The question of natural rights has bogged the thinking of philosophers for centuries. In a recent book review of Trevor Blake’s Confessions of a Failed Egoist and Other Essays, Nicholas James Pell brings up an interesting argument against the moral implications of human rights. In paying lavish tribute to Blake, he claims “[N]atural rights are a fiction, possibly useful, probably not.” Since calling something fake without evidence is a poor man’s argument, I dug up his source of evidence: another book review written by Trevor Blake. Was this the critique that would put my governing theory of life to shame?
Short answer: I was not impressed.
Trevor Blake fancies himself an egoist. As far as I can tell, egoism is a combination of solipsism and existentialism, with a good dose of arrogance thrown in. The ideology seeks to do nothing more than slaughter sacred cows for amusement. The only thing that matters is self, and all ends must lead back to the ever-needy ME. In sum, it’s the adult rationalization for a child’s worldview.
Egoism aside, Blake’s case against natural rights is severely lacking. In his essay titled “Yes You Can Say No!,” numerous philosophers and thinkers are cited to make the case against rights natural to man; or rather make the case for self-centeredness. Niccolo Machiavelli, Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzche, and Church of Satan founder Anton LeVay all make an appearance. Their words of praise for the ego über alles are used to wipe the reader’s mind of any notions of universal goodness.
Eventually Blake gets to the core of his argument: author L.A. Rollins apparently destroyed the Rothbardian and Randian case for natural law in his book The Myth of Natural Rights. In taking aim at Rothbard’s view of the natural right to self-ownership, Rollins thinks he found a hole in the logic. He asks, “[I]f I can advance my life with violent interference to Murray Rothbard, why should I care about Murray Rothbard’s needs?” The answer is: nothing. There is no law, whether man-made or metaphysical, that stipulates you should care about the needs of Murray Newton Rothbard. Claiming that natural rights demand you take an inordinate amount of interest in the desires of others is foolish. It’s a straw man of the worst variety.
Rollins isn’t done. He makes a common argument against natural rights by asking,
“if I violently interfere with Murray Rothbard’s freedom, this may violate the ‘natural law’ of Murray Rothbard needs, but it doesn’t violate the ‘natural law’ of my needs.””
This is an interesting question because it immediately contradicts itself. If there is no natural law, then there is no natural law for Rollins to fulfill his “needs.” Now, his proposition could have been tongue-in-cheek; but it reveals an incorrect understanding of what natural law actually is.
Any natural rights theorist worth his salt has encountered the argument that a universal law doesn’t prevent someone from wantonly beating you up. It’s a simple argument for a simple reason: it’s wrong. The proposition of natural rights isn’t that everyone will always abide by them; it’s that rights exist regardless of what others say. If I am walking down the street minding my own business and I’m accosted by a bum, I have a right to defend myself and my property. Everyone in the world could say my only option is to lie down and die, but they would be wrong.
Rollins seems to think that if he should threaten someone like Rothbard, a metaphysical deity will drop from the clouds to ward off the attack. That’s plainly untrue. In the strictly material world, it’s certainly true that defending ourselves is up to us. We can use reason to know right versus wrong, and we must also act on that reason. But even if morality takes a backseat to violent or destructive behavior, it doesn’t negate the fact that something wrong was committed.
Rollins argues that the only real rights “are those conferred and enforced by the laws of a State or the customs of a social group.” Blake, of course, agrees by declaring it’s “the guns and jails, taxes and soldiers that get the job done.” What’s strange is how riddled with contradiction these statements are. As egoists, Blake and Rollins eschew any notion of universal right and wrong. Yet, at the same time, their preferred governing theory informs them to do all that’s necessary to satisfy themselves. That sounds like an “ought to do” to me. The deference given to “man-made” laws and government force is also illogical because state officials necessary act with claims against the citizenry. That is to say, they believe that by the very fact they are one with the government, they have a right to lord over others. If there are no natural rights, then these same government ruffians don’t have any imperative to push society around. But ask anyone emboldened by the state and they will tell you: “Yes, I am with the government and the authority rests with me.”
The egoist attack on natural rights is nothing more than “might makes right.” It only says: the strongest can do whatever they wish, and there is nothing wrong or unjust about their actions. That argument sounds great if you are an oppressor; but if you’re on the other side of the gun, then things look mighty different.
Not understanding what natural law is and what it demands is how erroneous conclusions are made. Amoral declarations that truth and goodness don’t exist are often excuses for tyranny. They must be ignored and ridiculed for the sake of protecting the innocent. The inability to see beyond your fist should not diminish the rights of others; though it often does.
Natural freedom has never meant the untrampled right to do whatever you want. Anyone who says otherwise is mistaken. George Weigel put it best when he wrote,
[F]reedom is not a matter of doing what we like, “my way;” freedom is freely choosing what is good, and what can be known to be good, as a matter of moral habit—which is another word for “virtue.”
The egoist critique of natural rights has no weight because it approaches the issues from the wrong direction. If might truly made right, then Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and all of history’s most deadly rulers were all justified in the death they spread. If the egoists want to sit on their pedestal of superiority and denounce the conception of right and wrong, let them also defend the actions of tyrants responsible for genocide. Let them defend Auschwitz. Let them defend the Ukrainian famine. Let them defend the Great Leap Forward.
Anything less is a betrayal of egoist principles; so I look forward to the glowing praise.