An Irrefutable Definition of Natural Rights

The earth was the center of the universe for a long time. When we finally broke through that error we got a perspective that eventually put man on the moon. Likewise, the unspoken but universally accepted restriction of rights to humans, or at least sentient creatures, has kept us from the more universal truth, viz. all things have rights. Every object in nature has natural rights.

This discovery came as a result of thinking that there ought to be a basis for natural rights within natural law. Then Einstein’s admonition to “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better” seemed the perfect methodology. It took a while to find natural rights in nature, but eventually, I had the “yes, of course” moment.

We have overlooked this insight because natural rights are profoundly ubiquitous, and like a fish doesn’t know he is wet, we have missed what was in plain sight everywhere we looked.

What is a Right Anyway?

The idea of “rights” is clearly one of authority. Even toddlers demonstrate this sense when you violate their authority and take away their toy. Then there’s that feeling we all experience and youths verbalize with “You aren’t the boss of me.” The idea of “a right” to something is clearly an abstract one, but natural rights are always connected intimately to something physical or mental (similar to software).

It is insightful to take the perspective of an outsider looking at a rights-holder. What he sees is someone who has a warrant, an authorization, an empowerment, or an authority to act for, or to be an agent for himself. In other words, having the power (capability) to act is also having the power (authority) to act.

So having the right (power and authority) to operate is actually just another facet of having the power (ability) to operate.

It troubles me that this explication complicates something that is profoundly simple.

The Terse, Universal Definition

Natural Rights: the authority of an operator to operate.

A Longer Version

“Natural Rights” is the label we abstract from and then apply to the authority or power an operator has to exercise its capabilities. For example, I have the power to speak, and my authority to speak is inherent, and intrinsic within that power. When I speak I exercise my ability and my right simultaneously because that right is inalienable. It cannot be separated from my power to speak. If you thwart my ability you also destroy my right. You either have a speaker with the natural right to speak, or you have neither.

The Explication

The essence of the universe is operators operating: all things, every single object in nature doing what it does. Plants growing, planets trapping moons, dogs barking, and people writing essays. From these growing, trapping, barking, and writing operations we abstract the idea that these “operators” (plants, planets, dogs, humans) have the power and authority to do their growing, trapping, barking, etc. Then we create a name for that authority and call it a “natural right”.

To turn it around and see it from the back side: because a right is an abstract idea, it must have a real antecedent, or else it is unfounded. The abstraction is called a “right” and its antecedent is the power/authority exhibited by an entity when it exercises that power/authority. Although that last statement seems circular, it is not. It only seems so because Temporal Rights are profoundly inherent and intrinsic within their owner. One can, with semantic grace, denote a right as being the “authority” aspect of the corresponding capability.

The Unification of Authorities

It is evident from these descriptions that the connection between objects and their rights is extremely tight and in fact, in most cases, so intrinsic that they appear not as a separate entity but as a characteristic of the operator. This new definition of natural rights unifies the authority denoted in a right with the corresponding power of its owner. As a consequence, they are inherent, intrinsic, and inalienable in a manner more profound than any traditional theory of natural rights. The distance between temporal rights and the laws of nature and hence also natural law could not be shorter.

Why “Temporal Rights”

I use the name “Temporal Rights”, primarily because they are created in the instant of the creation of an operator and are extinguished in the moment of its demise.

The Abstraction We Call Freedom

To fully comprehend this “temporal rights” paradigm for natural rights we need to realize that the idea of “rights” is an abstract one. There is no self-existent object we can call “a right”, only the operator itself has self-existence. To be a true abstraction, it must have an antecedent, something from which we draw out the abstraction. For the human being, it is the ability to choose that gives rise to the right to choose, or as we often say, “the freedom to choose”. Freedom is the label we use for the state of affairs that allows operators (human beings in this case) to operate.

Natural Rights and Natural Law Are in the Same Domain

The natural law that governs the operator and the natural rights that arise therein are in the exact same domain. There is no need for logical arguments or for “reason” to be cited for the derivation of these rights or for the hundreds of appeals to related observations of human behaviors and values.

Traditional sources of natural rights typically claim a connection to natural law. The Temporal Rights paradigm says that natural rights are not merely connected, but an intrinsic characteristic of the laws of nature. There is no claim for natural rights that is more natural than the Temporal Rights perspective.

The sum and substance of thousands of years of political rights theory reach their climax in temporal rights.

The Necessary Opposing Morality

The Temporal Rights perspective could be seen as an explication of the law of the jungle: I can smash you so I have that right. That is positively frightening and many will chafe at it. However, it is not a bug, it’s a feature. The obvious danger of this perspective on rights demands something to preclude the total destruction of civilization. This powerfully demonstrates the need for a principle that will civilize people, and we find that in the simple “all men are created equal [in value]” principle. The morality needed is simply that your rights end where mine begin, otherwise I am your slave.

There are quite a number of nice features of the Temporal Rights paradigm. One particularly interesting is that it directly leads to a publicly acceptable morality that good is the honoring, respecting, and protecting of the rights of others, and evil is simply any violation of rights whether by law or person. This ethics is powerful and pervasive because it is so simple.

Overcoming Nihilism

The “scientific” thinkers have all but conquered our civilization and are hell-bent on returning us to the pagan state the desert religions saved us from. They happily celebrate the death of God with their hedonism and perversions that, for example, are sacrificing children to the god of convenience and sexual slavery they call freedom. They don’t seem to realize that they are fundamentally claiming to be the center of the moral universe.

The Temporal Rights perspective offers a completely secular origin for the natural rights that they cannot violate without revealing their crass selfishness.

The Temporal Rights concept goes even further. If the highest power of man is the ability to separate stimulus and response, then the highest choice must be the choice to love.

An Invitation

Mascot Owl Right Wing Extended

Several years ago, I decided I wanted to look within natural law for a source of natural rights. It seemed obvious to me that the two had to be intimately connected. In fear that any study of existing natural rights theories might prejudice my mind and preclude my hoped-for discovery, I avoided them altogether.

This project was inspired by an experience I had almost a half-century ago. While writing On Human Rights, the second essay of the Bicentennial feature series for The Freeman magazine published by the Foundation for Economic Education, I wanted to provide a basis for those rights that would be at least palatable to non-believers. I didn’t know a basis that was not some version of “endowed by their Creator” so I prayed for one.

A concept immediately came to mind of the hierarchy of rights demonstrated by beavers cutting down trees, and trees splitting rocks. The essence of this was that they had the right to do what they were doing. The property right of the stone was particularly compelling to me because it demonstrated the inalienability of rights so profoundly: you either have a rock with a property right or you have neither. I liked the fact that this was all within the domain of the most fundamental principles of natural law.

While I liked the demonstration of rights that provided, it seemed to me that it just sort of hung out there in logical space. I wanted to see if that could be anchored better, or justified by finding a solid connection to the physical universe.

It is a new and unprecedented paradigm, so I invite anyone who can find a problem with Temporal Rights to please help me fine tune (or abandon) the idea.

Jackson Pemberton
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