Technically, a natural right is something we are entitled to by God independent of the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves.
In his Two Treatises on Civil Government, Locke outlined the three primary natural rights from which the entire political order flowed. Wikipedia’s helpful article on natural rights summarizes these as follows:
- Life: everyone is entitled to live once they are created.
- Liberty: everyone is entitled to do anything they want to so long as it doesn't conflict with the first right.
- Property: everyone is entitled to own all they create or gain through gift or trade so long as it doesn't conflict with the first two rights.
These natural rights should be familiar to us, because when Jefferson penned the Declaration, he drew on these Locke’s basic nomenclature but change Property to Happiness:
“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.”
Unalienable rights, being pre-legal, form a higher authority than the laws of the land. That is why the concept of natural rights became a mechanism during the Enlightenment to challenge the authority of kings and to promote modern republican theories of social contract.
But do natural rights even exist? I don't think so.
The problem with natural rights is that they hinge on certain theories of self-ownership that we are hard pressed to find in scripture. If natural rights really do exist, then God would be required to adhere to them, and yet God restricts our life, liberty and property all the time. From a scriptural point of view, it seems that we don't have the right to anything, at least not in an a priori sense.
Even those who espouse natural rights allow that there are circumstances in which the state has the duty to restrict someone’s liberty (as in the case of a convicted criminal) or even take away a person’s life (as in the case of a convicted murderer). What does this establish other than that whatever we may wish to call a ‘natural right’ is really contingent on a host of other factors and circumstances? This, incidentally, is exactly what Burke argues in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which I discuss in Saints and Scoundrels.
Philosophical arguments to establish the existence of natural rights are often circular, hinging on the prior assumption such rights are “self-evident.” At other times, defenders of natural rights commit the blatant non sequitur of inferring natural rights from merely pragmatic human-law arguments.
Finally, as my friend Brad Littlejohn has pointed out in his blog post ‘Possessed by Christ’ that “It is often forgotten, perhaps, that most concepts of private property rights as natural rights (as opposed to being a political right, a ‘social construct’) depend on a prior commitment to the notion of self-ownership." Does the Bible teach a doctrine of self-ownership? Somehow, I don't think the man who wrote 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 would think so.
Now make no mistake. There are certainly obligations and ethics that are pre-legal, and for this reason I have no problem affirming “natural law.” God created a moral universe, and it is beyond the authority of government to tamper with what God has declared to be right and wrong. Every legal system in the world has a duty to recognize these a priori realities. But natural rights are not among them.
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