Demystifying Natural Rights

Robert Anton Wilson

SFL Staff

Back in September, Nathan Goodman clarified the idea of “the invisible hand” in response to those who “misconstrue the concept as a form of magical thinking or religious fundamentalism.” Here, I’d like to do something similar for another concept often misconstrued that way – natural rights.

One common reaction to natural rights claims is that respect for individual autonomy is anything but “natural.” Rather, for both non-human and human animals, nature often results in the domination of the weak by the strong. Not all libertarians are natural rights advocates, and this criticism is reiterated by Ludwig von Mises, when he states that “The characteristic feature of natural conditions is that one animal is intent upon killing other animals.” Similarly, anarchist Dyer Lum’s “The Fiction of Natural Rights” claims that rights cannot be natural, given that when we look backwards in time, we see less and less respect for them.

While these empirical claims are largely correct, they are irrelevant to questions about natural rights. This is because rights involve normative claims, not descriptive ones. In other words, natural law [1] is a framework for telling us how people ought to behave towards one another, not one for understanding how they actually do. No natural rights proponents have ever asserted that rights act as some sort of magical force field that safeguards self-sovereignty. What they do argue is that when that self-sovereignty is violated, that violation is morally wrong. Once it’s clear that this objection is a red herring, the next questions are inevitably “just where do natural rights come from?” and “how would you even go about proving that natural rights exist?”

Libertarian novelist Robert Anton Wilson’s challenge summarizes both of these concerns: “All I am asking is that somebody should [produce] a shred or a hint of an adumbration of a shadow of a ghost of something like scientific or experimental evidence in place of the metaphysical, and meaningless, verbalisms Natural Law cultists habitually use. Until they produce some such sensory-sensual space-time evidence, I still say: not proven.”

The first thing to say about demands like Wilson’s is that they typically misunderstand the sort of thing searched for in a justification of natural rights. As mentioned earlier, natural rights are moral principles, not magical forces.What we are looking for is a reason to believe that when certain rights are violated, this is morally wrong. It is beyond the scope of this blog post to rigorously defend an entire ethical theory, and then show how that theory establishes natural rights. Even so, I think I have space to say all that really needs to be said to justify belief in natural rights against arguments like Wilson’s. We have every reason to believe that natural rights exist, until their opponents can give us reason to doubt that they do. The burden of proof is on the natural rights skeptic, not the natural rights proponent. This might seem strange – given our respect for science, we’re typically used to the burden of proof always being on the person who believes a proposition, not the person denying it.

Yet the alternative is even stranger. As philosopher Roderick Long states in “The Nature of Law,” “to believe in [natural rights] is simply to believe that there are moral standards that transcend the practices and customs of any given community — that there are rational grounds for condemning the Nazi regime as immoral, that it is possible to be justified in so condemning it, even if we assume that what the Nazis did was perfectly in accordance with the values of Nazi culture.” To reject natural rights, and to deny that there are any rights that exist independently of what is actually culturally accepted and enforced, is to reject that many of the worst atrocities in history were actually wrong [2]. This claim is considerably stronger, more radical, and wildly out of tune with our pre-existing beliefs, and thus requires defense.

By analogy, consider philosopher G.E. Moore’s rebuttal to idealists (those who reject belief in the external world). In order to show that the external world exists, Moore simply held up his hands, thereby proving the existence of at least two physical objects. It might seem like Moore was oversimplifying the debate. After all, it only makes sense to say that his hands are physical objects if we’ve already accepted that the external world exists. The point, though, is that whatever premises are included in an argument for why there’s no external world are not going to be as strong as the belief that you are holding up two hands. This is therefore a reason to reject external world skepticism, since it upholds weaker beliefs over stronger ones.

If the skeptic still is prepared to accept weaker claims over stronger ones, it would still fail. As Long explains, “[I]f we couldn’t be justified in believing anything unless we first ruled out all possibility of error — then we would never be justified in believing anything, … [not] even the belief that started us down this infinite regress in the first place: … that in order to be justified in believing anything we must first rule out all possibility of error. So … skepticism ultimately undermines itself.”

That said, there are several explanations of why we have natural rights that go deeper than appeals to our direct perception of them. Some, like Roderick Long, argue from Aristotelian virtue ethics that rights come from our nature as social beings. Others, such as Randy Barnett, believe that natural rights grow out of consequentialist considerations. Still others, such as Robert Nozick, connect natural rights to a Kantian respect for persons. The list goes on and on, but the justification for belief in natural rights does not depend on any of these explanations for why they exist being particularly plausible [3].

To believe in natural law is not like believing in magic, but disbelieving in it is like disbelieving in the physical world. It is the rights skeptic, not the rights proponent, who is committed to seemingly absurd beliefs.


[1] In this post, I will be using “natural law” and “natural rights” as basically synonymous, though it should be noted that they actually aren’t. “Natural rights” is a subset of “natural law” which determines specifically which basic standards of treatment that individuals are morally entitled to by natural law, and can be legitimately enforced through violence. The reason I will be taking the two terms as synonyms here (even though they are not) is because this post is very specifically concerned with natural rights, and every time that the term “natural law” is used, it is specifically referring to the subset of natural law claims we call “natural rights.”

[2] This phrasing admittedly may be a little too strong. Several self-identified skeptics of natural rights are not skeptics of morality in general, and may have some careful explanation as to why we can confidently condemn these atrocities as immoral while also rejecting natural rights. That said, I find that many of these self-identified natural rights skeptics are often natural rights skeptics in only in name. After all, possessing natural rights just means that others are morally required to treat you in a certain way, whether or not they recognize this, and whether or not legal institutions recognize this. If one still believes that history’s worst atrocities were morally wrong, and would have been morally wrong even if no one ever condemned them, then they seem to by definitionbelieve in natural rights.

[3] For a more lengthy defense of the claim that our common sense moral beliefs can be taken as justified until shown to be otherwise, see this chapter of Michael Huemer’s Ethical Intuitionism.