Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Libertarian Ethics: Natural Law and Natural Rights

"If it is said that moral conduct is rational conduct,
what is meant is that it is conduct in accordance
with right reason, reason apprehending the objective good
for man and dictating the means to its attainment."
--F.C. Copleston, SJ: Aquinas (1955)

The principle of individual liberty was established during the Enlightenment by philsophers and was based on the concept of natural law. This concept of liberty is not commonly taught in government schools in a way that elucidates its philosophical origin and the importance thereof; rather liberty and the rights of man are taught as an interesting but somewhat quaint idea produced wholesale by those white men in whigs, the founders of the Republic. This is so because the educational philosophy of government schools is based on unreason; specifically upon the post-modern positivist idea that reality cannot be measured and that values are determined subjectively by each individual based on emotion rather than reason*.

*This is the philosophical legacy of David Hume.

Natural law, however, is based on the idea that a human being, like any other thing in the universe, has an identity that is differentiated from any other thing; that is that humans have a definible nature that differentiates them from anything else, and that human nature is measurable. Thus, for human beings, natural law is used to determine what ends are compatible with the facts of human existence and values are therefore objective. Or as William Blackstone described the natural law as:

" . . . demonstrating that this or that action tends to man's real happiness, and therefore very justly concluding that the performance of it is a part of the law of nature; or, on the other hand, that this or that action is destruction [sic] of man's real happiness, and therefore that the law of nature forbids it." Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, Vol. I, as cited in Brendan F. Brown (ed.), The Natural Law Reader, p. 106.

Although the Scholastics who developed the concept of natural law believed in a supernatural being, they nevertheless established the natural law upon human reason alone. Currently, therefore, the concept of natural law is opposed by many conservatives who argue that the origin of ethics must come from supernatural revelation (which takes them beyond human reach*); it is also opposed by skeptics who argue that ethics can only be ascertained by human beings subjectively, from emotion (which makes them relative).

*As a Jew, I am opposed to this view. the Rabbinic view is that the law "is not in heaven" based on the Torah portion Nitzavim, which says: "It is not in heaven that you should say who will go after it and bring it to us . . . nay, it is very near to you that you may do it." Thus the Rabbis set up a system whereby they could argue that precepts must be based on human nature and norms.

Because natural law can be determined by reason, it provides an objective standard by which traditional norms can be held accountable and found wanting should they violate basic human nature, thus making it possible for people to find their current legislation wanting. It thus provides a basis for the Rule of Law and the establishment of justice. (This ability to reject the status quo on the basis of natural law differentiates libertarian thinkers from many conservatives, who tend to argue that tradition is good because it is old. A tradition may be good or bad; if it is good, it is not because it is old, but because it is the fulfillment of what is good according to the essential nature of man).

During the Enlightenment, natural law was wedded to the concept of individualism by the English enlightenment philosophers, the greatest of whom was John Locke. From this individualist tradition, Locke developed the idea of the natural rights of man, and this idea was founding philosophy of the American Revolution. Locke based his idea of individual rights upon the foundation of human self-ownership. He wrote that:

"Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then, that he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property."
John Locke, An Essay Concerning the True Origin, Extent and End of Civil Government, as cited in Murray N. Rothbard (1980) The Ethics of Liberty.

Essentially, if a person owns his own self, then no one else may own him, and thus he has a right to Liberty. To remove his life from him would be an ultimate theft of his own self, and thus he has a right to Life. Finally, as Locke stated, if he mixes his labour with things in nature, he has the right to keep and control them, the right to Property. These rights are endowed to human beings by virtue of their very nature and are therefore natural law. They are, as Jefferson wrote, "inalienable." They are not given by government, and government cannot take them away. Neither do they accrue to a collection of human beings as a group; rather they belong to each individual as an individual. Thus no group may lawfully (in the sense of the Rule of Law) or morally do anything that the individual does not have the right to do. No group may violate the rights of the individual simply because it is a group. (That is the essence of democracy, mob rule by the will of the majority, legislating away the natural rights of the individual).

These are the individual rights of each person, which are protected by the United States Constitution (currently being honored only in the breach). They are the rights to Life, Liberty and Property. Libertarian ethics begin with the acknowledgement of the natural rights of individual human beings.

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