Monday’s Mtg: What Are Natural Rights and Why Does It Matter?

Yesterday (9/17/15) was national Constitution Day, so I thought Monday might be a good date to discuss this idea of Bruce’s. Natural rights may seem like an arcane philosophical matter. But, they are a huge deal to many conservatives. The existence and implications of natural rights is one of the main (although not the only) intellectual justifications for political conservativism. And, a moral foundation.  And a secret ingredient for constitutional interpretation, one that renders much of the 20th century’s activist government literally illegal.

In a nutshell, natural rights are a priori human rights, the basic freedoms that God or nature allegedly endows us with prior to any political arrangements we create. These rights are indefeasible: A political system based on natural law principles may not legitimately take them away from us except in narrow, exceptional circumstances. Conservatives that anchor themselves in natural law/natural rights, I’ve observed, tend towards libertarianism, believing that the natural right of life, liberty, and property are pretty much the only freedoms that the federal government must protect.  Congress can make “positive law” that advances other goals, but only in very limited circumstances.  The pursuit of happiness? To most conservatives I read and know, it’s something we’re entitled to chase after, but only with the protections of the Bill of Rights’ negative liberties to support us.

A natural rights-based philosophy, IMO, serves two other purposes, politically. First, arguments based on natural rights seem to be, well, natural and common sense, and who could be against nature?  Second, natural rights can be conceived of as either God-given or derived from nature or reason.  This helps to marry together religious conservatives and more secular-minded libertarian ones.  See, since natural rights are directly referenced in the Declaration of Independence (“inalienable rights”) and the Declaration also mentions God, then, if you’re a Declarationist, you can say that the Constitution has a fundamentally religious purpose even though God is absent from the Constitution’s text..

As for me, I’ve never quite figured out several things about natural rights. Such as how we’re supposed to be dead certain what they are and where they stop. Also, it’s unclear to me why any set of natural rights has to be eternally unchanging.  Can’t our conception of fundamental human rights that need protecting evolve as our societies evolve?. But, YMMV.

Below are some readings on natural rights and their political ramifications. Most are by conservative writers that put these rights at the center of our political system, plus a few progressive rebuttals. I also separated out some more complex articles on constitutional doctrine and legal history for the true masochists among us (you know who you are.).

I’ll open Monday’s meeting with a short summary of the issue of natural rights and then give Bruce a chance to do his thing.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  Public Ignorance as a political problem.  Donald, here we come!

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One response

  1. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    The concept of natural rights suffers from the difficulty that not everyone might agree on what those rights are, or how they are derived; though religionists, of course, might derive them from God.
    By contrast, the regime of human rights including civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights, is one which has been reached by agreement, at least among those states parties to the covenants (sadly, the United States is not a party to many of them).
    Since we have agreed on them, all we have to do is vindicate our rights LOL

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