The Only Natural Right

In various guises and in various forums I’ve had numerous discussions about political and human rights over the years.   It is one of those inherently contestable concepts: are there fundamental transcendent human rights that all people have, or are rights there because we assert them, either as an individual or through a government?

I would argue that only one natural human right exists:  An individual has a right to do whatever he or she wants, constrained only by ones’ capabilities, conditions, and the consequences of acting.

There is no way to prove that any rights exist beyond that one.   What we have beyond that ought statements.

Those asserting the existence of rights (e.g., the right to be free and not the property of another human) are not positing actual transcendent rights in nature.  Obviously, throughout history, humans have been treated as property.  There is nothing in our nature which prevents that, slavery is probably as old as human history.   Instead, we believe an ought statement: humans should not deny the freedom of others by holding them as property.

This right was created by humans, overturning millennia of what was seen as normal human behavior.   The same is true about equal rights for women and notions of private property.

Recognizing these rights as social constructs — things we humans have created because we have developed ethical/moral belief systems requiring such rights — does not denigrate them.    One gets the impression that if rights are constructed they don’t really exist.  The reality is that if rights are not constructed, then they only exist if someone asserts them.    Often people aren’t strong enough to assert such a right, so the slave remains a slave.   When we have constructed a strong set of rights, we should be proud of the accomplishment.  These are our rights, we built them!

People who assert one true set of “natural rights” can be viewed as trying to stack the deck in their favor.   You see, if you assert some rights as the only “true” rights, then you do not have to delve into the complex themes, unclear causality and different world views that exist.  You simply proclaim yourself right, defend that proclamation, and see those who hold different views as wrong.   Instead of conversation about what ought statements are worthy of codifying as a right, it becomes akin to holy war.   Yet I defy anyone to prove any right exists beyond the one natural right I list above (and I invite anyone to disprove the existence of that one right).    Rights don’t exist without being constructed or asserted.

OK, but what about the ought statement.  Is there a way to determine the truth of a particular ought statement vs. another?   Yes, but no definitive way.   Depending on core assumptions and philosophical values, you may end up saying universal health care ought to be a right, or you may end up saying taxation of any sorts violates human rights and ought not exist.

Therein lies the beauty of our capacity to construct rights.  We have the ability to reflect on history, explore different arguments and ideologies, and even test them out.    If there somehow is one correct list of ought statements defining what human rights should be respected, we’ll no doubt learn that through the course of history — acting, learning our capabilities, understanding the consequences of action.  But it could be that there are so many varied ways of acting or experiencing consequences of the same actions that there is no one clear set of proper ought statements.

Historically, humans have seemed to need a veneer of authority to put forth moral ideas.  It had to come from God, or the King.  The idea we are free to construct moral codes probably scared people.   Well, it is scary.  That freedom to construct moral codes is one reason we’ve had so much bloodshed, warfare, holocausts and horror in our history.  One can understand someone wanting an authority to just banish all that bad stuff with a set of rights or moral laws that we all follow.   But clearly, that hasn’t work.  Why not take responsibility for the world we create, and the moral codes and systems of rights we assert and construct?  Isn’t that taking on more freedom and leaving less to authoritative fiat?

We’re human.  We are in nature free to act as we want, limited only by our capabilities, conditions, and the consequences of our actions.   So let’s understand our capacities and limits, reflect on our conditions, and study the consequences of action.   Only then can we make a more informed choice in how to construct rights and moral codes.  Also, let’s recognize that empathy is important.   An ideology might cause a pro-free market person to rationalize the sweat shop life style of a third world worker, or might cause a committed communist to rationalize sending people to the Gulag.  But if you really understand the life conditions of that worker, or life in the Gulag, then empathy about the conditions within which people can find themselves might help us construct our world.

Lastly, I think focusing on a small number of broadly defined rights (life, liberty and property, for example) can be misleading.  Those things are so broad, and their nature changes in context.  Does the Nazi well owner of the right to refuse water to a Jewish man dying of thirst?   Perhaps ideas of rights need to be connected more with context.  We do it already.   War is murder, but in a different context.   The context changes the act, the context changes what is regarded as a right.

So arguments about “is there a right to health care” or “is there a right to own guns” are literally non-sensical if one thinks about broad transcendent rights.  They only make sense as ought statements (should we construct a right to health care or not — what are the conditions and what will be the consequences of such a construction) or as statements reflecting already constructed systems of rights (does the 2nd amendment guarantee the right to have any sort of firearm one wants?)

People want to look to God, ideology, or some philosophical system for a way to assert their perspective with a veneer of objective authority.  I think that’s an illusion.   We’re free to construct worlds, and we can’t do it alone.  That’s why individuals can only exist as part of a society — even hermits act and think on the basis of how they were socialized — individuals in pure isolation in their formative years die.    Individuals and societies co-exist in a symbiotic relationship, and constructing moral codes and systems of rights define how that is done.   Because of our one natural right we are world builders.

  1. #1 by Jeff Lees on July 21, 2010 - 00:52

    Why not abandon God, ideology and moral codes? God is just an arbitrary patriarchal deity with which completely arbitrary (and man made) moral codes arise from. Moral codes are nothing but a barometer of social behavior, and ideologies are nothing more then simplistic world views. Why not rely on empathy and understanding. Ideology and morality have been the instruments of social conformity, and the instigator of man’s worst atrocities, let’s abandon them. They only stand between us and our natural reliance on human empathy to judge how we should act. Why do we rely on a book written 2000 years ago to govern our behavior, and why do we rely on the exact diction of a 230 year old document to govern the policies that affect 300 million Americans? We are told these document are moral, and therefor we use them to justify a prejudicial social hierarchy and human mistreatment. With morality, the question is always “can we” and never “ought we,” and that is wrong.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on July 21, 2010 - 01:45

      The God hypothesis is unfalsifiable, so therefore outside of testing. If people wish to act in the world on the basis of a belief in God, then that’s their free choice. And, of course, humans want something to believe — they quickly go from religious beliefs to ideologies that are often just as dogmatic. I’d prefer to say “let’s disagree on these things, but converse about what kind of world we want, and see where we agree.”

      Do you really want to abandon moral codes? I mean, a lot of them are petty or irrational, but moral codes also lead to condemnation of genocide, murder, rape, and other things almost every culture considers bad.

      • #3 by Jeff Lees on July 21, 2010 - 02:39

        Why do I need a moral code to condem genocide? I would say our moral codes in the west keep us from preventing genocide (and throughout history, have been our justification for genocide). Empathy is a perfect tool for rejecting genocide and actually acting to prevent it.

  2. #4 by renaissanceguy on July 21, 2010 - 01:05

    There is a lot to chew on here. My general observation is that you and I are miles apart in the way that we see the world and human nature.

    You wrote that the only natural right is: “An individual has a right to do whatever he or she wants, constrained only by ones’ capabilities, conditions, and the consequences of acting.” Doesn’t it logically follow then, that nobody else has the right to stop me from doing what I want? If not, then I suppose you consider it one of the “conditions” whether somebody else is prohibiting or permitting the individual in question from doing what he wants. Then you have to deduce by what right or authority a person can restrain some other person from doing whatever they want.

    I think that you are presenting a false dichotomy between what is a “right” and what “ought” to be. It is not a conincidnece that the same word right is used to mean “something a person is entitled to” as well as “correct, true” and “morally valid.” People ought to be free from slavery; therefore, they have the right to be free.

    You wrote, “People want to look to God, ideology, or some philosophical system for a way to assert their perspective with a veneer of objective authority.”

    Actually, that’s a presumption on your part. Those people would say, for instance, that God revealed a certain moral code to us; not the ohter way around. Or, in the other instance, that objective truths that we discover by reason make up our philosophy or ideology and not the other way around.

    In fact, I cannot imagine somebody saying, “I think that I will become [for example] a Communist and just think whatever Communism says I should think.” Rather a person finds principles in Communism (or whatever) that resonate with him or her, that seem objectively true, and so that person ends up identifying himself or herself as a Communist or ends up embracing Communism as a system. It’s not the ohter way around.

    There’s more, but that’s enough for now.

    • #5 by Scott Erb on July 21, 2010 - 02:00

      The existence of others is a condition, and impacts the consequence. Others can try to prevent you from acting as you wish (and your resistance is a condition they may encounter). Therein lies the reason humans need to build ethical codes — our destinies and wills collide, and absent an ethical framework the strong will simply dominate the weak.

      I make the distinction between “rights” and “ought statements” in order to untangle what is meant by natural. I want to limit natural to those things which exist in nature regardless of human volition. The law of gravity is natural, you can’t go against it. You can, however, enslave humans. Therefore ought statements are disconnected from anything necessitated by nature, and I would prefer humans take responsibility for their ethics.

      I think people generally choose their beliefs and ideologies from emotion more than reason. You suggest so yourself, something “resonates.” People tend to look for evidence to support what they feel to be true. I also think it’s malleable — the same person might choose socialism or libertarianism depending on what they run across first — a persuasive political experience, a powerful book, a girlfriend who has a particular belief. As I get older I find myself relying less and less on ideology or belief since those things so easily mislead — you can always find ways to interpret reality through any ideological prism. Rather, I prefer to compare different interpretations, look at real world information (the conditions and consequences of actions) and progress pragmatically.

      Deep down, I suspect there is a kind of spiritual truth that guides us and underlies ethics — harkening back to Plotinus, I think it may be that all that exists is “the One” and we are aspects of that. My own ethics come from a belief that we are all connected at a very deep level, and the good and evil in the world reflects something we are all capable of, and in fact exist in our own minds at some level. Yet, that’s my own personal trying to work through what reality is all about, and there is no way I’d try to convince others that was “right.” I know that can’t be proven, and I know very acutely that I am more likely wrong in most of those beliefs than right. So I try to have (and hope others of all ideologies and faiths have) a kind of modesty — “here’s what I believe, I may be wrong, so I won’t judge your beliefs (though I may judge your actions) and hope we can work through things.”

  3. #6 by Scott Erb on July 21, 2010 - 03:48

    Empathy isn’t enough. Empathy needs to be translated into some kind of ought statement or set of rules and norms. I can empathize with genocide victims, but that doesn’t create international law or set in place cultural norms that yield real results. By moral code I mean some set of principles which guide rule making and interpretation. Empathy can be the basis for those principles (I think it should be), but you still need the construction of some type of ethical system that can be communicated and understood.

    • #7 by Jeff Lees on July 21, 2010 - 04:20

      While I would like to say something alongs the lines of “there would be no genocide in the first place if we all had empathy for our fellow man,” but I recognize that I am slipping farther into the abstract. I will say that when it comes to things like deciding whether to intervene in a genocide or not, we should be focused on the question of whether we ought to, not whether we can under “law.” The problem is that our entire civilization is built on a rejection of empathy. In no really scenario will the “ought” question be the only consideration. There are “political and economic,” considerations too. Then of course there is the militaries propensity to kill civilians, and war profiteers/PMC’s to consider, and a million other political and economic considerations that serve no other purpose then to keep the ruling elite from maintaining their status and keeping them from doing what ought to be done. Again this is all in the realm of fantasy. There is no real expectation (in my mind) that some day we will abandon our selfish and egotistical culture, that we will abandon our prejudicial and hierarchical economic system, and that we as a nation or as a species will transcend all these traits that have defined our history.

      • #8 by Scott Erb on July 21, 2010 - 13:25

        True — when the President suggested an obvious fact — that a Supreme Court justice should have empathy, people ridiculed empathy. There needs to be a balance. Reason alone can’t lead to truth because it can’t determine the right core assumptions and interpretations — the mind can build a myriad of equally effective interpretations of reality. Emotion and empathy alone can’t lead to reason, because subjective emotion can deceive. Only by finding a way to combine the two can we understand. I have a sudden urge now to pull out my old Rush album, “Hemispheres” and listen to the title track…

  4. #9 by renaissanceguy on July 21, 2010 - 04:22

    Scott, I think that you conflate ethics and law.

    It is legal systems that dictate what people are permitted to do and prohibited from doing. An ethical system functions outside of and above the law and hopefully is the basis of a legal system.

    That is what permits us to say that a particular law is unethical and what even makes it right for people to disobey some laws.

    At one time slavery was legal, but it was never ethical. Or do you really believe that it was ethical when people said it was ethical and unethical when people said that it wasn’t? What if a lot of people said that it was ethical to beat up Scott Erb? Would that make it ethical?

    Did slavery in America become unethical simply because the side who opposed it happened to win the War Between the States? Or do you really think it is impossible to make an objective evaluation of which side was right in regard to slavery?


    I’ve said it before. You have an ideology. Everything you wrote here is the expression of your ideology. How can you claim otherwise?

    Saying that you care more about pragmatism than ideology is an ideology. In fact, most ideologues consider their ideology to be pragmatic.

    • #10 by Scott Erb on July 21, 2010 - 12:33

      The fact we consider slavery unethical in the past is irrelevant to that era. They did not consider it unethical. The slaves may have, but they didn’t have power. It isn’t until we socially construct a set of ethical norms that become culturally accepted (not necessarily legal systems, they can be social norms — I’d argue social norms are stronger than legal rules) that slavery gets considered unethical in real terms.

      People can believe slavery unethical, and act to construct those norms — that’s the action that matters, often meaning people have to go against deeply held religious and cultural norms. I think the exploitation of the very poor in much of the world through wage slavery is not that much different than past slavery, even though they are nominally “free.” I work to construct a system that reflects those norms, others work against it. I’m just saying we’re free to determine how we make those judgments, given the limitations on epistemology we can’t “know” for sure if there is a true “right” ethical code (I suspect there are numerous ones that could work equally well), but that’s OK — that’s part of the challenge of living this life, to act on values in the face of uncertainty.

      Everyone has beliefs, but not necessarily an “ideology.” My belief system does not correspond to an objective set of principles that create a coherent and clear world view with which I interpret reality. I consider such efforts to foster delusions. Therefore I consider different perspectives on all questions, and go with what I judge correctly, driven as much by empathy and sentiment as efforts to objectively analyze or use rational calculation.

  5. #11 by renaissanceguy on July 21, 2010 - 21:29

    Scott, then you have invented a new ideology–Erbism.

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