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According to the view of natural rights, rights are derived from nature (a la John Locke), and these rights are possessed by all humans by virtue of being human.

To provide an example based on my understanding (or misunderstanding?) of natural rights, freedom is the natural state of man (this is an a priori principle). Thus, man is born free. Therefore, man has the right to be free.

Similarly, the right to life or property is derived from the natural state of man. From such rights, systems of ethics are built.

Is deriving a right from a natural state a logical fallacy? How can we move from something being natural to it being right? It would seem to beg the question or be an "appeal to nature fallacy".


Here is a reference to another question that attempted to explain natural rights:

"natural rights - on a natural rights view, the rights are there if we just look at things in the world. You can find this in the writings of Locke and Rousseau and in the US Declaration of independence:"

From How do you tell what are human rights?

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    You're missing at least one premise, and without it the fallacy is simply non sequitur. How does "man has the right to X" follow from "man is born in a state with X"? – Keelan Jan 7 '16 at 6:59
  • @Keelan Deriving a right from the state of nature is exactly where I'm having trouble understanding the logic behind natural rights. Am I misunderstanding this aspect of natural rights? – J. Doe Jan 8 '16 at 4:54
  • P.J. Proudhon in "What is Property" would say that property is not deriving from a natural right. – Kii Jan 8 '16 at 13:46
  • Rights are only useful as far as there is a power protecting them. If there is no such power then 'rights' are meaningless. This is better worded as 'laws' are derived from nature, but they are dependent on context and rarely absolute. – Canadian Coder Jun 23 '16 at 18:49
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"Man is born free. Therefore, man has the right to be free."

First, we might ask Man's mother about that. Philosophy as well as religion tends to neglect the role of Mrs. Man in all this splendid a priori freedom. Hobbes is the only philosopher I happen to know of who actually refers in anecdote to his mother, his difficult birth, and the consequences for his philosophy, one in which "rights" are conspicuously absent in "nature."

The point being that observations of "nature" itself give absolutely no evidence of such "rights." Humans are quite obviously social and interdependent, and moral rules entail the forfeiture of conflicting assertions of "right." Marx referred mockingly to the a priori British assumption of individual rights as "Robinsonism,"after Robinson Crusoe.

In his stricter development of Locke's empiricism, Hume's own observations of "natural" perceptions led him to state pithily that: "You can't get an ought from an is." In other words, facts simply do not contain moral values, as assumed in "rights," and for many years this "fact-value" dichotomy hobbled the atomistic Anglo-American stance, as opposed to the more socially inclined Continental traditions.

So, yes, one can argue that the inference of "rights" from "nature" is not empirically valid, and in logic would appear not as a fallacy per se, but as a dubious premise. But "nature" itself is another rather dubious premise, and the question of "rights" is really quite enormous, with many philosophical responses. Much of Kant's philosophy was precisely an attempt to rescue moral premises from Humean skepticism by means of reason.This was revived in Rawls' pragmatic, highly influential attack on the traditional "fact-value" divide.

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There is a difference between a logical fallacy and an assumption. We love our logical fallacies, especially if we have names for them, but this one is more easily understood if we simply treat it as an assumption, an axiom of the logical argument.

Most ethical systems which have the "appeals to nature" you describe appeal to nature because they define the concept of "rights" in such a way that "everything has the right to do what is in its nature." Why define it this way? If something does not have a right to do what is in its nature, then the system of ethics has subverted its nature. If we have to declare that lions are not allowed to eat meat because killing animals is wrong, we are going to have to subvert the nature of the lion. Now this is not impossible, and indeed you will find systems of ethics which do this. However, looking back in hindsight, the systems of ethics which survive tend to be the ones that made the choices to assume that everything has the right to do what is in its nature. The ones that didn't make that assumption simply didn't do as well.

Such systems the go on to point out that man has the capability to do things that are unnatural (a capability that is often only bestown upon human beings). The systems of rights then pin down what unnatural acts are acceptable, and which ones are not. One of the natural results of our assumptions is to assume that any unnatural act which denies anything its nature is bad.

With those basic patterns in place, the next step is to add simple assumptions. "Man's nature is to be free." It is typically given without a complete logical proof, but merely a non-logical justification. So long as they do not try to make the claim that said assumption was arrived at with a logical argument, there is no way it can be a logical fallacy, by definition.

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tl;dr - "appeal to nature fallacy" does not have the magical power you suggest. Whether there's a problem depends on who decides when looking to nature is fallacious which is usually inspired by other commitments.

There's two cross-considerations here before we can decide whether a natural law approach to rights is fallacious. First, we need to understand what it means to call something a "fallacy." Second, we need to take what we gain in that discussion and see whether deriving rights from observing nature is (a) absolutely a commission of the naturalistic fallacy, (b) potentially a commission of the naturalistic fallacy, or (c) absolutely not a commission of a naturalistic fallacy.

There's two basic types of fallacies. There's fallacies in formal logic. These are pretty cut and dry within formal logic. For instance, "affirming the consequent" is just plain formally invalid. Similarly, the pattern A or B. A. Therefore B is fallacious. Fallacies in the real of informal reasoning are less cut and dry in both their definition and scope. The formally valid hypothetical syllogism ("chain rule") is also roughly the same as the informal fallacy "slippery slope." Whether something is a valid application of the chain rule or an invalid slippery slope is going to be a matter of judgment and application rather than something that everyone sees and agrees on. (For that matter, if an argument is offered informally rather than formally, some of the formal fallacies will be harder to stick to it to).

The fallacy "appeal to nature" is by all accounts an informal fallacy. This creates two problems. First, while often used, it's not perfectly clear what the fallacy means. On some level, we all agree that it's the illicit appeal to nature to resolve a dispute that doesn't belong to nature, but the question is what makes an appeal licit or illicit.

To give an example, if we want to know how far a bullet travels in 1 second, there's two ways to figure it out: (1) calculate it using equations and (2) fire the bullet and measure the distance it traveled in one second. If (1) and (2) disagree, it's an appeal to nature (physics in this case) to get our answer from (2), but no one would say this is fallacious.

In general, people view appeal to nature as fallacious when we take nature as a (naked?) guide for human conduct. For instance, the role of nature is a major component in debates about (a) marriage in general, (b) sex acts,(c) whether people should have children, (d) infanticide, etc.

The general pattern is something like this:

  1. X happens in nature
  2. Therefore, X should be a rule for human conduct

But that doesn't mean everything that involves premise 1 and conclusion 2 is going to be something we all agree is fallacious. For instance,

  1. Animals need nutrition.
  2. Animals care for their young (especially infants, pups, etc. that cannot care for themselves).
  3. Humans are animals.
  4. Therefore, it is cruel for human parents to not take care of their infants.

Is this the "appeal to nature" fallacy? I don't really think so. Whereas I'd probably call this an "appeal to nature" fallacy:

  1. Panda mothers usually only care for one twin.
  2. Therefore, human mothers should only care for one twin.

Why would I consider the latter fallacious but not the former? Well in large part, because I take the former pattern to be something we see occurring in natural that would be good to copy for a variety of reasons including the sort of animals we are. In the latter, I see an inept attempt to hamstring nature into a source of morality.

Could I give a more formal explanation? Sure, but the point here is two-fold: (1) there are some clear cases where nature is a source -- such as in physics. It does not matter what our equation says if the results say otherwise. And in such cases, not looking to nature is fallacious. (2) there are people who'd call both fallacious appeals to nature. As an informal fallacy, the origin may lie elsewhere. For instance, if they are committed to the claim that nature has no relation to morality. In other words this is an open area of dispute but the real complaint "hey, he looked at nature to get a source of value" is a complaint that only one side finds convincing.

In the case of human morality, many major philosophers are committed to seeing nature as one source for how humans should live. This is a key feature of Aristotle's political and ethical thought. Specifically, he thinks individual humans are parts of a larger polis, and to some extent we are to be guided by the fact we are animals that form these sorts of city-units or rather we are city-units made up of individual animals. Aristotle does not however talk of rights.

Rights talk is all basically post Magna Carta. But the idea for the earlier rights theorists was that when we look at the pattern of nature, we can with the application of good perception and reason identify certain features of ourselves that imply rights. (Or for some, though perhaps less palatable now, we can probably directly perceive indelible rights through being created).

Hegel has a modified version of Aristotle's vision of society. In Hegel's case, nature does not give us rights, but nature does give us some of the data we rationally process and turn into rights.

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Some readings of "The Genealogy of Morals" suggest that abstract rights are a chosen form of slavery -- we have chosen to be slaves to a God, or to one another, so that those who would be our masters become our peers, and we have some recourse to limit their power. Before that reversal, we had no notion of a generic right applicable to all humans.

We see in modern societies that rights only exist to the extent they can be afforded to individuals. Subjection to a common master, even if that master is somewhat abstract, is the only way we ever see any right maintained. They do not enforce themselves. That means all rights are maintained entirely against the order of Nature.

If you are stronger than I, by a great enough measure, and wish to hold me as a slave, there is nothing in nature to prevent that. Only by extortion by a higher established authority can I be rendered 'free' from your intended domination.

Likewise, if I am not watchful of my possessions, Nature is not going to accord me the right of property. A wild animal will take your food, not caring that it is your food. It does not know you have a natural right to ownership of anything. This seems to be the case even for feral children. So we can presume it would be true of wild humans.

As far as we can tell slavery was removed by social evolution. It predates all known cultures. And people fall back into it continually, at least to the extent of men 'owning' women unless some social force respected by both parties involved intervenes. It is reasonable to assume it is natural.

And it isn't necessarily a horrifying prospect unless you have already seen its worst excesses. It seems common for pack and troupe animals to whom we are related (including both Chimpanzees and Bonobos) to have a pecking order where a majority accept a 'down' position voluntarily and just take orders as long as that leads to a more orderly life.

Theft has a similar history.

It is more parsimonious to presume the rules we can't help but constantly break are not natural than to assume they are natural and we are somehow all broken.

So I suggest there is a fallacy here, not of "appeal to nature", but of anthropomorphic projection -- making over nature in the image of society because we are so thoroughly removed from the state of nature that we do not recognize what it is.

  • I wonder though if this is really correct in terms of what we see in nature. This sounds very much like the myth we get from Hobbes rather than depiction of the way human animals would behave pre-societally. (I say this neither to deny that the answer has some validity but rather as a comment precisely of the thinking out-loud sort). – virmaior Jun 23 '16 at 6:08
  • @virmaior I don't think our experience of thoroughly isolated humans or of our related species suggests this is a myth. I have added those examples to the answer. – jobermark Jun 23 '16 at 16:18
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You may appreciate Crosbie Fitch's answers on the matter of natural rights and how they derive from observing man's nature.

What is the most important thing to know about rights?

Rights precede law.

Our rights are not created by law.

Our rights are imbued in us by nature.

We, the people, create law to recognise our rights, and create and empower a government to secure them.

What are our rights?

Rights are the vital powers of all human beings. We have rights to life, privacy, truth, and liberty.

  • We have a right to life, to protect the health and integrity of our minds and bodies.
  • We have a right to privacy, to exclude others fro the objects we possess and spaces we inhabit.
  • We have a right to truth, to guard against deceit.
  • We have a right to liberty, to move and communicate freely.

And then, he adds:

“Our rights imbued in us by nature” means that a right isn’t something we individually or collectively say we have, or decide we should have.

To discover our rights we must examine our own nature, we must determine what power nature has given us individually, and how it is balanced among all individuals in equilibrium (harmony).

A natural right is an individual’s natural power in equilibrium. A right is not the power of a strong man to crush a weak girl, but the equal power of all individuals to protect their lives, their bodies from harm, their dwellings from intruders, etc. Thus, a strong man may have more physical power in his body than a weak girl, but the strong man has the same right to protect his body as a weak girl has.

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