26 votes

Natural Rights are the Foundation of Liberty

To me, it seems absurd that - as libertarians - we even need to have this discussion. However, recent threads (here and here) have set out to claim either natural rights do not exist or only exist in instances where they are able to be defended by those claiming said rights. I will demonstrate that both arguments are fallacious. Natural rights are the foundation on which liberty rests.

To be clear, we must first define natural rights:

Natural Right - a right that would exist in the absence of government

Right - a just claim or title

First, let us suppose that rights do not exist. If rights do not exist, then it could be said that no person has a just claim or title to anything. If this were the case, we would expect everything to be perfectly communal. However, if no individual could own anything, then by extension, no group of people could own anything either - as this would require the definition of group rights - but we have assumed that no rights exist. Therefore, we have arrived at a logical contradiction, and we must conclude that rights must exist.

We'll consider an example. Caveman A makes a spear. We could, then, say that Caveman A has a just claim to use and possess the spear. To say that Caveman A did not have a just claim to use and possess the spear would be analogous to saying that the use of the spear by him would be unjust. Making such a claim would be logically dishonest. We conclude that Caveman A has a right to his property. Does Caveman B have a just claim to the spear? Logically and correctly, no. If Caveman B took the spear for himself, the action would be unjust. Caveman B would have violated the right of Caveman A.

To say that neither man had a just claim to the spear would be absurd and meaningless - that is, to say that rights do not exist.

Now, let's move on to the existence of natural rights. As stated, these are just claims or titles that would exist in the absence of government. So, the claim that natural rights do not exist is to make the claim that, in the absence of a government, rights would not exist either. It turns out that we run into the same logical conundrum as before - since in the previous treatment we never assumed a government existed; so, the above argument still holds. Therefore, rights would exist in the absence of government, and by definition, these are natural rights.

In the course of this analysis, it has also been shown false that no rights exist when they are unable to be successfully defended. Theft is an unjust claim to another's property. Murder is an unjust claim to another's life. In order for a claim to be unjust, a just claim must exist. Therefore, any unjust claim is a violation of a just claim, or more properly, a violation of a right.

It has also been claimed by the user that posted the mentioned threads that using the argument for natural rights would almost certainly lead to socialism. He claimed that a person may steal food to protect their own life. However, as I have shown, stealing is a violation of natural rights and, therefore, cannot be considered part of any philosophy that has the protection of natural rights at its foundation - such as libertarianism.

Natural rights are the foundation of liberty. After all, can a person be held in slavery without being wronged?


Update 6/25/2013

Some users have tried to make the claim that since instances may arise where there is no clear right and wrong party that rights do not exist except where written laws (or a social contract) can be used by an official arbiter to make final judgements. In other words, the argument infers that rights do not exist unless they are spelled out (bestowed) by a government because in the absence of such a compact there would be gray area. One can see that this argument holds no water when it is considered that gray area can exist even when a government is in place. Thus, if the argument were correct, it could be said that no rights exist even under government because gray area may exist.

In reality, the existence of gray area implies that there are areas that gray area does not exist. For instance, ask any human on the face of the planet the following questions:

1. A perfect stranger approaches you and shoots you in the face. In that case, have you been wronged?

2. A perfect stranger approaches you and steals your wallet/purse. In that case, have you been wronged?

3. A perfect stranger approaches you, holds a gun to your head, and forces you to perform an act that you would not otherwise perform. In that case, have you been wronged?

where I define a perfect stranger as a person that has no knowledge of you, and you have no knowledge of him/her. Thus, no motive exists for any of the above actions.

You can try to make up a hypothetical person but one does not exist. As well, in the questions, it was never assumed that a government existed.

I would like to continue, but I have business to tend. I will address further arguments in the comment section or via another update at a later time.

Trending on the Web

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

I disagree...

The argument for secular natural law is just as legitimate. From legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com:

The school of natural law known as secular natural law replaces the divine laws of God with the physical, biological, and behavioral laws of nature as understood by human reason. This school theorizes about the uniform and fixed rules of nature, particularly human nature, to identify moral and ethical norms. Influenced by the rational empiricism of the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers who stressed the importance of observation and experiment in arriving at reliable and demonstrable truths, secular natural law elevates the capacity of the human intellect over the spiritual authority of religion.

Many secular natural law theorists base their philosophy upon hypotheses about human behavior in the state of nature, a primitive stage in human evolution before the creation of governmental institutions and other complex societal organizations. In the state of nature, John Locke wrote, human beings live according to three principles—liberty, equality, and self-preservation. Because no government exists in the state of nature to offer police protection or regulate the distribution of goods and benefits, each individual has a right to self-preservation that he or she may exercise on equal footing with everyone else.

This right includes the liberties to enjoy a peaceful life, accumulate wealth and property, and otherwise satisfy personal needs and desires consistent with the coterminous liberties of others. Anyone who deprives another person of his or her rights in the state of nature, Locke argued, violates the principle of equality. Ultimately, Locke wrote, the state of nature proves unsatisfying. Human liberty is neither equally fulfilled nor protected. Because individuals possess the liberty to delineate the limits of their own personal needs and desires in the state of nature, greed, narcissism, and self-interest eventually rise to the surface, causing irrational and excessive behavior and placing human safety at risk. Thus, Locke concluded, the law of nature leads people to establish a government that is empowered to protect life, liberty, and property.


How is that equal in logic or legitimacy to a Divine Basis?

People reason to very different conclusions based on their premises. Given his premises, what Hitler tried to do was "rational." If you premise is the Darwinian imperative and someone else has what you need to survive or thrive, why not take it if you can get away with it? It just seems to me that Locke did not give adequate recognition to the fact that he was raised in a culture awash with the knowledge of God. What he just assumed was the "logical" way that "rational" people behaved was ONLY SO in a culture which operated from the premise that "God is".

Localism is for people who can still sleep at night even though somebody they don't know in a city they have never been is doing things differently. ("Localism, A Philosophy of Government" on Amazon for Kindle or Barnes and Noble ebook websites)

Defending Freedom

The Germans were defending their homeland from Communism which had destroyed Russia and threatened Germany with riots and a "take-over" of banks and industry causing great harm and destruction. (30 million died in the Communist "take-over" of Russia.) Hitler was fighting the Communism "take-over" and it was/is a fact that most leading Communists were Jews, so, all Jews were rounded up. Millions have died in the last 100 years of the Communist "experiment."
America made a "BIG mistake" when they backed Russia and the communist idea that a government can/may initiate FORCE: (taxes, regulations, prohibitions and war) if its purpose and intention is to do "good." The common people of Europe paid for this mistake. Mistakes are the source of evil and the greatest mistake people can make is to believe they can "initiate force to go good."

Please elaborate on the statement:

"Given [Locke's] premises, what Hitler tried to do was 'rational.'"

I was not referring to Locke's premises at that point

but Hitlers. Hitler was acting rationally according to his own premises when he invaded Russia, rounded up Jews what have you. Rational does not equal good.

Localism is for people who can still sleep at night even though somebody they don't know in a city they have never been is doing things differently. ("Localism, A Philosophy of Government" on Amazon for Kindle or Barnes and Noble ebook websites)

Rational according to false

Rational according to false premises is *not* rational. A train of thought is rational only if it is logical and the premises are correct.

He did not believe them to be false. Some premises cannot

be proved or disproved by logic. You just have to pick one and reason from it. Does God exist or not? Either assumption is a premise from which people can reason. Is the evolutionary struggle for survival the ultimate morality or is there a higher morality? Logical people can disagree on which of those premises is true.

Localism is for people who can still sleep at night even though somebody they don't know in a city they have never been is doing things differently. ("Localism, A Philosophy of Government" on Amazon for Kindle or Barnes and Noble ebook websites)

If it is true that every line

If it is true that every line of thought reduces to premises which cannot be proven true or false, then in the end, no argument for anything can ever be made ... Which would kindof render your point meaningless ;-)

very good point. the time of

very good point. the time of locke and rosseau etc. had a lot of fantastic notions about how humans behaved prior to history or governments. naive projections of their own way of life, built on 20 centuries of religion and 40 centuries of civilization, extrapolated to all human beings, with the villain being their immediate political opponents (monarchy, aristocracy). they had no idea what humans were actually like in a "state of nature," which prehistoric anthropology and evolutionary psychology is helping bring to light day by day. when they said human nature, they meant middle class english or french social mores circa 18th century.

You SURMISE that.

By the way, do you know where enlightenment thought ORIGINATED from? The people reading the bible. Not getting preached at but actually READING what it said, specifically the teachings of Christ and specifically His elaboration (for the first time) of the non-aggression principle (the Golden Rule) and of how all men are created equal in God's eyes, obliterating the concept of the divine rights of kings.

i don't disagree, that had

i don't disagree, that had much to do with it, as did other factors. a few centuries of living under a market order, along with, as you point out, literacy and reading the new testament. of course, let's not forget 25 or 30 centuries of traditional agricultural life - ordered, sober, disciplined, law biding, etc.

lots of things contributed to the "nature" of the middle classes of the 18th century, and their developing a false sense of human nature by observing their own peculiar nature, and perhaps idealizing it a bit, and calling it "human nature." and perhaps overly idealizing human society as imagined without government, since their specific enemy was a kind of government that limited their economic freedom and way of life.

but of course, the britons and gauls hardly would have become Christians without the political spread of Christianity via the roman conquest and latin tongue, and centuries of the non libertarian catholic church. let's not get silly and imagine an 18th European cultural setting could emerge from savagery without an interlude of government and religious authority.

You sure it was the Romans?

It was the Goths who invaded the Italic penninsula who converted to Christianity and then went on to spread Christianity into France, Spain and north Africa. It wasn't the Romans. History. :)

The Constantine period you are referring to lasted less than 100 years. The period of christian gothicization lasted several hundred until the Gauls and Moors conquered them.

you misunderstood my meaning.

you misunderstood my meaning. i didn't refer to any constantinian period. i pointed out that in the absence of the roman empire and latin language, Christianity would not have spread amongst the gaelic or briton populations, or the goths for that matter. but cool story.




All of the is not important. If I were in your country I would adopt the Snowden approach to securing "my God given rights" and RUN OUT OF IT!!!!!

Running shoes are the best approach right now!

Rights and Individual Freedom

"Natural Rights" do not exist without the Individual Freedom to exercise those "rights." There is only one kind of Freedom: Armed Freedom. If you are not "willing and able" to unite and defend your freedom it will be taken from you by criminals or by "do gooders." Either way you have no rights unless you can and will defend them. The beautiful Statue of Freedom atop the Capital Building holds a reef of Peace in her left hand symbolizing "Harm no one," and she rests her right hand on a sword which symbolizes "Let no one harm you." Bottom line, there is no Freedom except Armed Freedom.

While I certainly agree that the right to self defense

is a natural right, violation of one's rights does not mean that those rights didn't exist or no longer exist. Although a slave's rights are being violated in perpetuity doesn't mean those rights don't exist. Like my last sentence said, "Can a person be held in slavery without being wronged?"

In order for government to allegedly "protect" anything

it must already exist ...



I don't see how you can separate the existence of rights from

the issue of the existence of God. The Founders considered it 'self-evident' that rights came from the Creator. Humans have rights because they were created with a moral sense, in the image of God. They have rights, and the responsibilities which go with them. Surely Dr. Paul takes the Founder's view of rights as a result of Man being created in God's image, with a moral sense. For this reason, we do not hold animals accountable when they trample on one another.

If there is no God, no absolute moral order to the universe, then there are no "rights" either because "right" and "wrong" are all relative. That was sort of what the one article you referenced was hinting at.

The second article I think failed to distinguish between RECOGNIZED rights and true rights. The list of "rights" recognized by a society will be either more or less like the actual list "written" into the moral order of the universe (again, assuming the existence of a Creator who can serve as a reference point for a moral order).

To the extent that the list of the government on earth agrees with "heaven's list" of rights, that government will be just. To the extent that it adds to or takes away from that list, it will be unjust. The consequences for mis-alignment are not negligible. I believe that a nation which gets the list wrong will set in motion counter-forces that will impact that nation in the future. My point is that there is a recognized list of rights and there is nature's true list.

Localism is for people who can still sleep at night even though somebody they don't know in a city they have never been is doing things differently. ("Localism, A Philosophy of Government" on Amazon for Kindle or Barnes and Noble ebook websites)


rights can be specifically derived from property ownership, rather than a Creator.


A bigger or more powerful, or better armed contender will just take your property away from you. Then, what are you going to do?

Now, he has it. Now, it's his natural right.

On the other hand, if the SUPERIOR moral authority of God says that it is absolutely and objectively WRONG of that other person to steal from you, you retain your right, if temporarily not your property, in an detached, objective sense - there is a source for you to assert a superior right from.

Property Rights

Property Rights mean nothing unless you are able to DEFEND them. The Creator Created Colt and Colt created Property Rights at the point of a gun. If you are not "willing and able" to defend your Property Rights then you will have your property taken away by looters or "Do Gooders." Unite in defense of Liberty and receive the blessings of God: Truth, Love and Freedom.

I am not sure that they can, absent a priori moral order which

still rests on the existence of a creator but if you can explain that claim I am willing to listen.

Localism is for people who can still sleep at night even though somebody they don't know in a city they have never been is doing things differently. ("Localism, A Philosophy of Government" on Amazon for Kindle or Barnes and Noble ebook websites)

What about those who own no property

where do their rights come from?

"Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern." ~~C.S. Lewis
Love won! Deliverance from Tyranny is on the way! Col. 2:13-15

The Source Of Rights

flow from the defense of man's right to his own life and pertains only to freedom of action required by man's nature for his survival.

Your life is your property

So, no person alive is without property.

being alive is not property.

being alive is not property. you can't sell or buy the fact of your being alive. it is just a fact of existence. it might sound cool to say "your life is your property," but it doesn't actually mean anything. its just a goofy slogan.

and more importantly property can be taken from you. no one can steal your life and live it themselves. but they can end your life or control your movement by force, so that you have no control over your movements.

so then being alive has no relation or similarity to the rest of what we call property. it is just a fundamental aspect of existence that each body can only have one conscious possessor. it is hardly a profound revelation.

You can see my reply to BILL3 below...

but to shorten it. Can a person be held in slavery without being wronged? What if that person is an atheist? Can an atheist be enslaved without being wronged? Then, an argument exists for rights that is independent of the existence of a god.

Sorry, that makes no sense, Even people who don't believe in

rights still have them (if a Creator exists). The existence of the rights does not depend on whether or not the person protected by them is cognizant of their source. All that matters is that the source supplied them (and of course it is also immediately helpful if government recognizes them, but that is a slightly different topic). THere may be an argument which exists for rights that are independent from the existence of God, but this is not it.

Localism is for people who can still sleep at night even though somebody they don't know in a city they have never been is doing things differently. ("Localism, A Philosophy of Government" on Amazon for Kindle or Barnes and Noble ebook websites)