Jeremy Bentham, the rationalist British utilitarian philosopher, scoffed at the notion of natural rights. “Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, nonsense on stilts.”
He has a point. People like to posit “ought” statements as having some kind of ontological status beyond that which ones’ own biases and beliefs provide. To say “you shouldn’t kill because I think killing is bad and a lot of others agree with me and will punish you” is less persuasive than “you shouldn’t kill because nature (or God) says its wrong.”
Nature says no such thing. Nature does not care a wit if you kill, steal, lie, cheat, or jump to your death from a high cliff. Humans are born into the world with one “natural right” only: you are free to do whatever you want to do, limited only by your capacity to act (abilities and constraints) and the consequences of your action. Everything else is fine with nature.
Rights like “life, liberty and property” are things we humans construct for various reasons. For John Locke it was to give the rising middle class a way to challenge the aristocracy and set limits on government. For libertarians it’s a convenient way to rationalize views on politics skeptical of government. But make no mistake – those rights don’t exist in nature.
They can’t. They are based on human concepts and definitions, all of which are constrained by context and linguistic sloppiness. Context means simply that the same ‘concept’ has different meanings depending on what the situation is. One might posit a nice rational focused definition of theft: taking from someone something that belongs to that other person. But whether you’re stealing from a man who otherwise doesn’t have enough to feed his family or taking food from a rich Nazi to save a Jews’ life changes the essential nature of the act.
This leads to the first “bullshit” aspect of claims of natural rights – the idea one can define a right abstractly and ignore how context shifts the essential meaning of and nature of any act.
Now, I don’t swear much – either in print or in speech – so let me define bullshit here. Bullshit is an absurd and arbitrary claim that rests on fancy sounding rationalizations and justifications put forth sometimes with righteous indignation. You can usually tell “bullshit” arguments by how they are defended. For instance, deny natural rights and many will respond in an appeal to emotion, or appeal to public opinion: “Oh, really, you say you don’t have a natural right to your property — if someone comes and tries to take it, will you just say ‘oh, I have no right, so you can take it.”
Such an illogical argument is absurd on its face — just because a right isn’t natural doesn’t mean I won’t assert my own claims and defend them. I just don’t appeal to some kind of mystical natural justification. I won’t defend my property because of some natural right, I’ll defend it because I’m not going to let people take my stuff! I don’t need any fancy justification for that. Moreover, saying there is no natural right to “life” does not mean one thinks murder is OK. It just means we see those “rights” as humanly constructed, and often for good reason. The ‘argumentum ad populum” bit seems persausive because that’s the reason we constructed those rights — most of us think they should exist. Whether nature provides them is irrelevant.
The most common bullshit way to try to argue against context is the use of a vague definitional justifier. “You shouldn’t take life unjustly.” ‘Unjustly’ is a magic word here, meaning ‘anything contextual that I arbitrarily define as just killing can be dismissed.” Unjustly can be defined by other similar abstract efforts to delimit a term, creating confusing complexity that hides the underlying bullshit upon which such an argument stands. Words like ‘valid, just, legitimate, etc.’ are like big neon signs saying “bullshit alert!” It’s all fancy ways people try to make it sound like their opinions represent not just their own particular take on reality, but some deeper truth that they have uncovered thanks to their superior intellect and moral integrity.
This is not to say that John Locke is completely wrong (though his view on epistemology has also been brushed aside into the ash heep of history). Rather, he just had too much residual scholasticism in his way of thinking. Instead of debating how many crystal spheres make up the heavens, now there is an effort to trace human rights – or ‘ought’ statements – to the nature of reality — or for Locke the nature of British reality in the 1600s.
The point is not that the rights posited as natural are to be ignored or thrown out — on the contrary, I believe most of them should be put forth as rights to be defended and protected at all costs! Not because we have discovered them in nature but because as thinking humans we have decided we believe putting forth those rights is good for society and reflects what we value. And if lots of other people value them, then all the better. They don’t need to be from nature, being from humans is good enough.
The problem with the “from nature” argument is that people with different views try to use that as a way to dismiss all other perspectives and rationalize not doing the hard work of actually making arguments and defending their beliefs. “It’s nature, yada yada yada,” hands over the ears.
The other problem is that we shouldn’t see it as a cheapening of rights to take credit for them as human constructs. Heck, we’ve constructed all sorts of things, nature didn’t give me this computer or a Boeing 747. We built them, using the raw materials of nature. Using the raw materials of human existence in a social context we’ve constructed systems of rights. Let’s be proud of them as our creation, not some kind of gift from nature! This also makes it easier to deal with context, we’re not trying to impose as perfectly as possible an abstract rational dogmatic ideology — we’re deciding how we want our world to operate. We can choose the terms, limits and contextual impact.
Those who point to nature as the source often claim they support liberty, but what can be more limiting of human freedom than to say we’re not free to construct our own systems of rights? Why should I slavishly devote myself to some set of rights “from nature” rather than use my imagination to develop what I think should be considered rights, and then work with others to persuade them and actualize those rights? The only reason anybody would want to limit that freedom is authoritarian- they want to impose their view of rights on everyone. The imposition may be intellectual rather than political, but such dogmatism is inherently anti-intellectual.
So do we have rights to life, liberty, property and a host of other human rights that most of us view fundamental? To the extent we’ve built political systems to protect these rights we have them; to the extent we believe those rights should exist we are free to act politically to build them!