Natural rights, the state of nature, and society
Published Thu, Mar 14 2013 8:50 PM
As I indicated yesterday, I’ve recently had a couple of discussions with people that don’t really seem to understand today’s topic. I even had one today regarding of all things immigration. In that conversation an individual made this statement.
…the only principle one needs is ‘open immigration’ as a consequence of absolute individual rights.
This attitude represents a gross misunderstanding of individual rights and their relationship to an ordered society. Our rights are not “absolute” by any stretch of the imagination. They are given to us by God and they are a part of our very being, but there are limitations upon them. For the irreligious, agnostics, or atheists out there that don’t accept the notion that they are given to us by God (I do feel sorry for you) the fact remains that they are fundamental, unalienable rights that arise as a consequence of our existence.
They are not granted by government. They are not granted by other men. They are a part of us. In that sense they may seem absolute, but we must consider the existence of other men.
Assume for the moment the existence of no society. Men are in their “natural” state, or as John Locke called it “the state of nature”. Here all men have perfect liberty and freedom to do what they will with themselves and their possessions. Property is defined by taking something from the commons. No man needs to ask permission of another. We are completely free within the bounds of the law of nature.
This is true for ALL men in the state of nature. No man depends upon another for his liberty. No man requires the permission of another to feed, clothe or shelter himself. All are equal, and all are equally sovereign. There are no constraints upon our liberty except those imposed by the law of nature.
In the state of nature, our individual natural rights appear absolute. In the state of nature there are no borders. In the state of nature we are beholden to none and the only law that constrains us is the law of nature. Yet it is by this law of nature and the equal sovereignty of all men that we learn that our inherent natural rights do have natural boundaries.
Do I have the right to life? Then by extension so does my neighbor. Prudence and wisdom dictates that if I wish my neighbor to respect my right to life then I must respect his as well. The very law of nature teaches the wise man to learn the golden rule. Do I have the right to take from the commons a piece of fruit for my nourishment? To claim it as my property? To eat it? So too does my neighbor. If I take it and spoil it I have done my neighbor an injustice and violated natures law.
May I take a bit of sheltered land from the commons and claim it as my resting place for the evening? If I then make improvements to it, enhancing the shelter and comfort it provides do not my actions make it mine? Can not the same be said for my compatriots?
This is the state of nature. Natural law prohibits greed, for we can only take that which we can hold and use. Natural law requires that we respect one another’s rights lest our own be infringed. Natural law shows us that our rights cannot infringe upon those of another for we would not abide another’s infringement upon our own.
In the state of nature, there are some rather obvious fundamental, unalienable rights that each of us has by our very being. Each man has the right to life, to liberty, to property, and to pursue their own happiness however they see fit. Beyond this, it is clear that all men have these rights equally, and that all are equally sovereign, empowered to punish violations of the law of nature as they see fit and in proportion to the severity of those violations.
Why then would a man abandon the state of nature to enter into a society or to submit himself to a government? Quite simply for more security, safety and comfort. For while absolute liberty may seem a wonderful thing, mankind, in the state of nature, lives a precarious existence. Foraging for food, without agriculture (a product of society), is time consuming and by no means certain. Without some form of weapons technology (either a personal invention or a product of society), hunting for game is also by no means certain. Living the life of a hunter/gatherer is fraught with peril and filled with labor. For survival’s sake men must band together and cooperate.
Human nature rears its ugly head as well. It should come as no surprise to anyone that men will seek pleasure and be self indulgent. No one should be surprised to find that men avoid work wherever they can. It should come as no surprise that some men are physically stronger than others, that some men are inconsiderate of others, that some men are simply bullies. And no one should be shocked to find that in such circumstances as man might find himself in in the state of nature absent our better nature and the constraints of a society that some men will take advantage of their greater strength to infringe upon the rights of others – taking from them the food they have gathered, casting them out of the shelter that they have provided for themselves and so forth. For though in the state of nature all are equally sovereign and all are blessed with equal rights, not all men are willing to honor the rights of others, recognizing no right but greater strength of sinew and bone.
These reasons compel thoughtful men to band together for their common good. While one may be stronger than any other, or even any two together, surely an overwhelming number of others can punish his violation of the laws of nature or his infringement upon their natural rights. While alone a single man may starve or perish from exposure to the elements, a group of men caring for one another will have a better chance of survival and even comfort.
It is for these reasons that men form societies. It is for these reasons that they will agree together upon a means of governing themselves, yielding their personal sovereignty to that of the society. Societies are formed for the mutual benefit of mankind as well as to secure the individuals natural rights from the infringement of those outside those societies. Entering into a society means leaving the state of nature, exchanging it for mutual security, survival, and happiness in the face of a harsh world and the tyranny of those who will not recognize the rights to life, liberty, property, or the pursuit of happiness.
The society has no more power over its members than they grant it themselves. For just as a man may freely give up the state of nature to enter into a society with other men, he may freely choose to return to the state of nature forsaking the society of others. In doing so he abandons the protection of that society and returns to the insecurity and peril of a life apart from it. Those who remain in the society though should look upon him with suspicion, as they look upon all who are not a part of their society, for he has chosen to no longer abide by the social compact that binds the society together.
Once a society is formed, certain synergies come into play. Men in a society will recognize that some are more skilled at finding and improving shelters while others have more skill at hunting or acquiring foods. Soon the society will take advantage of the various strengths of its members providing a way to accumulate and set aside more for leaner times, to gain greater comfort and the like.
Again, the nature of man comes into play, for some who are not members of the society might see the society’s gain and covet it for themselves. Unwilling to enter into the society they may seek other means to acquire what the society has accumulated. That accumulation is the property of the members of the society, according to whatever rules they have established for the society. Quite naturally the members of the society are entitled via their individual right to property to defend it. And so a society finds the need for common defense, agreed upon borders and more. It takes, from the authority granted to it by its members sovereign authority over its territory and all within it.
As the founders said in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness
This is why men leave the state of nature – to protect their unalienable rights. This is why the founders fought against Britain, for Britain and her King had become destructive of their rights. This is why the United States was established. It is the consent of the governed that grants the United States the authority over its citizens that it has. And it has that authority only so long as it continues to secure the natural rights of its citizens.
We have now seen that although our rights are not granted to us by our government, but are a part of our very nature that they are by nature’s law limited in scope. We have seen why it is that governments are created by men and where they get their powers – and what sovereignty men must give up to join into the society that is ordered and protected by those governments. We have also seen how those who choose to remain in the state of nature, or to leave the society to return to the state of nature set themselves against that society and declare themselves to be foreign to it and forsake its protections and the privileges of its citizens.
What then of my friend who says “That would be fine and dandy if i would have joined, but I was born into the world as is. Why can I not choose to opt out of the governments society?”
I think the answer is quite obvious. If he chooses to opt out, he declares himself to be foreign to that society. If he is foreign to that society he must still abide by its rules and laws while within its jurisdiction. If he fails to do so he declares himself to be at war with the society. When he does that, he had best hope that he has the strength and the fortune to evade the society’s magistrates – for the society’s obligation to protect its members and to secure their safety and happiness demands that it punish the transgression.
More on this (hopefully) later. John Locke deals with the notion of how children are brought into a society by their parents, how it is that their parents are responsible for them and how their rights are less than fully developed while they remain children, for they cannot be sovereigns until they are raised out of a state of nonage into maturity and reason.
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David responded with:
Rather than recapitulate our FB discussion, I'd like to briefly touch on your Locke teaser at the end of this article.
It's interesting to me that, following Roger Williams, et al, American Baptists of most stripes have adopted an extra-biblical concept of "age of accountability" wherein children are considered as unable to wittingly "know sin" and hence are presumed exempt from its weight of consequence. The other side of this particular Baptist "coin" is "soul competency" that proclaims that each person stands before his Creator with no mediator save Christ, if he be a believer. That is, every person (with the "age of accountability" waiver recognized as applicable to children of indeterminate age) is responsible for his own actions. Period. Full stop.
Freedom to operate fully within one's natural rights, therefore, is NEVER without respect to one's responsibilities. Freedom absent responsibility is not freedom but licentiousness.
Locke's concept of "a state of maturity and reason" is something that is increasingly, radically foreign to our society nowadays. We are more and more a nation of childish licentiousness, refusing to accept responsibility for our own actions, and The Zero is the prime, the most visible and typical example of the behavior--"It's not my fault! Blame so-and-so," is the cry of a childish libertine.