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Can Certain Rights Be Natural?

Robert Dimuro

Posted on March 15, 2020 14:21

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What does the history of mankind have to offer about the concept of rights?

Ideologues on both sides of the aisle frequently argue for their positions on the basis of rights. Conservatives, such as Ted Cruz, believe staunchly in the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms and the concept of free enterprise as it relates to the economy. Progressives, such as Bernie Sanders, believe that healthcare and college education are human rights.

In a legal sense, rights are easy to understand – infringement upon certain rights enshrined to us by the Constitution is punishable by law, even though, at times, Constitutional passages are interpreted in different ways. Furthermore, modern contexts and situations don’t always map perfectly onto an 18th century document.

The 21st Century issue of free speech and social media is one example of this. Do social media companies have an obligation to uphold their users’ right to speech? A simple answer is "no," because they’re private companies; however, these companies preside over massive platforms that individuals and businesses alike depend on to make their voices heard.

Given that Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google who testified before Congress, had to field pointed questions by Republican politicians about whether or not Google was censoring Conservatives for their beliefs and ideas, I’m not so sure that even Conservatives would answer "no" to the above question. 

If the onus is on Google to be fair and open to all schools of thoughts expressed by its users, then it’s implied that we have a "positive right" to access Google’s platform as a means of speech. Thus, depending on which side of the argument you take, even freedom of speech may not be a fully "negative right" in the way that many think about it. 

As such, there isn’t a functional difference between a right and an entitlement. In the pursuit of protecting our rights, whether positive, negative, or legal, we’re entitled to have access to certain institutions that enable us to exercise our rights. Even with the basic negative rights to life, liberty, and property, court systems and law enforcement agencies are needed at all levels of government to protect our rights.

For this reason, the concept of "natural rights" is paradoxical. Natural rights are thought of as moral truths that have existed eternally, and the genius of the founders was to recognize these truths and codify them in our founding documents. However, there’s no evidence in human history for the notion that there are such things as natural rights to protect. 

Simply put, without civilization, rights couldn’t exist. Otherwise, cavemen would have enjoyed the rights to life, liberty, and property. Not only did prehistoric culture lack the sophistication needed to codify a system of rights, but also a family's very means of survival was at the expense of its neighboring tribe’s ability to hunt and gather food.

In one sense, cavemen had the ultimate freedom as they lived ungoverned. However, it’s this very fact that precludes the caveman from exercising his rights. If rights were really natural, they would have already existed in prehistoric anarchy.

Robert Dimuro

Posted on March 15, 2020 14:21

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