Natural Rights: Easy as Pi to Refute

Brad Spangler, “anarcho”-capitalist and self-proclaimed “Rothbardian socialist”, recently revived the philosophically bankrupt notion of “natural rights”. In a blog titled “Natural rights: easy as pi”, he had this to say: “Individual rights or natural rights are just as “real” as the number pi. It’s a concept that describes a fundamental aspect of reality – that among a collection of autonomous agents, specific boundaries to the scope of available actions are conducive to the flourishing of the entire collective.”

Since Brad raises some of the usual fallacies and logical deceptions employed by “natural law” theorists, I thought it would be a good idea to point them out for what they are.

Fallacy after fallacy

Firstly, Brad is committing the reverse is-ought fallacy (or the moralistic fallacy) by deriving an “is” from an “ought”. He is basically claiming that rights are conducive to flourishing; human collectives ought to flourish; therefore rights exist. The notion that this sort of circular reasoning holds any water philosophically is absurd.

Secondly, implicit in Brad’s argument is the ipse-dixitism – a plainly dogmatic assertion – that “to exist” is “to be natural”. If the notion of rights is “real” as Brad claims, what makes them “natural”? Surely, the argument is lacking in explanation for this assertion.

Thirdly, Brad’s analysis hinges on a variant of the bare assertion fallacy. Rather than describing reality (“fact”) as he claims to be doing, he has simply asserted and reasserted the supposed truth of a normative statement and the description derived from it. As such, his use of the words “describes” and “reality” are quite misleading and inappropriate; whatever corollaries are drawn from his analysis are purely within the realm of conjecture, having no logical or epistemic basis to be considered fact.

On the descriptive argument

Taken descriptively, the crux of the argument contains two assertions. Regarding the statement, “among a collection of autonomous agents, specific boundaries to the scope of available actions are conducive to the flourishing of the entire collective”, I think that to argue its validity as a truism – either in favor of it being true or not – would be to argue from ignorance; it is not something that can necessarily be known at present.1) The aforementioned assertion may be true if interpreted ambiguously; that is to say, without normative conclusions derived from the subjectively defined “autonomous”, “specific boundaries”, “flourishing”, etc.2) Regardless, the point is that this is a futile position from which to argue in favor of individual rights – and certainly of the existence of individual rights – in part because of the empirical impossibility of “natural rights”, and in part because of the empirical impossibility of objectively measuring the effects of individual rights (or of particular sets of individual rights compared to others) on the collective, at least under Brad’s proposed methodology.

Regarding the other assertion – “Individual rights or natural rights are just as ‘real’ as the number pi. It’s a concept that describes a fundamental aspect of reality” – I have already shown the reasoning for this contention to be fallacious. I will refute the substantive basis for “natural law” theory in the next section.

First, I would like to address Brad’s claim that praxeology serves as an objective framework to empirically measure collective goal attainment (and therefore the “flourishing of the entire collective”). This assertion can be refuted on the basis that praxeology cannot objectively value the goals of two beings relative to one another since it rejects the notion of collective rationality. There is no ordinal scheme with which to measure the goals of more than one individual in praxeological thought; there is no empirical basis by which to measure the degree of uneasiness removed by one individual relative to another, or relative to the collective.

Further, individuals inevitably begin from different degrees of uneasiness. As such, self-interested, egoistic goals cannot be said to be “equal” to one another, so qualitative measurements thereof are of no use empirically. The notion that one man’s primary goal of filling his empty stomach is equal to another man’s primary goal, to find a tasty port wine to top off a gluttonous feast, is absurd. How could one measure this as a function of total goal attainment within the group – which is always in flux, and which cannot be objectively measured between individuals? One might claim that one goal is equal to another of the same ordinal rank, prima facie, but that would be to subject the supposedly empirical measurements of goal maximization to the egoist value system, nullifying any supposed objectivity. This is obviously not an issue of “fact”, as Brad would like to claim, but rather an issue of normative judgments.

Finally, even if one were to concede that praxeological methodology could objectively measure collective goal attainment, how could one attribute such functions to the existence of rights, considering the fact that such experience is irreproducible and uncontrolled? Attempts to employ such baseless methodologies to situations of collective rationality must inevitably fail.

On appeals to nature

“Natural rights” and “natural law” are often represented as truisms about reality, but they are actually derived a priori from fixed and often misleading definitions. Proponents of “natural law” have always invented definitions in order to derive from them “truths” about reality, and accordingly normative conclusions. A telling instance of this bankrupt methodology can be seen in Murray Rothbard’s attempts to prove so-called axiomatic knowledge.

As the AFAQ notes, Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty remarks that “[a]n apple, let fall, will drop to the ground; this we all observe and acknowledge to be in the nature of the apple.” Rather than applying our a posteriori knowledge of gravity, Rothbard aprioristically attributes the action of falling to the “nature” (essence) of the apple, rather than to “nature” (the physical world) – deriving illogical conclusions from his own invented definition. In short, “natural law” theorists and praxeologists generally derive propositions from premises that are simply assumed to be true, but are themselves never subject to logical or empirical proofs. The implication should be clear: “inventing” reality and “describing” reality are quite different things.

Further, since “natural laws” hinge on immutable definitions, they – unlike physical laws – cannot be revised based on empirical reality, and are therefore nothing more than rigid dogma, perpetuated by their supposed status as “law”. The very notion of characterizing such aprioristic logic on the plane of physical laws is an intentional fallacy of equivocation on the part of “natural law” theorists, used to imbue their theories with the empirical foundation of physical laws of nature – which, of course, they have no relevance to.3) As the AFAQ points out, how can one make the argument that any set of supposed “natural rights” exists if it can be violated in nature, and therefore must be enforced? In other words, “natural law” theory can be refuted a posteriori.

As such, Brad’s assertion of the existence of “natural rights” fails; it cannot stand up to empirical knowledge. As for the secondary concern of normative conclusions derived from the premises of Brad’s argument, I am more so addressing the prescriptive tactics of “natural law” theorists than specific conclusions made here. Brad postured his argument so as to be as ambiguous as possible; there is the possibility that he did not intend to draw any meaningful conclusions from the subjectively defined terms that compose his premises.4) Regardless, he has still failed to prove the existence of “natural rights”.

(As a side note, I can only presume what Brad is getting at, per usual, by his choice in terms. For example, I imagine “autonomous agents”, similar to the egoist “moral agents”, is termed to indicate the human species or similar level, based on the notion that thresholds of sentience determine the value of life; completely arbitrary and out of touch with basic scientific and epistemic principles. The problems that stem from this sort of arbitrary and illogical analysis – dehumanization, carnivorism, animal cruelty, environmental destruction and injustice, etc. – are numerous, but I will leave that for another article.)

There is a lesson here for “anarcho”-capitalists: stop using the fallacious justifications used by kings, slave-owners and priests to rationalize their own perverted actions and prejudices. They don’t work, except to draw attention to the philosophical and moral bankruptcy of the theories they are used to defend. Rights ought to exist as functions of morality, not as fabricated descriptive truth – where “natural law” theorists hope to place them out of reach of logical discourse. To advocate the latter is to advocate dogma.

Although my gut reaction is to agree, I must think, at the least, that the notion of “autonomy” in this context is an unnecessary requisite that arbitrarily limits the ethical reach of the argument to humans, or similar. Regardless, the proposition rests on unproven premises.
Obviously, “anarcho”-capitalists, anarchists, pacifists, vegans, environmentalists, etc., combinations thereof, and all other shades of society will define these terms differently, therefore coming to differing conclusions as to what represents “reality” or “nature”, under such logic. Albeit, Brad is being fairly ambiguous (purposefully, I assume), perhaps to imply some sort of a panarchist position. The problem therein lies in the ancient issue of certain sets of individual rights in one society contradicting those of another (itself, an empirical refutation of the existence of “natural rights”). In such a situation, a right of exit is insufficient where one group of individuals may – by virtue of one society’s accepted norms (property, for instance) – impose authority over another (in effect, nullifying any supposed right of exit).
This relates to the fallacious use of equivocation on Brad’s part when he uses the term “fundamental aspect of reality” to imply that “natural rights” are associated with the “fundamental laws of reality” (or physical laws, as I have used in this article).
See [2]

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