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The Natural Rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

08/11/10

Permalink 10:57:00 pm, by Norgaard Norgaard Email , 1393 words   English (US)
Categories: Morality

The Natural Rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

This post continues the series where I take a look at popular ethical theories to see how reasonable they are. Today's subject is rights-based ethical theory, in which goodness is defined as respecting a being's rights while violating a being's rights is evil. Within a system of rights, what makes an action right or wrong are the consequences, or perhaps the expected consequences, that an action has on the rights of beings. Rights based ethical systems are therefore consequentialist. In this sense rights theory is similar to utilitarianism, which was discussed in an earlier post.

The work of seventeenth century philosopher John Locke has been very influential in the theory of rights. In his book Two Treatises of Government, Locke writes:

To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man. A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection.” (Chap. II, Sect 4).

Here Locke is saying that people are naturally equal and naturally free. From this Locke concludes that people have a natural right to life, liberty, and property. This may seem perfectly reasonable to many people. It certainly does to me, but it is important to understand why it is reasonable.

To be perfectly honest, the idea that people are naturally free and equal cannot be true in a purely physical sense. I mentioned this a while back – in the purely physical sense free will does not exist. I previously provided reasons for believing that people have souls as beginning with spirituality. If there is a nonphysical essence of people, then this essence can be equal for all people. If the only thing about people is the body, then there is no grounds for saying that all people are equal because, quite simply, this can not be true in a physical sense. We are just different from each other and our bodies are not equal. Our souls, however, can be equal. Also through spirituality, one can come to realize their own free will. If one realizes that all people are equal and free by nature, then it is easier to see the rational basis for Locke's assertion of the natural rights of mankind.

One problem that needs to be addressed, however, is what exactly are rights? People may have rights within a given legal system created by man, but it is hard to see how anyone can actually have a right in purely physical sense. What is a right? If we have them, then where are they? Rights do not exist in a purely physical sense. Although people often talk of having certain rights, this is certainly not true in the physical world. A person can have physical things like arms and legs, but no part of a person’s body can be identified as a right. Likewise one can physically posses things like clothes or books, but rights are not things that physically exist. The literal use of the word “right” in this context is physically impossible, but those who believe in rights may respond by arguing that this is a figure of speech. One way of giving the word “right” a meaning that is physically possible is this: when someone says that X possesses the right to Y, this means that they believe that it would be better if everyone does not interfere with X’s use of Y. In this situation, X can represent the speaker or another person or a group of people or any number of animals or inanimate objects. Y can represent X’s life, freedom to do something, or some physical object. In the current post, I am only trying to make the case that people have rights, in the sense of the word explained above. I will deal with the question of whether animals or any inanimate objects have rights in future posts.

So now we know what is meant when we say someone has a right to something. What is meant here is a relation between the person and their ability to do something without others getting in the way. Under rights based ethical theory, goodness is equated with having rights. As mentioned in previous posts, there are other theories for how goodness should be defined. Some argue that goodness is the state of being virtuous. Some argue that goodness is doing one's duty, regardless of the consequences. Believers in utilitarianism argue that goodness is simply a measure of happiness. I argued in prior posts that for all three of these ethical theories, the definition of goodness must be ultimately arbitrary in the purely physical sense. I argued that the only way for goodness to have a non-arbitrary definition and to instead have a definition that is a mind-independent fact is for it to ultimately derive from the nonphysical. Well, we should by now know what is nonphysical. It is the soul, that which makes all people equal. It is also our free will.

Another important nonphysical attribute is a sense of right and wrong. We all have this sense. When we are happy, we know this is good. When we suffer, we know this is bad. This is not to equate happiness with goodness as utilitarians do. What I am arguing is that there is an aspect of the personal experience of positive feelings that is nonphysical, just as the soul is nonphysical. This is called valence. When the physical body is in a state of happiness, the soul experiences positive valence. When the body is in a state of sorrow, the soul experiences negative valence.

So if we take into account all the nonphysical attributes, we have the soul, free will, and valence. Ethics can only be non-arbitrary facts if they derive from these three. They are all important, so one cannot be justified in simply equating goodness with nothing more or less than positive valence as the utilitarians do. The other two must be taken into account when judging the moral worth of actions as well. The value of the soul can be taken into account by noting that it is the nonphysical essence of the body. In human form, we do not have direct access to other people's souls. If we want to respect other souls, we need to respect other people's bodies. If the body ceases to live, then we don't know what happens to the body, but we may assume that it is negative. Therefore it is best if we respect other people's use of their own life. This means that people have the right to life. Also, since people are naturally free, we may say that it is best if we do not unnecessarily hinder the bodies of these people in achieving their goals. Therefore we can say that people have the right to liberty. And it is also best if we allow others to find their own way to achieve positive valence. Since positive valence is caused by happiness, this means that we should allow others to pursue happiness. In other words, people have the right to the pursuit of happiness.

So there you have it. This is the detailed reasoning that leads to the conclusion that people have the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is just as John Locke said, though the reasoning outlined here is more detailed than Locke provided. This is also one of the main arguments made in my forthcoming book “Seeking a More Enlightened Worldview”. The book will provide an even more detailed case for natural rights than what is written here, and I am still working on perfecting this.

What are your thoughts on this topic? What theory of ethics makes the most sense? Let your voice be heard in the forum. You can also email the me at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com

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