On the Nature of Rights

In speaking with advocates of some social or political cause, often one need not wait very long before the central justification of it is unearthed: “Well, it’s our right, of course” – a phrase which is not uncommonly uttered in such a way as is intended to make the inquiring party seem at least a little foolish for not having recognized this apparent fact at the outset. There seems to be a tendency to appropriate the term “right” too capriciously, however, apparently in view of its practical evangelistic value in lending to a cause some moral import, yet often in the absence of consideration of what the term actually means. We are told, for example, that access to marijuana is a social right; that socialized healthcare is a human right; that abortion-on-demand is a woman’s right; and, in every case, we are told these things with the implication that anyone who infringes upon these principles is guilty of some real moral infraction. If such infractions are indeed possible, then it is clearly of value to attempt to understand just what is a right. It it the aim of this essay to investigate some considerations relevant to this endeavor.

Rights can be understood, generally, in two ways: natural (what one might appropriately call “moral”) and civil. A civil right is a protection granted by a government or state, in which the state is understood to be the highest authority to which one can appeal in the case of transgression; that is, it is a protection codified in law, applicable to citizens of a particular state, but which is not necessarily considered to be applicable universally (1). For instance, a land owner might appeal to the law in seeking to prosecute those trespassing illegally on his property. In this case it is his civil right, granted by relevant state law, to prevent unwanted persons from stepping onto his property (it is only “his” property by civil right, also; as opposed to being his by virtue of some transcendent claim to ownership). His appeal may be upheld in court, or it may be struck down. If it is struck down, the land owner may challenge the ruling; but in the case of what he deems an unjustified rejection, he cannot possibly hope to hold the government accountable solely on the basis of his civil rights alone, but must appeal to some transcendent Principle. The Principle to which he appeals may, practically, be a rational ideal with respect to some particular end (i.e. self-interest or some other purpose which may be either empirical or subjective), but to be “transcendent” is to refer to its universal applicability to rational beings with respect to some real ontological ground. (2)

If, in this case, such a Principle exists at all (the example is purely hypothetical), it must be understood to be a natural right. Such a right is “natural” in that it is intrinsic to every rational being (person), so that, while a state may recognize it by inscribing it into law, no state has the power either to create or to annihilate it. This is precisely what was meant by the writers of the American Declaration of Independence in describing certain rights as being “inalienable.”

In contrast to civil rights, natural rights are not law, but Law; that is, they are metaphysical and in every way as immutable, universal, and eternal as the laws of logic. They differ, however, in that they possess the component of duty, since, if such rights exist, every person is inescapably bound by a moral necessity to uphold them. (3)

Moral values are conceptual subdivisions of the Moral Law in its totality. A natural right is a moral value stated in the form of a protection. For example, justice, aside from considerations of its administration in particular cases, is universally regarded as a moral value (4). One might frame it this way: “It is always morally good to treat other persons at least according their deserts.” (I say “at least” to leave room for the values of mercy and grace.) Stated as a right, it might read thus: “It is every person’s moral obligation to act justly with respect to other persons”; that is, every person is protected (in principle, not in actual circumstances) from injustice by a transcendent Moral Law. Every natural right is framed in such a way as to make it a protection against transgression of some moral value.

But how can natural rights be understood to exist? The answer is, I believe, tied to one of the most fundamental questions of philosophy: whether or not God exists (5). “God” is here understood to mean the greatest conceivable being. If God exists, then he exists necessarily, by virtue of his own nature, in every possible world.

While one might appeal to something like platonic forms as an explanation of natural rights, it is my view that God serves as at least a plausible, if not necessary, ground for the Moral Law and, therefore, rights; for a Moral Law necessarily implies Consequence; that is, either reward or punishment for compliance or transgression respectively; and Consequence cannot be understood without respect to some Law-Giver (or else some brute platonic principle). Those incredulous of such a claim need only consider the nature of moral values in order to realize this fact. For instance, to use our previous example, justice is conceptually meaningful only in the context of persons. Imagine a state of affairs in which no rational beings exist. Where, then, is justice? Can inanimate objects be either just or unjust? What would it even mean to assert that justice exists as an entity in the absence of rationality? An attempt to describe the nature of justice without the context of rational beings, so far as I can tell, is incoherent; and if there is any conceivable state of affairs in which justice does not exist as a transcendent moral value, it, like any other moral value, is clearly not metaphysically necessary in and of its own nature. However, if one does affirm justice as being a transcendent moral value (i.e. part of the Moral Law), then in the absence of a philosophical presupposition to the contrary, one must regard some Person as at least plausibly being its ontological ground.

In a state of affairs in which no Moral Law exists (we will call this a materialistic universe), it is difficult to comprehend how there can be real universal moral indictments of any person whatever; for the existence of natural rights is the necessary fundamental justification for indicting individuals or states in any case where they are perceived to have transgressed the Moral Law (e.g. the Nazis) (6). The question, then, is whether it is possible, or even coherent, for a Moral Law to exist in a materialistic universe.

In such a state of affairs, there is only one place for the materialist to turn in seeking justification for natural rights: reason. Given that the principles of metaphysics we refer to as the Laws of Logic are understood to exist necessarily, it is the only realm which contains any potential for establishing a foundation for natural rights. This was Kant’s endeavor, to establish morality firmly on the basis of reason alone, such that one should “act only according to that maxim whereby [one] can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law” (7). This was Kant’s “categorical imperative.”

However, reason is itself morally neutral and can be used to justify ends that are morally contradictory. G.K. Chesterton, in his book, Orthodoxy, described this potential contradiction in the context of madness:

“The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense, satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed especially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. . . . If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators, which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. . . . Nevertheless, he is wrong. . . . Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatics’ theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason” (8).

Kant said that rational beings must be viewed as ends in themselves, and not merely as means to an end; but on what basis are we to suppose that, if empirical or pragmatic concerns are to be discounted, there is any such moral obligation to view rational beings in such a way? If I do indeed view other rational beings as ends in themselves and act accordingly, by what Principle have I done anything of real moral worth? In order to differentiate between Good and Evil, there must exist some Standard. This Standard is the Moral Law.

Empirical and pragmatic concerns must necessarily be discounted as possible ontological foundations for natural rights; for they are inherently arbitrary (or, at least, not metaphysically objective); and reason, as we have seen, fails to provide adequate justification for real moral obligation, since it is morally neutral and therefore incapable of Consequence.

Thus, if God does not exist, it is impossible to assert any meaningful appeal to some right or “higher” ideal than that which is given by the state, or that which is otherwise a convention. Indeed, in a materialistic universe, there is no ideal, whether moral or otherwise, which can be understood apart from, or above, convention; for in every case would the conception of morality owe its existence to a cause or an end that is not metaphysically necessary (i.e. it could have been otherwise). Yet, any natural right to which one may make a meaningful appeal is inextricably tied to an ontological ground which is metaphysically necessary (e.g. God). For example, given materialism, a belief that rape is morally good cannot be disputed except by appeal to civil law, pragmatism (i.e. it hinders some subjective goal, such as human “well-being”), or outright opinion, each of which is inherently arbitrary. An appeal to apparently universal tendencies or beliefs supposedly invested in humans by natural selection might form the basis for an appeal to objectivity, but not necessity, and certainly not Goodness; for evolution could potentially have invested humans with moral beliefs in direct contradiction to those we currently possess.

Natural rights, then, are only reasonably grounded in God. To summarize, the argument may be formulated thus:

1.) God is the only explanation for the Moral Law

2.) Natural rights only exist if there is a Moral Law

3.) Natural rights exist.

4.) Therefore, God exists.

Now, given that rights are always stated in the form of a protection against moral transgression, how might an appeal to, say, universal healthcare as a natural right be formulated? (We must assume that such appeals are made on the basis of natural, rather than civil rights in the effort to achieve legal change, since it is impossible to appeal to civil rights which do not yet exist.)

1.) Persons possess a natural right to live.

2.) One’s health is directly related to one’s ability to live.

3.) Therefore, every person is morally obligated to contribute to every other person’s health. (This is, presumably, the guiding principle of proponents of universal healthcare, though it is clearly impossible for practical reasons to contribute to literally every person’s health.)

One need not consider this argument long before hitting upon several significant problems (though, perhaps the argument could be better formulated). First, to claim moral obligation with respect to something as unquestionably vague as another person’s “health” is quite a slippery slope indeed; for one could quite easily make a case for how just about anything could contribute to some facet of a person’s health. Second, given that contributing to another person’s health would require some positive action on my part; namely, providing financial support, it makes itself out to be not a protection from transgression, but a veritable enslavement. That is to say, one is alleged to have violated the Moral Law by not actively contributing to another person’s health. One might illustrate the insanity of such reasoning by any number of examples.

For instance, if we grant that the right to life is indeed a natural right, one can easily make a case for a right to self-defense. In the American Constitution, this right is recognized in the form of the 2nd Amendment (the right to bear arms) (9). However, an extrapolation analogous to that used to justify universal healthcare would suggest that other people are morally obligated to in some way contribute to my ability to defend myself; namely, by providing, or paying for, effective armament of some sort. Citing the police force or the military as such a contribution would be incorrect; for they do not and cannot cover every situation in which I would require self-defense as thoroughly as universal healthcare would, at least theoretically, regarding my health. For example, if I have a natural right to life, I have a natural right to defend myself in any situation in which my life is being threatened without just provocation. The police cannot possibly hope to protect me in every such situation or even in the majority of such scenarios. However, universal healthcare is supposed to apply to any and every situation in which my health requires attention, even to those aspects of “health” as remote as contraception. Therefore, in order to bridge the gap between the potential protection of my life by the police and the much more likely case that my self-defense will depend on some means directly available to me (e.g. firearm, tazer, knife, etc), one is forced to admit (if consistency is to be valued) that the public is under moral obligation to in some way contribute to my ability to defend myself. In other words, one has broken the Moral Law if they do not either pay for my armament or provide it directly. Also, in view of the specific provisions of the recent Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which levies a tax upon those refusing to purchase the government’s flavor of healthcare, should one be taxed, according to our previous example, for not contributing to every citizen’s personal armament? This is manifest nonsense; yet it is but the consistent application of the arguments implied by the movement to achieve universal healthcare.

Clearly, the example of the appeal to universal healthcare as a natural right, if I have accurately described it, is absurd and in no way such a right as they are generally understood to exist. The common trend of exchanging the word “privilege” for “right” owes its explanation, in my opinion, both to a genuine ignorance as to the very meaning of the word “right” (and how it differs from “privilege”), and to a recognition of the fact that one is only likely to get what one wants by use of the latter. The use of the term in the context of healthcare is but one example of its unscrupulous appropriation.

Thus, we have seen some general considerations, at least, of the nature of rights, though I have only but scratched the surface of the subject. In view of the frequency with which appeals to rights of any sort are made, we would do well to inquire of those from whom such appeals originate as to just what is meant. Indeed, in doing so we shall in some cases find that the word “right” is but one of many terms bandied about thoughtlessly for the purpose of personal or political gain. However, for those interested in truth and honesty and consistency, a more careful approach is warranted.


1.) A civil law may be a natural right, by virtue of having been officially recognized (but not created) by the state, but in such a case the duty to uphold the law must necessarily find its ontological ground in something that transcends the state (i.e. the Moral Law).

2.) An “ontological ground” is that to which any thing, whether physical or metaphysical, owes its existence by virtue of an explanation of its being; that is, its foundation in reality.

3.) That is morally necessary which must be affirmed by the will (the disposition of the will is formed prior to, or at least simultaneous with action) or else incur fault in transgressing some real Moral Law to which all persons are beholden. There can be no such moral necessity, or duty, if there is no Moral Law, but only subjective inclination, the formation of which is shaped by arbitrary (not universally binding) criteria (e.g. a person may regard cruelty to children as evil, but in the absence of a Moral Law, his belief is as arbitrary as the cause of his belief, which may owe its being to genetics, social convention, or some pragmatic end).

4.) I would maintain that justice is universally regarded as a moral value because it is, in reality, a moral value; and not simply the product of an evolutionary or social mechanism (a convention).

5.) Leibniz declared the most fundamental question of philosophy to be: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” However, if God exists at all, he exists necessarily, such that it is literally meaningless to ask “why” God exists. Therefore, to ask whether or not God exists is, in effect, but to put forth another formulation Leibniz’s question.

6.) Curiously, (though not, in my view, surprisingly), even those that decry the existence of the Moral Law appeal to it, in many cases simultaneously with their denunciation and without the slightest hesitation.

7.) Kant, Immanuel; translated by James W. Ellington [1785] (1993). Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 3rd ed., Hackett. pp. 30.

8.) Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, Norwood, MA: Pumpion, 1908.

9.) It is worth noting that there is no such Constitutional Amendment regarding universal healthcare.

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