The Jig Is Up: Natural Rights Do Not Exist

I am sorry, natural rights libertarians, but there is no such thing as an inherent, or natural, right. The notion that by virtue of being human, rights are given to us by our Creator, is, just as it sounds, religious and metaphysical hogwash and no base on which to organize society. For too long has the libertarian movement been stuck with, and plagued by, this ancient misconception. And while the sentiment might have been a hit with conservative Christians in the past, it has no place in a secular society if we libertarians want to stay relevant.

Because let’s face it. Rights are social constructs. They exist only in the human mind, not in the physical realm in which they are manifested—or at least, there is no possible way to prove it. They are conventions that can be, and frequently are, changed or added to if need be. The notion of “rights” is completely meaningless unless these rights are adhered to or enforced.

For example, while the “natural right” to free speech has long been regarded as self-evident and sacrosanct (and still is to a very large degree, to the frustration of the online liberals that try so hard to silence everyone with whom they might disagree) in much of Western society, the same cannot be said of China, where censorship of journalists, bloggers, and concerned citizens is commonplace.

The natural rights advocate would argue that the Chinese government is violating the rights of its citizens. This sounds like a fair enough statement. But do the citizens of China actually have a right to free speech? Evidently not. Such a right is not enforced, and thus, it does not exist. Should the citizens of China have a right to free speech? I would certainly argue so.

But there is a huge difference between what is and what ought to be. And this is where the natural rights advocates get it wrong, fundamentally. They continuously fail to give a satisfactory answer to the question of how and why natural rights are objective, inherent, inalienable—and whatever other fancy words that may be used to describe aforementioned rights.

Often times, the answer to a question such as “From where do natural rights come?” will be something along the lines of “They are given to us by virtue of being human,” or “They are given to us by our Creator.” But neither of these retorts actually do the job of answering the question. The first fails to answer who gives us these rights, and the second should come across as absurd by any rational, thinking individual.

So what is a secular libertarian to do, then? The answer is simple. Accept rights for what they actually are, and always have been; social constructs. Hell, even if you are not secular yourself, and actually do believe that rights come from our Creator, I would encourage you to at least present this view as one of several libertarian rights theories in arguments about libertarianism with people who do not share your religious beliefs.

Like mentioned earlier, rights only exist insofar as they are enforced. (To be pedantic, they can still be conceived of even if they are not enforced—but so can flying pigs, and those don’t exist in reality. Unenforced rights are, much like flying pigs, just thoughts and ideas.) They are social constructs, often upheld by the government—but that does not imply they have to be upheld by the government. It is perfectly imaginable that a charity organization such as Doctors Without Borders could enforce the right to healthcare in war-torn countries. Or that a religious institution could enforce the homeless’s rights to food and shelter. And to be sure, this is what a lot of nonlibertarians mean when they say we should have a right to X or Y; not necessarily that the government should rob Peter to pay for Paul’s right to X or Y.

Furthermore, from the fact that natural rights do not exist does not logically follow that all rights are equally good or important. It is, for example, perfectly possible to argue for exclusive property rights without invoking the natural rights argument. In fact, both paleolibertarian Hans-Hermann Hoppe in his book A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, and Joseph S. Diedrich writing for Center for a Stateless Society, a left-libertarian think tank, argue that private property is only necessary and of value because it is the best, or perhaps even the only way to avoid conflict in a world where resources are scarce.

Such arguments are surely more effective when trying to persuade others of the necessity of exclusive property rights, than the natural rights argument is. Not only is it more intellectually rigorous, but it also does not reinforce the stereotype that libertarians are dogmatic in their beliefs.

I would like to conclude with a quote by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham:

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.


  1. It would seem at first blanche that this assertion is as pedantic as a drawn out, and insistent description of rights as somehow divinely granted. Neither of these seems convincing to me though certainly, I have never been able to consider, beyond consequentialist wants, just why a “natural” right such as the right to self ownership wouldn’t exist.

    It would seem to me here that secular libertarians falter in a similar manner that theistic libertarians do. We seem to be trying to seek out a foundational and final root from which a common ethic can be clearly explained. I don’t know that this is impossible but it feels like we’re going about it all wrong. As though we’re trying to define the origin of a right by taking as little as possible for granted while still being quite content with the fact that we’re going to end up taking a lot for granted. I don’t know that that’s even a bad way of going about things but if that is the case, then we should be a little more upfront about it.

    For my own case, I am quite confident of just two things. Firstly, because I do not believe in a God, I’m not sympathetic to the idea that God grants us rights. I simply see no evidence for it, even as an unproven theory. Second, I can not conceive of a manner in which I would be able to independently, determine for myself, that I had a right to initiate force against another human being.

    I simply can not understand where this right would come from aside from my own desire and if desires are the determiner of rights, than we have no rights at all as there would be no fundamental basis upon which to understand whose desires supercede whose. Now, it would seem that this is arguing that absence of evidence should support a conclusion but I think that instead, it is a small part of a larger proof that deontological thinkers have to work on.

    I don’t think we have the foolproof answer yet (perhaps we never will). That considered, saying, rights are a social construct is coming up short of the mark. It’s basically true but this is an argument in favour of things like the social contract where we wander into a place of irrational, emotional illogic, used to justify most anything a consequentialist may end up calling “good” or “better” than whatever someone else comes up with.

    Rights may be a social construct, but this is largely a consequence of our failure to understand their roots and thus our inability to clearly explain from where they come. In our haphazard, band-aid manner of common problem solving, were trying to understand why things like the initiation of force against another human being is wrong, largely because we don’t want that to happen to ourselves. We don’t really know the root of why we don’t want that to happen and we’re trying to find out but no, the more I think about, the more I think that philosophically, we just don’t have it nearly figured out yet and claiming to have it nailed down in any fashion is something of a fool’s errand.

    1. “I don’t think we have the foolproof answer yet (perhaps we never will). That considered, saying, rights are a social construct is coming up short of the mark. It’s basically true but this is an argument in favour of things like the social contract where we wander into a place of irrational, emotional illogic, used to justify most anything a consequentialist may end up calling “good” or “better” than whatever someone else comes up with.”

      Even if it is, indeed, an argument in favor of the social contract — which I do not think it is, at least not the kind that statists use to justify any and all government intervention — so what? I hope you will agree with me when I say that it is very dangerous to judge ideas based on how close they align with one’s personal beliefs and cognitive biases.

      If anything, though, I think the fact that there are no objective, inalienable rights, would imply that anarchism is the best solution — as it allows people to live according to their own preferences, and society as a whole to discover the best forms of governance and organization.

  2. If natural rights do not exist, then how does one define what “ought” to be? Is not the underpinning morality that defines what “ought to be” also unable to be proven by this standard?

  3. Brent Russ · · Reply

    What if there were millions of other planets where the Creator actively enforced the protection of the natural rights He gave us, and our planet was the only one where He did not act? What if we were the ONLY planet in the universe not following His law? Would we then be like ‘China’ is here? Do our natural rights go away just because of our ignorance to the law of the universe, or because we are oppressed by tyrants?

    I would argue natural rights, like the Creator, are completely logical and can be deduced as such. If 7+5=12, it should follow that 12-5=7 and 12-7=5. Such is our rights. Is it morally correct for someone to murder me? Is it morally correct for me to murder someone else? Is it morally correct for someone else to censor my speech? Is it morally correct for me to censor someone else’s speech. The answers should be the same both ways. We can discern what is right by simply treating others as we wish to be treated. That’s just natural, it’s common, just as the Creator intended.

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  5. John · · Reply

    The notion that rights exist only insofar as they are defended is a false assumption made by the author. I think, therefore I am. He’s attempting to re-hash arguments that were covered long ago.

    He also defines rights only existing in terms of other people being available to violate them. Else, they would not have to be defended. This is also terribly false, and easily proven so. We must eat to live. I have a right to eat whether or not anyone else is around. That is an irrefutable biological fact of our nature. Hence, natural law.

  6. Does Pi only exist if enforced? Does c only exist if enforced? Does evolution only exist if enforced? Does G only exist if enforced? Do prices only exist if enforced?

    You can’t touch concepts but they exist.

    c and G change over time. Prices and evolution change all the time. Does that mean they aren’t ‘real’? Or that we shouldn’t study them and try to understand them better? It’s quite handy to know what a good price is at any point in time after all.

    We can look at the natural world and see most animals and humans resist predation.
    We can see logically that, at least within a species, resisting predation is a possible moral universal and mutual predation is a logically impossible moral universal.
    Rights aren’t magical talismans, but they do exist, and the consequences of transgressing them do exist.

    At any point in time there is an optimal set of rights that will minimize the natural motivations to inter-human conflict, minimize their own transgression, (ie if you define getting butthurt as a rights violation this isn’t conducive to the solution), and optimize prosperity. That’s just a start but we can define rights into being on that basis even if you reject our biological nature.

    There is an optimal solution, or set of equally optimal solutions, to any problem.

    It exists.

    In physics we can say there exists an angle p such that any projectile in a uniform gravity field and given velocity will travel the farthest distance. That angle is just a definition, but it exists.

    Whether the optimal rights solution can be known, or if it can be known more than for an instant in time there the solution applies, it exists. I don’t think the solution to rights theory is one of those things too complicated to map out at least in broad strokes. And much work has been done already.

    Rights needn’t be conjured into existence by the divine, altho I have no quibble with those who think this, but they certainly can be conjured into existence by logic and observation.

    And have been.

    1. The problem with most of the examples given is that a majority of it comes from the physical aspects of life. Is it wise to garner what is found in the psychical to determine abstract values such as correct ethical decisions? If we were to look at any other creature to try to give us a hint of morality, we come across more problems than we solve. The best answer nature can give us is “whatever you want it to be”. Should we get our choices on ethical sexual practices from ducks or dolphins who gang rape for the assurance of a child or strictly for pleasure? There are people who do the same thing of course, but what makes it a violation of any right for either species? We would have to look outside of ourselves. But naturalistically speaking, there is nothing but ourselves to do so. So it is simply a cycle of what the majority believes to be their right to be ( I say majority, but its more along the lines of who can enforce their view. Most likely the majority)

  7. “Such a right is not enforced, and thus, it does not exist.”

    Free speech is not something that can be enforced, only the absence of freedom of speech (censorship) can be enforced.

    Free Speech simply infers its status as a natural right from from the fact that censorship is not a right.

  8. Real Talk · · Reply

    Human Rights don’t exist, it’s just like rights and laws from the Bible or the Qur’an, it’s been written down by a human, what makes one piece of writing so special it is real an actually means something: a gun or weapon, that’s how nations, tribes, groups have always done made something work, that’s why the certain rules of the Qur’an are in control of Saudi Arabia, The US Declaration Rights are laws in the USA and Communism ideology (supposed Communist) was in charge of the USSR.

    In the past Europeans tried to force the Bible and supposed Christian thoughts on others via the barrel of a gun, the only truly successful way to get things don, it was so successful that most countries they controlled still have majority Christian or Catholic populations. Unless Human Rights are backed up by guns it will never work, the dictatorships and corrupt government, who have the guns, will. If guns do allow Human Rights to be put in practice and not paper, the they would violate Human Rights, if that is the case then Human Rights will remain as they are and never actually exist to the point where a majority of anywhere bases it’s laws and beliefs on it. It is not real.

  9. Gawd Alrighty · · Reply

    Morality is a shell game with no ball. It’s all bullshit, and ‘arguments’ about it are not subject to rational disputation, aside from dismissal on grounds of insubstantiality and incoherence. Libertarianism, and its various relatives, is a personal preference, as is any preference.

  10. Georg Holger Bård Mahesha Hummel · · Reply

    Okay, look, Universalism is not possible and not desirable. So those of you looking for what ‘ought’ to be are shit out of luck, you are asking crazy questions with no meaningful answer. You’re asking for squared circles. As much as your herd animal need to rationalize yourself may grate on you, it can not be done and trying to do so is anti-scientific.
    Here is how you decide: choose a side. The question is not, ‘what syllogism will provide the ultimate justification for a private property society?’ because there is no. The question is, “do you hate the State?”

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