Why Rights Are Not Self-Evident

June 11, 2015

Americans have learned to frame their debates over political matters in terms of their rights, which they consider self-evident or natural. I had my doubts about the self-evidence of natural rights. In this chapter, I take up that question whether rights can be considered transparent to reason, natural or self-evident.

Those who prioritize natural rights over other moral and philosophical considerations do so in part because they believe rights are self-evident and natural. In fact, the notion of natural rights is precarious. By precarious, I mean that the foundation and specifi city of natural rights are up for debate and not at all self-evident, contrary to the position seemingly articulated by the Declaration of Independence and the natural rights philosophers who wrote earlier. Since natural rights are up for debate,what our rights are and mean is difficult to specify outside of some political process and some social community with a set of values, aspirations, hopes, and philosophical commitments. To put it more paradoxically, liberty is not a self-evident set of moral commitments that is clear up front, but a process through which we defi ne what our rights are and should mean. Thus liberty is best understood as a particular moral and political philosophical theory about how to distribute power, goods, and resources fairly in a society in which there is no single notion of truth that is commonly accepted.

In turning to the precariousness of natural rights, I want to deepen the critique that has guided us so far. We have already seen that our opponents make several mistakes in how they think about human beings, rights, and liberty. In particular, they overemphasize the importance of rights to the exclusion of other values, and they miss the ways that sacrifice and responsibility should inform how we think about ourselves, our lives in society, and ourselves as part of humanity. At this point, I wish to turn back to the notion of natural rights that has such a grip on our American imagination and show just how ambiguous the notion of natural rights really is and how problematic it is to rest American decision making on rights alone. If what natural rights are and mean is indecisive, then we need to revisit the assumptions about the respective roles of government and individuals, which have been based on rights.

You can download a copy of Chapter 5 of Beyond Liberty Alone:Why_Rights_Are_Not_Self-Evident_Chap_4