Today’s topic: “Natural Rights.”
The comments on parts I and II highlight what’s wrong with “natural rights” theory. I’ve had students moot a lot of possible answers to the question “Why is murder wrong?”, but because they’re products of the American educational system, they’ve received between 12 and 20 years of very expensive training in ignoring the obvious one:
Murder is wrong because it’s wrong. Murder means “wrongful killing.” If it’s not wrong, then by definition it’s not murder.
So what’s the point, right? Well, as I tried to show yesterday, at least one of the terms in the phrase “wrongful killing” is deeply culture-bound. I’d argue that they both are, actually, but let’s stick with “wrongful.” The very word “wrongful” implies a common standard, accessible to all. Where does it come from?
Europeans were pretty busy with the Reformation (and its attendant continent-wide civil wars) for the first century or so after Columbus, but soon enough they got around to contemplating the very different cultures across the water. They started thinking through the implications of cross-cultural contact. For instance: Can a man legitimately be guilty of breaking a law he doesn’t know exists? A man shipwrecked on an alien shore simply can’t be expected to know all the laws and customs of a people he’s never encountered, whose language he doesn’t speak.
“Natural rights” theorists came up with an answer. There are certain things common to all peoples, and accessible to all rational minds. “Murder is wrong” appeared, to them, to be one of these. As we’ve noted, there’s no known culture where it’s ok to just stab a guy because you feel like it today. But here’s the problem: In that case — the “no known culture” case — we’re talking about society. “Natural rights” belong to individuals.
Consider Hobbes’s famous thought experiment, the “State of Nature.” Hobbes proposed this precisely because he wanted to figure out what our “natural rights” are, and what kind of government can legitimately be derived from them. Hobbes says that in the State of Nature every man has a right to every thing, because nothing is illegitimate when it comes to preserving your life when everyone else is in the same situation. In order to get out of that situation — the war of all against all — we lay down some of our rights to some things. Back when they taught civics in high school, we learned that this is the “social contract,” and that it’s the basis of all modern political theory.*
Nobody much liked Hobbes’s conclusion — namely, that we lay down all our rights, permanently, to an absolute monarch — but his reasoning seemed sound. It’s not too much of an oversimplification to say that subsequent political theory is just an ever more elaborate attempt to adopt Hobbes’s means without arriving at his end. Thus John Locke, and his famous declaration that every man has a right to “life, liberty, and property.” No king can legitimately deprive you of these, because any king that does is no longer a legitimate king – he has broken the social contract.
This “social contract” stuff suited Early Modern England very well. A mercantile culture par excellence, “social contracts” made sense to them, because that’s how international trade had to be done in the age of sail. The East India Company, for instance, couldn’t have a shareholder meeting to make each and every business decision, because they were in London and the business was in Calcutta and messages took six months or more to go one way… if they even arrived at all, what with shipwrecks and pirates and all.
So they banded together and delegated the authority to make decisions for the group to one man, who would go to Calcutta and conduct business on their behalf. As far as the natives were concerned, that man was the East India Company. He “personated” them, in the language of the times, because back then, “corporate” was a verb (“to make into a body”).** And as with business, so with government — just as the individuals in the East India Company contracted to make a corporation, so did the individuals in a nation contract to make a “corporate person” like the Leviathan.
Everyone see the problem? “Contract” is a word like “murder.” We’ve stipulated that “Why is murder wrong?” is a meaningless question, because “wrong” is part of the definition of “murder.” Along the same line, “contract” implies that all parties know what they’re contracting to, that they both have the legitimate authority to contract in the first place, etc. Just as a rightful killing isn’t murder, a contract with an infant isn’t a valid contract, because one of the parties couldn’t possibly understand the terms. And therefore, pulling women, children, the mentally disabled, etc. into a “social contract” can’t possibly be valid.
But it’s worse than that, actually, because I suppose we could hypothetically construct some mechanism by which everyone signs his “social contract” at the age of majority (provided he’s in his right mind, sufficiently smart, etc.); and everyone periodically recontracts every so often. That would legitimate the social contract, I suppose, but it would do nothing to address the deeper problem, which is this:
Humans don’t exist as individuals.
Hobbes’s “State of Nature” thought experiment was just that — a thought experiment. He knew full well that the “State of Nature” as he described it never existed, nor ever could exist. Humanity’s basic unit isn’t the person, it’s the family. Hell, it might even be the clan, or even the tribe, but however many cells end up belonging to the basic social organism, the individual — tapping into timeless “natural rights” by dint of right reason — isn’t it. The proof is as simple as asking John Locke just why “we” — that is, each individual — have a natural, inalienable right to life, liberty, and property.
Not even the valedictorians of the American public educational system can dodge the fact that all of those things are alienated all the time. In the state of nature — the real one, not Hobbes’s fascinating fantasy — guys with clubs beat up other guys with clubs, and the group of guys-with-clubs that prevails takes the lives, liberties, and properties of the losers. “Wrongful” killings — that is, murders — become right when the killer is too powerful to be brought to heel. Might is the only natural right, and individuals are powerless against a group, which is why there are no individuals in nature — simple attrition. To say otherwise is to indulge in fiction…..
….but a necessary fiction, perhaps. That’s part IV.