How do political philosophers arrive at the idea of "natural rights?"
April 1, 2010 2:02 PM   Subscribe

How do political philosophers arrive at the idea of "natural rights?"

Near as I can tell, the "natural" state of things is that you can have what you can take and keep what you can defend. Even if you invoke a God like the creator mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, it would seem pretty clear that whatever his intentions of inalienable rights might be, he has in fact created a world where human beings can and do choose to form violent might-makes-right societies which alienate inalienable rights as often (if not more often) as Western Democracies which hold them in at least ostensible regard.

I understand Tom Paine and similar thinkers dislike the idea that rights are derived from society (because then society can take them away) and like the idea of natural or creator-endowed rights (because then no human can make the claim they can take them away), but liking/disliking a consequence isn't a logical (in the literal sense) reason for evaluating a premise. How do they derive the idea that rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness exist "naturally"?

Or... do such thinkers know more or less that this isn't about building a logical case for "natural rights," but believe that if they insist on them as an axiom, they're helping create a world where people have these rights because most people choose to believe in the axiom?

Also: are there philosophers who reject natural rights as an idea? Is there a long running argument here?
posted by weston to Religion & Philosophy (31 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
I am not a philosopher. However, I think you're misunderstanding the meaning of the word "natural" in this context. It doesn't necessarily mean that these rights exist inevitably or exist in a state of nature. It means that these are our "True" rights. That it is morally right that we should have some rights. These are rights that we universally have whether they are recognized or not.

So even in a society where I would be killed for saying something, it is still true that I have the moral right to say whatever I want.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 2:14 PM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's one example from Locke, Two Treatises of Government, talking about inheritance:

It might reasonably be asked here, how come children by this right of possessing, before any other, the properties of their parents upon their decease ... Common Practice, we see indeed does so dispose of it but we cannot say that it is the common consent of mankind; for that hath never been asked, nor actually given: and if common tacit consent hath established it, it would make but a positive and not natural right of children to inherit the goods of their parents: but where the practice is universal, it is reasonable to think the cause is natural ... The first and strongest desire God planted in men, and wrought into the very principles of their nature being that of self-preservation ... But next to this, God planted in men a strong desire also of propagating their kind, and continuing themselves in their posterity, and this gives children a title, to share in the property of their parents, and a right to inherit their possessions.

Part of this is the idea that you alluded to in the OP - that something is a natural right essentially because God created us that way, created our nature to desire certain things. Another idea in this excerpt is that you can tell something is natural right when it's universal across cultures.
posted by Ashley801 at 2:19 PM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's impossible to offer an ultimately satisfying argument for natural rights. I think this is understood by contemporary political philosophers.

Robert Nozick, the major modern interpreter of the natural rights view, discusses this at the beginning of Anarchy, State and Utopia. As I recall, his argument is close to no argument, but I can't find the passage right now.

Here is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (an excellent resource) on the justification of rights.
posted by grobstein at 2:20 PM on April 1, 2010


You might want to read up on natural vs. positive law. WHen you say "people have these rights because most people choose to believe in the axiom" this implies that when you say "have these rights" you mean "have these rights recognized/respected." This is not what philosophers mean when they say someone has a right. If you have a natural right, you have it whether anyone else recognizes it or not. Positive rights are rights that exist only because we recognize them. Some philosophers (those who believe only in positive law, don't ask me to name any) would say that there are no natural rights and you have only those rights your society grants you.

Note that in one society you can have both natural and postive rights. So if we assume that freedom of religion is a natural right (so we believe that even where someone could be killed for their religion, it's still the case that on a moral level they have the right to believe as they want, and it's wrong for them to be killed for this), we can simultaneously believe that in contemporary democratic countries you have the positive right to a lawyer if accused of a crime. Having a lawyer just doesn't make sense as a natural right.

Some positive rights can be seen as offshoots of things we might think of as natural rights. For example, voting is a positive right, but it would seem to come from a (potentially natural) right to self-determination.

In the Canadian constitution the freedoms vs. rights distinction is roughly analogous to the natural vs. positive distinction. E.g. we have "fundamental freedoms" like speech and beliefe, but also rights like mobility rights, voting rights, rights to a lawyer etc.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 2:21 PM on April 1, 2010


Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, nonsense upon stilts.' - Jeremy Bentham

Lots of people argue against the concept of natural rights.

Bentham, Burke, Rousseau, etc.
posted by knapah at 2:26 PM on April 1, 2010


First of, the first paragraph really smacks of the Objectivism put forth by Ayn Rand. So I think that is going to generate some comments all on it own around here.

To me the natural rights are things that successful, prosperous societies have as part of the unspoken social contract that makes societies function.

-Before I go any farther I want to state that i do not feel that all societies and cultures are equal or morally equivalent. Some of the abominations men (generic non gender specefic term here) have come up with in the past 10000 years deserved to end including some current ones-

Thus the rights derive from the mere existence of being sentient, self aware creatures with the ability to make moral decisions and evolve a theory of mind as we mature. Mankind has gotten better at this throughout the history of civilization and is much a technology as metallurgy or computer or mathematics. I remember reading something about this written by one of the founding fathers and I think it was in the federalist papers.

The idea of natural rights is also fundamental to the notion of consent of the governed and a soverign populace-and it is directly in opposition to the concept of a monarchical style of government where rights are derived from the king (or ruling elite) and given to others as favor.

As another quick aside, Those espoused by the declaration of independence and the constitution I feel are pretty good and work quite well for a culture with the Judeo-Christian ethos(which i also feel is pretty good but not the only good one in existance).

I would also say that liking a premise is not an invalid way of judging one. It is invalid with something like 2+2=5 (demonstrobly false), but not so with something subjective like this. I like it because it produces results. Societies that function on a premise of natural rights actually seem to produce a more fair and equitable society that provides the benefit of labor to those producing the labor better than any system before. The greatest good for the greatest number. Note I am not saying a perfect society, I am saying a society better than most that preceded it and especially good at producing one that is self-correcting i.e. getting better all the time without having to be rebuilt. Most other modern theories of societal constructs seem to devolve into some chamber of horrors regardless of how well the intentions are.

I am sure I have some logical fallacies here and am very interested in how this discussion will go-these kind of questions is why i read the site.
posted by bartonlong at 2:33 PM on April 1, 2010


How do they derive the idea that rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness exist "naturally"?

Ashley801 beat me to it with Locke.

The foundation of that strand of political/moral philosophy is the thought experiment of a "state of nature", unburdened by the artificial structures demands of society. As people encountered aboriginal groups as part of their colonial explorations, they used assumptions and observations about the state of nature to distinguish natural from artificial rights (i.e. the noble savage) and build a philosophical model upon that foundation.

It's clearly an ideological position, and a post hoc rationalisation of how societies develop -- but at the time it emerged, in an era of exploration and growing scepticism towards paternalistic and hierarchical models of governance, it was an incredibly powerful one in shaping the early modern era, and especially the Enlightenment.
posted by holgate at 2:40 PM on April 1, 2010


the first paragraph really smacks of the Objectivism put forth by Ayn Rand.

Though you could see it more in the tradition of Hobbes.

Just to reiterate: "We hold these truths to be self-evident" is an ideological challenge from Jefferson, a rhetorical gauntlet saying "welcome to the 1770s: we're working from these rules, now deal with it".
posted by holgate at 2:47 PM on April 1, 2010


Response by poster: First of, the first paragraph really smacks of the Objectivism put forth by Ayn Rand.

Just to make this clear: I don't believe the "natural" state of things as I described it in my first paragraph is anywhere near ideal, and my question is meant to articulate my current state (or lack) of understanding of these ideas as a starting point, rather than as advocacy for any particular point of view.
posted by weston at 3:05 PM on April 1, 2010


Societies that function on a premise of natural rights actually seem to produce a more fair and equitable society that provides the benefit of labor to those producing the labor better than any system before. The greatest good for the greatest number.

It sounds like you think that natural rights are good because societies who believe in them function better than those that don't. This is a utilitarian argument, not a natural rights argument. It was Jeremy Bentham who said "The greatest good for the greatest number", and who also said "Natural rights is simple nonsense."
posted by AlsoMike at 3:13 PM on April 1, 2010


My understanding is that they are natural because they are what would induce a person in the state of nature to come out of that state and join in a social contract. They are what it is worth giving up total freedom to do whatever without fear of anything other than revenge attacks.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:36 PM on April 1, 2010


right, these are normatively natural rights - the idea being they ought not be alienated, not that no one has ever broken them in history. So the claim is just that they are universally valid.

And yes, plenty of philosophers deny natural rights. Some standard bases for ethical philosophies other than natural rights are utility, reason/universal law, virtue ethics/care, and egoism. Whether "all men created equal" because a creator endowed us with rights or because we each agreed to endow each other with rights in order to receive the same in return, or because we empathize with each other, or because it makes for the best outcome, is less important than that it is agreed that "all (humans) are ... equal".

For the sake of simplicity, some people who want to agree to a starting premise of certain basic rights may use "natural rights" as shorthand so as not to have to bother explaining the actual process of how those rights are acquired (considering it taken care of elsewhere). But thinkers who do want to address where those rights extend from certainly have many theories beyond natural rights.
posted by mdn at 3:37 PM on April 1, 2010


I came in to drop Hobbes and Bentham's names (simply the quickest of many, many names to come to mind), but in my ardent yearning for a world in which such absurd ideas as "natural right" and "natural law" have lost their deceptive allure, I think I will say only that I think you have asked an excellent question, weston.
posted by dilettanti at 4:59 PM on April 1, 2010


Hm. Well, there's some interesting stuff here, but I'm going to try to give a brief summary of how political philosophers actually arrived at the idea of Natural Right (in our times) if I can:

First, you have to understand that all modern political philosophy (one might even say all modern philosophy) flow from Niccolo Machiavelli. He it was who first made this "discovery:" that life is brutal, and that all humans live by rules of which they seem outwardly to be ashamed. All of this is obvious to us now, because we are Machiavellians all and have been for well on five hundred years. However, we can't forget just how revolutionary Machiavelli's entire outlook was in his time. The classical and traditional political philosophies of the western world were aimed at one thing: justice. Natural Right was to them a component of justice, and a small complementary component at that; Justice was a very complex and difficult aim for which the state must be carefully crafted to achieve. I'm not going to go into all that, but suffice it to say: the ancients saw Justice as a high and noble goal.

Machiavelli's revolution consisted largely in making the claim that the ancients had aimed too high, and that the justice to which they aspired is impossible in human life. He pointed out over and over again that the world as we know it has nothing to do with justice, and that the rules by which men live are nothing like the rules which they claim are worth following. He actually stated outright that human society is founded on crime, on the breaking of stated rules. This was a deeply controversial claim, and it retains some of its controversy even today. It was also stirring to many people, particularly those practical-minded thinkers who saw the world and all the terrible things within it. In Machiavelli's estimation, selfishness is not the best rule; selfishness is the only rule, followed by clergy and congressmen and everyone in between. Machiavelli was not too dull to see that some civic pride and feeling could be selfish, and he himself seems to have seen one of his greatest goals as the uniting of Italy against the power of the church. But he felt that at the root was this concern for the self, which he apparently saw as the inescapable goal of human existence. One can see the beginnings of the modern notion of Natural Right already here, although it was not fully formed quite yet.

As I've said, this was a compelling argument for many thinkers; but most people found it quite unpalatable. This is so even today, as I'm sure you can imagine; most people hate the idea that pure selfishness is the sole motivator in human life, and that there are all sorts of despicable ends within the minds of human beings at any given time. So Machiavelli's vision had to be made friendly by several of his followers.

The first of these was Thomas Hobbes, who was in my mind the thinker who initiated modern thought about Natural Right. Hobbes was largely swayed by Machiavelli's vision, and he painted it once again in broad strokes; all of us probably remember his estimation that life in the state of nature is "nasty, brutish, poor, and short." But Hobbes painted a somewhat fairer picture, or at the very least he painted a picture that was more acceptable to people in general and more palatable to human beings. He made states out to be brutish, rather than human beings; and, breaking from Machiavelli, he turned to the idea of justice. But because he still stood upon Machiavelli's discovery that the Ancients had aimed too high, and that the way humans are is wholly other from the way they claim to be, Hobbes still painted human beings as being motivated by a kind of calculated self-interest. This is the context in which Hobbes encountered Natural Rights: because he admitted the self-interest with which human beings must act, but also reintroduced a consideration of justice, he was forced to turn to what their self-interest ought justly to be allowed to do. This is the modern genesis of Natural Right: the consideration of what the limits of selfishness should be. Of course, Hobbes was still quite practical about all this, and he had no illusions that he was depicting the great template of justice in the sky. But he formed his idea of natural right mostly from the notions that Machiavelli had passed on to him.

And it should be said that Hobbes' view of Natural Right was decidedly... martial. He envisioned human beings as awash with violence, seeking society to preserve them in the face of that violence. So the more refined sort of Natural Right that we moderns are familiar with needed another step: John Locke's. Locke it was who saw that human beings needed not only guns (as Hobbes saw) but food and shelter and other property to survive. For Locke, Natural Right was not merely the innate justification that allows a human to rightly take arms in defense and lay them down to the sovereign for the sake of society; it was also the justification which allows her or him to own property, to possess the materials of well-being. Locke's idea of Natural Rights was what fed directly into the ideas of Paine and the writers of the Constitution.

Now, there have been people who, in the spirit of Machiavelli, sought to debunk Natural Rights. (See, for instance, Bentham.) But I think that Natural Rights are, to some degree, within Machiavelli's design. Moreover, I would point out that our idea of Natural Rights as it is expressed in the modern world is fairly ruthless, in that it is indeed based on the realization that human beings are despicable. The Ancients would not have come close to such a conception, but would have considered Justice to be far more important than any individual Natural Rights. But I have a bit of a bias toward the Ancients, so there you are.
posted by koeselitz at 5:57 PM on April 1, 2010


By the way, weston, the interesting fact is that Natural Right in the modern sense is pretty much founded on the idea you've elaborated in your question: that the world is rough, and you get to keep what you get to keep. So I don't think you disagree with modern Natural Right as much as you might think you do.
posted by koeselitz at 6:01 PM on April 1, 2010


koeselitz, could you please elaborate on your claim that all modern (political) philosophy rests on Machiavelli? I've nominally studied both philosophy and political philosophy, both ancient and modern and that strikes me as an unusual (though perhaps not invalid) proposition. Maybe it is just an indictment of my ignorance... It's been years, and my philosophical/ethical interests have long since moved onto Eastern Thought and, you might say, mysticism.

At any rate, I somehow doubt that Postmodern philosophy or say Rawls, as varied examples, trace their linage though Machiavelli, but I am prepared to be proven wrong.

To the OP - reiterating my claims of ignorance as above as a warning - incidentally you might be interested in Rawls's idea of the veil of ignorance. I know I am mixing up all sorts of stuff here. But taking your question as "how do MODERN philosophers arrive at something like Natural Rights" Rawls seems as good a jumping off point as any, and I believe his ideas get around some of the divine foundation you are worried about.

"Natural Rights" only makes sense if you are talking to Deists (like the founding fathers and many of the enlightenment philosophers) who can invest moral authority in an all powerful, rational, but non involved god-as well as other premises that follow like that the universe, and thus man, follows a divine design. As previous posts have pointed out (and you yourself noted) in actual fact humans don't follow that design (and in modern times we question the existence of even this detached god). So the thought experiments of the past--the noble savage, the state of nature, and what would induce you to engage in the social contract--were ways of divining the inherent, uncorrupted and thus god given tendencies or properties of man (Natural Rights).

Rawls's thought experiment is a way of grounding that moral framework without god. And it is useful because it is a thought experiment that any individual can partake in and "logically" (well maybe emotively?) arrive at some conclusions about what rights he would want society to preserve in case his mortal lottery doesn't turn out so well. But, like all thought experiments in this vein, it is flawed. We all already know pretty much where we landed in the lottery and cannot ever argue from a truly unbiased position. Not perfect, but at least not getting entangled in the premise of "god".

Like I said, this is a slight perversion of the discussion, since I don't think Rawls ever used the word "natural rights". But, on the other hand, "natural rights" is more of a buzz word from the 1700s, the underlying concepts being described are similar/the same no matter what you call it.

Finally, beware sweeping claims. All ideas have a history and a linage, and those who don't understand the history of ideas are doomed to ignore the wisdom of past arguments (or worse, repeat failed arguments). No ideas die, they just change. So yes, there is a long running argument here.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 8:48 PM on April 1, 2010


Wow, a lot of misinformation in this thread. Natural law means something very specific in philosophy. St. Thomas Aquinas was the most prominent medieval natural lawyer; Alasdair MacIntyre, David Braybrooke and John Finnis are three contemporary philosophers who work in the natural law tradition. Read them.
posted by jayder at 5:02 AM on April 2, 2010


koeselitz: The first of these was Thomas Hobbes, who was in my mind the thinker who initiated modern thought about Natural Right.

jayder is absolutely correct: "Natural law" and "natural right" have very specific meanings. Hobbes used the terms "Right" and "Natural Law" but used them in very different ways than most "natural lawyers" and philosophers do. Indeed, his idea of "right" has almost nothing to do with the "natural rights" that are the target of the OP's question.

To understand Hobbes' take on Natural Right and Natural Law, it is important to keep in mind his understanding of Good and Evil:
But whatsoever is the object of any mans Appetite or Desire; that is it, which he for his part calleth Good: And the object of his Hate, and Aversion, Evill; And of his Contempt, Vile, and Inconsiderable. For these words of Good, Evill, and Contemptible, are ever used with relation to the person that useth them: There being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common Rule of Good and Evill, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves; but from the Person of the man (where there is no Common-weatlh;) or, (in a Common-wealth,) from the Person that representeth it; or from an Arbitrator or Judge, whom men disagreeing shall by consent set up, and make his sentence the Rule thereof.
[Leviathan, Part I, Ch. 6] That is, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Hobbes' take on Natural Right and Natural Law is laid out in Chapter 14 of the Leviathan. For Hobbes, a Natural Right is simply the absence of external impediments:
The Right Of Nature, which Writers commonly call Jus Naturale, is the Liberty each man has, to use his own power, as he will himselfe, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life; and consequently, of doing any thing, which in his own Judgement, and Reason, hee shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.

By Liberty, is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of externall Impediments: which Impediments, may oft take away part of a mans power to do what hee would; but cannot hinder him from using the power left him, according to his judgement, and reason shall dictate to him.

A Law Of Nature, (Lex Naturalis,) is a Precept, or generall Rule, found out by Reason, by which a man is forbidden to do, that, which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same; and to omit, that, by which he thinketh it may be best preserved. For though they that speak of this subject, use to confound Jus, and Lex, Right and Law; yet they ought to be distinguished; because Right, consisteth in liberty to do, or to forbeare; Whereas Law, determineth and bindeth to one of them: so that Law, and Right, differ as much, as Obligation, and Liberty; which in one and the same matter are inconsistent.

And because the condition of Man, (as hath been declared in the precedent Chapter) is a condition of Warre of every one against every one; in which case every one is governed by his own Reason; and there is nothing he can make use of, that may not be a help unto him, in preserving his life against his enemyes; It followeth, that in such a condition, every man has a Right to every thing; even to one anothers body.
[Leviathan, Part I, Ch. 14] Everyone has a "Right" to everything. For Hobbes, a "Natural Right" is not an edifice in which he hides his God, like so many others; it is merely the power to do what one will, within the confines of any external impediments. The focus of his work was primarily the nature of the impediments we erect with the hopes of improving our general condition - very different from the "Natural Law" of the Thomists and neo-Thomists, and very different from the ideas of Natural Law and Natural Right that lurk behind so much popular political "philosophy".

Hobbes does say that people can renounce or transfer such rights, but in a very peculiar way: when one renounces or transfers a "right", one is simply erecting impediments to one's own actions - that is, one makes it disagreeable or painful to take those actions, whether because of the threat of punishment, or the loss of some hoped-for good:
Whensoever a man Transferreth his Right, or Renounceth it; it is either in consideration of some Right reciprocally transferred to himselfe; or for some other good he hopeth for thereby. For it is a voluntary act: and of the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some Good to himselfe.
[Leviathan, Part I, Ch. 14] Remember that a "Good" is merely something one desires, or appreciates. Such transfers are in the nature of a contract, and one needs only a mechanism to enforce such contracts. This is Hobbes idea of a "Natural Law": an action is "forbidden" by "Natural Law" if one reasons that it is destructive to one's interests. Some contracts are self-enforcing: we have no incentive to breach them. That is, a person may "bind" himself to refrain from taking liberties with others, but only when it is in his self-interest to do so. The challenge for Hobbes was to establish a state in which the restraints on individual actions are self-enforcing: something like a game-theoretic equilibrium detente among the citizens of a society. Without a way of altering each other's natural incentives, we are left in a state of war - every man for himself, and only those agreements of mutual interest will be honored. The state provides a way of consolidating power to enable enforcement of a broader array of contracts.
Therefore before the names of Just, and Unjust can have place, there must be some coercive Power, to compell men equally to the performance of their Covenants, by the terrour of some punishment, greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their Covenant; and to make good that Propriety, which by mutual Contract men acquire, in recompence of the universall Right they abandon: and such power there is none before the erection of a Commonwealth.
[Leviathan, Part I, Ch. 15] So I think it is a real stretch to associate Hobbes with the Thomists or the philosophers of "Natural Right" the OP was asking about.
posted by dilettanti at 7:43 AM on April 2, 2010


He it was who first made this "discovery:" that life is brutal, and that all humans live by rules of which they seem outwardly to be ashamed.... I'm not going to go into all that, but suffice it to say: the ancients saw Justice as a high and noble goal.

"the ancients" had all sorts of various opinions about justice - and Thrasymachus, and Glaucon, in Plato's Republic, represent something pretty close to the Machiavellian view. It takes Socrates nine chapters to counter what they present as the standard or common understanding - that men will do whatever they can get away with to serve themselves.

Like I said, this is a slight perversion of the discussion, since I don't think Rawls ever used the word "natural rights". But, on the other hand, "natural rights" is more of a buzz word from the 1700s, the underlying concepts being described are similar/the same no matter what you call it.

Rawls is usually considered a Kantian, basing rights on reason. Rights aren't simply naturally endowed. We have them because we are rational creatures who recognize the worth of rational creatures. You could claim natural rights for animals if you wanted, but you could not claim Kantian rights for animals. More practically, Kantians sometimes have difficulty defending why mentally impaired people should have rights, etc. For a Kantian, rights are simply part of being rational (as the other side of responsibility) whereas the notion of natural rights usually attempts to include all human beings by definition.
posted by mdn at 7:48 AM on April 2, 2010


DetonatedManiac: “koeselitz, could you please elaborate on your claim that all modern (political) philosophy rests on Machiavelli? I've nominally studied both philosophy and political philosophy, both ancient and modern and that strikes me as an unusual (though perhaps not invalid) proposition. Maybe it is just an indictment of my ignorance... It's been years, and my philosophical/ethical interests have long since moved onto Eastern Thought and, you might say, mysticism. ¶ At any rate, I somehow doubt that Postmodern philosophy or say Rawls, as varied examples, trace their linage though Machiavelli, but I am prepared to be proven wrong.”

Well, first of all, 'postmodern' is different from 'modern' - not that there's a whole lot of postmodern thought about natural right that I know of, but I'm not really an expert there. Moreover, I'm pretty weak on the 20th century in general as far as that goes. Keep in mind that when I say "modern" I mean "the past four hundred years," not "the past fifty years." Also, it's pretty easy to trace Rawls' Machiavellian lineage, even if it may not seem intuitive at first, at least if you see him as an heir to Kant.

“"the ancients" had all sorts of various opinions about justice - and Thrasymachus, and Glaucon, in Plato's Republic, represent something pretty close to the Machiavellian view. It takes Socrates nine chapters to counter what they present as the standard or common understanding - that men will do whatever they can get away with to serve themselves.”

Yes, and Socrates prompty denies that Thrasymachus is correct. (And Glaucon argues no such thing, to be honest.) There were plenty of ancients who considered this point of view, it's true; but Machiavelli himself claimed he was an explorer, akin to Columbus, discovering a new land of philosophic thought. In later years, he was compared to Copernicus as a scientist of the human spirit. You might not believe him, but I believe he constitutes a decisive turn in philosophy. Nietzsche, for one, seems to have agreed.

jayder: “Wow, a lot of misinformation in this thread. Natural law means something very specific in philosophy. St. Thomas Aquinas was the most prominent medieval natural lawyer; Alasdair MacIntyre, David Braybrooke and John Finnis are three contemporary philosophers who work in the natural law tradition. Read them.”

The OP asked about Thomas Paine. How exactly is Thomas Paine in the Natural Law tradition in any way at all? I answered the question based on that reference; maybe I was wrong to do so.
posted by koeselitz at 8:05 AM on April 2, 2010


mdn: “Rawls is usually considered a Kantian, basing rights on reason. Rights aren't simply naturally endowed. We have them because we are rational creatures who recognize the worth of rational creatures. You could claim natural rights for animals if you wanted, but you could not claim Kantian rights for animals. More practically, Kantians sometimes have difficulty defending why mentally impaired people should have rights, etc. For a Kantian, rights are simply part of being rational (as the other side of responsibility) whereas the notion of natural rights usually attempts to include all human beings by definition.”

(A side issue, but: this is where Machiavelli's influence on Rawls can be traced. It was Machiavelli's consideration that human beings live by selfish and rationally deduced laws. The view to natural right you describe here is a clear outgrowth from that consideration; natural right is a rationally-derived calculation of selfish human beings in the world as it is.)
posted by koeselitz at 8:08 AM on April 2, 2010


dilettanti: “So I think it is a real stretch to associate Hobbes with the Thomists or the philosophers of "Natural Right" the OP was asking about.”

Again, I might have misread the question. As it appears to me, weston asked about "Tom Paine and similar thinkers" and how they arrived at the idea of "natural right" that was trumpeted in the eighteenth century. The lineage of Thomas Paine's ideas about natural right can indeed be traced through Hobbes, if I'm not mistaken. Did I miss something?
posted by koeselitz at 8:13 AM on April 2, 2010


And I'd really like to hear about it if you're going to argue that Thomas Paine was a Thomist. Heh.
posted by koeselitz at 8:15 AM on April 2, 2010


DetonatedManiac: “koeselitz, could you please elaborate on your claim that all modern (political) philosophy rests on Machiavelli?”

Er - I know I'm saying a lot here, but just one point to hopefully make a bit of it a little clearer: I said this mostly because Machiavelli really is the source of a major turn for natural right. When people in the eighteenth century like Thomas Paine used the phrase "natural right," they meant something completely different from what the Thomists and other mediaval scholiasts meant by it. During the enlightenment, the notion of natural law wasn't just substantially revised; it was wholly scrapped and replaced with a new idea about how the world works. Hobbes, Locke, and Kant might have been influenced by St Thomas in tiny ways, but on the whole they rejected that influence explicitly; this is why they saw themselves as explorers and discoverers of a new world.

That notion - the notion that a new science must be established, the notion that fueled the enlightenment - begins with Machiavelli. That's really all I meant by that comment.
posted by koeselitz at 8:27 AM on April 2, 2010


koeselitz: The lineage of Thomas Paine's ideas about natural right can indeed be traced through Hobbes, if I'm not mistaken. ... And I'd really like to hear about it if you're going to argue that Thomas Paine was a Thomist. Heh.

weston: I understand Tom Paine and similar thinkers dislike the idea that rights are derived from society (because then society can take them away) and like the idea of natural or creator-endowed rights (because then no human can make the claim they can take them away), but liking/disliking a consequence isn't a logical (in the literal sense) reason for evaluating a premise. How do they derive the idea that rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness exist "naturally"?

I know very little of Thomas Paine's philosophy - but the ideas the OP ascribed to him are not Hobbesian in any meaningful sense. Contra the description in the original post, Hobbes' "rights" (that is, the protections one enjoys from the impediments others would otherwise pose to the exercise of his power) are ensured by society entirely. The state is what provides the threat of punishment for breaking our contracts or covenants. No "right" in the vulgar sense was "natural or creator-endowed" for Hobbes (which is precisely what the OP ascribed to Paine).

To tell the truth, my understanding of Thomist thought on Right (Jus) is that it is actually much closer to Hobbesian thought than Hobbes is to the ideas the OP ascribes to Paine, but I believe that Thomist ideas of Natural Law (Lex) provide the seed for those ideas the OP challenges. For Hobbes, there was no "eternal law" or "natural law" but that each will do what he is able to do to preserve himselfe. There was also no good or evil but what one desires or abhors. Hobbes does claim to outline several "natural laws", but these are not "creator-endowed" - they are, rather, general rules that he believes operate for the preservation of the self. Unfortunately, Hobbes was tied to the language of the Thomists, so it gets a bit tricky to disentangle his ideas from those of Aquinas, Locke, and others in the natural law tradition. For Aquinas, natural law is something like "eternal law discovered through reason" and included the precept that one ought to do good and avoid evil (absolute) - the prime difference from Hobbes is that the natural law for Aquinas has moral content.

So while I have no desire, intention, or ability to argue that Paine was a Thomist, I still think it's a stretch to associate Hobbes with the ideas that the OP was asking about - those "natural or creator-endowed rights" that lurk behind modern calls for "Human Rights" and all-too-frequently encountered ideas of the U.S. Constitutional system that the "rights" guaranteed by the Constitution are somehow prior to the Constitution, and "exist" independent of the governmental institutions erected to enforce them.
posted by dilettanti at 9:30 AM on April 2, 2010


dilettanti: “To tell the truth, my understanding of Thomist thought on Right (Jus) is that it is actually much closer to Hobbesian thought than Hobbes is to the ideas the OP ascribes to Paine... ”

I can see what you mean. Although I still think that the eighteenth-century idea of natural rights is much harsher than weston realizes, and I still believe that it can be traced through modern sources in counter-distinction to ancient, it occurs to me that the missing link here is probably Rousseau. Rousseau is probably the place to look for the foundation of the idea of innate natural rights.
posted by koeselitz at 9:50 AM on April 2, 2010


Yes, and Socrates prompty denies that Thrasymachus is correct. (And Glaucon argues no such thing, to be honest.)

I wouldn't call it prompt at all. The whole Republic is an argument against the point of view presented in the first chapter by Thrasymachus and expanded on, more gently, by Glaucon & Ademantus. Of course Glaucon is only acting as a devil's advocate, but he provides the story of the Ring of Gyges and the suggestion of the opposite reputations, to say that people only "act good" or try to "look good" for the sake of how it benefits them, but in the end no one truly cares whether they are good. Socrates' whole challenge is to try to explain how it could be that goodness in itself is worthwhile.

That's where the story of the cave comes from - he says in the cave, people fight over shadows - reputations - but if they have turned around, seen the light, then they won't care about such things anymore. If they have lived the good life for its own sake, then they will understand why it is worthwhile. Yet even he says that if such a man returns to the cave and tries to tell this to the men still there, he will be killed by them. The Republic speaks of what justice truly is, or ought to be, or could be, but in actual life, Socrates thinks most of us are in the cave, living by Machiavellian rules.

There were plenty of ancients who considered this point of view, it's true; but Machiavelli himself claimed he was an explorer, akin to Columbus, discovering a new land of philosophic thought. In later years, he was compared to Copernicus as a scientist of the human spirit. You might not believe him, but I believe he constitutes a decisive turn in philosophy. Nietzsche, for one, seems to have agreed.

yeah... I dunno. Descartes is also famous for a whole new way of thinking with "I think, therefore I am," even though Augustine said "If I doubt, I am" over 1000 years earlier... Sometimes I think the enlightenment guys give themselves a bit too much credit :). Everything old is new again, or something.
posted by mdn at 10:18 AM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


which alienate inalienable rights as often

one more clarification, which may help here - the point of "inalienable" is that you cannot choose to give up your rights. It is just as wrong for you to deny yourself your rights as it is for you to deny rights to someone else. That doesn't mean people don't do things which are wrong (that it isn't possible for you to alienate rights), but it means it remains wrong when you do it to yourself (that it is wrong to reject the rights you are endowed with).
posted by mdn at 11:03 AM on April 2, 2010


Response by poster: Two clarifications:

I believe [Rawls] ideas get around some of the divine foundation you are worried about.

Though I can see why it my question would read that way, I'm actually fine with theism. I just think it's self-evident that whether or not God exists, there does not exist an omnipotent God who has chosen to actively safeguard most of the things we consider rights. Rights may or may not be God-intended, but I don't understand how anyone can argue they're given by an omnipotent God (since not everyone actually enjoys them). And similarly, for non-theists, I don't understand how anyone can argue the universe has just somehow yielded us most of the things we consider rights. I'd like to understand the arguments for and against.

It's becoming clear to me that I may have abused the term "Natural Rights" in my question, if I were rephrasing, I'd probably move my elaboration to something more like the immediate paragraph above.

The OP asked about Thomas Paine. How exactly is Thomas Paine in the Natural Law tradition in any way at all? I answered the question based on that reference; maybe I was wrong to do so.

A little more background: the reason you see Mr. Paine and Jefferson's Declaration in the wording of the question is that the context in which I most frequently encounter the discussion of "natural rights" tends to be lay discussion of American politics. Paine and Jefferson are probably the most frequently appealed-to when people are positing the existence of "God-given" or "naturally existing" rights. Part of what I'm doing is trying to figure out if there's substance behind both their invocation and their arguments despite my skepticism.

But more broadly, I don't mind exploring a whole host of philosophy that orbits near the issue, so even if the discussion hasn't had a laser-focus on that, I'm finding worthwhile stuff in the answers given.
posted by weston at 11:43 AM on April 2, 2010


weston: “Part of what I'm doing is trying to figure out if there's substance behind both their invocation and their arguments despite my skepticism.”

That's a great restatement of what you're after - and, looking at it again now, I should have seen it in your question a bit better. And I have to say that I think the answer to your question, or at least the source of the strangeness of the place of God in these arguments, is to be found in the work of John Locke. Locke is a crafty little fellow, maybe the craftiest atheist of the enlightenment, given that he comes off just about as pious as a saint. He is constantly quoting scripture and talking about natural law as though he were a traditionalist and mentioning god and all this; but I think it's clear from his teaching that he was simply an atheist.

He lived in different times, times when to be an open atheist meant consigning your work to abject failure, or at least to ill repute. By pretending to be religious, and yet extending and deepening the tradition founded by Machiavelli and continued through Hobbes, Locke secured for himself and his ideas a place in history.

In short: I think a lot of this "God-given rights" bluster you're reading from the eighteenth century is either (a) confused stuff from people who haven't thought it through or (b) lip service paid to religious authorities that didn't really mean anything. The enlightenment idea of natural right has absolutely nothing to do with God when it comes down; Locke, for one, lays out two ways that the natural law can be known: through religious illumination and through ideas of justice, property and government. He subtly points out the unlikelihood that anyone will learn about natural law through religious illumination, and then proceeds to teach that we should follow the path of property and natural right instead. It's subtle, but in the end I believe it's clear: Locke was pointing away from religious teaching, and from God.
posted by koeselitz at 5:29 PM on April 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


By the way, I've kind of held off on mentioning this (because it sometimes annoys some people) but I may as well say it now: I'm indebted to Leo Strauss for a lot of my own conception of the framework of political philosophy. And I think he's done a better job than any other philosopher I know of in the last century simply to lay out that framework and to give a comprehensive and careful view of the modern history of political philosophy; other philosophers have done other things well, but Strauss really excels at his history of philosophy.

One great little book of his that I recommend is his collection of essays entitled What Is Political Philosophy? He covers a lot of these issues quite well there, particularly in the title essay and in two others, "On the Basis of Hobbes' Political Philosophy" and "Locke's Doctrine of Natural Law." He also has a book-length study of this very issue, which covers the historical background quite nicely, entitled Natural Right and History.
posted by koeselitz at 5:39 PM on April 2, 2010


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