Wednesday, June 24, 2020

What of Natural Rights?

I have written extensively on the necessity of natural law as the foundation for a society grounded in liberty.  What of natural rights?  How are the two related?

Murray Rothbard addresses this question in chapter four of his book, The Ethics of Liberty, pointing to John Locke:

From the Lockean emphasis on the individual as the unit of action, as the entity who thinks, feels, chooses, and acts, stemmed his conception of natural law in politics as establishing the natural rights of each individual.

It is in a grounding of natural rights that the American experiment began, and it is the examination of natural rights that is the purpose of the remainder of Rothbard’s book:

It is this tradition of natural-rights libertarianism upon which the present volume attempts to build.

This distinction of natural law and natural rights has caused confusion for many – certainly me.  For example, how can Rothbard open the first three chapters of this book describing the necessity of natural law to liberty and then spend the bulk of the book focusing only on the libertarian analysis of property rights?  What of the “moral” stuff inherent in natural law?  That’s what I want to get at here.

To begin, while it is true (as Rothbard suggests) that many of the earlier scholars of natural law placed emphasis on the king or state as opposed to the individual, Locke was not the first to demonstrate a distinction between natural law and natural rights.  One could find this distinction in Aquinas (emphasis added):

Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.

So, while natural law described how humans ought to act toward others (and, in my opinion, describes the type of behavior necessary if one is to expect any form of sustainable liberty on this earth), natural rights describe how others (society) ought to act toward the individual rights-holder.

It is this area of natural rights where Rothbard spends the bulk of his time in this book, all-the-while not discounting his strong statements in the opening chapters regarding the necessity of natural law toward liberty.  The individual has a natural right to life and property.  While natural law demands certain moral behaviors beyond this, I as an individual have no natural right to force others to behave toward me in such respects.

For a simple example, natural law is grounded in other-regarding action – call it the Golden Rule for simplicity.  Yet I have no natural right to demand that others treat me in a loving manner – to feed me if hungry, to shelter me if homeless, or to clothe me if cold.

Natural law describes proper moral behavior – and, in my opinion, the behavior necessary if society is to sustain the natural rights in human law of life and property.


I do have a natural right to demand that others respect my property and my physical body: don’t hit first; don’t take my stuff.  And it is here where human law plays a role – as touched on by Aquinas, further developed in Locke, and expanded upon significantly by Rothbard.

But none of these had the gumption to turn all of natural law into natural rights (and, therefore, human law).  I have a right to my property and my physical body.  Beyond this – whatever natural law demands – I have no right to claim, in human law, other actions.  I have no right to demand that others treat me in a loving manner.


I find it quite interesting that one of the strong pushbacks against natural law is the idea that proponents of natural law wish to arrive at a theocracy.  Yet it is clear, as early as Aquinas, that this was never the purpose.

At the same time, society today is taking a bastardized version of natural law and turning this into natural rights through human law.  By law, others have a right to claim from me food if hungry, a home if without shelter, and clothes if cold.

Critics such as these are attacking a strawman, while the state is enacting exactly that which they fear – a theocracy, but based on a deformed concept of what it means to be a human being.


  1. Mr. M.,

    "So, while natural law described how humans ought to act toward others...natural rights describe how others (society) ought to act toward the individual rights-holder."

    This one paragraph here finally got the natural law vs. natural rights definitions/distinctions to sink in. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Ron. I am learning along with you and others here. I will likely still have to work through this distinction more to get it to fully sink in.

  2. re: property rights

    From an article by Steve Roth titled: Why Welfare and Redistribution Saves Capitalism from Itself

    "There’s a curious fact about the wealth and growth of nations that you rarely see mentioned: No country has ever joined the modern, high-productivity, rich-country club without massive doses of redistribution, and universal government programs for social support and financial security. Not one. Ever."

    Do read the whole article:

  3. Welfare redistribution just increases the governments' power over the economy. It is more a statement of the nature of government than a criticism of capitalism being inadequate.

    It is using economic historicism to try to determine economic law/theory rather than basing economic law/theory on self evident truths about human nature.

    Sounds like you need to read Mises and Rothbard and lay off people like Steve Roth.

    1. Ahmed is confusing cause and effect. Does it seem reasonable that a low-productivity, poor country used wealth distribution and thereafter became a high-productivity, rich-country?

  4. Natural Rights!?!

    There are no such thing as natural rights, constitutional rights, or any other kind of human rights.

    Rights are a figment of man's wild imagination, particularly that of the late 18th-century Enlightenment and Masonic theistic rationalists (aka founding fathers) with intentions to make man his own Sovereign in violation of 1 Timothy 6:15.

    The Only One with a right to anything is our God and Creator. Even life isn't a right except for God. Think about it: it's inherent in who He is as Creator.

    For the rest of us, life is a gift from and responsibility to the One who created us. Think about it: it's inherent in who we are as the created.

    If life (and everything that comes with it) is our right, then God was obligated to create us, making Him subservient to us. In turn, God would not have the authority to judge us for what's our right to do with as we please.

    For more, see blog article "Rights: Man's Sacrilegious Claim to Divinity" at

    Furthermore, America sold down the river when the founding fathers replaced non-optional Biblical responsibilities with optional Enlightenment rights.

    At the same location, see blog article "America's Road to Hell: Paved With Rights."

    1. Ted, shall I assume that when God said thou shalt not kill, that He didn't mean it implied anything about the potential victim?

    2. Liberty is where the Spirit of God is. If you walk down the streets of any big city after dark, don't expect to have any rights. God gave us responsibilities.

  5. Max Stirner was right, like it or not. If you are not a nihilist you're wrong. Libertarianism is a cultural preference, not an objective law. It is just too bad if you don't like it. Natural rights is boring nonsense.

    1. As you are so bored, I hope you waste no more time here.

    2. Sounds like what a depressed person says. Nothing is good. Everything is bad. Happy people are stupid. They are so deceived.

      I was never fond of eeyore.

  6. 'Yet I have no natural right to demand that others treat me in a loving manner – to feed me if hungry, to shelter me if homeless, or to clothe me if cold.

    If natural rights address societal obligations then anyone part of a society DOES have a right to just those things otherwise don't call the thing a 'society'!!!

    1. You could add ten more exclamation points and capitalize the entire sentence, and your comment still wouldn't make any sense.

  7. Ted Weiland and Bionic,

    I think that this has issue has to be phrased in two ways: man's relationship to God and man's relationship to man.

    In our relationship to God, I think that Ted is correct--we have no rights, nothing which is owed to us by God, nothing which we can claim as our own inherently. Even our lives are not our own, because they will be taken away from us at some point in time. Everything we have, from the moment we are conceived to the moment we die, is a gift from God, given to us because He wants to and for no other reason.

    Our relationship to man, however, is something quite different and I think this is what Bionic is referring to. The concept of rights is one way we interact with and get along with other people. Without the idea that we all have certain inalienable rights which no other person can legitimately take away from us, then we are doomed to living and dying under a system of repression by the most powerful people, who don't care one bit about our rights. Without human rights, there will be no human freedom.

    Human rights are of no account to God. They are critical to man. The two are not the same and should not be treated as such.

    1. Roger,

      I think this distinction you have brought up, and perhaps the Mosquito's entire project, might be aligned with the distinction between us being self-"owners" vs. us being self-"stewards". I will think more on this.