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The Problem with Natural Rights and True Believer Activism

In Sam Harris is Nonsensical in Principle, one “Joel Grus” writes:

In my younger days, when I was full of libertarian bluster, I used to formulate arguments in terms of “Natural Rights.” Murder was Wrong (with a capital ‘W’) because it violated your “right to life.” I used to go on like this all day, until finally my friend Cesar (I think) kindly pointed out that I was full of shit.

I’m still full of libertarian bluster, I suppose, although you’d never in a million years catch me arguing based on “natural rights,” which (after my youthful indiscretions) I came to realize represent either religious (“they’re the rights god gave us”) or pseudo-religious (“they’re self-evident!”) attempts to create an “objective” basis for one’s policy preferences. (As a general rule, if most people refuse to agree with a proposition even after you’ve made your best case for it, it’s not “self-evident.”)

There’s no shortage of people who want an “objective” basis for their policy preferences. It turns them from opinions (e.g. “it’s my opinion that we should pay teachers more”) or hypothetical imperatives (e.g. “if we want to make teaching a more attractive profession, we should pay teachers more”) or self-interest (e.g. “speaking as a teacher, we should pay teachers more”) into “facts” (e.g. “it’s a fact that we should pay teachers more”) and “morals” (e.g. “if you don’t think we should pay teachers more, you’re a moral reprobate”). You can argue against opinions, but you can’t argue against facts! You can rail against self-interest, but not against morals!

It’s a nice sleight of hand when you can pull it off. Unfortunately, you usually can’t. Neither can Sam Harris, who has a new book out claiming that “science has a universal moral code.”

This, to me, shows one problem with the natural law type thinking about libertarianism, just as it shows, by analogy, what is wrong with self-delusional rah rah cheerleading of the typical political activist. If you adopt the idea that libertarianism is only worth holding if you can Prove Natural Rights, then you are vulnerable to dejection and relativism if you start to see problems with arguments for natural law. (And there are significant problems with natural law/natural rights arguments, the is-ought gap being one of them; the diffuseness of human nature being another.)1

Far better, in my opinion, to simply recognize that one can only be a libertarian if one for some reason values the grundnorms that lie at its base. No matter how powerful are arguments for why you should value the libertarian grundnorms, if you do not value them, you will simply not be a libertarian. So what makes you a libertarian is the fact that you do adopt and have certain core values, principles, beliefs, and preferences. Arguments for them are only a partial causal factor, and only for some people–that is, for some people, a good argument for natural rights may be why they do value them, but it is their valuing them that makes them libertarian, not the arguments—some people have these values without the arguments being the reason, and some people are aware of the arguments but reject libertarianism anyway. Arguments are neither necessary nor sufficient for someone to adopt libertarian meta-values. It is adopting them that matters, and, really, in a sense, all that matters.2 If you recognize this and face it frontally without blinking or being a whiner who wants some safety net or cosmic figure or argument to hold your hand, then you won’t be dispirited if you see that there may be problems going from ought to is; your very identity and character is defined by being someone who happens to value peace, civility, cooperation, prosperity, fairness, decency, and so on. If someone says to me that there is no good proof for why I should value peace, I yawn–I don’t care. I am libertarian because I choose to be.3)

Likewise, if you are an activist because you have been given false hopes that we can win soon, etc., as soon as you start to see reality you are more prone to just tossing it all and becoming a cynical and maybe even anti-libertarian.4 If you are an activist for Rothbardian reasons—short-run pessimist, but “long run optimist,”5 then you can stick with it in the long run; you do it because its part of who you are: you are a person who loves justice and wants to fight on its side even if you don’t have a concrete victory assured on the morrow.6 You are like the man who would die to save his family, or the captain who would go down with his ship. You are a person of integrity and lasting values, not someone pouring their energy into helping the Republicans get the Contract With America enacted.

Returning to Grus: one reason he may have the views he does is that he seems to have a crude and naive scientistic monism. He adopts the prevailing view about what true “science” is–it’s empirically testable and falsifiable claims about causal law only; thus, economic, morality, etc. are all “unscientific”:

If you believe that science can make a statement that (say) child abuse is wrong in some absolute sense, then you’re tacitly accepting that new evidence might reveal that child abuse is not actually wrong. If you’re not open to that possibility, then you’re not doing science. You can call it science, but it’s not science.

Maybe he [Sam Harris] doesn’t care. (Or maybe he’s open to the possibility that child abuse might be “moral,” but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.) Maybe he’s only interested in the name:

But whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is economics a true science yet?

I’m not sure whether economics is a “true science.” But most honest economists are forthright that the scientific part of what they do is only the positive part. Economics can tell you which allocation rules satisfy certain “fairness” criteria. But it can’t tell you which criteria are the correct ones.

Look, I think murder is awful. But I don’t pretend that this is some sort of scientific judgment. It’s my opinion, and luckily most everyone else agrees with me.

You know what else is awful? Putting people in jail because they like to use drugs. It’s wicked, it’s evil, it’s barbaric, it’s disgusting, it’s shameful, it’s every bad adjective you could apply to it. This is as plainly obvious to me as is my feeling that murder is awful. And I’m not just talking marijuana. I’m talking heroin, cocaine, opium, you name it. Somehow, though, most people disagree with me. Most scientific people disagree with me. Of course, I’m right and they’re wrong. But science is powerless to settle this dispute. Science tells you what drugs do and what happens when you mix them and how to get a better high. Science tells you the likely consequences of your policy of throwing drug users in prison. But science doesn’t tell you whether it’s evil to throw drug users in prison. Science can’t tell you whether it’s evil to throw drug users in prison. Science can’t tell you how to find “peaks” on a “moral landscape” because there’s no such thing as a “moral landscape.”

Economics is of course a science—at least, genuine (Austrian) economics is. In fact, it’s a “harder” science than even physics is since it yields apodictically true knowledge whereas physics and the natural sciences yield only tentative, incomplete, never-final, always-subject-to-revision knowledge about causal laws. If it is true that Hume’s is-ought dichotomy prevents the strict derivation of moral principles and norms from pure facts, recognizing the nature of norms as having to rest on more fundamental norms still leaves open a logical and rigorous science of interpersonal ethics, to-wit: in economics we start with certain incontestable (apriori) propositions (related to human action and its categories), and we explicitly introduce certain contingent facts to make the inquiry interesting (say, we posit a society with money instead of a barter society).

  1. See The Trouble with Feser (on Libertarianism); Woods, Fleming, Chronicles Discussion; Slavery, Inalienability, Economics, and Ethics (archive version with comments); and my comment in the post “Intellectual Property and the Structure of Human Action“; on the is-ought gap, see Hoppe’s A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, p. 163. []
  2. For my views on libertarian grundnorms, see What Libertarianism Is, in particular n. 14 and associated text; also “The Division of Labor as the Source of Grundnorms and Rights” and “Empathy and the Source of Rights“; also see The Twelve Virtues of Rationality; Utilitarianism vs. Consequentialism. []
  3. See my Why I’m a Libertarian — or, Why Libertarianism is Beautiful (archived comments); also The Irrelevance of the Impossibility of Anarcho-Libertarianism and its cross-post on my site (archived comments []
  4. See my The Trouble with Libertarian Activism. []
  5. See Rothbard’s Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty []
  6. Again, see my Why I’m a Libertarian — or, Why Libertarianism is Beautiful; also The Irrelevance of the Impossibility of Anarcho-Libertarianism and its cross-post on my site []
{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Richard Gaylord October 9, 2010, 9:41 am

    Brilliant! Libertarians need to stop wasting their time and efforts trying to persuade people that individual freedom has a sound philosophical basis. it doesn’t. natural rights are simply a myth. It is a far better strategy to find people who feel in their guts, that no persons or institutions should interfer in their non-violent activities and to make common cause with them.

    • Richard Gaylord October 10, 2010, 6:54 am

      I forgot to add the following to my previous note: one cannot go from is to ought unless one adds if. For example (the use of ‘man’ is not intended to be gender-specific)

      because man’s nature IS x
      he OUGHT to behave in manner y
      IF he wants z as a result

      It might be claimed that all men desire z and so there is no subjectivity involved here. But this is obviously not true.

  • CSJtheory October 12, 2010, 5:59 pm

    I think a good argument can be made that natural rights exist depending on one’s definitions.

    The way “Natural Rights” is used historically is similar to the way Austrians use apodictic truths in praxeology.

    “Right” being something one can do or entitlement, and “natural” being an intrinsic quality. A natural right is a universal capacity & quality of all humans – not to be confused with a contractual right granted or agreed among a subset of humans. Also, it’s descriptive not prescriptive.

  • Jason August 21, 2018, 4:50 pm

    1 I experience a moral obligation to avoid causing harm to others.

    2 I experience no moral obligation to allow another to harm me unjustifiably.
    3 I see no moral problem in causing harm to expiate harm done.

    Those statements are true when made by me. All of them are morally significant. Any conclusion that derives moral significance from any combination of them is also morally significant. In other words; we are already on the ought side of the is-ought gap.

    Here’s what this gives us: In a world with only me and one other person who also affirms all three of those statements for himself, property rights exist, because the only difference between the first user and the usurper is one causes harm and the other does not. Whether they can be called legal rights, or whether they are objective does not matter. They exist to the people who exist in that world.

    If we add a bunch of people to that world, and some minimum portion of them affirm those three propositions, you’re probably gonna have legal property rights in that world. You may have states, too, and communism. You could even end up with a world full of people who think you state to have property rights, but you’d have the property rights anyway.

    So, yeah, it’s just a subjective little thought experiment to toss around, but it’s logically valid and sound for anyone who can affirm all three, and it doesn’t try to jump the is-ought gap.

    Should I worry about losing my libertarian faith now?

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