"Natural Laws", "Natural Rights" and Libertarianism. Watch

Oswy
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I've noticed libertarians using phrases like 'natural laws' elsewhere and couldn't help feeling that this seemed rather inappropriate other than when considering phenomenon like gravity or the speed of light.

Anyway, I found this great little critque as a starting point in questioning the validity of 'natural laws' and 'natural rights' as they are offered by libertarians:

* The Myth of "Natural Law" by Iain MacSaorsa

Natural Law, and the related Natural Rights, play
an important part in Libertarian Capitalist
idealogy. They are not alone in claiming that
their particular idealogy meets the law of nature,
Hitler (for one) also did so. So do numerous other
demagogues, religious fanatics and political
philosophers. However, they like to claim that only
*their* "natural law" is the "real" one, all the
others are subjective impositions. But, then again,
so do all the others. We will ignore these
assertions (they are not arguments) and concentrate
on explaining why natural law (in all its many
forms) is a myth. In addition, we will indicate
its authoritarian implications.

Firstly, Murray Rothbard claims that "Natural Law
theory rests on the insight... that each entity
has distinct and specific properties, a distinct
"nature", which can be investigated by man's reason"
[For a New Liberty, p25]. To put it bluntly, this
form of "analysis" was originated by Aristotle and
has not been used by science for over 300 years.
Science investigates by experiment, creating
theories to explain the facts experienced. Rothbard
*invents* definitions ("distinct 'natures'") and
then draws conclusions from them. Such a method was
last used by the medieval Church and is
innocent of any scientific method.

After defining certain "natures", Rothbard starts
to draw "Natural Rights and Laws" from them.
However, these are strange "Natural Laws" as they
can be violated in nature! Natural laws (like
the law of gravity) *cannot* be violated and therefore
do not need enforcing. The "Natural Laws"
the "Libertarian" desires to enforce upon you have no
such powers. They need to be enforced by
humans and the institutions they create. Hence
Libertarian "Natural Laws" are more akin to moral
or legal laws. So why do Libertarians use the
terminology of Natural Law?

Simply, it gives them the means by which to elevate
their opinions, dogma and prejudices to some
metaphysical level where nobody will dare to criticize
it, or even think about it. It smacks of religion,
where "Natural Law" has replaced God's Law.
In the latter case, it gives the priest power
over the believers. In the later, the ideologist over
the people he or she wants to rule.

How can you be against a "Natural Law"? Its impossible.
How can you argue against Gravity? If private property,
for example, is elevated to such a level,
who dare argue against it? Ayn Rand listed having
landlords and employers with "the laws of nature".
They are *not* similar: the first two are social
relationships which have to be enforced by the
state; the "laws of nature" (like gravity, needing food, etc)
are *facts* which do not need to be enforced. The use of
"Natural Law" is an attempt to *stop* thinking, to restrict
analysis, to force certain aspects of society off of
the political agenda by giving them a divine, ever
lasting quality.

Of course, in order to support "Natural Law" the
cultists *must* ignore reality. Ayn Rand claims
that "the source of man's rights is... the law
of identity. A is A - and Man is Man". But Rand (like
Rothbard) *defines* "Man" as an "entity of a
specific kind - a rational being". Therefore she
*cannot* account for *irrational* human behaviour
(such as those which violate "Natural Laws")
which are also products of our "nature". To assert
that they are not human, means to assert A can
be not-A, thus attempting to deny the law of
identity. Her idealogy cannot even meet its own test.

* But "Natural Law" provides protection for individual
rights from violation by the State. Those
against Natural Law desire total rule by the state.

The second part is a common Libertarian attack.
Instead addressing the issues, they accuse you of
being a "totalitarian" (or the less sinister "statist").
In this way, they hope to avoid discussing the
issues raised. We can ignore the second part.

"Natural Law" has *never* stopped the rights of
individuals from being violated by the state. They
are as much use as a chocolate fire-guard. If
"Natural Rights" can protect you from the power of
the state, the Nazi's would not have been able
to murder six million jews. The only thing that stops
the state from attacking individuals rights is
individual (and social) power - the ability and desire
to protect yourself and what you consider to be
right and fair. As the anarchist Rudolf Rocker
noted, "Political [or individual] rights do not
exist because they have been legally set down on a
piece of paper, but only when they have become
the ingrown habit of a people, and when any
attempt to impair them will be meet with the violent
resistance of the populace... One compels
respect from others when he knows how to defend
his dignity as a human being... The people owe
all the political rights and privileges which we
enjoy today, in greater or lesser measure, not to the
good will of their governments, but to their own
strength" [Anarcho-Syndicalism, page 64]

Of course, if is there are no "Natural Rights",
then the state has no "right" to take away your rights
or murder you. You can object to state power
without believing in "Natural Law".

* Why is "Natural Law" authoritarian?

Rights, far from being fixed, are the product
of social evolution and human action, thought and
emotions. What is acceptable now may become
unacceptable in the future. Slavery, for example,
was long considered "natural". In fact, John Locke,
the "father" of "Natural Rights" was heavily
involved in the slave trade. He made
a fortune in violating a "natural law". Many
claimed slavery was a "Natural Law". Few would say so now.

The "Natural Law" cult desires to stop this evolutionary
process and fix social life into what *they* think is good
and right and use a form of argument which tries
to raise their idealogy above critique or thought.

This denies the fundamental nature of liberty,
the ability to think for yourself. Michael Bakunin
writes "the liberty of man consists solely in this:
that he obeys natural laws because he has
*himself* recognised them as such, and not because
they have been externally imposed upon him
by any extrinsic will whatever, divine or human,
collective or individual" [Bakunin on Anarchism,
page 227].

The case for liberty and a free society is that
every individual is unique, that all can contribute
something which no other individual has noticed
or thought about. It is this interaction of
individuals which allows individuals, society, social
customs and rights to evolve, change and develop.
"Natural Law", like the state, tries to arrest
this evolution. It replaces individuality with cold
dogma, placing the individual under yet another
god, destroying critical thought with a new rule
book.

In addition, as these "Natural Laws" are the
product of human as humans, they *must* be
applicable to *all* humanity. Hence the "Natural
Law" cult desires to see *one* moral code
dominate society, all other codes *must be* (by
definition) "against nature". That the Dogma of
Natural Law was only invented a few hundred years
ago, in one part of the planet, does not seem
to bother them. Nor the fact that for the vast
majority of human existence people have lived in
societies which violated almost *all* aspects of
their "Natural Law".

If "Natural Law" did exist, then all people would have
discovered this "true" law years ago. As it is, the
debate is still going on, with (for example) fascists
and "Libertarians" each claiming "the laws of nature"
(and sociobiology) as their own.

* But Natural Law was discovered, not invented!

This truly shows the religious nature of the
Natural Law cult. Let us take the Law of Gravity, for
example. Newton did not "discover" the law
of gravity, he invented a theory which explained the
physical events experienced. Later Einstein updated
his theories into new theories, which again try to
explain physical reality.

Unlike "Natural Law", scientific laws are seen
to be the products of human thought and can be
updated and changed as our knowledge changes and
grows. The "Natural Law" cult prides itself
in that it is unchanging, being "discovered"
centuries ago. No wonder that many "Natural Law"
cultists support sociobiology, placing their
"laws" into the genetic structure of humanity. As
Murray Bookchin notes, sociobiology is "suffocatingly
rigid; it not only impedes action with the
autocracy of a genic tyrant but it closes the door
to any action that is not biochemically defined by
its own configuration. When freedom is nothing
more than the recognition of necessity... we
discover the gene's tyranny over the greater
totality of life... when knowledge becomes dogma (and
few movements are more dogmatic than sociobiology)
freedom is ultimately denied".

Natural Law, far from the being the supporter
of individual freedom, is one of its greatest enemies.
By placing individual rights within "Man's"
"Nature", it creates an unchanging set of dogmas. Do
we really know enough about humanity to dictate
"Natural" and universal Laws, applicable forever?
Is this not a denial of critical thinking
and so individual freedom?

http://www.spunk.org/texts/otherpol/...e/sp001283.txt
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Gilliwoo
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(Original post by Oswy)
I've noticed libertarians using phrases like 'natural laws' elsewhere and couldn't help feeling that this seemed rather inappropriate other than when considering phenomenon like gravity or the speed of light.

Anyway, I found this great little critque as a starting point in questioning the validity of 'natural laws' and 'natural rights' as they are offered by libertarians:
Hey, I tried to tell them...
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DrunkHamster
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This is a hard question, I'm not going to lie. I don't have time to do a proper reply now much as I'd love to. However, Oswy, I'm really not particularly inclined to spend a significant amount of time answering points just get such illuminating replies as

Perhaps I could answer your post and perhaps I could answer it when I feel like it. Perhaps lots of things.
A few points beforehand though:

1) Talking about the foundations of ethics is hard. Not just for libertarians, for everyone. I can ask you similarly hard questions: Why is it wrong for workers to be exploited (whatever that means)? Why is a socialist government better than a capitalistic one? As far as I know, the standard Marxist approach is to sidestep these issues and maintain that socialism is right because it's inevitable...

2) Natural rights are not the only foundations for libertarianism/anarcho-capitalism by any means. There are a lot of people who hold AC views based on a kind of rule utilitarianism, that private property and self ownership are the best ways of partitioning out scarce resources. And even if I didn't believe in natural rights (I do, to some extent), it seems to me that this approach is still extremely convincing. There's a fantastic essay by David Friedman here where he tries to come up with a positive account of property rights - I'd highly suggest reading it.

3) Lol at you frequenting sites called spunk.org
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Bastiat
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(Original post by Oswy)
I've noticed libertarians using phrases like 'natural laws' elsewhere and couldn't help feeling that this seemed rather inappropriate other than when considering phenomenon like gravity or the speed of light.
I read the piece you posted - as an ardent advocate of natural rights - and I've been converted! From the comparison to Hitler in the first paragraph, I knew it would be a coherent, mature discourse on the shortcomings of natural rights, whose constant associative slurs ("religious fanatics," "authoritarian implications," "medieval Church," "priest power," "landlords and employers," "Nazi's... six million Jews," "Slavery," "dogma" & "fascists") would only reinforce the general validity of the argument.


Instead of this polemical conflation (in true Hegelian form) of one concept and its diametric opposite, do you actually have any serious arguments against the substance of natural rights?
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Gilliwoo
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(Original post by thermoregulatio)
Instead of this polemical conflation (in true Hegelian form) of one concept and its diametric opposite, do you actually have any serious arguments against the substance of natural rights?
We could start by asking, "how can you tell they 'exist'?" (like where exactly do you check what they're like, without speaking purely subjectively). It just strikes me that some people here talk about them as though they are things you can verify objective as real entities, when I take them to be fictions that express human dispositions, and nothing more grand. Moreover, you're gonna have a hell of a task explaining why/how they have substantive/normative qualities.
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GregoryJL
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Natural Law is crap - it should be reasonably obvious that is a grand fudge of ethical naturalism by trying to insert a teleology, and by such an interposition merely replacing the larger 'is-ought' gap with two slightly less noticable, but equally intractable difficulties (from is to purpose, and from purpose to ought, respectively.) I thought that Libertarians tended to fall under a Kantian or consequentialist ethic - although I'm unsure whether these go far enough - I don't see how the former can be used to strike against all 'bigger states' (and categorical imperatives seem only able to deny certain principles, and not place those that pass the test into any sort of hierarchy, and there is no guarantee that a minimal state is always the most effective solution in terms of utility.) Meh, I don't really do politics.
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Gilliwoo
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(Original post by GregoryJL)
Natural Law is crap - it should be reasonably obvious that is a grand fudge of ethical naturalism by trying to insert a teleology, and by such an interposition merely replacing the larger 'is-ought' gap with two slightly less noticable, but equally intractable difficulties (from is to purpose, and from purpose to ought, respectively.) I thought that Libertarians tended to fall under a Kantian or consequentialist ethic - although I'm unsure whether these go far enough - I don't see how the former can be used to strike against all 'bigger states' (and categorical imperatives seem only able to deny certain principles, and not place those that pass the test into any sort of hierarchy, and there is no guarantee that a minimal state is always the most effective solution in terms of utility.) Meh, I don't really do politics.
Bingo. The more convincing defences of libertarianism that I have seen don't rely on "natural rights" or whatever. They're almost always based on virtue or utilitarianist ethics rather than natural law.
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Oswy
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...Why is it wrong for workers to be exploited (whatever that means)? Why is a socialist government better than a capitalistic one? As far as I know, the standard Marxist approach is to sidestep these issues and maintain that socialism is right because it's inevitable...

2) Natural rights are not the only foundations for libertarianism/anarcho-capitalism by any means. There are a lot of people who hold AC views based on a kind of rule utilitarianism, that private property and self ownership are the best ways of partitioning out scarce resources. And even if I didn't believe in natural rights (I do, to some extent), it seems to me that this approach is still extremely convincing...

3) Lol at you frequenting sites called spunk.org DrunkHamster.
I think exploitation is wrong in the way that I think things wrong generally - they represent a state of affairs which are inimical to the welfare of society as a whole entity as well as harmful to the condition of the individuals who suffer at the hands of such 'wrongs' and which I have an interest in as an empathic person. I don't want to be exploited and I don't want others to be exploited either - a variation on the 'golden rule' I suppose. I don't pretend, however, that my moral position is an expression of a 'natural' law, which for me would be to give a status to a value or set of values which it (or they) cannot possess. When you speak of capitalist government you're speaking not so much of capitalist government but government which gives over certain authority to the processes of capitalism. Capitalism creates wealth, but it does so in a way that also creates inequalities and leaves many people utterly at the mercy of whatever those with money want to do with that money. Socialist government, at least in principle, is government directed specifically at securing a minimum quality of life for all individuals. Capitalist 'government' is government which allows capitalist imperatives (the pursuit of profit) to determine who gets what quality of life and how.

I appreciate that you might want to cling to 'natural rights' as useful to libertarian defences, but on an intellectual level it's just not a sustainable concept; the critique I offered I think makes a good job of explaining why. I appreciate that libertarianism can be defended on different grounds, but this seems to crop up a lot, so it's worth going over, in my view at least.

As for spunk.org - I didn't name the website, I was Google searching and this mini-essay came up in the list, what do you want me to say?
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Tory Dan
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Such an unbiased source, isn't Iain MacSaorsa some Jockish anarcho commie?
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Oswy
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(Original post by dan_man)
Such an unbiased source, isn't Iain MacSaorsa some Jockish anarcho commie?
There's no such thing as an 'unbiased source' where politics is concerned. It's pretty obvious (to the rest of us that is) that someone offering a critique of libertarianism is likely to subscribe to a different political outlook. Do you have anything to say about the actual arguments in the critique?
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Gilliwoo
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(Original post by dan_man)
Such an unbiased source, isn't Iain MacSaorsa some Jockish anarcho commie?
How does bias enter into it? This is a critique of an ideology, not a legal argument or a scientific hypothesis, or journalistic reporting. He's just saying that you can't speak of rights as though they're just "obviously there". It's been pretty much the mainstream opinion in political, legal and moral philosphy for the last 50 years, which is why I find it so odd for people to still be talking about it.
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Agent Smith
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(Original post by thermoregulatio)
I read the piece you posted - as an ardent advocate of natural rights - and I've been converted! From the comparison to Hitler in the first paragraph, I knew it would be a coherent, mature discourse on the shortcomings of natural rights, whose constant associative slurs ("religious fanatics," "authoritarian implications," "medieval Church," "priest power," "landlords and employers," "Nazi's... six million Jews," "Slavery," "dogma" & "fascists") would only reinforce the general validity of the argument.
I don't know about Natural Rights as a concept, but I agree with your analysis of this particular attack on them. I wrote a post to the same effect myself, but the internet ate it.
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ForeverIsMyName
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I personally don't defend libertarianism on natural law grounds, so I'll let this thread slide I think.
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DrunkHamster
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(Original post by Gilliwoo)
We could start by asking, "how can you tell they 'exist'?" (like where exactly do you check what they're like, without speaking purely subjectively). It just strikes me that some people here talk about them as though they are things you can verify objective as real entities, when I take them to be fictions that express human dispositions, and nothing more grand. Moreover, you're gonna have a hell of a task explaining why/how they have substantive/normative qualities.
It's fascinating to me (as someone interested in both ethics and the philosophy of maths) that this whole paragraph could, without changing the arguments much at all, just as well be about mathematical entities and propositions; "how can you tell they exist?", "you're gonna have a hell of a task explaining how they have substantive qualities" etc are all questions emphasised by mathematical anti-realists. It seems to me like there could well be some parallels between how we come to know mathematical propositions and how we come to know moral propositions.
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DrunkHamster
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(Original post by Oswy)
I think exploitation is wrong in the way that I think things wrong generally - they represent a state of affairs which are inimical to the welfare of society as a whole entity
Society is a whole entity? I'm really sorry, but this is nothing but a fallacy. "Society" is nothing more than a shorthand for a group of individuals. Can you show me a society without showing me a group of people?

as well as harmful to the condition of the individuals who suffer at the hands of such 'wrongs' and which I have an interest in as an empathic person. I don't want to be exploited and I don't want others to be exploited either - a variation on the 'golden rule' I suppose.
You're basically faced with exactly the same problem that libertarians are faced with then when it comes to foundations of ethics. First of all, you have the is-ought problem to deal with yourself - under exploitation (whatever that means) some people are better off while some are worse off. That is a fact. Where do you get your intuition that therefore you ought to overturn this state of affairs? Precisely because you wouldn't be happy under that state of affairs. I don't see how this is any different to the libertarian non-aggression axiom which you condemn for being based on something spurious. Unless you can come up with something more than your personal preference (hardly a sound basis for an entire political philosophy) you're stuck in the same boat you'd try to throw us in.

I don't pretend, however, that my moral position is an expression of a 'natural' law, which for me would be to give a status to a value or set of values which it (or they) cannot possess.
So where does it come from? Is it completely arbitrary? You won't convert many people that way.

When you speak of capitalist government you're speaking not so much of capitalist government but government which gives over certain authority to the processes of capitalism. Capitalism creates wealth, but it does so in a way that also creates inequalities and leaves many people utterly at the mercy of whatever those with money want to do with that money. Socialist government, at least in principle, is government directed specifically at securing a minimum quality of life for all individuals. Capitalist 'government' is government which allows capitalist imperatives (the pursuit of profit) to determine who gets what quality of life and how.
Unfortunately this just turns into a tissue of fallacies. First of all, I'm an anarchist. Which means that I in no way advocate a "capitalist government" - or any other kind of form of organised coercion for that matter. Secondly, you're committing the exact same "fallacy" that you condemn us for. "Capitalism creates wealth, but it does so in a way that also creates inequalities and leaves many people utterly at the mercy of whatever those with money want to do with that money." Even if it does, which I disagree with, so what? That is a factual proposition. Somehow you think this leads to an "ought" proposition, that we ought to limit this inequality! How do you make that jump?

P.S. I quite like this sentence: "Socialist government...is government directed specifically at securing a minimum quality of life for all individuals". I wouldn't disagree with that at all :p:

I appreciate that you might want to cling to 'natural rights' as useful to libertarian defences, but on an intellectual level it's just not a sustainable concept; the critique I offered I think makes a good job of explaining why. I appreciate that libertarianism can be defended on different grounds, but this seems to crop up a lot, so it's worth going over, in my view at least.
I agree natural rights are difficult, and I'm well aware I haven't actually responded to the claims yet (merely shown you that you're in exactly the same boat...). Even if you're unconvinced, I think the other defences of libertarianism are easily sufficient even without natural rights to back them up. I know a lot of anarcho-capitalists who think that rights are nothing but social constructs, and still support hardcore libertarian ideals.

As for spunk.org - I didn't name the website, I was Google searching and this mini-essay came up in the list, what do you want me to say?
I was only kidding, I just found it quite funny. What do I want you to say? Nothing. But maybe there are better uses of your time than Google searching for criticisms of libertarianism :p:
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L i b
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(Original post by thermoregulatio)
I read the piece you posted - as an ardent advocate of natural rights - and I've been converted! From the comparison to Hitler in the first paragraph, I knew it would be a coherent, mature discourse on the shortcomings of natural rights, whose constant associative slurs ("religious fanatics," "authoritarian implications," "medieval Church," "priest power," "landlords and employers," "Nazi's... six million Jews," "Slavery," "dogma" & "fascists") would only reinforce the general validity of the argument.
Haha, indeed.
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L i b
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(Original post by Oswy)
I appreciate that you might want to cling to 'natural rights' as useful to libertarian defences, but on an intellectual level it's just not a sustainable concept
Funny how it has managed to sustain most of the world's moral and legal thinking in some form or another for centuries.

Finding yourself denying natural rights absolutely (I'm something of a Rawlsian in these matters to tell you the truth, but I can't say it's something I devote a lot of thought to) is, to my mind, a far more revolting - denying any moral concept of human dignity. Equally an appeal to dignity is hardly logical, but it's a damn sight better than quoting articles which damn a perfectly legitimate ideology by comparisons with Hitler in the second sentence.

I'm worried about turning this into a jurisprudential rant, which in reality answers very little. So I'll stop and have another glass of wine instead.
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L i b
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(Original post by Gilliwoo)
How does bias enter into it? This is a critique of an ideology, not a legal argument or a scientific hypothesis, or journalistic reporting. He's just saying that you can't speak of rights as though they're just "obviously there". It's been pretty much the mainstream opinion in political, legal and moral philosphy for the last 50 years, which is why I find it so odd for people to still be talking about it.
I think you're missing several notable concessions made to the natural law side of things in modern thinking. To hint at any sort of natural law being dead and buried since the 60s is oversimplifying a little.

I'm very soft on the side of natural law; I certainly don't justify it as some sort of natural right to own property as Oswy suggested - although I may be inclined to argue that it flows from other restrictions on the state.
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Oswy
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Society is a whole entity? I'm really sorry, but this is nothing but a fallacy. "Society" is nothing more than a shorthand for a group of individuals. Can you show me a society without showing me a group of people? DrunkHamster.
Duh! And a human being is only shorthand for a collection of cells. Better still, a cell is only shorthand for a bundle of compounds. Can you show me a human being without showing me a collection of cells? How about showing me a cell without showing me a bundle of compounds?

I'm not under the is-ought problem here as I have already stated that my moral position cannot be defended as objective. I could go so far down a justification road by talking of 'human nature' as, if nothing else, a nature which has evolved as deeply social and cooperative. Nevertheless I will not claim that my morals stem from facts in the ultimate sense that libertarians use when trying to defend their 'natural law' and 'natural rights' phrases. This is your problem, not mine. I am more interested in being honest to myself than seeking out 'explanations' which try to make my politics look watertight and scientific for appearances sake.

You can if you wish ignore the actual arguments in the critique - and quite a few libertarians have I'm noticing - but this doesn't make the critique vanish.
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Oswy
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(Original post by Libertin du Nord)
Funny how it has managed to sustain most of the world's moral and legal thinking in some form or another for centuries.

Finding yourself denying natural rights absolutely (I'm something of a Rawlsian in these matters to tell you the truth, but I can't say it's something I devote a lot of thought to) is, to my mind, a far more revolting - denying any moral concept of human dignity. Equally an appeal to dignity is hardly logical, but it's a damn sight better than quoting articles which damn a perfectly legitimate ideology by comparisons with Hitler in the second sentence.

I'm worried about turning this into a jurisprudential rant, which in reality answers very little. So I'll stop and have another glass of wine instead.
Lots of political and social action has been sustained for centuries by ideas now rejected by modern thinkers. Any number of tracts have defended slavery, for example, and until fairly recently too. This isn't a defence for libertarianism anymore than it is for slavery - either an idea is still good or our intellectual inquiries have made their foundations look shaky.

I do deny natural rights; it is species of is-ought fallacy. I don't deny moral concepts however; I merely deny their absolute and objective status. As I've already said, I won't cling to an idea simply because it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside, I have to justify my moral views without treating them like a fact of science. I'm in a much tougher position, but I also think I'm in a more honest position. I've already touched on my view of humanity as having an evolved disposition to sociability and cooperation and along side this I place the 'golden rule' for its utility.
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