Sunday, November 7, 2010

Natural Rights

In a sense, nobody is entitled to anything. We come into this world naked and helpless. In a state of nature not only are we not guaranteed food, or even the opportunity to obtain food, we don't even have a right not to be eaten.

For the concept of "natural rights" to make any sense, therefore, it must mean not "rights endowed by nature" but something more like "rights it is natural to have", that is, rights derived from reason. Fundamentally I think it was originally primarily a rejection of rights justified by custom especially what was considered to be the arbitrary privileges enjoyed by those fortunate enough to have "noble" or "royal" ancestry.

Usually systems of natural rights begin with a premise that all people are in some sense equal and deserving of equal rights, and the only question becomes what rights and responsibilities everyone has. This naturally leads to libertarianism or something pretty close to it, although experience has taught us that people who are more or less libertarian can spend lifetimes quibbling over details.

The idea of human equality has a certain degree of appeal because it is a Schelling point: we treat others as equals in order that they treat us as equals. But the fact that we are willing to treat others as equals does not imply that they will be willing to treate us as equals, not does the fact that others are willing to treat others as equals necessarily imply that we shoudl treat them as equals. In fact, people are clearly simply not equal, physically, mentally, or morally. Which of two people is "better" by any criteria is likely to be clear, although the answer will depend on the criteria chosen.

Even if equality of merit existed, equality would not be sufficient to determine rights and responsibilities. Different people have different preferences, and it is simply unreasonable to expect anyone to accept someone else's preferences as being somehow cbjectively correct. They simply are not. In many societies an insult is considered justification for a killing. In others, it is considered a right to say what one wishes, regardless of who it offends. Neither is objectively correct, but people who accept one set of values will have difficulties in a society based on a very different set.

Most people spend much of their time around people with values and preferences much like their own, particularly when they can choose their own company, and so frequently overestimate how common or "natural" their preferences are. This allows them to delude themselves into believing that disagreements are largely about misunderstanding, that if only they could explain themselves clearly and fully, if only others would take the time and effort to listen and understand, then others would accept that their ideas are "correct".

Reason alone is simply insufficient for determining what rights people have or ought to have. This is not to disparage the power of reason. Reason can allow us to come to agreements, but only if we agree on basics premises to an extent that people in general simply do not.