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Natural Law Is More Inspiring Than Natural Rights

Readers of Law and Liberty have heard—and perhaps even used—the famous phrase about free speech that is often misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” One wonders, though, whether this formulation actually makes much sense.

After the events now collectively referred to as “Charlottesville,” the American Left is running away from such Voltairean sentiments. Of course, they were at least walking away well before that, especially on college campuses. In asking whether that truism is true, I would put a question to Americans on the Left and the Right, and all points in between: Is it really possible to get too worked up about something as abstract as a natural right?

Mind you, I am not questioning whether there are such things as natural rights, but whether we can really care about such things as much as the “defend to the death” slogan claims.

In a similar vein, terrible events that keep coming, most recently this weekend in Sutherland Springs, Texas, have made it hard for politicians of any persuasion to embrace with much enthusiasm a natural right to bear arms in self-defense. Such a right is considered essential in many classical natural rights arguments, and it’s easy enough for many of us to grant the point in the abstract. My heart, however, doesn’t exactly swell to the idea of sacrificing myself to an ethereal principle that permits my unstable neighbor to stockpile weapons. Again, I am not asking whether the right exists somewhere, but I’m wondering whether it is possible to become enthused about such a thing.

Certainly I appreciate having the right to free expression; it makes it possible, among other things, to publish this essay I am writing right now. And when one of my students or colleagues grabs a podium and jumps up to say something foolish, I readily concede that the right of free expression means I cannot interfere with his or her speech. I’m really not too interested, however, in dying so that my student or colleague can say something foolish.

In a similar manner, I definitely appreciate the right to property. Among other things, it makes it possible for me to own the microprocessor I am using to write this essay. But the same property right makes it possible for my neighbor to buy an enormous flat screen television, collapse onto his new leather couch, and spend his weekend mindlessly watching football and drinking beer. Yes, it’s his property, after all, but I’m not going to risk my life if I see a thief enter his house and hurray off with his television before the police are able to arrive. So, I ask once more: although we Americans are all supportive of natural rights, do we really love them?

At certain moments in history, there have indeed been people willing to sacrifice for natural rights. One wonders to what extent it is natural rights themselves that inspired such sacrifice, however. When I read the extraordinary story of the life of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, I certainly agree that he ought to have been granted all the liberties that natural rights confer. I grow positively indignant when I consider his account of all of the human beings whose rights were taken away in the Soviet penal camps. What I grow passionate about, though, is not that somewhere somebody’s right was denied, but that this great human being, the thoughtful, courageous, sensitive soul who was the author of these remarkable books, was made to suffer, and that the people he makes us care about were made to suffer likewise. It’s not their ethereal, abstracted rights I care about; it’s them.

In the American experience, the most egregious violation of natural rights occurred within the practice of race-based slavery. Most Americans hang their heads in shame at this. It is appropriate that we do so, but why? I don’t think it is so much about the violation of natural rights as it is about the realization that these hardworking, long-suffering, eminently decent human beings were denied the most basic joys of being human. We care about them, and we don’t need an abstract argument about natural rights to justify our feelings.

What can the defenders of natural rights do to put some zeal into their position? For starters, they need to humanize rights. To my mind, the most rhetorically effective defense of a natural right I have seen in a long time was a National Rifle Association television spot that aired last year depicting a young mother who looked right into the camera, described how she was sexually assaulted as a college student, and stated that she now carried a gun so that she would never be a victim of such a crime again. Watching the ad, who could not help but be on the woman’s side? I was for her. As to her natural right of self defense, I cared about it only because she obviously did.

Another, more sophisticated yet more human public morality that appeals to nature is the position known as “natural law.” The phrase is not attractive to modern ears, but what it denotes is not abstract and bloodless at all. Natural law argues that human beings are ordered to natural ends. These ends are higher than we are; to obtain them we have to become better than we are presently. Natural law tells us that there is something great that we should try to obtain, and by showing us what this greatness is, it inspires us to seek it. It gives us, in short, something to love and something to long for. It displays for us something that we might even be willing to die for.

According to Thomas Aquinas, the classic spokesman for the natural law position, the natural law commands the acts of all of the virtues. This doesn’t sound too “sexy” at first, but what Thomas means is that human beings, by their very nature, are the sort of beings who should want to develop fine and noble qualities in their souls. These fine and noble qualities are actually characteristics—permanent or at least semi-permanent qualities of the soul. These characteristics are what are called “virtues.” Thus, the approach of the natural law is to show human beings what kind of noble creatures they can become and then to demand that they become just that.

Thomas the philosopher gives us beautiful goals: courage, prudence, magnanimity, and so forth. After he shows us what they are, we don’t really even need to be reminded that we are obligated to attain them. We want them just because they are fine, noble, and beautiful. If that isn’t enough, Thomas the theologian then gives us even more beautiful goals: faith, hope, and charity. The philosophical side of Thomas inspires us to want to be just; the Christian side might even inspire us to want to be holy.

Virtue is, moreover, something that can be pointed to in certain people—heroes or heroines. An exercise I sometimes use in teaching the Nicomachean Ethics is to put the list of Aristotle’s virtues on the board and ask students to come up with a corresponding list of names of famous people from history or literature who especially exhibit or even embody each of the virtues on the list. Who has shown prudence? Magnanimity? Courage? Generosity?

It would not be possible to do this for a list of natural rights. Human beings claim or assert their natural rights; they don’t embody them.

Of course, it is not obvious that natural law thinking can easily be grafted into natural rights thinking. Still, the advocates of natural rights might find their arguments would have more bite if, taking a clue from the older natural law position, they told us more persuasively why natural rights are good by explaining to us how natural rights would enable us to live well, or at least better than we might without them. As it is, arguing abstractly for the right to behave wrongly is not going to inspire many flesh-and-blood human beings.

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