Most people prescribe to some preternatural dictum outlining some measure of the virtuosity of actions and thoughts, be it natural or divine. Christianity’s 10 commandments spring to mind as examples of behavioural guidelines, while claims of natural, “inalienable rights” like education, freedom of expression are ever-more pervasive in society. There is little doubt in my mind that the latter are important and highly correlated with a nation’s economic progress, while the former greatly informed the modern legal system and provided strong deterrents to socially-destructive behaviour for millennia.
I’d like to start by making a distinction between government sanctioned rights and “natural-born rights”. While the government promises to protect my belongings by means of rights of possession, there is no natural right to ownership. Aside from the age-old “who has the right to own something from the earth anyway”, humans squabbled over food, hunting grounds and mates since their earliest times. Social “contracts” arose out of necessity, as humans discovered that they were often rather weak and under-equipped when facing the world alone. Thus the human became a social-creature. But that’s just it, governmental rights are simple “guarantees” underwritten by the organism that embodies one of our many social contracts. These contracts only exist because from them, more effective/efficient results can be achieved.
In the economic analysis of law, it is widely discussed that laws are enacted to allow people to be more productive. How do you work to improve your garden when you must spend all day defending it from would-be brigands and thieves? It turns out that everyone is better off when we protect “rightful” ownership, which is to say we entitle resources to those who may “use them best”. (That’s a bit of a stretch in real life, though only because humans are far from perfect.)
The point is that there are no such things as natural rights – they arise because they allow us to create better living conditions. “What about the extension of rights to minorities and other interest groups? Are they not fueled on fairness?” I was asked once. My answer is that fairness is yet again a tool, a commodity to be traded. Now that people demand fairness (which is hardly guaranteed by nature, and I refuse to give proof of this because it is all around us), to be unfair is to spark protests, rioting and discontent; it slows the gears that keep society moving. It’s all well and good to promote equity and justice, but these only exist because society works better when they do. People work harder when they are more content, this is hardly news, so society keeps them happy.
Animals do what they do best, survive, hunt, forage, build, etc… Humans, bearing an increased intellectual capacity, are fundamentally no different from animals in that we are bound by the same laws of physics and survival.
If you disagree, feel free to comment or e-mail me some of the supposed “natural rights”, because though I try to be complete in my appraisal, there will be perspectives that I miss. It is worth noting that I’ve tried to keep my argument summative – there’s much more to this type of argument, but this is hardly the venue for a full philosophic treatise.
Why does this matter? Because rights go hand in hand with morality, which I will be addressing in short order.