’s wings have in common with knives that they have been ‘designed’ for the purpose they serve, which purpose accounts for their existence, whereas mountain slopes have come about by geological processes independently of their uses for climbing. A bird’s wings differ from a knife in that they have not been designed or produced by any conscious agent; rather, the wings, like the slopes, are outcomes of natural processes without any intentional causation. Evolutionary biologists use teleological language and teleological explanations. I propose that this use is appropriate, because teleological explanations are hypotheses that can be subject to empirical testing. The distinctiveness of teleological hypotheses is that they account for the existence of a feature in terms of the function it serves; for example, wings have evolved and persist because flying is beneficial to birds by increasing their chances of surviving and reproducing. Features of organisms that are explained with teleological hypotheses include structures, such as wings; processes, such as development from egg to adult; and behaviours, such as nest building. A proximate explanation of these features is the function they serve; an ultimate explanation that they all share is their contribution to the reproductive fitness of the organisms. I distinguish several kinds of teleological explanations, such as natural and artificial, as well as bounded and unbounded, some of which but not others apply to biological explanations. (Abstract of “Adaptation and novelty: teleological explanations in evolutionary biology,” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 1999;21(1):3-33.)

The three preceding quotations strike me as long-winded ways of stating a tautology: Everything that survives has characteristics that helped to ensure its survival. What could be more obvious or more trivial?

If there is something deeper at work in the survival of a species — of humans, in particular — I would like to know what it is; specifically:

  • If extinction is what happens when a species happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, that is, when it succumbs to natural cataclysms beyond its control (e.g., asteroid strikes, vast clouds of volcanic ash, rapid climatic shifts), isn’t survival simply what happens when a species happens not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?
  • Or do surviving species somehow “know” that bad times are coming and begin to select characteristics that make them better able to survive the bad times?
  • If survival is a matter of intention for a species, is one to suppose that it was the purpose (end) of extinct species to become extinct?
  • If survival is a matter of intention for homo sapiens, as a species, how is one supposed to interpret humanity’s record of war, genocide, homicide, death by pestilence and famine, death by self-neglect (e.g., alcoholism and nicotine addiction), and so on?

C. Whence the Tautology?

I submit that the urge to find a teleological explanation for evolutionary events — and for “successful” events, in particular — exemplifies two, closely related fallacies: survivorship bias and the anthropic principle (properly, observation selection effects). Philosopher Nick Bostrom reconciles them in “A Primer on the Anthropic Principle“:

[S]uppose you’re a young investor pondering whether to invest your retirement savings in bonds or equity. You are vaguely aware of some studies showing that over sufficiently lengthy periods of time, stocks have, in the past, substantially outperformed bonds (an observation which is often referred to as the “equity premium puzzle”). So you are tempted to put your money into equity. You might want to consider, though, that a selection effect might be at least partly responsible for the apparent superiority of stocks. While it is true that most of the readily available data does favor stocks, this data is mainly from the American and British stock exchanges, which both have continuous records of trading dating back over a century. But is it an accident that the best data comes from these exchanges? Both America and Britain have benefited during this period from stable political systems and steady economic growth. Other countries have not been so lucky. Wars, revolutions, and currency collapses have at times obliterated entire stock exchanges, which is precisely why continuous trading records are not available elsewhere. By looking at only the two greatest success stories, one would risk overestimating the historical performance of stocks. A careful investor would be wise to factor in this consideration when designing her portfolio….

[A] selection effect is introduced by the fact that the instrument you use to collect data ( … preserved trading records) samples only from a proper subset of the target domain. Analogously, there are selection effects that arise not from the limitations of some measuring device but from the fact that all observations require the existence of an appropriately positioned observer. Our data is filtered not only by limitations in our instrumentation but also by the precondition that somebody be there to “have” the data yielded by the instruments (and to build the instruments in the first place).

In other words, Ayala’s “contingent teleology” boils down to “what happened as a result of breeding, random mutation, geophysical processes, and survival of the fittest and/or luckiest, as the  case may be.” The term “natural selection” is inappropriate because — unless there is such a thing as Intelligent Design — no one (or no thing) is selecting anything.

Which brings me to evolutionary zoologist John O. Reiss, who makes the same point in Not by Design: Retiring Darwin’s Watchmaker. A lengthy quotation from pages 4 and 5 of the first chapter of the book is in order:

The teleology implicit in the metaphor of natural selection subtly permeates many of the most basic concepts of evolutionary biology, including, most prominently, the concepts of adaptation and fitness. I believe that this implicit teleology has led to many of the numerous objections to the theory over the years. Moreover, and most importantly, this teleology is entirely unnecessary, and does not contribute anything to our understanding of the evolutionary process; instead, it often makes us think we have explained a phenomenon when we have in fact merely restated the case in different terms.

This book is far from an argument against natural selection, since the process elucidated by Darwin and Wallace is clearly an essential part of evolution. Nevertheless, I believe that many of our conceptions of the role that the process of natural selection plays in evolution (which generally come directly from Darwin’s) are unjustifiable additions to the basic process. These conceptions are often derived not from the mechanism of natural selection but only from the metaphor. Consequently, they partake of the teleology of the metaphor.

The general mode of thinking that I object to goes as follows: “character x plays a useful (‘adaptive’) role in the life of organism y; therefore, character x must have evolved by natural selection for this role.” The definitional equation of adaptations and past natural selection is fairly standard in evolutionary biology today: “a feature is an adaptation for a particular function if it has evolved by natural selection for that function” (Futuyma 2005, 265). When combined with the assumption that useful features or characters are in fact adaptations by this definition, a teleological role for natural selection results. In this role, natural selection is inferred to have directed evolution from an unimproved (poorly adapted) past state toward an improved (well-adapted) present state, merely on the basis that the present state exists and is well adapted.

For example, consider the following passage from Ernst Mayr, one of the founders of the modern synthesis: “Pelagic marine invertebrates have a great diversity of mechanisms by which to stay afloat in the water: gas bubbles, oil droplets, or an enlargement of the body surface. In each case natural selection, which is always opportunistic, made use of that part of the available variation that led most easily to the needed adaptation” (Mayr 1982, 590).We are presented with an image of poor invertebrate larvae sinking to the bottom, desperately in need of some way to stay afloat, only to be saved by the improving force of natural selection. As pointed out by Croizat (1962), among others, this mode of thinking is not only teleological but also Lamarckian: a need gives rise to an organ to fulfill that need.

While the best solution might be to do what Wallace suggested so long ago—to completely extirpate the term natural selection from the lexicon of evolutionary biology—the term is by now too well established to replace. Instead, I would only propose that its use be restricted to those situations that are known to meet the criteria for the mechanism to act. These situations almost always involve current populations under study, general situations, or (possibly) molecular evolution, in contrast to particular historical transformations of phenotypes.

However, none of this discussion is particularly new or original. Many authors have argued against the historical definition of adaptation and function, and the simple equation of present adaptedness and past natural selection. Moreover, current textbooks (e.g., Ridley 2004; Futuyma 2005; Freeman and Herron 2007) are certainly sensitive to the issues involved. I believe that the continued teleological use of the concept of natural selection, in spite of the obvious problems involved, is due primarily to the absence of another evolutionary principle that can be used to interpret patterns of macroevolutionary transformation. Fundamental to my restriction of the term natural selection will be the reintroduction of another principle, related to and often confused with that of natural selection. This principle is founded on the concept of the necessary conditions for an organism’s (or other evolutionary entity’s) continued existence; it states that (by definition) the existence of any organism is contingent on its satisfaction of these conditions. The usefulness of the principle of the conditions for existence was first insisted on more than two hundred years ago by the great comparative anatomist, vertebrate paleontologist, and arch antievolutionist, Georges Cuvier.

I cannot say that the idea of evolutionary teleology is disproved, but I can say that it is a slender reed on which to lean one’s hopes for a natural explanation of “natural rights.” Not only does one have to accept evolutionary teleology in order to accept that “natural explanation,” but one then has to concoct a tenuous chain of causality from evolutionary teleology to its supposed ends to a particular conception of rights.


A. Pro: Evolution Breeds Morality

Attempts to concoct the chain of causality can be found in abundance. Larry Arnhart, a philosopher who blogs at Darwinian Conservatism by Larry Arnhart, is leading proponent of the existence of such a chain. Last July, Arnhart provided the lead essay (“Darwinian [Classical] Liberalism“) for Cato Unbound‘s colloquium on “Darwin and Politics.” Here are relevant portions of Arnhart’s essay:

Darwin saw that social animals are naturally inclined to cooperate with one another for mutual benefit. Human social and moral order arises as an extension of this natural tendency to social cooperation based on kinship, mutuality, and reciprocity. Modern Darwinian study of the evolution of cooperation shows that such cooperation is a positive-sum game….

Darwin’s liberalism combines an Aristotelian ethics of social virtue and a Lockean politics of individual liberty. This is the sort of liberalism that has been recently defended by Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl in their books Liberty and Nature and Norms of Liberty and by Den Uyl in his book The Virtue of Prudence….

To see how Darwinian science supports classical liberalism, we must see how the liberal principles of equal liberty have arisen from the complex interaction of natural desires, cultural traditions, and individual judgments.

If the good is the desirable, then a Darwinian science can help us understand the human good by showing us how our natural desires are rooted in our evolved human nature. In Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I have argued that there are at least 20 natural desires that are universally expressed in all human societies because they have been shaped by genetic evolution as natural propensities of the human species. Human beings generally desire a complete life, parental care, sexual identity, sexual mating, familial bonding, friendship, social status, justice as reciprocity, political rule, courage in war, health, beauty, property, speech, practical habituation, practical reasoning, practical arts, aesthetic pleasure, religious understanding, and intellectual understanding….

Natural desires constrain but do not determine cultural traditions. If I am right about my list of 20 natural desires, this constitutes a universal standard for what is generally good for human beings by nature, and we can judge cultural traditions by how well they conform to these natural desires. So, for example, we can judge the utopian socialist traditions to be a failure, because their attempts to abolish private property and private families have frustrated some of the strongest desires of evolved human nature. We can also judge that political traditions of limited government that channel and check political ambition are adapted for satisfying the natural desire of dominant individuals for political rule, while also satisfying the natural desire of subordinate individuals to be free from exploitation. But cultural traditions like socialism and limited government arise as spontaneous orders of human cultural evolution that are not precisely determined by genetic nature or by individual judgment.

Recognizing that natural desires constrain but do not determine cultural traditions, Darwinian liberalism avoids the mistaken assumption of biological determinism that biology is everything, culture nothing, while also avoiding the mistaken assumption of cultural relativism that culture is everything, biology nothing.

The interaction of human nature and human culture is manifest in the cultivation of moral and intellectual character through the spontaneous order of civil society. Classical liberals believe that while we need the coercive powers of the state to secure those individual rights of liberty that are the conditions for a free society, we need the natural and voluntary associations of civil society to secure the moral order of our social life. The associations within civil society — families, churches, clubs, schools, fraternal societies, business organizations, and so on — allow us to pursue our diverse conceptions of the good life in cooperation with others who share our moral understanding.

Darwin showed how this moral order of civil society arises from the natural and cultural history of the human species. The need of human offspring for prolonged and intensive parental care favors the moral emotions of familial bonding, and thus people tend to cooperate with their kin. The evolutionary advantages of mutual aid favor moral emotions sustaining mutual cooperation. And the benefits of reciprocal exchange favors moral emotions sustaining a sense of reciprocity, because one is more likely to be helped by others if one has helped others in the past and has the reputation for being helpful. “Ultimately,” Darwin concluded, “our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment — originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit.” Recent research in evolutionary psychology has confirmed and deepened this Darwinian understanding of moral order that arises in civil society through the spontaneous order of human action rather than the coercive order of governmental design….

I have argued that Darwinian science is compatible with a classical liberal understanding of how moral order in a free society arises from natural desires, cultural traditions, and individual judgments. But does Darwinism make any unique contribution to liberal thought — something that could not have been derived from the moral and political thought of liberalism without the help of Darwinian science?

Yes, I think it does. Evolution provides a purely naturalistic grounding for liberal thought, so that there is no necessity to appeal to the supernatural. That’s important, because if liberal thought required supernatural beliefs, this might seem to require a coercive enforcement of those supernatural beliefs, which would subvert the individual liberty of conscience.

From Locke’s Two Treatises of Government to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence to Spencer’s Social Statics, liberal thought has justified equal liberty as an expression of the unique dignity that human beings have as created in God’s image. For Locke, our natural desires give rise to natural rights because they have been implanted in us by God, and we are all naturally equal in our rights to life, liberty, and property, because we are all “the Workmanship of one Omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker.” For Jefferson, looking to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” we can hold it to be self-evident “that all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” For Spencer, since God wills human happiness, He also wills that human beings should have equal liberty as the condition for satisfying their desires.

If liberalism requires such religious beliefs, then the liberal doctrine of religious toleration cannot include tolerating atheists. This was Locke’s conclusion, because he warned that denying the existence of God as the Creator of human beings and of the moral law dissolved the moral bonds of human society.

Darwin offered an alternative. In one of his early notebooks, he wrote that “man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity, more humble, and I believe true, to consider him created from animals.” Although scientists and philosophers had long speculated on the possibility of a purely natural evolution of life, Darwin was one of the first thinkers to lay out a rigorous theory of how this could have happened, which included an evolutionary theory of the natural moral sense.

B. Con: Human Nature  Is Too Complex and Contradictory to Support Biologically Determined Rights

For commentary on Arnhart’s propositions, I turn to a review by Steven Wall (at Reason Papers) of Arnhart’s Darwin and Natural Right:

[T]he study of human nature may be important to political philosophy because it reveals or helps us understand what human beings ought to value, or what the good for human beings is?…

…The scientific study of the evolutionary history of mankind can disclose what is good for us and how we ought to treat one another. This was Darwin’s hope, and it is a hope shared by Larry Arnhart in his provocative new book Darwinian Natural Right.

The linchpin of Arnhart’s account is the idea that the good is the desirable. More precisely, the idea is that the good for human beings lies in the fullest satisfaction of their natural desires, where natural desires refer to desires that “are so deeply rooted in human nature that they will manifest themselves in some manner across history in every human society.” Arnhart presents a non-exhaustive list of twenty categories of such desires. The list includes, among others, desires associated with parental care, sexual mating, war, social dominance, friendship, justice, aesthetic pleasure, wealth and religious understanding. As is evident, many of these desires presuppose social interaction….

According to Arnhart, the satisfaction of these natural desires constitutes the good for human beings. He also claims that the satisfaction of these desires provides a normative standard for judging social practices and institutions – for “we can judge societies as better or worse depending on how well they satisfy those natural desires.” Not surprisingly, Arnhart believes that Darwinian biology explains why natural desires are natural. He claims that these desires are based in the physiological mechanisms of the brain and that they have evolved by natural selection over millions of years of human history. Of course, as Arnhart himself acknowledges, these desires will be expressed in different ways by different people in different circumstances. And, as he also points out, natural desires refer to general proclivities. Not every human
being will have every natural desire, but all human societies will contain people who have them….

…Moral judgments are factual claims about the shared moral sentiments of human beings. Moreover, according to Arnhart, Darwinian biology explains why we have the moral sentiments that we have.

…Arnhart proceeds to consider and reject a number of other objections to Darwinian morality. These include the charge that Darwinism denies human beings the freedom that morality presupposes and the charge that Darwinism cannot account for the transcendent religious ground that morality requires. Against the first of these objections, Arnhart contends that the freedom that morality presupposes requires only that human beings have the capacity to make deliberative choices and that Darwinism does not deny that human beings have this capacity. Against the second of these objections, Arnhart contends that Darwinism reveals morality to be a natural phenomenon; and, as such, it is not necessary for it to be grounded in a supernatural reality.

The remainder of Darwinian Natural Right consists of a series of illustrations that purport to show how Darwinian morality can distinguish natural social relationships from those contrary to nature. The illustrations concern the familial bonding of parents and children, the relations between the sexes and the institution of slavery. Arnhart’s views on these matters are fairly traditional. He defends the private family over communistic arrangements for raising children on the grounds that parents have a natural desire to care for their young. He defends monogamous marriage on the grounds it satisfies natural desires for mating and a sexual division of labor. And he rejects female circumcision and slavery because these practices frustrate important natural desires.

The major problem with Arnhart’s argument is that he provides almost no defense of his linchpin idea that the good consists of the satisfaction of natural desires. The closest he comes to offering support for this idea is the claim that “If we find that we are naturally inclined to something or adapted for something, then we believe this helps us to know what is good for us.” This claim is clearly false. Quite frequently, we believe that the satisfaction of a strong desire, even a strong natural desire, will set back rather than advance our good. For example, a man may realize that his desire for multiple sexual partners, if acted upon, will make his life go less well as it will prevent him from having deep personal relations with the one woman he really cares about.

Sensing this difficulty, Arnhart claims at one point that “what is ‘desirable’ for human beings is whatever promotes their human flourishing.”  But this is unhelpful, for he defines human flourishing in terms of the fullest satisfaction of our desires. Thus, for Arnhart, we may have reason to resist a natural desire such as the desire to be sexually promiscuous if we correctly judge that acting on that desire will frustrate our desire to lead a life that achieves the fullest satisfaction of
our desires. Quite clearly, this response will not do. It still leaves us with no explanation for why the mere satisfaction of a desire, natural or not, contributes to our good….

[T]he normative standard that Arnhart appeals to – the standard that holds that social relationships that satisfy our natural desires are morally sound whereas those that frustrate our natural desires are morally suspect – is implausible. This is well illustrated by his discussion of slavery. Arnhart writes that “the practice of slavery has always displayed the fundamental contradiction of treating some human beings as if they were not human.”This is true, but beside the point. For all we know social practices that display fundamental contradictions might satisfy important natural desires. After canvassing the thoughts on the subject of a number of historical writers from Aristotle to Lincoln, Arnhart finally presents an argument that purports to show that slavery is wrong that looks like it might follow from Darwinian morality. The argument is that unlike the relations between parents and children and the relations between men and women, “the coercion of slaves cannot be based on a natural complementarity of desires. The master’s desire to exploit the slave clashes with the slave’s desire to be free from exploitation. Consequently, slavery is contrary to human nature and thus contrary to natural right.” This argument does not work. By parallel reasoning, one could establish that societies that have a social practice of not permitting slavery are also contrary to natural right. One could claim that in free societies the desire of people to be free from exploitation clashes with the desire of people to exploit others. Since Arnhart believes that the desire to exploit others is a natural desire, he cannot believe that in free societies there is a “natural complementarity of desires.”…

…Throughout Darwinian Natural Right [Arnhart] offers naturalistic explanations for a wide range of human behaviors, often comparing them with similar or related behaviors of non-human animals. These explanations may explain how human beings have developed the capacity to do various things. For example, there may be a satisfpng Darwinian explanation for how human beings have developed the capacity for moral reflection. But it is a mistake to think such an explanation can tell us how this capacity ought to be exercised. Like logical or mathematical reasoning, moral reflection is subject to its own standards – standards that are not grasped by attending to the processes that explain how beings
emerged with the capacity to be governed by them.

For an account of the wide range of human behaviors that might be attributed to evolution, I offer excerpts of the late Denis Dutton’s very long review of of Paul H. Rubin’s Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom:

The scene of evolution is the Environment of Evolutionary Adapted-ness, the EEA, essentially the Pleistocene, the whole, long period lasting from 1.6 million years ago up until the shift to the Holocene with the invention of agriculture and large settlements 10,000 years ago. Our present intellectual constitution was achieved by about 50,000 years ago, or 40,000 before the Holocene…. It was in the earlier, much longer period that selective pressures created genetically modern humans….

Our more durable social and political preferences emerged in prehistory, during the 80,000 hunter-gather generations that took us from apes to humans….

…In what follows, I’ll review a few basic components of hunter-gatherer political structures as described by Rubin….

Dominance Hierarchies. The formation of hierarchies, common among animals and found in all primates, is another trait universal in human societies. In the EEA, Rubin surmises, social life was generally orga­nized by so-called dominance or pecking-order principles….

Dominance hierarchies of the Pleistocene did not feature strong coercion from the top of the order, what we might term dictatorship, but required cooperation down the line…. A desire for freedom, then, for relative personal autonomy within the group, is a powerful Pleistocene adapta­tion pitted against extreme coercive hierarchy….

Envy in a zero-sum society. One difference between a hunter-gatherer mentality and understandings needed today involves the nature of hierarchy itself. Hierarchies in the EEA evolved for a zero-sum resource environment: whatever was available was divided according to power or status. Trading in such circumstances is a zero-sum game: every bit of resource one person or family owns is something another family does not own. This default Pleistocene view of a zero-sum economy dogs our thinking today and results for the modern world in two undesirable features. First, we are prone to envy, to feeling dispossessed or cheated by the mere fact that others own what we do not own…. Second, zero-sum thinking…. makes it hard for us easily to understand how trade and investment of capital can increase the sum total of wealth available to all. We are therefore not well adapted to make sense of today’s economic system….

Risk and welfarism. Rubin speculates that in the EEA, resource availability fluctuated unpredictably (owing to weather change, disease, and natural events beyond a group’s control). Skill and hard work could help to meet these threats when they occurred, but individuals still would be “subject to significant variations in income” that could be fatal. Such risks, Rubin argues, predisposed humans to look for ways to insure survival through periods of hardship. An evolved moral prefer­ence for resource sharing is one form of such insurance, one way of handling risk. Societies of families, which is what we were in the EEA, are generally risk-averse….

…[Such] conservatism goes along with two other impulses. The first is our impulse to share as a form of insurance for lean times. The second, intrinsically connected with envy, is our desire to knock down pecking-order hierarchies, to foil the concentration of too much wealth at the top of the order. The first tendency, part of ancestral altruism, is a source of welfare in the modern state, but so is the second, which inclines us to tax the rich: an impulse toward income redistribution for the poor is a deeply Pleistocene adaptation, according to Rubin.

These preferences produce much tension in modern polity….

Untenable libertarianism. Rubin’s summary of the political impulses and preferences of the Pleistocene presents a mixed and contradictory picture. This makes it possible for most political theorists to find inspiration for a favored point of view somewhere in hunter-gatherer psychology. Looking at life in the EEA, fascists and militarists can take heart, and so can Rawlsian egalitarians, Peter Singer socialists, and liberals of either the free-market or welfarist stripe. Still, the big picture for Rubin shows behavioral tendencies that we ignore at our peril. One, for example, is that as practiced in recent U.S. history, affirmative action programs are liable to create social friction and undermine the legitimacy of the state, perhaps outweighing benefits of such programs in the long term….

Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that Rubin is using evolution­ary psychology merely to support his own political predispositions (an antipathy to affirmative action being one of them), we should note what he says about libertarianism. Rubin confesses that libertarianism — the minimal interference by the state in the life of the individual — appeals to him personally: “in a libertarian regime, government would define and protect property rights, enforce contracts, and provide true public goods, but would do nothing else.” That is obviously not what people want, or there would have been more libertarian governments, Rubin says. Libertarianism was not a viable strategy for the EEA. The actions of individuals produce by-products to affect whole communities, and “we have evolved preferences to control these actions.” We are genetically predisposed, it seems, “to interfere in the behavior of others,” even where the behavior has little demonstrable adverse effect on a community…. We are fundamentally meddlesome creatures.

Rubin speculates that this impulse to control our fellows, even in matters that have little or no material effect on living standards or resource allocation, is an adaptation designed to increase group solidarity…. (From “Darwin and Political Theory,” Philosophy and Literature 27 (2003): 241-54.

Dutton is careful to note that much of Rubin’s thesis is speculation. That is not to dismiss Rubin’s thesis, but to recognize that evolutionary psychology is necessarily speculative. So, too, is the notion of teleonomy: “the quality of apparent purposefulness and of goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms that derive from their evolutionary history.” Even more speculative is the idea that teleonomy leads, somehow, to negative “natural rights.”

Rubin’s account (of which there is much more in Dutton’s review) squares so well with the everyday manifestations of human nature that it is presumptively correct about its salient characteristics, if not about the precise evolutionary path of their development. And there is much in human nature that conflicts with negative rights in general (whether or not they are “natural”).

But, really, who needs a treatise on evolutionary psychology to understand the depth of that conflict? All it takes is a quick perusal of a newspaper, a few minutes of exposure to broadcast news, or a drive on a crowded interstate highway.

Thus it seems to me that if negative rights are to hold a place of privilege in human affairs — in opposition to inborn traits such as envy and meddlesomeness — that place can only be the result of agreement, tacit or explicit. Moreover, such an agreement will be honored consistently only in a group whose solidarity has been cemented by other considerations. That is to say, negative rights (in a voluntary setting) are in fact a quid pro quo for behaviors that bond a group in mutual respect, trust, and forbearance.


A. The Explanation

The preceding statement leads me, at last, to an alternative, natural (but not biologically deterministic) explanation of negative rights and their place in the social order. The following observations set the stage for my explanation:

1. “Natural rights” inhere in a particular way; that is, according to Randy Barnett, they “do not proscribe how rights-holders ought to act towards others. Rather they describe how others ought to act towards rights-holders.” In other words, the thing (for want of a better word) that arises from my nature is not a set of negative rights that I own; rather, it is an inclination or imperative to treat others as if they have negative rights. To put it crudely, I am wired to leave others alone as long as they leave me alone; others are wired to leave me alone as long as I leave them alone.

2. The idea of being inclined or compelled to “act toward” is more plausible than idea that “natural rights” inhere in their holders. It is so because “act toward” suggests that we learn that it is a good thing (for us) to leave others alone, and not that we (each of us) has a soul or psyche on which is indelibly inscribed a right to be left alone.

3. That leads to the question of how one learns to leave others alone as he is left alone by them. Is it by virtue of evolution or by virtue of socialization? And if the learning is evolutionary, why does it seem not to be universal; that is, why it is so routinely ignored?

4. The painful truth that vast numbers of human beings — past and present — have not acted and do not act as if there are “natural rights” suggests that the notion of “natural rights” is of little practical consequence. It may sometimes serve as a rallying point for political action, but with mixed results. Consider, for example, the contrast between the American Revolution, with its Declaration of Independence, and the French Revolution, with its Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen.

5. Even if humans are wired to leave others alone as they are left alone, it is evident that they are not wired exclusively in that way.

And now, for my natural (but not biologically deterministic) explanation. It comes from my post, “The Golden Rule and the State“:

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct … nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it.

The Golden Rule implies the acceptance of negative rights as a way of ensuring peaceful (and presumably fruitful) human coexistence. But, as I point out, there is a “positive” side to the Golden rule:

[It] can be expanded into two, complementary sub-rules:

  • Do no harm to others, lest they do harm to you.
  • Be kind and charitable to others, and they will be kind and charitable to you.

The first sub-rule — the negative one — is compatible with the idea of negative rights, but it doesn’t demand them. The second sub-rule — the positive one — doesn’t yield positive rights because it’s a counsel to kindness and charity, not a command….

An ardent individualist — particularly an anarcho-capitalist — might insist that social comity can be based on the negative sub-rule… I doubt it. There’s but a short psychological distance from mean-spiritedness — failing to be kind and charitable — to sociopathy, a preference for harmful acts…. [K]indness and charity are indispensable to the development of mutual trust among people who live in close proximity, without the protective cover of an external agency (e.g., the state). Without mutual trust, mutual restraint becomes problematic and co-existence becomes a matter of “getting the other guy before he gets you” — a convention that I hereby dub the Radioactive Rule.

The Golden Rule is beneficial even where the state affords “protective cover,” because the state cannot be everywhere all the time. The institutions of civil society are essential to harmonious and productive coexistence. Where those institutions are strong, the state’s role (at least with respect to internal order) becomes less important. Conversely, where the state is especially intrusive, it usurps and displaces the institutions of civil society, leading to the breakdown of the Golden Rule, that is, to a kind of vestigial observance that, in the main, extends only to persons joined by social connections.

In sum, the Golden Rule represents a social compromise that reconciles the various natural imperatives of human behavior (envy, combativeness, meddlesomeness, etc.). Even though human beings have truly natural proclivities, those proclivities do not dictate the existence of “natural rights.” They certainly do not dictate “natural rights” that are solely the negative rights of libertarian doctrine. To the extent that negative rights prevail, it is as part and parcel of the “bargain” that is embedded in the Golden Rule; that is, they are honored not because of their innateness in humans but because of their beneficial consequences.

B. The Role of Government

Government, as I suggest above, can provide “protective cover” for persons who try to live by the Golden Rule. This is especially important in a large and diverse political entity because the Golden Rule — as a code of self-governance — is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons: the size of a hunter-gatherer band or Hutterite colony. Why should that be? As I say in “The Golden Rule and the State,”

mutual trust, mutual restraint, and mutual aid — the things implied in the Golden Rule — depend very much on personal connections. A person who is loathe to say a harsh word to an acquaintance, friend, or family member — even when provoked — often waxes abusive toward strangers, especially in this era of e-mail and comment threads, where face-to-face encounters aren’t involved.  More generally, it’s a human tendency to treat acquaintances differently than strangers; the former are accorded more trust, more cooperation, and more kindness than the latter. Why? Because there’s usually a difference between the consequences of behavior that’s directed toward strangers and the consequences of behavior that’s directed toward persons one knows, lives among, and depends upon for restraint, cooperation, and help. The allure of  doing harm without penalty (“getting away with something”) or receiving without giving (“getting something for nothing”)  becomes harder to resist as one’s social distance from others increases.

The problem, of course,

is that those vested with the power of the state quickly learn to use it to advance their own preferences and interests, and to perpetuate their power by granting favors to those who can keep them in office. It is a rare state that is created for the sole purpose of protecting its citizens from one another and from outsiders, and rarer still is the state that remains true to such purposes.

In sum,

the Golden Rule — as a uniting way of life — is quite unlikely to survive the passage of a group from community to state. Nor does the Golden Rule as a uniting way of life have much chance of revival or survival where the state already dominates. The Golden Rule may have limited effect within well-defined groups (e.g., parishes, clubs, urban enclaves, rural communities), by regulating the interactions among the members of such groups. It may have a vestigial effect on face-to-face interactions between stranger and stranger, but that effect arises mainly from the fear that offense or harm will be met with the same, not from a communal bond.

The answer to the problem of social estrangement is not, as some would argue, stronger government. The stronger the government, the more likely it is to erode (further) the bonds of trust and respect from which flow the essential, quotidian observance of negative rights. As Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address,

government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.

From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?

Michael Oakeshott, in his essay “On Being Conservative,” makes the same points, while also explaining why it is unnecessary to erect a regime of liberty on a deep philosophical foundation of the kind proffered by “natural rights” theorists. It should be understood that in the following, long quotation from Oakeshott’s essay, conservatism is an attitude toward life, in general, and the role of government, in particular; it is not a political ideology. Further, American readers should understand the “conservative” preference for the status quo as a retroactive defense of the kind of government envisioned by the framers of the original Constitution, as perfected by the Civil War Amendments. Today’s status quo is nothing less than an accumulation of betrayals of that Constitution, and thus of the kind of government which Oakeshott eloquently explicates.

Now people of this [conservative] disposition commonly defend their belief that the proper attitude of government toward the current condition of human circumstances is one of acceptance by appealing to certain general ideas. They contend that there is absolute value in the free play of human choice, that private property (the emblem of choice) is a natural right, that it is only in the enjoyment of diversity of opinion and activity that true belief and good conduct can be expected to disclose themselves. But I do not think that this disposition requires these or any similar beliefs in order to make it intelligible. Something smaller and less pretentious will do: the observation that this condition of human circumstances is, in fact, current, and that we have learned to enjoy it and how to manage it; that we are not children in statu pupillari but adults who do not consider themselves under any obligation to justify their preference for making their own choices; and that it is beyond human experience to suppose that those who rule are endowed with a superior wisdom which discloses to them a better range of beliefs and activities and which gives them authority to impose upon their subjects a quite different manner of life. In short, if the man of this disposition is asked: Why ought governments to accept th current diversity of opinion and activity in preference to imposing upon their subjects a dream of their own? it is enough from him to reply: Why not? Their dreams are no different from those of anyone else; and if it is boring to have to listen to dreams of others being recounted, it is insufferable to be forced to re-enact them. We tolerate monomaniacs, it is our habit to do so; but why should we be ruled by them? Is it not (the man of conservative disposition asks) an intelligible task for a government to protect its subjects against the nuisance of those who spend their energy and their wealth in the service of some pet indignation, endeavouring to impose it upon everybody, not by suppressing their activities in favor of others of a similar kind, but by setting a limit to the amount of noise anyone may emit?

Nevertheless, if this acceptance is the spring of the conservative’s disposition in respect of government, he does not suppose that the office of government is to do nothing. As he understands it, there is work to be done which can be done only in virtue of a genuine acceptance of current beliefs simply because they are current and current activities simply because they are afoot. And, briefly, the office he attributes to government is to resolve some of the collisions which this variety of beliefs and activities generates; to preserve peace, not by placing an interdict upon choice and upon the diversity that springs from the exercise of preference, not by imposing substantive uniformity, but by enforcing general rules of procedure upon all subjects alike.

Government, then, as the conservative in this matter understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world, but with the observation of the self-government practised even by men of passion in the conduct of their enterprises; it begins in the informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision. Sometimes these adjustments are no more than agreements between two parties to keep out of each other’s way; sometimes they are of wider application and more durable character, such as the International Rules for for the prevention of collisions at sea. In short, the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philososphy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection….

To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manners; sometimes to provide punishent for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to prvide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of ‘the natural depravity of mankind’ but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness. And if there is any general idea entailed in this view, it is, perhaps, that a government which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless; and that while one which (in the old puritan phrase) ‘commands the truth’ is incapable of doing so (because some of its subjects will believe its ‘truth’ to be in error), one which is indifferent to ‘truth’ and ‘error’ alike, and merely pursues peace, presents no obstacle to the necessary loyalty.

…[A]s the conservative understands it, modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them, and should never on any occasion be so great as to destroy the ensemble. Consequently, the conservative will have nothing to do with innovations designed to meet merely hypothetical situations; he will prefer to enforce a rule he has got rather than invent a new one; he will think it appropriate to delay a modification of the rules until it is clear that the change of circumstances it is designe  to reflect has come to stay for a while; he will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes and whose utterances re tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or social justice’, and of Saviours of Society who buckle on armour and seek dragons to slay; he will think it proper to consider the occasion of the innovation with care; in short, he will be disposed to regard politics as an activity in which a valuable set of tools is renovated from time to time and kept in trim rather than as an opportunity for perpetual re-equipment. (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition, pp. 427-31)

Government governs best when it gives “protective cover,” and nothing more.


Sandefur observes in “Teleology without God” that he and I “agree on the qualities of … rights once their existence is granted.” Specifically, we seem to agree that negative rights are the only rights worthy of the name because only negative rights can be held universally. This agreement is shared by almost every person who self-identifies as a libertarian or classical liberal, and certainly by a large fraction of those who prefer the label “conservative.”

Among those of us who agree about the proper scope of rights, should the provenance of those rights matter? I think not. The assertion that there are “natural rights” (“inalienable rights”) makes for resounding rhetoric, but (a) it is often misused in the service of positive rights and (b) it makes no practical difference in a world where power routinely accrues to those who make the something-for-nothing promises of positive rights.

The real challenge for the proponents of negative rights — of liberty, in other words — is to overthrow the regulatory-welfare state’s “soft despotism” and nullify its vast array of positive rights. Libertarians, classical liberals, and libertarian-minded conservatives ought to unite around that effort, rather than divide on the provenance of negative rights.

Having said that, I now disengage from the subject of “natural rights” so that I can spend more time arguing for — and doing my little bit to encourage — the restoration of liberty.


These are some of the many posts at this blog which bear on the origins, nature, suppression, and restoration of negative rights:

On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Parsing Political Philosophy
The Price of Government
Fascism and the Future of America
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
The Commandeered Economy
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Price of Government Redux
Landsburg Is Half-Right
The Mega-Depression
The Unreality of Objectivism
The Real Burden of Government
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Modeling, Science, and Physics Envy
Atheism, Agnosticism, and Science
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Social Justice