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January 26, 2006

I Exist; All Else is Consequence

There have been some interesting discussions on what natural rights are, and why they are, in the blogosphere recently. First, to summarize:

Max Borders postulates that rights have meaning only because we give them meaning; all rights are socially constructed. Borders likens rights to money, without understanding the difference between fiat currency and money. (But then, he doesn't appear to understand anything about civil vs. natural rights, either.)

Jon Henke is impressed by this argument, and talks about rights in a manner implying civil rights, but he is apparently thinking about natural rights. This confusion leads Henke to conclude that rights are essentially polite social fictions.

Dale Franks has a much clearer understanding of rights, and lays out why natural rights exist, in a clear and straightforward manner.

Meanwhile, Francis Porretto recently tracked rights and Christianity together through the two Great Commandments. UPDATE: And a follow-up to this post on social construction of rights.

I have a couple of observations to make, on "good" vs. "bad" religions (yes, I'll judge), "good" vs. "bad" social orders, and the cultures that arise from them. All because of the simple observation that I exist, and so do other people. This is going to be long, so the rest is below the fold.

The fact that I exist has certain consequences, including these: I want to keep on existing, and via having children to extend the meaning of my existence beyond my own lifetime; I want to be prosperous, happy and able to better myself, and to provide more for my children than myself; I don't want to be forced to do things, because that would likely prevent me from being prosperous and happy. Because I want these things, badly, I would be willing to go to great lengths to ensure that I get them.

Other people also exist, and want the same things, and are also willing to go to great lengths to ensure that they get them (though not to great lengths, necessarily, to ensure that I get them).

Anyway, the nature of our existence as rational beings possessed of free will leads to the three most important natural rights, so called because they arise as a consequence of man's existence and nature: life (keep living, have children, etc), liberty (not be forced to do things), and ability to pursue happiness (prosperity would be part of what makes me happy, certainly: starving, for example, sucks). The ability to pursue happiness has a requisite though: property. If I am dependent for my living on someone else's whim, I am not free to pursue happiness, because they could use their hold over my continued existence to compel me to do things for their happiness. So having property — enough property to grow food to support my family, at a minimum — is a requisite for pursuit of happiness, and that is why the original formulation was "life, liberty and property". Visually, thus:

liberty foundations.png

Immediately we find the first place that cultures often go wrong. A culture which denies natural rights to its citizens is inherently violating human nature at its most primal. Thomas Jefferson very succinctly defined the purpose of government and its relationship to natural rights:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The legitimacy of a government derives not from elections or other means of representation nor from structural concerns. The legitimacy of government derives entirely from whether or not that government protects the rights of its people, against each other and against outsiders and against the government itself. For if the government does not protect those rights, for what reason does government exist? For the provision of justice is not a sufficient answer, though it is a common one, because justice demands the protection of natural rights, and the abrogation of those rights is thus inherently unjust.

A democracy can be illegitimate (in fact, a pure democracy will inevitably become so, while an impure democracy apparently will inevitably become so at a slower rate), and a tyranny can be legitimate. The key to legitimacy is not the organization of government, but its ability and willingness to protect the rights of its people.

I should mention, here, that this is essentially a moral judgement. The whole set of concepts of rights and justice and liberty are inherently moral judgements. If you believe, for example, that it is just fine to, say, kill people on a whim, then you will not be very persuaded by any of this. In that case, the only end to our disagreement will be for one of us to change our mind for internal reasons, or for one of us to die.

Back to rights. Each person's natural rights are self-contained; in fact, it is a necessary part of the definition of a natural right, what distinguishes a right from a mere desire. That is to say, if I assert a right, but exercising that claimed right requires an infringement of your rights, than my claim is false: what I want to do is not a right at all.

I can live without denying others their own right to live, can act without coercion (to do or not do, as the case may be) without denying others their own equivalent rights, and can own property — and thus work to guarantee my happiness — without denying others their right to own (different) property and similarly to work for their own happiness. While I can assert my rights without violating another's equivalent rights, there is also the possibility that I might not want another to enjoy their natural rights. For example, I might want to take another's property for my increased happiness, or coerce another to do something to make me happy even though it has negative consequences for them. In that case, since you would do virtually anything to secure your rights, you would perhaps decide to use armed force, if necessary, to prevent me from infringing your rights. From this it follows that self-defense is a natural right, as well. Similarly, other natural rights arise from the consequences of exercising and defending the basic natural rights, including the right to control one's own body (which arises from the life and property rights) or the right to engage in an occupation (which arises from the property and liberty rights).

Some rights, such as self-defense, arise as first-order consequences of the basic rights, but others arise as second- or third- or higher-order consequences. For example, the right to self defense implies a second-order right: the right to have a means with which to defend myself. Visually, our social structure becomes:

second order rights.png

From these rights, and the nature of man, two basic rules emerge for interacting with others. These two rules are called "natural laws" because they describe the proper exercise of natural rights, and they are these:

  • Do what you agree to do. (This is the basis of contract law.)
  • Do not encroach on others' rights. (This is the basis of tort law and much criminal law.)

Natural laws mediate the interactions of men in the same way that economic laws mediate the interactions of an economy. Visually, thus:

natural law.png

This is the second place that cultures frequently go wrong. If the interactions between people, or in particular between the government and the people, are not governed by natural laws, the result is inevitably a degradation in the observance of natural rights. In other words, failing to govern interpersonal interactions via natural law leads inevitably to tyranny.

In England, a justice system developed that was, as far as I know, unique in the world. The characteristics of that justice system that are important to this discussion are these:

  • All justice is based on natural law; and any violation of natural laws is thus an injustice.
  • Natural law is higher than statute law (law made by governments), and thus acts of government must be nullified if they conflict with natural laws.
  • It is the duty of judges to discover and apply natural law.

This system is called a common law system, and the American justice system is based on it. However, it is important to note that there aren't really any places which are purely based on common law: governments, seeking greater power as is in their nature, tend to override common law wherever and whenever it is to their convenience to do so. Those countries which still have vestiges of common law (the US, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Switzerland, for example) are those in which people are most free and, for reasons beyond the scope of this post, generally most prosperous as well.

Those people, including our Founding Fathers, who thought deeply about Liberty and governance during the Enlightenment came up with a novel understanding of the purpose of government, which is spelled out in our Declaration of Independence: government exists to protect natural rights by enforcing natural laws. Visually, thus:

government purpose.png

The different types of law each exist to enforce natural law. But there is a problem with this: what exists to stop the government from becoming all-powerful, once the government has come into existence? The first answer is respect for natural law, including the right of people to self-defense. After you stop laughing at the concept of government respecting anything but its own power and privilege, we'll get to the other things that keep the government from being all-powerful. Ready?

OK, a government instituted by free people who are not idiots will take into account human nature, which is where we all started. It is a fact of nature — a fact below even the level of human existence — that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. (If you don't believe me, go study entropy.) But it is a fact of human nature that we all want the free lunch anyway. And since government by its nature must have the power of taxation, government disposes of other people's money. So if you are in the right place in government, you dispose of other people's money. And there's what looks a lot like a free lunch, at least to the degree that you don't consider the long-term effects. Here are the long-term effects:


The government becomes a tyranny: it exerts control over the individuals subject to it, while extorting or stealing ever higher levels of taxes.

So to prevent that, a government designed to foster freedom requires safeguards. The right to keep and bear arms, for example, is a consequence of the natural right to self-defense. But it is also a necessary check on the power of government: an armed population can prevent the government from abrogating its rights, by force of arms if necessary. Other rights, which our Constitution also prohibits the government (theoretically) from interfering with also arise from this need to keep government within bounds: freedom of expression, habeus corpus and warrants, freedom of worship and from compulsion to worship, and so on. These are civil rights, and are only ours to enjoy until government decides to take them away. In addition, the very structure of government defined by the original Constitution was designed to keep the government from excessive taxation (no direct taxes except proportional to headcount) and excessive accumulation of personal power (checks and balances). Thank you the progressive movement for stripping away those protections! We have actually done this final wrong thing that government can do, and if we do not reverse it, we will eventually and inevitably slide into increasing tyranny. Already, we live in a less free society than our parents lived in.

The government can, of course, grant additional civil rights beyond these, and frequently does. Sadly, the government even more often uses the rhetoric of rights to mask the fundamental violation of rights. For example, claiming a right to free health care denies the more fundamental property rights of both doctors, compelled to practice in ways that they may disagree with, and of taxpayers, who must hand over ever more taxes to fund such programs.

Hmmm, I ended up going a bit off topic, so let me get back onto it. You might have noticed that I mentioned religion earlier, and didn't come back to it. Well, here we are.

Religion comes into this because we started with the fact of human existence. But prior to human existence comes the creation of humans: whence did we arise? And that is certainly a religious question. The Declaration of Independence merely notes that natural rights derive from the endowment of the Creator, but does not make any speculation as to the nature of the Creator, for what should be obvious reasons. But I think that it's possible to derive some idea of the possible divinities from examination of natural law, coupled with the observation that a just god would not create life to torment and destroy. (No one would call, say, Cthulu a just god, for example.)

Divine law governs how man may achieve salvation (Christian tint courtesy of Aquinas, but the principle is broader than that), and is not discoverable by reason (the way natural law is) or reading (the way statute law is) or experimentation (the way eternal laws, such as gravitation or thermodynamics, are), but only through faith. But here's the kicker: any divine law which abrogates natural law automatically goes against human nature, because natural law is just the set of rules that describe human nature. So if a divine code of law goes against natural law, that divine code, and by extension the religion that embodies it, is inherently bad: by denying human nature, it is unfit for human consumption.

This is in fact the basis of my break with Christianity, or as I now recognize it, the Judaical basis of Christianity: what kind of god says "Don't touch that one thing" to a curious being who is curious because that's how the god created the being and then eternally damn the being for touching? As far as I can tell, the Levitical covenant is still in effect, and thus at its core (though not in broad practice) Judaism has a serious problem with human nature. Islam, too, has this problem. The covenants of Islam deny natural law to a breathtaking extent.

Now to be fair, most Jews and most Muslims seem fairly decent sorts. Except, of course, for the very hard line fundamentalist Jews and Muslims, who take the covenants quite seriously. (Similarly, many hard line fundamentalist Protestants, who adhere to the Levitical covenant in spite of the two Great Commandments, are nearly unrecognizable as human in their relations with those who don't share their beliefs.)

But Christianity has at its heart the possibility of something better: the two Great Commandments, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. (38) This is the first and great commandment. The second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." And most Christians, really, follow that covenant rather than the earlier and harsher one. The implications of those two commandments, when fully thought through (and I recommend you read Porretto's religious writings) are actually quite beautiful. And note how closely those commandments adhere to natural law: those are the divine laws of a god that understands the beings of his creation.

Wicca and similar religions, too, have divine laws that are congruent with natural law. The Wiccan Rede ("Do what thou wilt, an harm none" being my favorite formulation) corresponds directly to the principle of not abrogating another's rights, while exercising one's own rights. The Three-Fold Law (that which you do comes back to you three-fold) expresses the consequences of not keeping your agreements.

I'm sure that there are other religions, too, whose core law matches well with natural law. And there are other religions equally dangerous (I suspect scientology falls in this category, from what little I know of it). If you want to know why the jihadis are so dangerous, you just need to look at what their covenant is, and how seriously they take it. Hopefully, as with the Catholic Church since its rethinking of itself after the Reformation, they are amenable to reform.

Contra Henke, natural rights and the associated natural laws are quite real. There are consequences to ignoring them, and those consequences go far, far beyond living and dying. They go to your very soul. So in the immortal words of Bill and Ted, "be excellent to each other."

Posted by jeff at January 26, 2006 4:21 PM

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I'm not sure why you think I conflate civil and natural rights. I understand the difference between the two, but I wasn't addressing that. Society and the social contract can create a system of "rights" by simply creating widespread social agreement and/or power to enforce those norms.

I didn't address the "ought" question at all. I only addressed "is".

Posted by: Jon Henke at January 27, 2006 6:14 AM

With regard to Christianity:
-- Genesis is necessarily allegorical, since it contains two completely distinct Creation stories;
-- Christ dismissed the Levitical Covenant in favor of his New Covenant.

The arbitrary commands, seemingly divorced of any natural imperative, that you find objectionable about the Levitical Covenant are no part of the Christian Covenant. The Church teaches that non-Christians who live worthy lives will enjoy the same eternal reward as devout Christians, which would not be the case if God had ordained "unnatural laws" of the arbitrary sort.

There is reason to believe that the Levitical Covenant, apart from the Ten Commandments, was Moses's personal formulation, rather than Divinely ordained. Alternately, some theologians have suggested that the pre-Christian Jews were being prepared by severe trial for the coming of Christ, which is consistent with other aspects of the pre-Christian prophetic legacy.

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at January 27, 2006 12:35 PM

Human Freedom and the Question of Evil

(Partial transcript from a talk by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen)

However there remains the problem of Evil.

You may ask, "If God is power and Love, why does He
create this kind of world and why does He permit

We are not going to give here a complete explanation
of evil, and a complete explanation cannot be given
here below. We will only give certain indications why
evil is possible.

Let us begin with the question: Why God made this kind
of world.

We must realize that this is not the ONLY kind of a
world that God could have made. He might have made
10,000 other kinds of worlds, where there would be no
pain, and no struggles and no sacrifice.

But this world [in which we live] is the best possible
kind of world that God could have made for the PURPOSE

Notice the distinction we're making. For example, a
little boy says to his father who is a distinguished
architect, "I want you to build me a bird house". The
architect designs a bird house. It is not the best
house that that skilled father could design, but it
may be the very best house that the architect could
design for the PURPOSE THAT HE HAD IN MIND; namely, to
build a house for sparrows.

Now that brings us to this other question. What
purpose now did God have in mind in making this world?

The answer is that God intended to build a MORAL
UNIVERSE. He willed from all eternity to build a
stage, on which characters would EMERGE.

He could have made a world without morality, without
virtue, without character. He might have made a world
in which each and every one of us would have sprouted
goodness with the same necessity for example, that the
sun rises in the east and sets in the west. But he
chose not to make that kind of a world. Not to make a
world in which we would be good, as fire is hot and
ice is cold; He willed to make a MORAL UNIVERSE, in
order that by the right use of the GIFT OF FREEDOM,
characters might emerge.

What does God care for things piled into an infinity
of space, even though they be diamonds? For if all the
orbits of heaven were as so many jewels, glittering as
the sun, what would their external but undisturbed
balance mean to Him, in comparison with a single
character, which could take hold of the tangled stains
of a seemingly wrecked and ruined life, and weave out
of them the beautiful tapestry of saintliness and

The choice before God in creating the world therefore
lay between creating a purely mechanical universe,
peopled by mere automaton machines, or creating a
SPIRITUAL UNIVERSE in which there would be a choice of
good and evil.

Alright, grant it then that God chose to make a moral
universe, in which there would be character. What was
the condition in such a universe? HE HAD TO MAKE US
That is to say, He had to endow us with the power to
say YES and NO. And to be captains of our own fate and
destiny. Morality implies responsibility and duty, but
these can exist only on condition of FREEDOM.

Stones have no morals, because they are not free. We
do not condemn ice because it is melted by heat.
Praise and blame can be bestowed ONLY ON THOSE who are
masters of their own will. It is only because you, for
example, have the possibility of saying "NO" that
there is so much charm in your character when you say
"YES". Take the quality of freedom away from a man,
and it is no more possible for him to be virtuous,
than it is for a blade of grass to be virtuous. And
there would be no more reason to honor the fortitude
of martyrs, than there would be, for example, to honor
the flames which kindle a pile of wood.

not to reign over an empire of chemicals?

If God has deliberately chosen a kind of empire, not
to be ruled by force but by freedom, and if we find
that His subjects are able to ACT AGAINST His will, as
stars and atoms cannot, does this not prove that He
has possibly given to those human beings the chance of
breaking allegiance, IN ORDER THAT THERE MIGHT BE
MEANING AND PURPOSE in that allegiance, when they
FREELY choose to give it?

Here we have then a mere suggestion as to the
possibility of human evil. It's bound up with the
FREEDOM of man and woman. Man, who is free to love, is
free to hate. He who is free to obey is free to rebel.
VIRTUE in this concrete order, is possible only in
those spheres in which it is possible to be VICIOUS; a
man can be a saint only in a Church in which it is
possible to be a devil.

You say, "well, if I were God, I would destroy evil".

Well, if you did that, you would destroy human
freedom. God will not destroy human freedom. If we do
not want any dictators on this earth, certainly we do
not want any dictators in the Kingdom of Heaven. And
those therefore who blame God for allowing man human
freedom to go on hindering and thwarting His work, are
like those who, seeing blots and smudges and errors in
a student's notebook would condemn the teacher for not
snatching away the book and doing the copy himself.
Just as the object of the teacher is sound education
and not the production of neat and well-written copy
books, so the object of God is the DEVELOPMENT OF
SOULS and not the production of biological entities.

And you say, "well, if God knew I would sin, why did
He make me?"

God did not make any of us as sinners, we make
ourselves, in that sense we are creators; therefore
the greatest gift of God to man short of grace, is the
gift of HUMAN FREEDOM and the power to LOVE HIM IN

The end.

Other topics by Fulton J Sheen:
The Gift of Grace: The power to choose God
Heaven or Hell: Eternal Union with God- or Eternal
Separation from God
Evil: The absence of Goodness
God in Search of Man
Christ Foretold
Good and Evil
Philosophy of Life
The Blessed Trinity
Law of Love
Death and Judgment
Sin & Penance
...and more

Posted by: Gabriel at February 15, 2006 11:51 AM