Timothy Sandefur

Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Real World

Natural law is about morality, that is, right and wrong. Natural rights are about the duties and obligations that human beings owe to each other. Believers in natural law claim to start with the nature of human beings, then derive from that nature the “laws” of morality. Believers in natural rights claim to start with the nature of human beings, then derive from that nature the inalienable “rights” of human beings.

A natural law would be something like this: It is in the nature of human beings to seek life and to avoid death. A natural right would be something like this: Given that it is natural for human beings to seek life and avoid death, every human being has the right to life.

Maybe. But what about this? It is in the nature of human beings to enjoy sex. Given that it is natural for human beings to enjoy sex, every human being has the right to rape at will. Or not. Following the natural law-natural rights formula, it’s easy deny a natural right to rape at will: It is in the nature of human beings to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. Rape is usually painful to the person being raped. It is therefore a natural right not to be raped.

I daresay that many other contradictory and absurd propositions can be concocted from the natural law-natural rights formula; for example: Dying is often (usually?) painful, psychologically if not physically to the dying person. It is therefore a natural right not to be killed deliberately. But if there is a natural right not to be raped, and if a rapist is shot and mortally wounded by the person who is being raped (perhaps it was her only possible defense), how does that square with the supposed natural right not to be killed deliberately. Or what about the case of a terrorist who is killed just before he can detonate a bomb that would have killed dozens of persons? And so on.

In sum, natural law and natural rights are malleable concepts. Here, for example, is Timothy Sandefur, writing in “Judge Gorsuch’s Natural Law” (reason.com, February 12, 2017):

Natural law is among the oldest philosophical traditions. Some of history’s greatest geniuses, from Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson, devoted their most brilliant arguments to it, often differing about details but agreeing on the broad outlines. Natural law was the basis on which America’s founders wrote the Constitution….

… [E]ven those who embrace natural law, including Justice Clarence Thomas, have their differences. For example, while Thomas and his allies see natural law as a basis for attacking legal protections for abortion and euthanasia—because they contradict the sanctity of life—others believe that natural law theory actually supports these rights, because it prioritizes individual autonomy.

It seems that Sandefur is in favor of the right to an abortion, as a matter of individual autonomy. He is clearly critical of what he sees as Judge Gorsuch’s “circumscribed view of individual choice,” and “Gorsuch’s ultimate conclusion that government can bar people from doing things it deems evil—just because—without actually violating their freedom of choice.” So in Sandefur’s parsing of the natural law-natural rights formula, individual autonomy overrules a (qualified) natural right: the right to life.

What puts individual autonomy on a higher plane than life, or — to be precise — the life of a fetus? Sandefur is a clever lawyer, so I’m sure that he has a clever explanation. But I’m unable to access it because of a dead-end link in his blog. Speculation is in order.

If individual autonomy trumps the right to life there must be a natural law-natural right argument that makes it so. Something like this, perhaps:

It is in the nature of human beings that they own themselves and are not the property of others.

Human beings therefore have a natural right to reject man-made (positive) laws that dictate what they can do with their own bodies.

Among many things, this natural right encompasses suicide, drug use, consenting sexual acts of any kind, and abortion.

There are, of course, arguments against suicide, drug use, and unrestricted sexual acts. The arguments are “social”; that is, they appeal to the effects of such acts on other persons, and the ways in which such acts violate the natural rights of other persons. Only an extreme individualist (extreme libertarian) will reject such arguments by proclaiming the superiority of individual autonomy over other considerations. I wonder how those extreme individualists cope with the prospect of euthanasia in the guise of physician-assisted suicide, an epidemic resulting from widespread rejection of vaccinations, or the dire effects of inbreeding.

Is there a natural-rights argument against abortion? The basic one — the right to life — is sidestepped by arguments like these:

A fetus may be a human being but it isn’t yet a person.

A fetus is part of another human being, and not an independent being. The other human being (the mother) may therefore exercise her natural right to rid herself of an encumbrance.

The “personhood” argument is legalistic, at best, because personhood is an abstraction, not a physical fact. A human being is created at the moment of conception. It may be a rudimentary human being, but it is one nevertheless. And it has the potential to become a fully formed human being. In fact, it becomes one before birth. Is it then also a person? Why not, if a new-born baby is a person? But perhaps a baby doesn’t become a person until it vocalizes, or seems to recognize a face, or demands food. Arbitrary, as I say, and therefore unconvincing.

Which is why the “encumbrance” argument is usually deployed, though more euphemistically, in the form of slogans like “reproductive rights” and “a woman’s right to control her own body.” It boils down to the “right to choose,” whence “pro-choice” — meaning pro-abortion.

But this merely sidesteps the basic issue: Is there a natural right to life, or is there not? And if there is, infanticide is surely a violation of that right. So if a human being has a right to life as a new-born infant — which most pro-abortionists will concede — why doesn’t the same human being have the right to life just before he is born; or while he is “viable,” because he could be born prematurely and (probably) survive; or before he is viable but would become so were it not for the intervention of an abortionist?

Now, we’re down to line-drawing and can dispense with the fiction that there’s a natural-rights argument for abortion. In fact, line-drawing is a concession to the natural-rights argument against abortion. If you’re pro-life, you don’t draw a line. It’s those who wish to defend abortion who will argue about where to draw the line. But if there were a real natural-rights argument for abortion, there wouldn’t be a line. There would be a natural right to kill a defenseless, non-aggressive human being, whether it’s called abortion, partial-birth abortion, infanticide, or just plain murder.

As I said, natural law and natural rights are malleable concepts. They can be tortured into yielding almost any interpretation that supports the preferences of the torturer. Or, as Sandefur puts it, “differing about details but agreeing on the broad outlines.” But the devil is in the details.

An extension of natural law is that human beings not only seek to live, but also seek to flourish. (Sandefur likes that extension.) A natural right that fosters flourishing is the right to own property, to use it as a means to the end of flourishing, and to enjoy the use of the property itself, as an aspect of flourishing. Socialism denies or severely limits the right to own property, thus depriving some persons of the ability to flourish as fully as they could in order to underwrite the flourishing of other persons. Socialists — and do-gooders, generally — set themselves up as arbiters of flourishing: Some persons must flourish less so that others may flourish more. As skilled accountants of the soul, they know precisely where to draw the line — just like pro-abortionists (which most of them probably are).

There are those persons — like me — who don’t accept the broad outlines of natural law and natural rights. Jazz Shaw says this in “On the Truth of Man’s Rights Under Natural Law” (Hot Air, March 29, 2015):

Certainly … “natural rights” are things that most rational, decent people could agree upon as things that would be wonderful indeed. But if we are to accept that, then how do you deny someone else claiming a “right” which you don’t support? What of the liberal who claims they have a God given right to health care? Or even the right not to be offended by the speech of others? I can find you a library of examples of both with only a few moments on Google. Some of these same folks regularly point to the General Welfare clause and insist that this means they have a God given right to social security and any other number of safety net items. Are they right? Or are they misinterpreting the words of the founders? Oh, my… now we have another debate on our hands….

If we wish to define the “rights” of man in this world, they are – in only the most general sense – the rights which groups of us agree to and work constantly to enforce as a society. And even that is weak tea in terms of definitions because it is so easy for those “rights” to be thwarted by malefactors. To get to the true definition of rights, I drill down even further. Your rights are precisely what you can seize and hold for yourself by strength of arm or force of wit. Anything beyond that is a desirable goal, but most certainly not a right and it is obviously not permanent.


Where does that leave me? Try these on for size:
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
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
The Futile Search for “Natural Rights”

The Futile Search for “Natural Rights”

Timothy Sandefur has begun a guest-blogging stint at The Volokh Conspiracy, whence he will regale us with theses from his book, The Conscience of the Constitution: The Declaration of Independence and the Right to Liberty. Sandefur’s first post is “The Conscience of the Constitution: An Introduction.” In it, he writes:

The theme of my book is that the clash of these two conceptions of liberty—the right of the individual to be free, and the alleged right of some people to tell others how they may live—sets the background for understanding many of the most important conflicts in constitutional law. I argue that the central value of the U.S. Constitution is to protect individual liberty—the “sheep’s view” of freedom—and not, as the consensus of today’s lawyers, judges, and law professors seems to hold, the “wolfish” notion that people have a basic right to control the lives of others. I argue that the primacy of liberty was the basic premise of the classical liberalism that lies at the foundation of American constitutional system—that is articulated in the Declaration of Independence—and that ought to guide our interpretation of the nation’s fundamental law. I call this the “conscience” of the Constitution.’

The American founders held that people are inherently free—that is, no person has a basic entitlement to dictate how other people may lead their lives. Although today it’s common for intellectuals to dismiss the notion of natural rights as mysticism or emotionalism, it is actually a sound philosophical position. People are “created equal” in the sense that they possess their own selves (and can’t give them up; hence “inalienability”). Given that initial position of individual freedom, there must be some good reason for limiting freedom.

Let’s start with the easy part: the first sentence of the second-quoted paragraph. Did the founders really hold that people are inherently free? All founders, including slave owners? All people, including slaves? Or did the founders simply want to relocate the seat of power from London to the various State capitals, where local preferences (including anti-libertarian ones) could prevail? Wasn’t that what the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation were mainly about? The Constitution simply moved some of the States’ power toward the national capital, and then mainly to establish uniformity in the conduct of foreign policy and war-making, to eliminate intra-State trade barriers, and to establish a uniform policy with respect to international trade.

On the whole, the original Constitution as amended quickly by the Bill of Rights was largely a “States’ rights” document. Certain individual rights were recognized by the central government, but it was left to the powers-that-be in each State to decide where to draw the line between individual rights and governmental powers. (As an aside I note that the Constitution remained a States’ rights document until the ratification of Amendment XIV. And then, over the decades — and through a combination of legislative, executive, and judicial actions — it became a central-government-powers document, from which much anti-libertarian mischief has emanated.)

In sum, Sandefur’s premise is wrong. The Declaration and Constitution are not libertarian manifestos — as Sandefur, in effect, characterizes them. Despite the rhetoric about “We the People,” “inalienable rights,” “liberty,” and the rest of it, the Declaration and Constitution are about who governs, and about the division of rights and powers between “the people” and government..

The essential problem with Sandefur’s analysis lies in his Manichean approach to rights. In his view, they are either inherent in individual persons or they are granted by government. (He denies the second possibility, of course.) There is a third way, which doesn’t figure in Sandefur’s post (though perhaps he addresses it in the book). The third way is hinted at in the paper by Randy Barnett, “A Law Professor’s Guide to Natural Law and Natural Rights,” to which Sandefur links: “natural rights…. describe how others ought to act towards rights-holders.”

In other words, the thing (for want of a better word) that arises from human nature is not a set of rights that each person “owns”; rather, it is an inclination or imperative to treat others as if they have rights. This 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 (most of us) learn that it is a good thing to leave others alone as long as they do no harm to us or mean no harm to us. That is a much more plausible explanation of rights than the claim that rights inhere in individuals as rights-holders.

Given the more plausible view that rights are a matter of “acting toward” others, it should be evident — to all but romanticists of Sandefur’s ilk — that rights are not a priori (“inherent”) but arise from interpersonal bargaining (at best) and governmental edicts (at worst). It cannot be otherwise, for even if human beings are wired to leave others alone as they are left alone, it is evident that they are not wired exclusively in that way. Thus claims about “natural rights” are not only foolish but futile. Rights, inescapably, are a matter of persuasion (at best) and power (at worst, unless the power happens to be on the “right” side).

That said, as Sandefur observes in “Teleology without God,” 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.

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 something-for-nothing promises of positive rights.

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Note: Much of the foregoing is borrowed from “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’,” my last entry in an exchange of posts with Sandefur on the subject of rights. He has not, as far as I know, issued a rejoinder.

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Related posts:

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
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Unreality of Objectivism
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Atheism, Agnosticism, and Science
Line-Drawing and Liberty
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
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
Nature Is Unfair
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Why Conservatism Works
The Pool of Liberty and “Me” Libertarianism
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
“We the People” and Big Government
The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”

Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism

A note to readers who arrive here from Timothy Sandefur’s “Some Odd Confusion about Natural Rights.” I followed up with “What Are ‘Natural Rights’?” Sandefur’s comments on that post appeared in his “Teleology without God.” I responded to that post with “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’.” See also my followup, “What Are ‘Natural Rights’?

Orin Kerr, in “One More Round with Tim Sandefur,” waxes plaintive about an exchange with Timothy (not Tim) Sandefur:

Tim[othy] Sandefur has responded to my post below.

To be candid, I find Sandefur’s response perplexing. He seems to want to wage epic battles over natural law versus positivism, with him as the champion of natural law and me as the evil positivist. But the questions we were discussing have nothing to do with natural law or positivism. When I was explaining what the cases say, I wasn’t saying that I think the cases are right, are true, reflect God’s will, or anything like that. I wasn’t staking out any jurisprudential ground at all. I was just saying that’s what the cases say, for those who happen to care about such things. If you want to have a theory of the True Constitution that makes caselaw irrelevant, that’s great: Just say that you think the cases are irrelevant and move on. I won’t object.

I, too, have been on the receiving end of a Sandefur tirade about my supposed “positivism.” As far as I can tell, what he means is that the “positivist” in question doesn’t share his Objectivist set of priors.

One of those priors seems to be the pre-existence of “natual rights,” as they are defined by Sandefur or some Objectivist guru, of course. Those rights are “natural” because they don’t come from anywhere, they “just are” (like Original Sin, I suppose).

This kind of Platonic mysticism seems out of character for a loudly self-proclaimed atheist like Sandefur. (A link to The Out Campaign — some kind of atheist, not homosexual, support organization is posted at the top of his sidebar.) If there is no God (or the functional equivalent thereof), then where do those pre-existing rights come from? Perhaps they were created spontaneously at the moment of the Big Bang, but can be perceived only by persons equipped with the proper antennae.

And by what grace does Sandefur know a true “natural right” from the plethora of privileges listed as rights in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which seems to be popular on the left? Unless you want to admit that your views are based on religious morality (and I’m sure that Sandefur doesn’t), then you have to start with something other than mysticism.

A good place to start is with the axiomatic 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. (Of course, at that point you’ve lost the bleeding hearts and jingos, who want to make exceptions in the name of the “truly deserving” and “national pride.”)

Then comes the hard part. You must haggle about things like the necessity of law-enforcement and defense forces, and what they should be allowed to do, and how they should be paid for. And the extent to which government should override social custom, if at all, in an effort to ensure negative rights. And all the while, you are fending off the bleeding hearts and jingos, not to mention the pseudo-libertarians who believe that liberty is something that “just happens” without the expenditure of blood, sweat, and tears.

And then you come to the question of open borders. Which, some would say, must be a good thing, because all God’s children have negative rights. Or do they? Negative rights cannot be be honored except through mutual recognition backed by strong enforcement. Therefore, it is eminently reasonable to say that a regime that honors negative rights can enforce them only for those persons who are bound to honor that regime and help pay for its defense. (The implication of this statement for the rightful home of leftist peaceniks I defer to a future post.)

After all of that, I am left with the strong feeling that there is nothing natural about “natural rights,” and a lot that is natural about the messy process of defining and securing rights.

Perhaps Sandefur will deign to address these matters in the comment thread for Kerr’s post, inasmuch as his blog seems closed to comments. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s a matter of personal preference; perhaps even a “natural right.” It’s a right of which I avail myself, being of the view that my blog is like my house, and I’m very picky about who enters it.

Related posts:
Parsing Political Philosophy
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
The Devolution of American Politics from Wisdom to Opportunism
Goodbye, Mr. Pitts
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Unreality of Objectivism
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
The Left
More about Consequentialism
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism