The True Nature of Natural Rights
Posted by Jackson Pemberton
The concept of natural rights is perhaps the most basic in the entire structure of the governments of the people of the United States. This concept formed that foundation upon which the nation grew and flourished into the most prosperous and powerful in the entire history of the world, and it happened in a relatively short period of time. So what is a right truly?
A common stone provides a lucid example of rights. So what do stones do? They take up space in a very robust and heavy way. If we then ask the question: Does a stone have rights to take up space, to be hard and to be heavy? Then if we answer in the negative, how shall we stop this blatant usurpation? It is clearly impossible to do so unless we crush it. But then, it isn’t a stone anymore. So we see that the rights of the stone are inherent and inalienable.
Before we leave the stone let us ask if it is possible to give it more rights. We might decide that one particular stone shall never be crushed, or moved or defaced or painted. None of this creates new rights. It does act to protect rights, and we could choose to call this a right by fiat, but natural rights are inherent and uncreated.
So then what of a tree? Does a tree have a right to push the stone aside to make its living?’ Does it have the right to draw up water and absorb heat and soil to realize its potential? If again if we answer in the negative, how shall we separate these rights from the tree? There is no avenue available that does not somehow reduce its vitality and prevent the tree from being all that it could be.
There is a concept we call the supremacy of rights, wherein one thing’s rights are superior to another’s. We have seen this in the tree’s infringement upon the rights of the stone. Is this an evil or unwanted thing? It certainly is something that should give us pause and here we see the entrance of the concepts of stewardship and responsibility. We notice, that if we should seek to enforce the protection of the rights of the stone we must simultaneously infringe the rights of the tree. There is no other way. There is an inherent and immutable linkage. Laws designed to protect a class of things always infringe the rights of other things.
Then let us consider the beaver. Does the beaver have the right to cut down the tree in order to protect and provide for his family? He builds a pond and then his house from the tree and its branches, and other branches he stores for food in the mud of his dooryard. Does he have rights to kill the tree and alter the stream? Again we are met with the simple fact that we cannot separate the rights from the beaver without doing violence to the very essence of his being. His rights are inherent and cannot be surrendered without giving up part or all of what he is.
The natural supremacy of the rights of the beaver become apparent here. That is the natural order of things. Likewise the natural rights of man supersede the rights of all other things in his world. Man stands upon the shoulders of all of nature and derives his living from his dominion over it. Man’s will and agency spring immediately to mind, and lead to the concepts of accountability and stewardship. But that is a discussion for another time.
Before we leave the beaver, we need to ask again the question whether we can somehow grant this creature additional rights. In anticipation of that we ask, What right could we give him that would extend or enlarge the essence of his being? Here we see that we have asked an improper question. To give the beaver more rights we would first have to give him more talents, skills or capacities. Nay, his natural rights are inextricably intertwined with what he is. Laws cannot themselves elevate any creature, only infringe or protect its rights. It is useful to note here that laws cannot protect a right without infringing another right. Thus more law is always less freedom.
So then let us consider the natural rights of man. It is clear that he has the ability to think, to invent, to create and destroy, and to respect or trample the natural rights of other men and things. Because these abilities are part of his very being, he must have the commensurate rights to exercise those powers. To whatever extent we trammel those rights, to that extent we deny him the freedom to be all that he can be.
One of man’s great challenges is the ability to imagine oneself as king and ruler and in control of the property and rights of all things, including other men. Does this ability grant him the right to do so? Will it infringe his rights if we somehow prevent him from fulfilling his ambitious plans? There is no simple answer for if we answer yes, we agree to the infringement of the rights of all those he dominates while if we say no we restrict his ability to be all that he could be. In our culture we have decided that it is best if we consider all men as equals and respect their equal rights. It seems not only fair, but also safe. But more importantly, it rejects the idea that one man has more rights than another. We call this the equal rights of man.
One of man’s skills is his ability to create organizational entities and endow them with political powers. We do this for the common good, so that we may sleep well at night and trust that the fruits of today’s labors will remain tomorrow. What we are actually doing is recognizing our equal rights and acting for their protection. These endeavors must be extremely well planned and maintained lest we either upset equality of rights or lose part or all of the rights we seek thus to secure. This one concept forms the foundation of our unique governments: both state and federal while their successes witness the wisdom behind their formation and their failures reveal our shoddy maintenance thereof.
There are those who embody their arrogance in supposing their rights are superior, that they should be allowed to be all that they can be even at the expense of the rights of their fellow man. They often suppose that they are wiser and have therefore a natural right to impose their favorite scheme upon their fellows. However, truly wise men will ever be on the alert and move quickly and responsibly to protect themselves from this arrogance.
Wise men will also be good stewards lest they irresponsibly abuse the rights of the stone, the tree and the beaver. It is precisely that abuse which now lends support to those who proclaim that natural rights are antithetical to the future of man. However, there is no historical precedent we can toll to justify abandonment of our natural rights. We have no acceptable choice but to protect and use them with prudence.