The concept of natural rights is problematic if you’re a skeptic.
Skepticism is a method to ensure we have good reasons for our beliefs.
Skeptics use the methods of science and critical thinking to evaluate claims and ideas.
One of the main ideas of critical thinking and science is that beliefs should be provisional.
So let’s see if one can be both a skeptic and believe in the concept of natural rights.
In its most basic form natural rights is the concept made famous by John Locke.
Men are born with natural rights.
Those rights are life, liberty, and property.
These rights are innate to men, given to them from God.
So in its simplest form, (I’m starting with this argument, not as a strawman but because it is one that has been made to me).
There are natural rights.
Those rights are life, liberty, and property.
They came from God.
The first premise is problematic because of the term “are”. Notice how the word “are” makes the the first premise an “existence claim”, which is a claim that something exists.
It claims that these rights exist in the universe somehow or somewhere.
If someone claimed there are fairies, a skeptic would ask for evidence, positive evidence, a live or dead sample. An extraordinary claim requires persuasive evidence. There is no evidence to support that natural rights are floating around in the universe somewhere like photons or DNA. As skeptics we don’t hold beliefs about the existence of something without evidence.
But let’s pretend they do exist as a thing in nature. Then this argument could be made: Natural rights are good because they are natural. However, this is the appeal to nature fallacy… so…no.
The second premise is that natural rights are life, liberty, and property. Ok, but we just established that there is no evidence of natural rights existing… so… kinds of natural rights do not have evidence either.
The third premise is that they came from God. Locke is referring to the God of Abraham and I’m not sure if you’ve read about that God guy but he kills a lot… I mean A LOT of people, so life doesn’t seem that important of a right to him. Liberty? That dude makes up all sorts of stuff that inhibits freedoms like what to do on the Sabbath, what kind of fruit to eat, what idols to worship, and especially what to do with your genitals. He doesn’t seem to care about property either, oh except he’s cool if you own slaves, as long as you treat them by his rules. All kidding aside, obviously the God premise falls flat with skeptics, so I’ll move on.
The better form of this argument could be to not make an existence claim, but to make a claim about a moral belief. So let’s try that out.
Not all laws are good.
It was legal to own slaves at one time.
Laws should not be the way we decide what rights humans should have, rights should determine the laws.
We ought to have natural rights.
Those natural rights should be life, liberty, and property.
Ok, better. Skeptics can have moral beliefs if they have good reasons for those beliefs. However, those beliefs should always be provisional, and we should try and challenge our beliefs occasionally, so let’s try and challenge these.
Not all laws are good- true
It was legal to own slaves at one time- true
Laws should not be the way we decide what rights humans should have, rights should determine the laws- valid argument and sound so far.
We ought to have natural rights- Ok, I guess you can call them that if you want, it seems like based on the earlier premise, human rights would make a better name, but semantics… meh.
Those natural rights should be life, liberty, and property- This one does not necessarily follow from the other premises. I agree that each of those are good values, but why only those? Why not the right to not suffer or starve to death? If we are choosing what ought to be a natural right by using reason, why are there only these three, and why can’t we include other well supported moral beliefs? There are many ideas on what rights humans should have, we call them human rights. (Yes… I know… negative rights vs positive rights…For those of you who are interested in the debate over negative and positive rights, I suggest you watch this video and read this resource.)
One of the problems with this outdated idea of rights is that Locke lived in a different time. In Locke’s time, non-whites and women were considered inferior, there were no vaccines or great health care which can alleviate suffering, and we didn’t have the technological capability and wealth to feed poor starving people on the other side of the planet. As we learn more about how the world works, and we strive for a better society, we have discovered other ideas and nuances that should be addressed in our ethical principles, and then reflected in our laws.
An absolutist concept of natural rights doesn’t recognize nuance. Is a kid at school stealing my pencil the same magnitude of rights violation as the government taking my home? Is making it illegal for me to safely do one of those California stops at a stop sign the same as not allowing me to practice whatever religion I want? Is aborting a fetus the same thing as shooting a person in the face because I had a bad day?
Life, liberty and property are ambiguous and lack nuance as terms. Part of critical thinking is to be able to clearly define our beliefs and the reasons for those beliefs.
Also, moral principles often come into conflict, and we shouldn’t be attached to one idea so strongly that it causes us to not be empathetic to the suffering of others. The freedom of speech vs the right of someone not suffer verbal threats/ harassment/ assault are a good example of conflicting moral principles.
If we are to decide what rights we ought to have by using good reasoning, there is no reason we can’t add to that list.
Here is a nice overview of the history and philosophy of human rights.
Conclusion: It has been argued that critical thinking is itself an important value and we have a duty as citizens of this planet to use it:
From The Critical Thinker Podcast:
“Now, my claim is not that teaching critical thinking will magically wipe away oppression and human injustice. Of course there’s no guarantee that simply raising these questions is going to cause the scales to fall from people’s eyes and see the error of their ways. My claim is simply that it’s harder for oppressive policies and beliefs to gain a foothold in a democratic society that openly supports the value of critical thinking and Socratic inquiry.”
Click here to see the video.
As skeptics we claim that we value critical thinking and therefore, we should not accept the claim that a right “exists” without evidence. We should continue to revise our beliefs as our understanding of history, humankind, and the universe evolves. We should be careful to not have such broadly stated principles that we are not capable of seeing limits and nuances to morality.
I don’t claim to have all the answers to questions of morality. What I do know is that skeptics should not start with some vague, outdated, and absolutist concept of morality. Skeptics should evaluate each issue individually, see what the relevant facts and evidence are, and read what the experts have written in ethics, history, economics, and of course science, and then use valid and sound arguments to support a moral belief, be it provisional though. We should seek to rid ourselves of ideology and have good reasons for our beliefs, especially those beliefs about topics where the right thing to do is not black and white.
Here are some more resources on rights and ethics:
Two videos from Philosophy Tube:
Why some moral opinions are incorrect: Video in intro to ethics playlist by Teach Philosophy.
Science of morality: