On Natural Rights, the Egoists Have Nothing

On Natural Rights, the Egoists Have Nothing
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Trevor BlakeThe 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.

  • Pete Wilson

    By contrast Law that is not a Natural Law has to be explained, and you have to be told why it is good for you. This is not an easy task because if a thing is good for you it is self evident. It takes an unusually determined person to convince people of something which is not self evident. For this you have invented politicians, and clergy. Unlike scientists who experiment and let the results speak for themselves and don't have to talk about it much, politicians and clergy have to talk about it constantly. The more they fail the more they talk. Truth is in the slience, because it is self evident.

  • Anand Venigalla

    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.”

    So basically, James, how would you then respond to those conservatives who argue that freedom is the "right to do good" and thus we should support state aggression against sinful non-criminals?

    • James E. Miller

      I would say they are wrong and contradictory since aggression against non-criminals is illegal under natural law.

    • Pete Wilson

      In the Neale Walsch book 'Conversations with God Book 2' there's a neat little passage on Natural Law that I think also equates to Natural Rights. Here's an excerpt:

      True Law is Natural Law – inexplicable and not needing to be explained or taught. It is observable.True Law is that law by which people freely agree to be governed because they are governed by it, naturally. Their agreement is is a mutual recognition of what is So. It needs no enforcement other than by the simple expedient of undeniable consequence. For example, highly evolved people do not hit themselves on the head with a hammer because it hurts. For the same reason they don't hit someone else on the head, understanding they'll become angry and hit you back. By hitting someone else with a hammer you are hitting yourself. Primitive beings observe the same thing but continue to play the 'one with the biggest hammer wins'.

  • Trevor Blake

    With many thanks, my reply…

    • James E. Miller

      Thank you for the rebuttal Mr. Blake. I plan on drafting a response as well.

  • Mo'sin

    [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.” I'm sure this is an old question but, what is good? Doesn't the matter of good/bad vary between each individual? One's view of what is good may be another's view of what is bad. To freely choose what we see as "good" would be to freely do what we please, otherwise to do what we wish not to do would be to choose what we see as "bad". Why would anyone want to do what they view as bad? I think force, a gun, Might, may convince an individual to do what they see as bad. What is known to be good…varies between different societies, each society that does the opposite of good in another's society may be considered barbaric. In a way, each end up trampling over others to accomplish their view of "good", since there exists a number of persons who will say, "No, that's bad!" and attempt to interfere with another's "good".

  • Joe Hargrave

    " The reason someone would feel "bad" after murdering someone is because acting that way is likely to result in revenge and the death of the murderer"

    This is almost unbelievable emotional and spiritual myopia. It is possible to imagine what it would be like to have a loved one murdered, and to feel remorse at having inflicted that on someone else. It is possible that one later comes to believe that life has value, and feels remorse because of that. You have conflated guilt and fear. It is possible to fear without guilt, and to feel guilt without fear.

  • @kevinislaughter

    "Trevor Blake fancies himself an egotist. As far as I can tell…"
    Wrong, he considers himself an "egoist" (or possibly a "failed egoist", read the book!), this is different from an "egotist".

    • James E. Miller

      Thank you for the correction! I was going back on forth on the correct spelling of the term, and thought he titled his book with "Egotist." Obviously, I was mistaken. I have corrected the error.

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James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of Mises Canada and a regular contributor to the Mitrailleuse . Send him mail

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