Monday, May 23, 2005

my two cents

Taking a cue from Brad, I’ll offer my two cents to an important discussion that’s occurring simultaneously at two other blogs: Eric’s and Dada Head’s. The subject matter is at the heart of classical liberal philosophy; the origin, essence and definition of ‘natural rights’.

Alice, aka ‘welcome wench’, wrote:
The idea of "natural rights" has a mystical quality to it which I can't agree with. I don't believe that anything of that nature simply "exists". It is an idea, a great one, I'll agree, but only that an idea. It can only come into reality by the agreement and actions of the people in whose heads it resides.

You say that a right is something which no one has to agree to...that you exercise that right alone. I think the whole discussion has been about whether the right to property can be exercised alone and I say it can't. It must be agreed to or else it means nothing significant.
In another comment, jrj wrote:
But what if I choose not believe that. What if I choose to believe that the only "natural law" is survival of the fittest. So I kill this other person to stop them from breathing my air, eating food I might want, mating with a female, or perhaps I just didn't like the way they looked at me. How have I infringed on a right if I don't recognize that right in the first place?

I have to say I agree with whoever has been arguing these rights only exist because humans have agreed to respect them.
Those quotes, more or less, sum up the argument against ‘natural or inherent rights’. In one of my first posts, a few months ago, I offered my take on rights.
Rights ARE, by virtue of one’s existence. Right are by definition absolute and unalienable. That which is conditional is not a right, but a privilege. The alternative to individual rights is collective or government rights, where the individual may or may not do this or that depending upon the ruling authority. The US Constitution recognizes only individual rights and not government rights; the government may act only with the consent of the governed. The failure to acknowledge and preserve individual rights inevitably leads to tyranny…totalitarian, authoritarian or chaotic anarchy. There is no such thing as abridging rights a little or a little tyranny, as each cannot but increase after having been tolerated.

I fully understand that the concept of rights is abstract and subject to violation by thugs and looters. This is why a healthy civilization MUST revere the concept of individual liberty and acknowledge the right of citizens to self protect from a single brute [an angry mob…the majority] or an oppressive government.
Oddly enough, I think both sides of this debate have merit. While I certainly hold that inherent rights (life, liberty, property, et al.) exist without respect to popular consensus, such is a philosophical construct that is distinct from the more tangible laws of matter and energy. In my view, the root of the objection to inherent rights is that it’s philosophical rather than scientific. However, it’s no less of a universal verity.

That said, the concept of natural rights can be objectively and qualitatively compared to other competing philosophies such as collectivism or other types of privilege based political systems. Both history and moral intuition bear witness that individuals recognize the concept of ownership. Primarily, one owns one’s life and instinctively acts to preserve that life. In so doing, humans have explored and taken possession of land in the process of seeking habitation. Human nature being what it is, people have always fought over take possession. It matters not if one takes his neighbor’s property by force, or if one nation-state conquers another, the fact is that the ownership of property (land or material) is a fact of nature…intuitively. The difference between the barbarian and the citizen is that the latter respects his neighbor’s inherent rights, but the former does not.

Now, the fact that some will simply reject the premise of natural rights does not negate their existence. It’s true that they are abstract and require a degree of civilization to enjoy without violence. Nonetheless, rights are inexorably linked to the individual by virtue of one's very existence. Ultimately, one is responsible for self preservation. Ideally, governments are formed to provide a measure of security to protect the individual’s inherent rights, not to ‘create’ rights. But…as Jefferson so artfully wrote:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.