A few Problems/Issues with Natural Rights and Natural Law

I always disliked the concepts of Natural Rights and Natural Law that are so extremely popular with conservatives and libertarians.  It always seemed to me that rights are largely a social construct, and probably a fairly recent one, in the history of our species.  As such referring to such a construct as natural strikes me as both confusing and somewhat disingenuous.  Labeling the system one thinks we ought to have as the one granted to by nature is essentially a case in confusing what is and what ought to be.

As I pointed out elsewhere, there are countless possible legal systems and systems of property rights a society could adopt and probably countless ones that have been adopted, and to assert that the one system you favor is natural (and imply that all others, by extensions are a revolt against nature) strikes me as a bit churlish.  I cannot help but be reminded of the naturalistic fallacy, whereby one assumes that whatever is natural is automatically good.  It overlooks the fact that many things that are natural, such as cobra venom and arsenic are terrible for people, while many of the modern technologies that have greatly improved our lives are completely unnatural by all conventional definitions. 

As another Wilson, Robert Anton Wilson points out in this essay, actual laws of nature tend to be self-enforcing with no help from us.  This is obviously not the case for what are called natural laws or natural rights.  Both have a long history of being routinely violated by governments and individuals.  I completely reject the notion associated with John Locke, that at some point in distant history, humans lived in a state of nature, where such rights to life, liberty and property were consistently protected.  I strongly suspect life in early human societies, was filled with much conflict and violence.  Furthermore, I see little evidence whatsoever, that early human societies ever practiced anything like the absolutist system of property rights, that advocates of natural rights often assert are natural.  It seems much more likely to me that ancient property systems probably had many more communal or usufruct aspects than their modern counterparts. 

At the same time, I do acknowledge the importance of distinguishing between the products of voluntary interactions and the products of coercive  actions (government or otherwise) and I see why the use of the terms “natural” and “artificial” for these distinctions is common and quite tempting.  Examples include statements like “patents artificially raise the cost of medicine, above what it would naturally be” (with the phrase “what it would naturally be” implying, what it would be with we just stuck to the system of natural law the individual speaking advocates).  It strikes me as highly surreal to discuss what the natural price of something that is by all conventional standards completely unnatural (like modern medicine) would be. 

Overall, I tend to think of rights as social constructs, rather than something that simply exist in nature or is part of our nature.  Perhaps there is some sort of system of rights that does best maximize human well being.  I am certainly open to that case.  In the mean time I’ll leave with George Carlin who I think does as good of a job discussing rights as a social construct as anyone.



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One Response to A few Problems/Issues with Natural Rights and Natural Law

  1. Pingback: Why Kids Are Bullying, Beating, Murdering….But Can We Rewrite Our Antiutopia Future? | Third News

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