by Adam Magoon
The first step in understanding natural rights theory is to ask a simple but profound question. Do you own yourself?
Well, let’s start with the definition of ownership. Dictionary.com gives us “the act, state, or right of possessing something.” Digging deeper we find the definition of possession as “the state of having, owning, or controlling something.” The last part of that definition is key; controlling. There is a modicum of truth in the old adage possession is 9/10ths of the law. Nine times out of ten to own something is to control it.
Now getting back to our original question: Do you own yourself? Well do you control your own body and mind? We do not need to delve into psychology to answer this question. I alone can move my arms up and down, I can choose to stand, walk, eat, think, write, create, or to do nothing at all. I alone am in control over my body. This is an indisputable fact. The very act of questioning this fact proves it true; for if you do not have control over your thoughts and actions how could you possibly disagree?
Self-ownership is the cornerstone of libertarian natural rights philosophy and what the libertarian means when he uses the term “natural rights”.
To quote Murray Rothbard: “The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that each person must be a self-owner, and that no one has the right to interfere with such self-ownership”
Under this philosophy of self-ownership there are two important subcategories that I will just touch on for further elaboration at another time.
The Non-aggression Principle: is an ethical stance which asserts that “aggression” is inherently illegitimate. “Aggression” is defined as the “initiation” of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property.
This is why the threat of violence cannot be used to negate the concept of self-ownership. Holding a gun to my head and telling me to raise my arm does not mean you own the right to raise my arm any more than a thief owns the jewelry he stole. Ownership cannot be transferred through violent means.
And the concept of homesteading which is best explained by John Locke:
“[E]very man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to. . . .
He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. Nobody can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask then when did they begin to be his? . . . And ‘tis plain, if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could. That labour put a distinction between them and common. That added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done: and so they become his private right. And will any one say he had no right to those acorns or apples he thus appropriated, because he had not the consent of all mankind to make them his? . . . If such a consent as that was necessary, man had starved, notwithstanding the plenty God had given him. We see in commons, which remain so by compact, that ‘tis the taking part of what is common, and removing it out of the state Nature leaves it in, whichbegins the property; without which the common is of no use”
Very quickly I will also mention a couple of the more common arguments that arise when natural rights are discussed.
First, natural rights do not extend from god or any other supernatural or theological forces. They are based on rational and philosophical thought. They are what is known as an “a priori” argument. To put it simply, natural rights are a logical deduction based on a number of easily recognized facts, primarily the concept of self-ownership.
Second, governments do not, and indeed cannot, grant any rights that natural rights have not already granted. Let’s look at a current event that everyone always seems to think about backwards; the legalization of drugs for personal consumption. Because of the right to self-ownership each and every individual already has the right to do whatever they choose with their own body as long as they do so with their own property and do not violently harm others in the process. Even if the U.S. government “legalized” the use of drugs tomorrow, they are not granting anyone the right to do drugs, they are merely removing their own restrictions on something that is already a right. The idea that law comes from the state is known as ‘legal positivism’ and proponents are hard pressed to defend actions such as slavery and extermination that were made legal by many nations throughout the course of human history.
7 thoughts on “A (very) Quick Primer on Natural-Rights.”
Thank you very much Adam.
For what it’s worth, the concept of ‘natural rights’ hardly goes unchallenged in the libertarian quadrant. Our own Tibor Machan recently had a debate with a PhD candidate on natural rights theory over at the Freeman.
Thanks Brandon, an excellent link. I may add that site to my favorites list.
That’s true, there are various utilitarian, rules-utilitarian, and other methods of thought. I personally find those theories lacking but in the end it is really a matter of splitting hairs, I find it is better to work together then argue over semantics.
I agree that working together is a good thing, but arguing over semantics is exactly what blogs are for! 🙂
Don’t be shy about criticizing other theories. Without constant criticism a theory (or a movement) can become stale and largely irrelevant.
Natural rights derive from natural moral law. The natural right to have X means that by natural moral law, it is evil to negate X.
Agreed, I merely hoped to extrapolate what that means in a more tangible sense.