Some Doubts About Natural Rights

Paul Gottfried expresses his doubts about the Enlightenment concept of natural right defended by Michael Anton:

Michael Anton has reiterated his deep, passionate belief in “natural right” but (alas!) has still not convinced me that I must embrace this idea for the greater social good. I’m also not sure why American youth would find his belief more compelling than other commitments inherited from the past, for example, belief in the Bible as a divinely revealed document or in America’s constitutional foundations.

Supposedly something called “modernity” requires us to opt for Mr. Anton’s answer to social dissolution. The American conservative establishment and Republican talking heads seem to agree with him. They have placed so much rhetorical effort in pushing the idea of inborn individual rights that every time I flip on Fox News someone is solemnly proclaiming a “God-given right.” Whether this has been a wise investment of effort is doubtful, since our ascribed or claimed natural rights continue to multiply, but not always in a way that would please Mr. Anton. Some establishment conservative commentators have been lately characterizing gay marriage as an inborn individual right, and I’ve no doubt that this exercise of choice is already joining the laundry list of the conservative movement’s inalienable rights.

I fully understand the distinction Mr. Anton is drawing between natural right as something that is attached to us by an authority outside of ourselves and which we discover through investigation, and mere “rights” that we presumably invent for ourselves. But like traditional religion, his concept rests on a leap of faith, and its content, as I have already explained, is far from self-evident. Why should his tradition seem more convincing than other traditions that have fallen out of favor? I doubt that his metaphysic of natural right is more compelling to the American public than my invocation of history and tradition. The moral foundations of the American nation were in reality shaped by religion and custom, not by an Enlightenment contrivance.

Mr. Anton is correct that it’s highly unlikely that an early American political figure who invoked natural right would have included gay marriage among his list of inborn human rights. But a progressive today can legitimately argue from a natural right perspective that this may be attributable to our ancestors’ lack of imagination or to a failure to grasp the full implications of natural right thinking. In the present age, the notion of inborn individual rights has led more often in a progressive direction than a conservative one. Furthermore, the revulsion of the 18th-century American for the idea of gay marriage likely came from his biblical morality, not from declarations of natural rights in the political documents of the time. His morality had a deeper and, in the 18th century, more prevalent source independent of talk about natural rights.

I’m deeply skeptical about natural rights myself, due to the poison fruit that has observably grown from their Enlightenment seeds. But I’ll have to read all three pieces before I express my own opinion on the subject. Natural rights tend to strike me more as effective political rhetoric than a strong dialectic foundation for a political philosophy.

And where what Chesterton described as “the democracy of the dead” contradicts the various emanations and penumbras wafting off the stinking pile of natural rights, it’s now obvious that tradition, be it familial, ethnic, or religious, reliably trumps the philosophers’ meanderings.