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The Artificial Inflation of Natural Rights

Antony Flew

Antony Flew is Distinguished Research Fellow of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, Bowling Green State University. This article is from Vera Lex (Vol. VIII, No. 2 [1988]), published by the Natural Law Society.

Like other currencies, the currency of rights has in recent years been subject to inflation. And just as money tends to lose value the more of it that governments print, so the more that is said to be a matter of natural or universal human fight, the less force any such particular claim will have. In the good old days of the American Declaration of Independence the Founding Fathers of the United States mentioned only three such universal, unalienable, supposedly self-evident, and necessarily equal rights—to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

But since World War II such declarations—more frequent and much less eloquently written, as well as (on the part of so many of the new signers) totally insincere—have embraced ever-lengthening lists. In the most notorious, adopted in 1948 by the UN General Assembly, the table of specification covers, not one modest clause in a single world-shaking sentence but six printed pages. In what would have appeared to the American Founding Fathers a crescendo of absurdity we are told: (Article 22) “Everyone . . . has a right to social security”; (Article 24) “Everyone has the right to . . . periodic holidays with pay”; (Article 25) “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family . . . .”; and then—for the moment—finally (Article 26): “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory,” and so on through an oddly intrusive clause specifying that all education must “further the activities of the United Nations,” to the incongruous and inconsistent, even if welcome, conclusion that “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

There is no good reason why such a list should ever end, no rationale either provided or available for including in it one claim and not others, and hence no justification for—to reclaim a recently misappropriated phrase—Taking Rights Seriously. For those of us who do take rights seriously, the first need is to distinguish option rights from welfare rights. Option rights are claims not to be harmed and to be left alone; welfare rights are claims to be supplied with various goods.

The rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are all three of the first kind. A clear statement of liberty is provided by the 1945 constitution of Kemalist Turkey: “Every Turk is born free and lives free. He has liberty to do anything which does not harm other persons. The natural right of the individual to liberty is limited only by the liberties enjoyed by his fellow citizens.” The practice, of course, presents every kind of problem. But the principle is luminous. About happiness the only thing to be said is that it is, of course, a claim to be left free to pursue happiness, not to be supplied with the means to achieve it.

The right to life also should be similarly understood. It is the right of individuals not to be killed against their wills. It is not a right to be supplied either with a subsistence income or even with an opportunity to earn an adequate wage. Neither Nature herself nor the rest of mankind owes any of us either a living or even an opportunity to make one; and everyone still needs to remember this before bringing children into the world.[1] Again, just as any right of free association is at the same time and necessarily a right not to join, so any right to life must at the same time and necessarily be a right to end life if and when that is the right-bearer’s own wish.

The Right to Be Left Alone

All option rights really reduce to one, the right to be left alone and unharmed. If any claim to any natural right can be made out, then this one certainly can. Consider “The Formula of the End in Itself” under which Kant’s Categorical Imperative becomes: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”[2]

These formulations as they stand will, of course, not do. One sufficient reason why they will not do was urged by Kant’s admiring critic Schopenhauer. It is, strictly, incoherent to speak of “ends in themselves.” There can no more be “ends in themselves” unrelated to the persons whose ends they are, than there can be sisters in themselves, unrelated to any siblings of whom they are the sisters.[3]

Again, Kant’s talk of “rational natures” and of “rational beings” is likely to suggest creatures who are rational as opposed to irrational, or who are intellectual and unemotional as opposed to lowbrow and emotional. But the rational beings to all of whom the imperatives of morality apply, and “whose existence” might be said to have “in itself an absolute value,” are not an exclusive band of Platonic dialecticians. Nor are they, what nothing could be, ends in themselves. What they are, are the very creatures we all are: creatures which are able to, and cannot but, form ends for themselves; creatures which in giving to themselves or to others their reasons for acting this way but not that way, however irrational or non-rational those reasons, are rational beings.

From these familiar non-moral facts of our human nature nothing can be immediately deduced about either any rights which must he possessed by, or any obligations which must be laid upon, beings such as we. However, to borrow another characteristic concept from Kant, “as legislating members of the Kingdom of Ends,” as creatures, that is, prescribing laws to apply to all creatures adopting and pursuing ends for themselves, we ourselves can lay it down that all rational agents are to be respected in their pursuit of their own chosen ends. Indeed, if we are committed to prescribing principles to apply equally to all such beings, principles which as ourselves such beings we could will to become universal law, then it would seem that we can scarcely fail to prescribe the following: individuals must have the right to pursue their own ends, save in so far as this pursuit violates the equal rights of others; and everyone must be under the reciprocal and corresponding obligation to respect those equal rights of everyone else. The notions of equality and of reciprocity enter here because no one can consistently claim such universal human rights for themselves except in so far as they concede to others the same rights, the same liberties.

At Whose Expense?

Now contrast with these option rights claims to welfare rights. All such claims should be challenged by putting a crucial question, followed by a more philosophical supplementary: “At whose expense?”; and, “What is the basis of the obligation supposedly falling upon the unspecified providers of all these desired and desirable benefactions?”

Again, natural or universal rights must, as such, be equally valid at all times and in all places. If, however, ought presupposes can, then there are no such rights to what is not, and cannot be made, universally available. While everyone everywhere and always could have enjoyed the option right to liberty, if only the others had been willing to respect these claims, there have been many periods, and there have been and are many places, where the total available resources could not satisfy even haft of these fashionably proliferating welfare claims. And, furthermore, both the number of such less happy lands and the numbers of their poor inhabitants would surely tend to increase exponentially if a guarantee of generous welfare provision for all were to remove every prudential check upon human multiplication, thus automatically devaluing that guarantee.[4]

The questions put and objections raised in the previous two paragraphs bring out the hopelessness of attempting to construct a coherent and persuasive doctrine of welfare rights. But with option fights it is different. There the obligations rest as equally and fairly on everyone as the rights: everyone equally ought to, and can, respect everyone else’s equal rights to liberty and against injury.

We conclude by quoting from a Sage. A disciple once asked Confucius whether his rule of conduct might be embodied in a single word. The Master replied, “Is not ‘reciprocity’ the word?”[5]

1.   For an examination of an Aristotelean source of the always more popular, contrary doctrine, see my The Politics of Procrustes (London and Buffalo: Temple Smith and Prometheus, 1981), chapter VI, 3.

2.   Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, in The Moral Law, trans, H. J, Paton (London: Hutchinson, 1948), pp. 90 and 91.

3.   Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality, trans. E. R. J. Payne (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), p. 95.

4.   Compare, perhaps, my Introduction to Malthus: An Essay on the Principle of Population (Harmondsworth and Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1971).

5.   The Analects, trans. W. Soothill (Taiyuanfu, Shensi: Soothill, 1910), XV, 23g487

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