Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 3, October 2000 - "Whence Natural Rights? - A Dialogue"


HYPATIA: Hello, Simplicia, where are you going in such a hurry so early in the morning?

SIMPLICIA: Hello, my friend! I am to join a demonstration in favor of our fundamental rights we hold as human beings.

H: Oh, and what rights could anybody possibly have that are so indisputable?

S: Surely you are jesting. Have you not heard of the Declaration of Independence? Do you not recall that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness?”

H: I also recall that the man who uttered those words made plenty of exceptions for women and men of colors other than his own when it was most convenient for him.

S: Fair enough, but the purity of the principle is more important than the faulty actuation of the same.

H: Let me concede that for a moment. Nevertheless, just because somebody said it, or because it appeals to our sense of poetry, it does not follow that it is true. What arguments can you possibly adduce for the existence of natural rights?

S: As I mentioned a minute ago, are they not self-evident?

H: Not to me, they are not. On the contrary, it is self-evident that people have to struggle everywhere to even approach what you consider obvious. Would it not be the case that if rights were universal and incontestable facts of life, few if any human beings would contest them, in principle, if not in practice? Doesn’t everybody agree on the fact that people have to feed themselves in order to survive? That is because it indeed is a fact of life.

S: Ah, my dear Hypatia, but you know very well of people who allow others to starve, either through inaction or by pernicious withdrawal of the necessary goods.

H: True enough, Simplicia, but not even those people would deny the fact that people have to eat. They will only deny that it is their right to do so, if you see the difference.

S: I do indeed. So, you are saying that universal rights cannot be justified by appeal to agreement among human beings, because such agreement is lacking.

H: My point exactly.

S: But what about other sources of natural rights? Is it not conceivable that they could come from things other than human societies? After all, humans did not invent the necessity of food; it is a thing that comes from nature herself.

H: That is indeed a possibility. However, it seems logical that if one wants to derive rights from nature one should dispassionately observe what happens in nature and then use such observations as guidance to establish an independent foundation for rights, is it not so?

S: That does seem like the logical course of action.

H: And yet, if we were to do so in practice, we would probably come up with a set of principles that do not reflect at all the kinds of rights you seem to have in mind!

S: How so, Hypatia?

H: Because if one looks at nature one can see that animals and plants are certainly not created equal. On the contrary, it is precisely their differences that make it possible for natural selection to shape the face of the organic world, as Mr. Darwin has shown long ago. The negation of the so-called right to life is at the very basis of the struggle for existence that makes evolution possible; as for liberty, it is guaranteed only insofar one animal can defend it against intrusion from competitors or predators; and happiness is too vague of a word to even consider as the proper object of a serious philosophical discussion.

S: Shall I then conclude that you subscribe to the simple notion that nature is red in tooth and claws or that, as Mr. Hobbes put it, life in nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short?”

H: I am much too much of an optimist to agree to that, my dear Simplicia. However, I would conclude from even a cursory observation of nature that she is neither moral nor immoral, neither good nor bad, but simply is. I believe it was David Hume who warned against the logical jump from what is to what ought to be, and it seems to me that, therefore, one cannot defend natural rights by appealing to nature; a rather uncomfortable situation for the promoters of such rights.

S: Even if I grant you that neither humans nor nature can be the sources of universal rights, most people would not be faced in the least by these difficulties, and would simply retort that there are higher authorities than both.

H: Ah, you mean some gods or goddesses!

S: Precisely: wouldn’t a divinity be the ultimate source and guarantor of universal rights?

H: It surely would, if not for any other reason than such divinity would presumably have the power to impose her will on us mere mortals.

S: There, then, do I see your skepticism about the possibility of natural rights beginning to wane?

H: Not so fast, my dear friend. Your latest answer to our conundrum begs the question in two ways: how do you know there is such a divinity and, even if we should accept her existence as a matter of hypothesis, how do you know what kinds of rights does she endorse?

S: My dear Hypatia, you know very well that such a line of inquiry would bring us far into an altogether new direction of conversation, and that would definitely mean that I would be late to my protest march.

H: Indeed it would. But it is no matter to brush aside. You might agree at least to the observation that there are many people who have spent a great deal of time thinking about the existence of god and the nature of god’s will, without reaching even a minimal form of agreement. Furthermore, you know that many cogent doubts have been raised and objections construed against all the major arguments in favor of the existence of a deity.

S: Alas, this is all very true.

H: Then you cannot rest your defense of natural rights on the assumption of the existence of a god, because that would be the substitution of one mystery with an even greater mystery.

S: But, Hypatia, surely you see that by rejecting all possible sources of universal rights you are forced in the position that anything goes and that we have no rational motive to fight for anything that is dear to us.

H: Not at all. You seem to assume, Simplicia, that there are only two options: either rights are universal, or they don’t exist.

S: Is there a compromise somewhere that I have missed?

H: Most definitely! Let me explain my position with an example. I know you love the work of the painter Picasso. Surely you will agree that a painting by him cannot last forever, no matter how carefully preserved.

S: Yes, but I don’t see where you could possibly be going with this.

H: Even though you know that one day the painting will be gone forever, you still love to look at it now, to go to the museum every time you can, and even to contribute to its preservation by donating funds to the museum.

S: Yes, and…?

H: Well, Simplicia, is not this an example of something that is not universal, and yet is very precious? If you were to apply your nihilism to art, you wouldn’t care a bit about what happens to Picasso’s work for the simple reason that it is not a universal thing, it won’t last forever.

S: So you are saying that even though there may be no guarantor of universal rights, we are nevertheless justified in defending and caring for them with all our energies because they matter to us!

H: Precisely. It matters not that you cannot justify, for example, your right to freedom by universal laws. Freedom is still something that most human beings want, and we are bound to fight for a society that grants such right simply because we think it is a better society than any other alternative.

S: Thanks, Hypatia. I am not sure that I agree with all your points, but this conversation did throw some interesting light on what I am doing and why. I have to run to the demonstration, now!

H: Until the next time, then, my friend.


Next Month: "Intelligent Design, the Classical Argument"

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2000