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Here's my understanding of natural rights:

Natural rights are those rights inherent to a being.

Those rights are inalienable if they may not be overridden by social contract.

Without some sort of deity, I don't understand how inalienable natural rights can be defined in any way that is useful (legally). Our natural right would seem to be "do what thou wilt", and this right would seem to always be inalienable--we can always do what we want regardless of what social contract we have entered into. This isn't useful though, because we want our social contract to be binding.

From the perspective of one who wishes the well-being of all, we might consider that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are great rights that all people should have, but I don't understand how we can reasonably define these as inalienable natural rights apart from our general right to "do what thou wilt".

Have any contemporary philosophers addressed this issue?

  • Related: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/1416/… – Ben Aug 1 '13 at 18:37
  • @Ben Thanks for the link. I am aware that there are non-divine standards of good and evil, but I am having trouble seeing how these can be referred to as "natural" in the sense that is normally implied. Do we redefine natural rights? Do we throw the whole concept out the window? This is what I want to know. – called2voyage Aug 1 '13 at 18:41
  • I should add that I don't believe in a supreme deity in the traditional sense, and I am not seeking some justification for the existence of such a deity. I am instead trying to determine if the concept of natural rights is still useful without a deity. – called2voyage Aug 1 '13 at 18:43
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    Natural rights are those rights inherent to a being like you said, and they're inalienable and universal. Rights that are instead contingent upon some deity can't rightly be called be called natural rights then. – David H Aug 1 '13 at 20:02
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    @DavidH I am referring to the construction referred to by the Declaration of Independence wherein there is an implied construction of a being intended by a deistic Creator which could be rightly called natural rights. Outside of this construction, I don't think you can call "freedom of thought" any more an inalienable natural right than "eat or be eaten". – called2voyage Aug 1 '13 at 20:08
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Short answer:

No, anything "defined" is man-made, thus artificial.

Long answer:

The only natural laws are the laws of nature, like thermodynamics or gravitation. These laws are not defined, but described. They are not invented, but discovered. We could say that everything on Earth has the right and the obligation of being pulled (down) by Earth's gravity force, but we cannot get much further from that. These laws don't specify how things should be but how they necessarily are.

The rights about "the pursuit of happiness" and such are just agreements humans do because just by making this contract we live in a slightly better world, and we like it.

These rights are artificial, man-made contracts, and we should not deny our responsibility by any means in the definition of these rights and in the consequences that these definitions (or the lack thereof) may have. Denying that responsibility could be considered an act of bad faith.

Bonus: rights defined by a god would only be as natural as that god (from 0 to 100%). Besides, AFAIK gods are more interested in defining obligations than rights.

  • These are great answers you guys are sharing, and line up with what I think, but you haven't shared any contemporary philosophers that discuss these issues like I asked for in the body of my question. – called2voyage Aug 2 '13 at 13:37
  • @called2voyage Sorry for that, I'm not sure I've read that far :-/ In short, I have no idea, but a quick search provides some results that may be interesting for you: 1, 2, 3, 4. I hope that helps. – Trylks Aug 2 '13 at 14:05
  • Thanks, I was hoping for some specific recommendations, but you happened to remind me that I will probably be able to read a lot of this stuff on my tablet once I get the chance. – called2voyage Aug 2 '13 at 14:09
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    Curiously, it seems John Finnis from your first search result, doesn't think that natural rights or natural law were ever meant to be defined as inherent to being or bridging the is-ought gap. He seems to believe that natural rights and laws are those rights and laws which healthy individuals would agree are most befitting of a rational being. Unfortunately, the sample cuts off before he describes how to formulate a theory of natural law from this. I will have to purchase a copy later and read more. It seems that he is leading up to some formulation of the categorical imperative. – called2voyage Aug 2 '13 at 15:01
  • @called2voyage That's simply applying games theory to find the laws (theorems) for societies of intelligent agents. The dilemmas may differ depending on the context, but in the end it consists simply on reaching agreements to escape local maxima (e.g. tragedy of the commons) and reach greater maxima. Right? – Trylks Aug 2 '13 at 15:07
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Is it possible to define inalienable natural rights without a deity?

The challenge is to explain what is meant by a "inalienable natural right".

Suppose we try to define inalienable natural rights for example in terms a God's revelation, or in terms of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Then the fact that it will nevertheless make perfect sense to describe a something inalienable natural right but against or outside a God's will or the Declaration, will immediately show that the definition of inalienable natural right in terms of a God's revelation or The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has failed.

Several major, predominantly Muslim countries criticized the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provisions for democratic principles, protection for religious freedom, freedom of association and freedom of the press, as well as equality in rights and equal protection under the law. Rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are to be subject to the Islamic sharia. On Asian values of Asian states perspective, the Bangkok Declaration of 1993 offers an extended critique of human rights universalism. They view the principles of sovereignty and noninterference, calling for greater emphasis on economic, social, and cultural rights, particularly the right to economic development, as inalienable natural rights too, over civil and political rights. War Resisters International has stated that the right to conscientious objection to military service, and the right to refuse to kill, are inalienable natural rights too.

God’s counsel to parents: whenever children get out of line, we should beat them with a rod (Proverbs 13:24, 20:30, and 23:13-14). If they are shameless enough to talk back to us, we should kill them (Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Mark 7:9-13, and Matthew 15:4-7). The Bible even tells us we are free to sell our daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:26-27). If a man discovers on his wedding night that his bride is not a virgin, he must stone her to death on her father’s doorstep (Deuteronomy 22:13-21). Over time we read the Bible selectively and often metaphorically. But that is just the point: we must be consulting our standards of morality that do not come from God in order to judge which aspects of God's word to take literally and which aspects to ignore. Before we worship a God or Jesus we must judge him good, so our inalienable natural rights are not derived and are independent from a God or Jesus.

A derivation from descriptive statements with “is” to prescriptive statements with “ought” is impossible. Without an objective, "inalienable natural goal", a "inalienable natural right" is difficult to establish. Without an objective "self-evident" truth is possible to think the opposite without a contradiction. Persuading someone would necessarily mean appealing to values he already possesses.

Reference Wikipedia

  • These are great answers you guys are sharing, and line up with what I think, but you haven't shared any contemporary philosophers that discuss these issues like I asked for in the body of my question. – called2voyage Aug 2 '13 at 13:36
  • @called2voyage The general rule here on the site is a tightly focused question a time. I chose to answer the main question. There are several contemporary philosophers that address some aspect of so broad question. You would have to specify more that aspect of the issue you would like contemporary citations. Here on the site are not appreciated very long answers. The "is-ought problem" for example is tackled by Alasdair MacIntyre and John Searle. – Annotations Aug 2 '13 at 14:11
  • "Can natural rights be defined" is a lot more specific of a question than the "is-ought problem", though it may refer to the is-ought probelm in its answer. As I see it, I am not asking for a list of philosophers--which doesn't make this a list question. I'm asking that the answerers ground their assertions in the studies of contemporary philosophers and share with me which sources they used for their answers--which is fully in the spirit of this site. – called2voyage Aug 2 '13 at 14:26
  • @called2voyage "Can be defined natural rights" also involves aspects of self evident truths and ethical goals for example. – Annotations Aug 2 '13 at 14:38
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This is in essence what has been the criticism of Secular Humanism among Christians for a while now. How do we discern what is right or wrong without a transcendent law giver? Can strength establish a moral right? Can might indeed tell us what is right?

You want to give humans rights but on what basis is this assertion of what should be made? Is there anything in the cold naturalistic world that tells us what is good or what is bad or are we just a more evolved type of animal slave to our urges. Set to return to the primordial ooze from whence we came.

As is the case with secular humanism ( And the idea of rights) it is the propagation of a absolute morality that holds to the idea of intrinsic human worth while at the same time denying the deity who's existence is a prerequisite for any absolute morality to be possible.

From the perspective of one who wishes the well-being of all, we might consider that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are great rights that all people should have, but I don't understand how we can reasonably define these as inalienable natural rights apart from our general right to "do what thou wilt".

The "well-being of all" is totally ambiguous. What is considered as being "well" is totally different to the sadist than what it maybe for the religious person. I do agree that a total denying of morality is more in line with what a person with a naturalistic world view is left with. The sad reality is that the naturalist just has no base for any absolute morality.

William Lane Craig has done a number of debates with Secular Humanist. You can hear what a prominent Christian philosopher and theologian says on this here.

http://www.reasonablefaith.org/debate-on-secular-humanism

  • These are great answers you guys are sharing, and line up with what I think, but you haven't shared any contemporary philosophers that discuss these issues like I asked for in the body of my question. – called2voyage Aug 2 '13 at 13:36
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Yes, there is. But you will have to accept simple answers (a la KISS, or Ockham's razor) instead of complex, "philosophical" ones.

Crosbie Fitch did a great job in answering what are (natural) rights and how can we simple get to know them by simple observation. I quote him:

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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Natural rights are those rights inherent to a being.

But how would a right be inherent to a being?

We can say that a person has a right to live. But that person can easily be killed; so that right is not inherent to her as a being. It is something that is bestowed into her by others.

Those rights are inalienable if they may not be overridden by social contract.

This is, I think, a tautology: if something can be overridden by social contract, then such thing is alienable, ie, not inalienable. So you are saying that an inalienable right is a right... that cannot be alienated. Yes, it is, but no new information has been added by this.

Without some sort of deity, I don't understand how inalienable natural rights can be defined in any way that is useful (legally).

I tend to agree with you. Either there is some kind of deity, that bestows "natural" rights upon us (and so, they would more properly be called "divine" rights, instead of "natural" ones - unless of course the deity in question is "Goddess Nature"), or there is no deity at all, and whatever rights we have are social, not natural. The latter seems quite obvious to me, but the former isn't, at this level of analysis at least, self-contradictory.

Our natural right would seem to be "do what thou wilt", and this right would seem to always be inalienable--we can always do what we want regardless of what social contract we have entered into.

We can do whatever we want, but society will sanction some of our actions, making them illegal. The "social contract", to use your phrasing, does not forbid us from doing anything; it just forbids us from doing some things without facing certain consequences.

This isn't useful though, because we want our social contract to be binding.

Then there are no such things as "inalienable" natural rights: if the social contract is binding, it can, theoretically, bind us to any arbitrary rule, overriding whatever "natural" rights we may believe we have.

It is a fact that in practice, the "social contract" cannot stripe us from some "rights" lest the society as a whole falls into disorder. But then the foundation of these "inalienable" rights is not "nature", but the internal logic of human societies (if murder isn't forbidden, then cooperation between humans becomes more difficult, if not impossible, and consequently society cannot "progress" into greater wealth and harmony).

From the perspective of one who wishes the well-being of all, we might consider that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are great rights that all people should have, but I don't understand how we can reasonably define these as inalienable natural rights

I think they were historically defined as such, for historical reasons, and that this was a good thing at the time they were defined; but it seems quite obvious that they aren't "natural", and that they only are unalienable as long as our social frame make it impossible to alienate them. In the past, a person could sell herself into slavery, and nature would do nothing to prevent it. It was only a change in "social contract" (which isn't actually a contract, but for the sake of the argument, let's use the term) that put an end to slavery.


I further think that the deistic origins of the concept necessarily involve a divinisation of "nature". The people involved in the French and American revolutions might have not realised it, but they tended to worship "Goddess Nature" and attribute a divine role to it, instead of to the Abrahamic God. So again, no, you cannot have "natural rights" without undue and unaware attribution of volition and other human-like attributes to some super-human entity.

  • I agree with you entirely. Though you should also see the discussion in the comments of the accepted answer. There is some interesting philosophical discourse behind this. – called2voyage Jun 23 '16 at 20:18

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