Natural Rights and the Declaration

Today is Independence Day, which brings to mind this great passage from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

In a very general way, I very much agree with the sentiments in that paragraph, but my views about natural rights are much more varying depending on the aspect of these rights one considers.

1. Psychological Attitude. Psychologically, I strongly support the notion that people possess these rights and those rights are of overriding importance.  These words are stirring to me.

2. The Priority of Natural Rights.  The natural rights view holds that these rights precede the government.  People do not get their natural rights from government; rather, government is supposed to be evaluated based on how well it protects such rights.  I agree with this sentiment (except that it is not merely natural rights, but other matters that count as well).

3. The Ontology of Natural Rights. Natural rights are somehow thought to exist in nature – to be real entities that can be discovered by looking at the world.  I don’t believe this.  I am not quite sure how to explain morality.  My best guess is that we have a moral sense produced by evolution and informed by the culture in which we live.  We experience the output of that moral sense as objective or as demanding our obedience.  Thus, we experience it as objective, but that does not mean it actually is.

4. Determining What the Natural Rights Are. Here is probably where I disagree the most with the natural rights approach.  In my view, the content of natural rights – as well as our moral obligations generally – is best accounted for by an indirect consequentialist approach.  Under this approach, the question is what will produce the best consequences.  It turns out that following a set of moral rules, principles, and practices will produce the best consequences.  Individuals should not be calculating utilities, but instead following these rules, principles and practices.  These moral rules and principles include more or less the individual freedoms of a Lockean approach.

5. Distinguishing Between Essential and Contingent Rights. The natural rights approach distinguishes between essential rights, which always had to be respected, and contingent rights, which depended on the circumstances.  Significant aspects of a country’s law were not a matter of natural rights, but could be selected by a prudent lawgiver.  I agree with the underlying spirit of this distinction.  Certain matters are of overriding importance and generally should be followed in all societies and other matters are more equivocal and should be decided based on circumstances.  An indirect consequentalist approach provides an explanation for this conclusion.

Overall, I have much sympathy for the natural rights approach, although I suppose many readers of this post might put me in the anti-natural rights camp.

Reader Discussion

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on July 04, 2017 at 16:53:22 pm

The moral position of the Founders was not consequentialist, but aretaic (virtue based). Consequences cannot always be foreseen. Virtue can be. It is summarized in the words of George Washington:

"Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hands of God."

For more on rights see http://www.constitution.org/soclcont.htm

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Jon Roland
on July 05, 2017 at 10:48:32 am

Thanks for addressing this issue. It seems to me that many libertarians are too quick to assume the axiomatic nature of individual rights. As you and Jefferson realized, if we can't show that individual rights have their origin in something authoritative, they're no more deserving of respect than any other social axioms (such as "all for the good of the state").

You write, "It turns out that following a set of moral rules, principles, and practices will produce the best consequences." I would go further and argue that radical consequentialism does not produce the best consequences. In other words, it's better for public figures, when speaking publicly, to promote an axiomatic, deistic view of individual rights than to either avoid the topic or be openly consequentialist.

Relatedly, two of my favorite quotes (which are no doubt familiar):

"We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by . . . morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition, Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." - John Adams

"We're all part monsters in our subconscious! That's why we have laws and religion!" - Forbidden Planet (1956)

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on July 05, 2017 at 20:56:40 pm

With all due respect, you seem to have an atheistic world-view, (of course, your right to possess, the most natural of all rights is the exercise of free-will; I'd fight for your right to say it, or believe it, though I disagree with you), or you are unable to bring yourself to say it, "God", to Whom may be attributed as the most obvious and authoritative origin and explanation of the Natural Rights..

But, this aside, very persuasive argument has been made that religion or God need not even be advanced to demonstrate the existence of a universal natural rights.

Still it is good that you assent to the societal benefits they produce and extend in operation, if not to their complete substance and source.

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Paul Binotto
on July 08, 2017 at 10:23:53 am

A piece related to the subject here is posted today at thecatholicthing.org. The author, a recent graduate of Edinburgh College who is beginning studies at Oxford this year, writes on "God and Objective Morality".

The student's name is Christopher Akers. His piece is uncomplicated. He reasons through his experience along well-worn paths; discovers things "new and old", so to speak.

Best wishes.

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Linda Smith
on July 10, 2017 at 12:14:33 pm

Thanks for the heads-up about "God and Objective Morality." He correctly points out that neither utilitarianism nor sociobiology is self-authenticating, so to speak.

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on September 08, 2020 at 22:49:35 pm

Morality can be summed up as "do no harm to another" and is easily observed in nature.

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