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The Paradox of Natural Rights



The Paradox of Natural Rights

Nathaniel Bates


The fruit of American culture is the belief in natural rights.  Most Americans believe, or claim to believe, that human rights are inherent in the individual.  It is the one notion that does not seem to divide the political spectrum in America at this point in our history.  Whereas at one point opposition to such a notion was prevalent among more reactionary segments of the American population[1], at this point the mainstream discourse among conservatives affords at least rhetorical respect to notions of freedom and equal opportunity.  What does divide Americans is that Americans disagree over the philosophical rationale that presumably justifies our sense of rights.  Among believers in philosophical naturalism, rights are seen as inherent in the natural order.  Among more religious Americans, rights are seen as inherently granted by God or else they have no meaning.  Both claim to believe in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the ideals of Locke and Jefferson. Yet, both positions lead to paradoxes that neither can fully escape without further reflection and perhaps revision.  If unresolved, the paradoxes of both positions might have negative implications for the very doctrine of natural rights itself.

American history has been deeply divided between pragmatists and idealists, a division that is actually much deeper than the divide between religious and secular. It is the idealists who have upheld the notion of inherent rights.  Some idealists have been secular and some have been religious.  Secular and religious idealists have both held to the Declaration of Independence as a binding legal document on the direction America should take, whereas secular and religious pragmatists have both tended to hold to the belief that the Constitution alone forms the basis of law.  It is not the purpose of this essay to adjudicate between the two positions, although this author, admittedly an idealist himself, notes that the Declaration of Independence was indeed a legal document in that it affirmed the position of the colonists in separating from England.  Indeed, most Americans uphold both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, downplaying the anti-democratic nature of the “original intent” of the latter.  Some Americans such as David Barton even hold that both are divinely revealed.  Part of patriotism in America is a certain degree of civil religion that has even affected secular discourse, civil religion itself having been a battleground fought over between pragmatists and idealists since the beginning of the country.

Modern Fundamentalists have attempted to claim ownership of the civil religion of the founding generation, and even of the idealism of the abolitionists, in spite of the fact that their conservatism generally derives from the more pragmatic traditions in American political theory.  What is ignored in their claim of ownership, however sincere it may be, is the degree to which Fundamentalism in the nineteen twenties defined itself in opposition to the very forms of Christianity that had allied themselves to social reform during the earlier periods of American history.  Modern Fundamentalists might claim the mantle of the Patriot clergy during the Revolutionary War, but the original Fundamentalists of the early twentieth century were something of a reaction against Social Gospel Christianity and the tradition of reforming the world so prevalent among early American Christianity. The notion that rights are inalienable was a notion that unified early American Christianity with other religious perspectives such as Deism.  However, the Fundamentalist position was one that repudiated the rosy view of man held to by the Enlightenment and liberal Christianity.  Man is inherently sinful, according to Fundamentalists, a position that if carried through to its logical conclusions would repudiate the whole emphasis on worldly concerns like political rights.

Of course, few Fundamentalists carry their beliefs to their logical conclusions if such conclusions threaten their sense of personal or national identity, as is the case with the followers of most philosophies.  It is not my position to assert that Fundamentalists do not believe in natural rights.  My point is that if they hold such a belief in the active defense of political rights then it is held in inherent contradiction to the logical implications of a belief that humanity is fallen and sinful.  Liberal Christianity tended to focus on the belief that man is created in the Divine Image.  However, the Fundamentalist position has often isolated man from the glorious level of Creation he enjoyed in the time of Eden.  Man has fallen since the time of Eden, Fundamentalists assert.  Of course, even the liberal tradition within Christianity in earlier time periods has had to face the argument from their religious opponents that this was a fallen world and that man could not reform it.  Abolitionists who cited the Bible to support liberating slaves had to face defenders of slavery who would cite Biblical verses in support of their position.  It has never been the case that all of American Christianity held to the idealist view.  In the time of the early Republic the Federalist establishment could count on the support of powerful members of the clergy.  In fact, the established clergy tended to prefer Federalists to Jeffersonian Democrats[2].  Members of the clergy on both sides of the divide between idealism and pragmatism could easily quote Biblical verses in support of their position.  Indeed, modern Fundamentalists who claim a monopoly on the traditions of American civil religion have the strange paradox that civil religion itself was once overtly divided over just how seriously it accepted the claims of inalienable rights and human equality.

It is at this point that secularists enter the picture and point out that while America was founded with a Christian culture, its leading Founding Fathers were strongly influenced by the European Enlightenment.  They would point to the natural rights influence among the founders and see in that a direct tie to the partial overthrow of traditional religion and the embrace of the individual that began with the Renaissance but which flowered in the Enlightenment.  Such a view is the dominant narrative among intellectuals.  There are many ironies in their position, including the fact that the secular revolutionary tradition itself had roots in radical Puritanism, as Trotsky noted in his writings on the English Revolution[3].  Indeed, the secular left will not spend much time crediting the Levellers or the radical Reformation in spite of the fact that many of their positions were much closer to that of the revolutionary left than Locke or even Rousseau.  Instead, secular idealists claim that human freedom and equality are the result of naturalist philosophy in history.  For the most extreme secular idealists, the left Hegelians, the history of human freedom is the history of the progressive overthrow of all hierarchies in either the political or the metaphysical sphere[4] For historiographies influenced by left Hegelianism, the American Revolution was the bourgeois stage above earlier feudalism, an important moment of liberation in a long chain of historical progressions.  This concept dovetails in a richly ironic fashion with the Whig view of history beloved by decidedly non-Marxist American historians.

The secularist view of rights as the fruit of naturalist philosophy in history also faces a paradox.  Ironically, it is a paradox that mirrors that faced by the more religious among the idealists.  The paradox is that the very source that they claim upholds human freedom and equality, Nature, might well be interpreted in different ways.  While naturalists who derive their view of “natural man” from their readings of Rousseau will see Nature as upholding the ideals of liberalism, or perhaps even of radicalism, such a view might be contested by neo-Darwinists who hold to a different view of Nature.  According to the more conservative interpretations of Darwinian thinking, the modern left’s emphasis on mutualism and symbiosis is lopsided.  They prefer what they could consider a balanced return to earlier Darwinian thinking, to a belief in competition and natural hierarchies that could have a decidedly reactionary bent to them.  Early Social Darwinists easily claimed that any view of morality derived from Nature must include a defense of social hierarchies as legitimated by natural science, much as older defenses of social hierarchy relied on religion.  Indeed, any derivation of an “Ought” from an “Is” could not ignore the possibility of such a viewpoint, since the “Is” that we see around us certainly contains inequality.  However morally repugnant such a view is, its adherents can cite examples from Nature of predation and cruelty that easily demonstrate that any morality derived from Nature might include decidedly non-egalitarian notions within it.

Firstly, the idealist camp has to grapple with the fact that the idealist narrative is not universally shared within either the religious or the naturalist camps.  Secondly, the idealist camp has to grapple with the fact that religious and naturalist narratives have no common interpretation when it comes to social matters.  This fact hardly discredits the idealist camp.  What it suggests, however, is that the idealist camp must be willing to admit that its sense of an “Ought” cannot necessarily be derived from any given “Is” in an automatic sense.  The Bible and Nature are both extraordinarily complex.  Neither is easy to understand.  Boiling either down to a simplified Whig version of history, or a radical version of Whig history, does not do justice to the complexities of either the Bible or Nature.  Neither attempt to define a human-centered morality allows us to project our own ideas, however noble, on to the vast fabric of reality beyond humanity.

It might be that the best way to utilize the Grand Narratives of either the Bible or of Naturalism would be to cite them for arguments in the negative.  In other words, the Bible can be easily cited to show that the arrogance of power will not be rewarded.  Biblical texts can be cited to show that the powerful have no right to arrogantly dominate the powerless,[5] a position that in some ways has more moral force than the positive “inalienable rights” argument that are derived through positive forms of justification.  Indeed, the notion that the powerful have no right to act arrogantly is a notion truer to Biblical morality than the individualism of the modern age ever had been.  It is a very rich notion with a strong heritage.  As for the naturalist position, the claim that some are born with an inherent right to dominate can easily be shown to have no scientific basis.  Science cannot prove the claim that the individual has standing.  However, science can disprove narratives refuting the claim that the individual has standing very easily.  Science can make a powerful argument against the positive claims of the powerful, including claims of racial superiority that have been successfully attacked by Stephen Jay Gould.  Using the Bible and Nature against the arrogance of power might be easier to do than to use either source to construct a positive defense of the idealist position.  It may well be that a narrative that runs counter to the arrogance of humanity is truly called for in our time and place, regardless of the needs of an earlier time.

Sadly, while the rhetoric of idealism has triumphed in our time, the reality behind the rhetoric is one of pragmatism.  In modern society, business holds most of the cards while labor does not.  The idealism of the 1960’s has receded before a society defined by class, and once again one divided increasingly by race.  It is indeed the hope of this author that idealism, secular and religious, survives and makes a resurgence.  It is not the purpose of this essay to discourage such a resurgence. At the same time, the modern age is an age of honesty and often even of a cynicism that cries out for a fresh approach.  It may well be that a narrative that focuses on the moral impotence of power is better way of inducing humility among the powerful, and in showing to those who identify with power that there are moral constraints on their sphere of authority, than on revisiting the issues of nineteenth century classical liberalism. I do not propose this point of view dogmatically, nor do I seek to undermine the vivid ideals of freedom that has come from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  What I do suggest is that the rhetoric of liberation from that period has been successfully co-opted by forces that give it lip service while denying any fundamental moral power that it might yet possess for societal transformation.

While the challenges of the Eighteenth Century were those of limitations on kings, the challenges of this time are those of a limitation on more diffuse forms of oppression.  The challenges of the post-modern era call for different forms of philosophical justification on behalf of liberation.  It may seem apparent to some that resolving abstract intellectual paradoxes of the type examined in this essay will not lead anywhere productive. Some may even claim that this essay is a dampener of liberal enthusiasm. However, ideas matter, and how one approaches them matter.  An unresolved paradox easily leads to contradictions that can then be seized upon by opponents with serious consequences in the real world.  Idealists must face that the dominant zeitgeist of our time is that of pragmatism that has co-opted the language of idealism only to discard idealism in practice.  In order to reclaim the language of idealism, idealists will have to adapt.




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[1] Southern apologists for slavery often directly attacked the Declaration of Independence.  Note the enthusiastic reception among slave-owners given to George Fitzhugh’s Cannibals All.  (Originally published in 1857)

[2] There were differences among the clergy.  Baptist clergy members supported separation of church and state, which Jefferson upheld.  For further reference see The Opposition Press of the Federalist Period.  (Donald Stewart, 1969).  Pages 395-420.

[3] Trotsky praised the Leveller radicals of the English Revolution, with unsurprising barbs against the bourgeois Cromwell for suppressing them.  Leon Trotsky’s Writings on England, Chapter VI.  1926.

[4] Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach.  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ludwig-feuerbach/

[5] Biblical Prophets such as Amos and Jeremiah often railed against the arrogance of the wealthy and powerful.

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