Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Monday, October 02, 2006

About "Natural Rights"

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On 2006 Oct 2, Kenneth Krause wrote, in a book review of Robert B. Tapp's "The Fate of Democracy" (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2006). 240 pp. HC: $29.00 ISBN 1-59102-328-9:

... contributor Carmela Epright desperately clings to the indolent and perilous theory of natural rights, a model or set of models no less archaic and patronizing than those crediting God as the ultimate and unquestionable source of human liberty. Following an admonition to doubters that they must enroll in her philosophy course in order to comprehend her lofty argument, Epright reiterates the all too familiar declaration that rights are "self-evident and inalienable," emanating only from "our status as rational autonomous beings." (35-37) Government's function, according to Epright, is not to craft rights reasonably, but rather to merely "recognize" or perhaps "discover" such liberties and then to ensure them. Who, then, defines the character and content of our rights? No one, of course. Somehow, somewhere, rights simply exist despite our best efforts to shape, deny, or renounce them.

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Richard comments:

Of course, I have no sympathy for the view that natural rights are those which are "God-given". This is the troubling attitude of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who thinks that such rights (which he learned as a child from "the nuns") trump the US Constitution.

However, I do believe there is a good claim to be made for the concept of natural rights as whatever powers and abilities people had when there was no government around to tell them otherwise. My standard example of this is Daniel Boone, passing thru the Cumberland Gap into a wilderness where he was free to exceed 65 miles an hour if he wanted to.

Of course, old Dan'l didn't have the CAPACITY to exceed 65 MPH, but he had the natural right to do it, because there was no one to tell him he couldn't.

Cut to the modern day, when practically any American citizen has the capacity to exceed 65 MPH thru the Cumberland Gap, but the government tells us we may not do so. That's because we, as citizens, delegated to the government the POWER to limit our rights in this arena.

As James Madison remarked when initially opposing the Bill of Rights, the US Constitution gives to government only those powers the citizens voluntarily agreed to surrender. The default assumption is that the government CAN'T do something unless it can point to a specific grant of power authorizing such action.

Madison worried that, if a Bill of Rights were adopted, citizens would start to think that the reverse was true -- that the government could do anything it wanted UNLESS there was a specific, written right denying them that power. That's why, after he reluctantly agreed to draft the Bill of Rights in order to get the Constitution ratified, he made sure to include the 9th Amendment: "The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

What kind of rights did he have in mind? Well, almost certainly not specific things like "the right to privacy" or "the right to an abortion", but that KIND of thing -- in essence, anything that people could have freely chosen for themselves in the absence of a government to say them nay.

And that's the kind of natural rights I try to stand up for whenever the subject arises.

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2 wrongs don't make a right, but 3 lefts do.


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