A Critique of Libertarian Natural Rights

If the central axiom of the libertarian creed is non-aggression against anyone’s person and property, how is this axiom arrived at? What is its groundwork or support?

Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto

Murray N. Rothbard’s “For a New Liberty” was published in 1973. It proposes a political system called libertarianism based on the core principle of non-aggression. The non-aggression principle states that no one can legitimately initiate force against another person’s body or property. Rothbard derived this principle from the “right” to self-ownership, i.e. the view that individuals have exclusive property rights over their own body.

Rothbard did not simply assert libertarianism’s political, economic and societal solutions, he was genuinely concerned with justifying his system. So, in addition to empirical and historical arguments supporting libertarianism, Rothbard offered philosophical justifications for it.

Rothbard argued that the “nature” of being human implies a “right” to act according to that “nature”. He rejected emotivist and utilitarian justifications for libertarianism in favour of “natural law theory”.

(Emotivists have emotional preferences for libertarian principles, whereas utilitarians assert libertarian axioms from their preference for the consequences of the non-aggression principle*).

“Natural law theory” is based on “natural rights”, but what are “natural rights”?

  • To what extent do they exist (if at all)? (or are they just man-made concepts?)
  • Can “natural rights” be derived from nature?
  • If they can, how do specific principles (e.g. the non-aggression principle) derive from them?
  • What mechanism links nature to specific principles that instruct human behaviour in society (politics/laws)?
  • How do such mechanisms make such principles obligatory, such that they are ethical imperatives — or are they just man-made concept enforced by a state?

These are important questions for libertarians to answer. If “natural rights” don’t exist, then does emotivism or utilitarianism serve as sufficient justification for libertarian principles? For the sake of honesty and truth it is important to understand if principles can be derived from facts (like objective “natural rights”) and even if “natural rights” exists in the first place.

Rothbard explains “natural law theory” here:

Natural law theory rests on the insight that … each entity has distinct and specific properties, a distinct “nature,” … the nature of man is such that each individual person must, in order to act, choose his own ends and employ his own means in order to attain them. … The right to self-ownership asserts the absolute right of each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, to “own” his or her own body; that is, to control that body free of coercive interference. [bold and italics added]

Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto

Assuming we can derive “rights” from natural properties, in what sense can they be “absolute”? Rothbard’s claims that being human establishes certain “absolute” rights but for something to be absolute, it would have to be undeniable — necessarily the case. Self-ownership is deniable. For example, while no one can directly control anyone else’s body (only their own mind can directly control their body), they can take control indirectly by force. By capturing or killing them, they would have control, of what is now, their property. This drastic example shows that self-ownership is not absolute in any sense implying “necessary”.

What if Rothbard used the word “absolute” to be replaceable with the phrase “libertarian proclaimed“? Now, “The right to self-ownership asserts the libertarian proclaimed right of each man… to ‘own’ his or her own body…” So, self-ownership is nothing more than a plea bargain that libertarians make with murderers, kidnappers, thieves, non-libertarians, and anyone who would take control of others’ bodies in defiance of libertarians’ claims of a priori “natural rights”.

The libertarian … concludes … the universal right of self-ownership, a right held by everyone by virtue of being a human being.

Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto

How does a fact, such as being a human, establish the existence of a “right”, or lead to the knowledge of a principle such as self-ownership? Isn’t this just anthropocentric projection onto nature? People who claim that self-ownership is a natural fact, a principle-for-all, think they see it as a (self-evident) property in nature. This is just special pleading of an egalitarian variety. Even if self ownership exists as a principle in nature, why assume that all people have it equally? The libertarian has not yet explained the mechanism by which self ownership is linked from nature to people. Since people are different, by almost all measures, why would a natural mechanism, grant people equal ownership over unequal bodies? Such an unexpected result strikes me as the wishes of moralists, not of the cold, logical result of rational libertarian philosophies.

But, as often in philosophy, people project their values externally in an attempt to satisfy their existential insecurities. Libertarians have a temperament, or personality that is predisposed towards fairness, and logical rules. No wonder, they see “in nature” such biases expressible as principles.

I’ll make my view clear: “rights” are man-made concepts and do not exist outside of human convention.** The phrase “natural law theory” is often confused with “the laws of nature”, but there is an important difference between them. “Natural law theory” describes the set of principles derived from the “laws of nature”. Whereas the only “laws” that exist independent of the human mind are the laws of nature itself. (These are the objective laws of nature, not those proclaimed by men in courts or approximated by scientific descriptions e.g. gravity). Hence “natural rights” can only be observed manifesting in reality as the physical actions of men whose minds invented (or submitted to) them — and always under the control of the laws of nature.

But so what if libertarian principles are based on assumptions and “if-clauses”? Don’t preferences for arbitrary principles suffice as groundings for them? Aren’t libertarians simply trying to provide solutions to problems? If solutions are identified, why can’t they be adopted? Consider how the following quote could be made much more honest and transparent by adding assumed words.

Since each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation.

Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto

“Since [we would have it so that] each individual [can] think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish [as they see fit], [in our libertarian political system, we would grant] the right to self-ownership which gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation.”

— Revised

This is something that many people would agree with. In the worst case, it loses its rhetorical power because it is clearly just a preference. But doesn’t this expose the sophistry — the argumentative tricks — that have been used to peddle “natural rights law”?

Libertarianism is not justified by “natural law theory”. This leaves room for the metaphysically honest emotivist grounding for libertarianism: it does not claim objective “rights” exist, nor that principles derive from them.

The libertarian does not need objective, cosmological justification for self-ownership “rights” or the non-aggression principle. Libertarian solutions to political problems can be proposed even if self-ownership “rights” and the non-aggression principle are not laws of nature. Not only is “preference” all there is to refer to, but emotional preference (whether for the consequences of principles or direct principles themselves) is sufficient grounding for libertarianism.

*But isn't utilitarianism just a form of emotivism: a preference for preferred consequences? -- a preference for "the greatest good for the greatest number"?  

** Along with property rights, legal rights, human rights, animal rights, ethical norms, morals, etc., as a man-made concepts, they do not necessarily map directly to metaphysically properties of reality. Even if these things exist, we have no way to know for certain. We cannot establish their existence with any certainty by inference from empirical reality. Also, human intuition cannot establish their existence.

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