I question the usefulness of the idea that people have natural, god-given, inalienable human rights. It’s been given a fair trial over the last several centuries, and it doesn’t work.
As philosophers have noted, “rights” are a moral concept, without existence outside the human mind. In the context of a particular moral code, one may properly speak of doing what is morally right as “a moral right,” with the understanding that such a “right” imposes no obligation on anyone besides those who subscribe to that identical moral code. But that is not the sense in which men commonly speak of “their rights.” They mean something grander, something that is universally possessed by all men, by virtue of — what? God’s grace, man’s nature as a rational being, Human Nature, the legacy of the Founding Fathers, or pure wishful thinking? Take your pick — they are all equally worthless.
Possession of a “right” has never protected men from the aggression of others, particularly the aggression of those who style themselves “governments”. What has actually done the job but never received the credit is the moral choice of civilized people not to initiate the use of force against one another, and to defend themselves (and each other) from the human predators among us. When the idea of individual responsibility for the defense of life, liberty and property falls into disfavor, your society will not be free much longer. The men who step forward to “protect your rights” for you will soon become your masters. And so it has come to pass, time and again.
Libertarians hold to the idea of natural rights because they crave the behavioral consequences: they wish everyone wouldbehave as though such things as “rights” actually exist, and must be respected. True enough: if everyone shares a fantasy, things will run smoothly until the first child stands up to declare that the emperor has no clothes. (Or until the first guy like Dick Cheney stands up to declare that he does indeed have the “right” to put people in cages and torture them to death.)
The problem with such fantasies is that they prevent us from becoming aware of exactly what forces actually work to make people free or unfree. As long as you believe in Santa Claus, you will not understand that it is your parents who love you and want to give you presents. As long as you believe in the literal truth of the Christian Bible, you will never be able to accept the fact of evolution, or even the fact that the earth is not flat. And as long as you believe in “rights,” you will never realize that individual choices (i.e., to resist coercion) are the force that wins and preserves the freedoms which men claim to be their “Natural Rights.”
“Rights” do not exist. The power of choice does. Men are free to act with respect for the individual liberties of others, or to actwithout respect. There is no such force as a natural right that will reward virtuous action, or punish evil. There is only one force in human affairs. That is the force of individual will. Freedom is a choice, not a right.
The worst feature of the fable of “rights” is the belief that we are entitled to receive them — by God or Nature or Society, or by great-grampa’s victory on the battlefield — some force outside oneself. This leads people to believe that it is the duty of that outside force to protect and enforce one’s rights. Wait for God to protect you from a mugger, and you’ll have quite a wait. Likewise, Mother Nature, or Society, or the Constitution. Your “right” not to be mugged is of no use to you, in the face of any random thug who doesn’t believe in such nonsense. (Which makes him smarter than you.) So if you prefer not to be mugged, it is not useful to count on your “rights;” better to examine your choices. Your choice to carry a gun or to avoid dark alleys will be of infinitely more use to you than your “right” not to be mugged.
In a way, it is enormously liberating to give up the idea of “rights.” You don’t need to give up your own moral vision of good and evil, right and wrong. You just have to realize that it is individuals standing up for their own moral choices who are the only defense of liberty. You don’t have to wait for someone else to deliver whatever “right” you believe you are entitled to enjoy. Make the choice to defend those freedoms you value. And if someone tries to stomp on your freedom, you will have to choose what to do about it. You can accept the stomping, and lose your freedom, by default. Or you can fight back. If you do so impulsively, stupidly, ineffectively, you can still lose and get stomped. But with planning, ingenuity and perseverance, you can win. Especially if you have help from like-minded friends and allies. Maybe you won’t, but it’s a chance, and you decide if it’s a chance worth fighting for. Your own choices are the only control you have over your life; they are also the source of any security or liberty you will achieve.
Fighting the gangsters (the worst of whom call themselves “governments”) who want to rob or enslave you is dangerous. They will be perfectly happy to imprison, torture and murder you to make sure no one else dares to question their authority. Unfortunately, safety isn’t always an option. Life isn’t safe. Bad, dangerous people exist, and some of them mean to take what you have, by threat or by force. You WILL have to deal with them. Resisting them is dangerous, but giving them everything they want, your property and your liberty, is also dangerous. Do you think they will take LESS from you next year, once you submit to them? Won’t the tribute they collect from you now strengthen them in the future, and weaken you? It sure would be nice if someone “out there” would just take care of the problem for you — except every time people set up an organization (i.e., a government) to protect themselves from bad guys, all the SMART bad guys join the organization, worm their way to the top, and take up looting where the last bad guys left off.
The whole idea of natural rights, like religion, has the advantage of being a ready-made code of conduct for people who haven’t figured things out for themselves. Like religion, it works to restrain some amount of human savagery. Just as some amount of juvenile savagery is restrained by the belief that Santa Claus will leave lumps of coal in the Christmas stockings of bad boys and girls. But what will restrain us when we grow up and see through the myths with which our parents, priests and politicians have tried to con us?
What are we to put in place of belief in rights? The ethics of non-aggression, peaceful voluntarism, and free trade. And a belief in choice. You may not have “rights,” but you do have all the abilities and qualities of an individual human being — which is all anyone else has. That means you have the ability to make choices and to direct your own action. You can choose what moral code you prefer to live by, and you can do so to the best of your ability. You can choose to respect other people’s equal liberty to work to achieve their own values. You can choose to associate yourself with other people who share your important values, and you may enter into agreements with them to mutually defend and support one another against aggressors. And if you do this well, you will have all the same security that the notion of “rights” is supposed to give you, only with clear understanding of what your security actually depends upon. A child who understands that his gifts come from his parents is better equipped to deal with the real world than one who continues to believe in Santa Claus.