Three Principles of Natural Rights

There has been a lot of discussion recently about rights and while I love that people are acknowledging there’s such a thing as rights, I’m also disheartened that it’s clear people have absolutely no logical concept of what they are. For instance, when people demand people respect for gay rights, or claim they have a right to health care, or scream for “more rights from the government!”, it seems people are just conflating rights and wants—whatever I want is a right and society must provide! This is a horrifically arbitrary view of rights and whenever there’s a great deal of importance placed on the topic, it’s bound to devolve into a violent, might-makes-right melee.

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Dictionary.com defines right as “a just claim or title, whether legal, prescriptive, or moral.” But that doesn’t really clear things up—it just raises the question of what a just claim is.

St. Thomas Aquinas does a little better. He sees one’s right as “what is due to each man,” and that conversely, “one should do harm to no man.” Centuries later, John Locke built on this foundation with his Natural Rights theory in his two treatises on government. He says that reason dictates that “no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.” He continues that, “every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his.”

But even with the the Scholastic and Enlightenment explanation of rights, there still may be confusion. I’d like to attempt to clarify the concept of Natural Rights by providing three characteristics of them from a logical perspective, which should dispel any notion that the philosophy is arbitrary.

1. Rights are Inalienable

As Thomas Jefferson most eloquently wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “…All men are created equal and they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…” This is vital to the concept of rights. It means that someone cannot take away said rights. It means that if someone tries to do so, you have the authority to use force to ensure they do not succeed.

An example would be that Bob has the right to life. Adolf doesn’t think so and pulls out a gun to kill Bob for no reason. Bob has the authority to use force to ensure his right to life isn’t violated. Thus, it would be legitimate for Bob to pull out his own gun and shoot Adolf’s gun out of his hand (Bob is an expert marksman). Bob has the authority to use whatever force is necessary (proportional to the threat) to defend his right. If a thief takes your money, you can take it back.

This brings up an apparent conflict. If you use violence to defend yourself, doesn’t that violate the criminal’s rights? No, and here’s why: Once someone violates the non-aggression principle and initiates violence on someone else, they automatically abdicate their own rights. This is an important distinction here. No one can take away your rights but if you initiate harm on someone else, you give up your own rights.

Rights don’t come from the bureaucrats with American flag pins on their suit jackets—they come from “our Creator” and are inalienable meaning no one—not even said bureaucrats can take them away. This is something that even legislators who swear an oath to defend the Constitution forget and that ignorance tends to rub off on their constituents. The unfortunate result is a government that tramples rights constantly. As a great man once said, “No one can take away your Natural Rights but they can do great damage making you think they can.”

It also logically follows that we don’t have rights to things that are dependent on technological advances or a certain amount of wealth because those things don’t always exist in any given situation. Saying you have a right to a cell phone, for instance, is like saying you have a right to a personal cold-fusion jet pack. Another example is that I have the right not to be shot by someone; I don’t have the right to an emergency appendectomy to save my life. If no one around is capable enough to do the surgery, all of the sudden that “right” disappears, thus it is not inalienable and is not a true Natural Right.

2. Rights are Concurrent

right-to-healthcareAnother mistake people make when discussing rights is to confuse negative and positive rights. Negative rights are those that do not require action or property from another. An example is the right to my life. No one has to do anything to let me continue living. Positive rights, on the other hand, are those that require something from someone else, for example, health care. In order for me to ensure my so-called right to health care, a doctor must treat me even if he doesn’t want to.

But there is a problem with positive rights because they necessarily infringe on others’ negative rights. You cannot have a right to health care without infringing on the doctor’s right to liberty and free association. The modern health care system gets around this obvious clash of rights by introducing a bureaucratic middleman. People can have their right to health care and we’ll pay the voluntary doctor with money we’ve taken from people against their will through taxation. But this also is a violation of negative rights—just once removed.

As Bastiat wrote:

M. de Lamartine wrote me one day: “Your doctrine is only the half of my program; you have stopped at liberty [a negative right]; I go on to fraternity [a positive right].” I answered him: “The second half of your program will destroy the first half.”

Bastiat understood that true Natural Rights do not contradict others’ Natural Rights—they are concurrent.

Rand Paul clearly understands this as Bernie Sanders misses the point completely:

3. Rights are Universal

480105_549045841803737_166760899_nMost of the political discussion regarding rights recently include modifiers like “minority,” “gay,” or “women’s.” This is an immediate red flag because—and I’m going to shock a lot of people here—there is no such thing as minority rights, gay rights, or women’s rights. There are only human rights. That is, all humans have rights and all rights apply universally to all humans. When you add modifiers like black, gay, or women’s, you imply that there are different rights for different groups of people. Some dastardly rascals throughout history have also made the same claim. Slavers said that they had the right to liberty but that their slaves did not and Nazis claimed that they had the right to life but that their Jewish captives didn’t. Looking at it like this makes the distinction clear—modifying “rights” is illogical.

You can tell that certain so-called rights do not apply to everyone and thus is not a true Natural Right. Reproductive rights, for example, only apply to women, and thus are not true Natural Rights. Social security only applies to the elderly past a specific (and arbitrary) age, thus fails the test too.

Some people may claim that calling for minority, gay, or women’s rights is not to set out unique rights for those groups but to ensure that those groups are included in human rights and that’s a fine goal. But it would be more effective to make the argument that there are certain rights that apply to all humans and that indeed these groups consist of humans. Who could argue with that?

Conclusion

With these three principles as the standard for rights, you can easily see which ones pass and which ones do not. For instance, the right to a living wage is universal but it’s not concurrent since it requires others to pay for that living wage potentially against their will and it’s not inalienable because there just may not be a job for everyone, thus no one has a right to a living wage. On the other hand, the right to property is inalienable—no one can take it away; it’s concurrent—it doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s rights; and it’s universal—everyone can have property so it is a true Natural Right.

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Accepting these logical standards will go a long way in clearing up the discussion on rights and rational discourse in general.