Back when I was a starry-eyed Libertarian, I moderated the Yahoo! group Liberty List, a list I co-created with Terry Liberty Parker. When I was first inspired to create the group, I saw it as a forum for vetting new ideas. Almost immediately after the groups creation it became clear that Terry Parker thought of the list as a platform for stridently repeating the same old ideas he’d been promoting all his life; the ideas he still held as true on the day he died. Long before that day we parted ways, rarely speaking again, and I transferred the group to a trusted third party not too long after that. As far as I know (or care) the group still exists somewhere on Yahoo! or its inheritor company.
I mention Liberty List only as a basis for relating how the question was first asked of me. One (or two) of the other list members and I used to bounce ideas off each other, hopefully to our mutual satisfaction, because I know I enjoyed the exchange of ideas. When the Austin city council first brought up banning smoking indoors in the city, we hotly debated just exactly what a libertarian solution to the threat of second-hand smoke should be.
That was one subject among many at the time, and it seemed like we were engaged in something important then. Looking back on it now, I find it faintly amusing that we thought we were changing things, arguing ideas on a small forum in a remote corner of the internet. The innocence of relative youth.
It was during one of our endless debates that the question was posed to me, after I had blindly asserted that I could do this thing. So how would you define rights without god? I agree with you that it can be done, but how? he asked. Little did I know that this simple question asked in passing would be the one set of words that I struggle with to this day.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Throughout human history we have attempted to find meaning in the world around us. We do this imperfectly because we are imperfect beings in an imperfect universe. This is because perfection is an unattainable, unknowable state which only the deluded think they understand.
As a group we humans have tried many approaches to find this meaning. We have given this discipline a name, Philosophy, and established schools of thought within the discipline as varied and as many as there are philosophers in history. Down through the ages we have dallied with gods and flirted with the idea of the absence of gods, and fooled ourselves that we group of blind men can fully describe the elephant with only our hands and words.
I do not harbor any delusions about the ability of one uneducated man to be able to perfectly describe the universe or establish its meaning; for myself, I can only hope to find my own meaning within the universe. To this end I have pursued my lifelong obsession with philosophy; and when I say obsession I do not mean that I have exhaustively read the treatises of other philosophers. I have done some of that, but I have found that most philosophers aren’t actually interested in exploring naked truths. They are more interested in explaining why the world is the way they perceive it to be. Justifying the beliefs they already have.
After that fashion, I guess I’m no different than they are, although there is one difference between a good number of them and myself. That difference being that the question has badgered me over the course of a life that has seen many changes in my beliefs. I have now lived long enough that the question itself, what are rights? is older than most of the beliefs that I still maintain.
However, I think meaning can be found that is universal, objective. It was because of the word Objective that I first allied myself with Objectivists. Ayn Rand in her ultimate folly thought she understood the natural universe perfectly. Her writing on the subject, compelling as it is, is incomplete at best. At worst her work is used as it is today, to justify horrors by those willing to enact them, citing her works in ways that the author herself would never have condoned. Her claiming of the title Objectivism for her philosophy is illustrative of the massive ego of the woman herself, made obvious by the study of her life, if you are simply inquisitive enough to take up the challenge. Within every lie is a kernel of truth, as the saying goes, and within the brashness of Objectivism is the truth of materialism, the denial of post-modernism and it’s still-born sibling, solipsism.
The original challenge to define inalienable rights was issued because god; and yet god himself is a hopeless contradiction, a failure of man’s imagination to grasp that the complexity around us is achievable through time multiplied by error alone. The uncreated creator is a substitution for understanding, not an explanation. Accepting this conclusion, it fell to me to offer a real explanation for the concept of rights; an explanation grounded in science out of necessity, since scientific evidence is the only demonstrable way to objectively prove anything. At least, the only way that we’ve yet discovered.
Aristotle’s unmoved mover may indeed exist, the god of scientists and philosophers, the natural god, but that god does not offer explanations beyond mere existence itself. It falls to us to explain what things mean to our own satisfaction.
The theory of emergence provides the grounding for inalienable rights. While rights are vested in the individual, it is only through seeing the interactions of individuals that the pattern of rights becomes clear. There is no concept of property when alone on a desert island. This is where Rothbard’s simplistic outline of rights fails. Everything the sole inhabitant of the island touches is his property by definition, but the individual marooned on a desert island cannot hope to do more than survive while his health endures. He is alone on an island like Robinson Crusoe, a literal parallel that Rothbard himself draws. Alone on his island except for his man Friday. Don’t look too closely at that social configuration, or you’ll have to explain why Friday could not claim it all for himself.
The point remains that survival is the least of any of our human aspirations. We have always dreamed much larger dreams than just making it to tomorrow, the only hope that Crusoe and his man Friday can maintain all alone on their island.
Most of the concepts we deal with on a daily basis emerge from our interactions with others. Money is a concept that becomes useless in a social grouping small enough to provide for its own needs. Families everywhere struggle with introducing money into the social structure of the household, grapple with educating children on what money is, what it means, what is its value. If you corner any given individual and challenge them to define money, most of them will be unable to do so beyond showing you a physical representation. A representation which is not a definition per se.
Money, currency, will be the subject of a later chapter. In the meantime, let this clarification suffice. Groups that are large enough that the contributions of the individual cannot be valued and compensated accordingly, money becomes a necessity. How else is the individual who makes widgets all day to be afforded to directly purchase food and shelter for his continued existence? How will he be compensated when the value of the widget cannot be directly translated by the average person into a quantity of food, the quality of shelter? Money makes that possible, however it is defined. Money is an emergent system, an outgrowth of human interaction.
But rights are not systems themselves. Rights are the principles that systems are based on. Like systems which emerge from human interaction, the principles that those systems are based on are also emergent; revealed through the interactions of individuals.
That money should have a definable value to the individual is a principle (albeit flawed) of the monetary system. All of the systems around us that we take for granted are based on these principles that most of us never even bother to seek out, let alone question. Jefferson’s (through Locke) immortal listing of Life, Liberty & Pursuit of Happiness is, as it says in the Declaration, truncated. There are many other principles that can be inferred from the interactions of individuals, there for anyone to see if they simply take the time to look.
Which is why what we are wrestling with here is Human Nature, not ideology, theology, or the natural world as revealed in the study of other animals. How we as humans value each other, or fail to value as the case may be. The nature of the human animal, as it relates to other human animals within the structures we create for ourselves. As I observed in my first outing on this subject.
A prisoner has rights. Not because we ‘allow’ them; but because his [human nature] enables them. The fact that there are prison breaks is merely proof that the prisoners maintain their rights in spite of the full force of government and the people being intent on denying them the exercise of same.
In the broadest sense, Emergent Principles of Human Nature represents what most people mean by inalienable rights; what has been lacking up to now is some way of objectively defining why rights cannot be separated from the person; this is satisfied in the concept of emergence. They cannot be separated from the person, because they are only revealed through common interactions with other individuals. Without them, survival in a group is impossible because the basic needs of the individual cannot be met; and any system created that doesn’t take them into account will fail through the actions of individuals intent on fulfilling their own needs.
Rights are not listed on some government document. They aren’t granted by sovereignty, even your own. They emerge from the requirements for human life, and the process of securing those requirements on an individual basis.
The problem with natural rights as a concept is this; if rights are natural, a part of an individual, then that individual should be able to determine what those rights are. Unfortunately, human nature conspires to prevent this, making the common notion of natural rights almost unfathomable from the outset. The limitations we face are a part of us and are consequently almost invisible to the individual. They are obvious when pointed out, but even then most people will deny that they are limited by them, never mind that there is no escaping these limitations while remaining human.
The first of these constraints is confirmation bias. If an individual believes something, that individual is going to work to confirm those beliefs, no matter what mountains of evidence to the contrary have to be climbed. If you believe you have a right to a firearm, you’re going to find every reason you can lay your hands on to justify having that weapon. No amount of basic logic to the contrary like, say, the simple observation of how will you get the weapon if no one can make it? will dissuade you from that belief.
If you are one of those people you are crafting counters right now, if you were able to finish reading that sentence at all before doing it. However, the parameters of the argument are contained in that simple sentence. There really isn’t an argument beyond I’ll make it myself, which leads us to the next constraint.
This is the fact that limitations in areas of understanding renders an individual blind to their own limitations. This is also known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. I wondered for years why someone I knew was incompetent in a particular area couldn’t understand why they really shouldn’t be doing whatever it was they were incompetent at.
I myself vaguely discern an echoing gulf of misunderstanding around me when I attempt to communicate with the average mundane (normal person) I simply cannot communicate in any form other than the written word, apparently. The connections aren’t there in the brain, I can’t read faces, I have no idea what anyone is feeling at any given moment. I have to blunder along hoping that the person I’m talking too is willing to be as dead honest with me as I am forced to be with them.
The one limitation makes essential the licensing practices we’ve come to establish over the last hundred years, and the other limitation convinces us that we don’t need anyone to tell us what we can or can’t do. We don’t need anyone to tell us anything even though, to an external observer, it’s obvious that you (me, everybody) really do need supervision.
It is these limitations that render impotent the common sense notion of natural rights. It is these limitations that render the individual incapable of determining for themselves what their own aptitudes are. That necessitate the requirement for testing and licensing, so that others can know without having to become experts in all fields themselves (a technical impossibility) what proficiencies someone else is trained in.
These two related constraints are hardly an exhaustive list of the limitations we flawed humans face. The briefest investigation into the subject of priming should give you pause; especially when you understand that simply mentioning firearms earlier in the article, just their reading of that word, means that a significant portion of readers have formed opinions about my goals with this manuscript. Goals that I frankly haven’t even worked out for myself.
Then we could discuss motivated numeracy and how that leads individuals to question science itself when it produces results they don’t like. I expect that this list of an individuals potential failings will move steadily towards infinite length, the more we understand the limitations of the human animal.
Our knowledge of ourselves is flawed by our very nature; making self-doubt not just a necessity, but a virtue. Every time that our certainties are challenged we should be willing to step back and question our most cherished beliefs. Capable of not only defending them, but of logically justifying them to the harshest critic. It is this ability, this willingness to admit the possibility of fault, that embraces our humanity.
When it came to writing a second chapter to this manuscript, I actively questioned where to go next? I settled on debunking the common notion of natural rights because of the many shortcomings we human animals suffer under; deficiencies in logic which specifically render us unable to simply see what our rights should be. The need to point out that our nature allows for a definition of human rights, while at the same time in no way authorizes individual demands. Yes, emergent principles of human nature are natural, if they are as I describe them to be. But that fact does not mean that individuals are born with a right to a firearm. With the right to demand the actions, services and material goods of unrelated others within your social group.
We are born with an ability to make our own way, to build upon the works of those who came before us and improve on that foundation; but we are beholden to those who contributed to establishing that foundation. We are indebted to those whose blood, sweat and tears are mixed into the knowledge that is preserved for us to utilize. Every single individual who ever existed before you had to exist in order for you to be here, now, in this place and time with the knowledge you have at your disposal. If you can grasp it, that is a daunting perspective to behold. The thousands of generations of creatures who had to exist just so that you could be here, now.
Every person longs to be part of something greater than themselves; it is through this longing that so many paths are forged. A wise man once said no man is an island and this is demonstrably true. Those who perceive themselves as islands simply fail to grasp the necessity of all the people who came before him who supported him, educated him and elevated him until his head broke the surface to appear as an island.
All of those people who preceded that individual human being, everyone who contributed to the vast database of knowledge made available to him, all of them had to exist in order for that individual to exist in that time place with the knowledge he possesses. If this was not so then all of us could claim perfect understanding of the universe at birth, which is also demonstrably untrue.
This is the nature of the flaw in individualist philosophies. Objectivism, Libertarianism, Anarchism. All of them carry the same flaw. Rothbard, Rand and all their ideas are flawed from the precept stage of development. They assume that there is just one natural law governing man, and that that law makes itself apparent to all men. The vast majority of the world’s population simply don’t understand the notion of taxes as theft, or that socializing the healthcare system (or the school system, or whatever) interferes with the contract rights of every man, and consequently determines the paths of those caught within the system.
And yet Rothbard, Rand and those who follow their reasoning simply gloss these facts over, and continue asserting that what they see as the ultimate truth is the only apparent truth.
When I think of natural law, I see several possibilities for defining codes within the parameters of nature. The parasites’ code. The predators’ ethic. These are, of course, not correct codes, as people raised with a mid-western work ethic would conceive of them. And yet, like the misguided people who took the phrase right-to-life and perverted it into a belief system that takes away a woman’s right to her own life; so too the phrase natural rights or natural law lends itself to many different interpretations.
Natural rights as a belief lends itself to interpretations that become equally as valid as Rothbard’s real intent when he crafted the ideas behind Anarcho-capitalism, or Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, because there is no central authority to determine what is or isn’t right in the natural sense beyond might makes right. Because all of us are incapable of objective certainty at any particular point in time. Try as we might to maintain a sense of objectivity, it remains a truism that our day to day experience is completely subjective. You simply can’t be perfectly objective all the time and remain human at the same time.
Our nature defines the principles that we live under, but by that same nature no one individual can say with certainty exactly what rights he should be permitted to exercise.