Natural rights are nearly as poorly understood as gravity. Just as people naturally attempt to defend their property so does an apple naturally fall to the ground from a tree. However, if one asks a prominent physicist, “what causes gravity?” the answer will, at best, be nebulous and rife with speculation. Analogously, one can ask an esteemed philosopher of liberty about the origin of natural rights, and the answer will likely be just as imprecise. Luckily, natural rights do not require the proposition of gravitons to be understood and neither are particle colliders necessary.
What does it mean to say all men are equal?1 It is not a coincidence that science was invoked in the leading paragraph. In the olden days, science was not yet called science; it was dubbed natural philosophy. It also sheds light on the use of the word “natural” – with respect to natural rights – to consider that Isaac Newton and John Locke were very close friends. Returning to the question posed, all men are equal before the laws of nature. Neither governments nor kings can break those laws.
The realization that all men are equal before nature was not a trivial one. For ages, people were under the impression that divine right existed whereby individuals such as kings and pharaohs were somehow thought to be naturally superior to common mortals. Natural philosophy lead to the dissolution of that myth and ultimately resulted in the American Revolution – which demonstrated to the world that kings are not necessary. This is no small feat; some even suggested that George Washington be America’s first king. I guess old habits die hard.
To probe the nature of a system, it is often necessary to remove (as much as possible) outside influences that may alter measurements or make observations more difficult to interpret. For instance, suppose an individual wanted to investigate how heating a can of soda caused it to foam and overflow upon opening, but each time he or she was ready to open the can to make observations a person came along and shook it up. Needless to say, shaking the can would make the results useless for the intended purpose. In the same way, the nature of man must be considered in an isolated system in order to gain greater insight. To achieve this, a gedankenexperiment (thought experiment) must be performed – as it is not feasible to maroon individuals on a remote island to fulfill our desire for observation.
Suppose that two individuals are in an isolated environment where they must provide for themselves. At the beginning, neither can rightfully lay absolute claim to any of the available resources. For example, neither could say, “all of the trees belong to me” or “all of the deer are mine.” Such proclamations would be absurd; none of those things naturally belong to them. However, suppose that one of the individuals – Person A – fashions a spear (while Person B is not even around) which makes hunting much more efficient. Does Person A naturally own (have a rightful claim to) the spear? Or, does Person B naturally own the spear? It should be clear that Person A has a claim to the spear which can be justified naturally with reason while Person B has no equivalent claim. A right can be defined as a just claim. It can be said that Person A has a natural right to his or her property – the spear.
Life is the most fundamental property of an individual. Once established, life can only be preserved or taken; it cannot be given. Without life, other forms of property would not exist. If Person A was never born, the (particular) spear would have never been made. Since an individual has a natural right to his or her property and all property is derived from life, it follows by implication that an individual has a just claim to his or her own life. It could also be said that a just claim to property comes through creation of that property, and since life is not created by other humans (which is narrowly arguable in the case of parents), no person has a just claim to another person’s life. Individuals have a natural right to their own lives.
In conclusion, to say that natural rights do not exist is nonsensical. Making such a claim is analogous to saying that a stranger has an equal claim to the fruits of one’s labor as does the laborer. If this was true, communism would work seamlessly; however, due to the nature of man (and by implication – natural rights) experiments with communism have failed time after time. Societies that attempt to ignore the natural existence of property rights are futilely attempting to modify the nature of Man. During living years, natural rights can only be violated; they cannot be taken away.
All men are equal before nature, and natural rights exist.
1. The word “created” was intentionally left out of the phrase “all men are equal” because the word “created” supposes the existence of a creator. Basing the argument for natural rights on the existence of a creator allows for religious bias to leak in, such that the people of one religion may think of themselves as superior to others. While the author has nothing against the belief that a creator exists, he believes it is unnecessary to invoke such an existence in the context of this discussion.
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