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natural rights

March 6, 2010

On an internet discussion forum that I regularly frequent, there’s an ongoing debate about natural rights. I think the issue of natural rights is an intriguing subject. And while I’m not well-versed in political philosophy enough to debate the finer points of whether certain rights are something inherent to humankind or the product of government, I tend to agree with Jeremy Bentham’s assessment articulated in Anarchical Fallacies:

That which has no existence cannot be destroyed—that which cannot be destroyed cannot require anything to preserve it from destruction. Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense—nonsense upon stilts. But this rhetorical nonsense ends in the old strain of mischievous nonsense: for immediately a list of these pretended natural rights is given, and those are so expressed as to present to view legal rights. And of these rights, whatever they are, there is not, it seems, any one of which any government can, upon any occasion whatever, abrogate the smallest particle.

In addition, I think Bertrand Russell makes some interesting observations in A History of Western Philosophy regarding the philosophical ideals and scientific discoveries of ancient Greek philosophers that gave rise to the modern idea of natural rights. For example, he writes that:

When the Declaration of Independence says “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” it is modelling itself on Euclid. The eighteenth-century doctrine of natural rights is a search for Euclidean axioms in politics*. (*Here he includes a footnote that “self-evident” was substituted by Franklin for Jefferson’s “sacred and undeniable.”)

And this ideal itself essentially grew out of a “refined type of error” in mathematical knowledge originating from ancient Greek thinkers, especially Pythagoras, who believed that mathematical knowledge was superior to that of empirical knowledge in that it was thought to “supply an ideal, from which every-day empirical knowledge fell short.” Because of this, Pythagoras ascribed a primacy to thought over sense, and intuition over observation. Thus:

If the world of sense does not fit mathematics, so much the worse for the world of sense. In various ways, methods of approaching nearer to the mathematician’s ideal were sought, and the resulting suggestions were the source of much that was mistaken in metaphysics and theory of knowledge.

The problem, as Russell later points out, was the inherent one-sidedness in their thinking (emphasis mine):

The Greeks contributed, it is true, something else which proved of more permanent value to abstract thought: they discovered mathematics and the art of deductive reasoning. Geometry, in particular, is a Greek invention, without which modern science would have been impossible. But in connection with mathematics the one-sidedness of the Greek genius appears: it reasoned deductively from what appeared self-evident, not inductively from what had been observed. Its amazing success in the employment of this method misled not only the ancient world, but the greater part of the modern world also.

Nevertheless, even though I tend to side with Bentham here, I also agree with Daniel Dennett, who writes in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea that, “Perhaps talk of rights is nonsense upon stilts, but good nonsense.” Why? Because when taken out of the context of government, the very notion of rights seems meaningless to me as government itself is the “stilts” upon which rights stand. What are rights but, as one person phrased it, “the product of social agreement and endeavour”?

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