Natural and Legal Rights - Debate

Debate

Various definitions of inalienability include non-relinquishability, non-salability, and non-transferability. This concept has been recognized by libertarians as being central to the question of voluntary slavery, which Murray Rothbard dismissed as illegitimate and even self-contradictory. Stephan Kinsella argues that "viewing rights as alienable is perfectly consistent with—indeed, implied by—the libertarian non-aggression principle. Under this principle, only the initiation of force is prohibited; defensive, restitutive, or retaliatory force is not."

The concept of inalienable rights was criticized by Jeremy Bentham and Edmund Burke as groundless. Bentham and Burke, writing in the 18th century, claimed that rights arise from the actions of government, or evolve from tradition, and that neither of these can provide anything inalienable. (See Bentham's "Critique of the Doctrine of Inalienable, Natural Rights", and Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France"). Presaging the shift in thinking in the 19th century, Bentham famously dismissed the idea of natural rights as "nonsense on stilts". By way of contrast to the views of Burke and Bentham, the leading American revolutionary scholar James Wilson condemned Burke's view as "tyranny."

The signers of the Declaration of Independence deemed it a "self-evident truth" that all men are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights". Critics, however, could argue that use of the word "Creator" signifies that these rights are based on theological principles, and might question which theological principles those are, or why those theological principles should be accepted by people who do not adhere to the religion from which they are derived. The signers did not all, however, share the same religion. In "The Social Contract," Jean-Jacques Rousseau claims that the existence of inalienable rights is unnecessary for the existence of a constitution or a set of laws and rights. This idea of a social contract – that rights and responsibilities are derived from a consensual contract between the government and the people – is the most widely recognized alternative.

Samuel P. Huntington, an American political scientist, wrote that the "inalienable rights" argument from the Declaration of Independence was necessary because "The British were white, Anglo, and Protestant, just as we were. had to have some other basis on which to justify independence".

Different philosophers have created different lists of rights they consider to be natural. Proponents of natural rights, in particular Hesselberg and Rothbard, have responded that reason can be applied to separate truly axiomatic rights from supposed rights, stating that any principle that requires itself to be disproved is an axiom. Critics have pointed to the lack of agreement between the proponents as evidence for the claim that the idea of natural rights is merely a political tool. For instance, Jonathan Wallace has asserted that there is no basis on which to claim that some rights are natural, and he argued that Hobbes' account of natural rights confuses right with ability (human beings have the ability to seek only their own good and follow their nature in the same way as animals, but this does not imply that they have a right to do so). Wallace advocates a social contract, much like Hobbes and Locke, but does not base it on natural rights:

We are all at a table together, deciding which rules to adopt, free from any vague constraints, half-remembered myths, anonymous patriarchal texts and murky concepts of nature. If I propose something you do not like, tell me why it is not practical, or harms somebody, or is counter to some other useful rule; but don't tell me it offends the universe.

Other critics have argued that the attempt to derive rights from "natural law" or "human nature" is an example of the is-ought problem. However, the term "natural" in "natural rights" refers to the opposite of "artificial", rather than meaning "physical" as it does in the sense of ethical naturalism, which according to G.E. Moore does suffer the is-ought problem in the form of the naturalistic fallacy.

Hugh Gibbons has proposed a descriptive argument based on human biology. He claims that Human Beings were other-regarding as a matter of necessity, in order to avoid the costs of conflict. Over time they developed expectations that individuals would act in certain ways which were then prescribed by society (duties of care etc.) and that eventually crystallized into actionable rights.

There is also debate as to whether all rights are either natural or legal. Fourth president of the United States James Madison, while representing Virginia in the House of Representatives, believed that there are rights, such as trial by jury, that are social rights, arising neither from natural law nor from positive law (which are the basis of natural and legal rights respectively) but from the social contract from which a government derives its authority.

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