An article by Contributing
Editor Susan Humphreys:
"Natural Rights" & "Natural Laws."
2019: Creation of a Federal U.S.
Human Rights Advisory Panel.
On 2019-JUL-08, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that he was setting up a human rights advisory panel in the State Department and that this panel will be examining the issue of human rights through a "natural law" lens. 1 There are several concerns about this panel, especially since the panel is made up of some very conservative people.
- First, claiming that you are looking at an issue "through a natural law lens" is an attempt to add credibility to what your group decides. It is supposed to remove human subjectivity from the decision-making process. But, I think it is a way to disguise the fact that you are looking at rights through a religious lens — the belief that God is the creator and giver of natural rights and laws.
- Second, I think there is confusion over definitions of "natural rights" and "natural laws". The two are connected, but not identical, concepts.
I think the best way to make the distinction between them is that a right is an entitlement, and a law places restrictions on that entitlement.
Common usage would say that a "law" governs the usage of an entitlement. Here, "law" is used differently from the scientific use of the word. In science, laws are descriptions of the processes and principles at work in the Universe. Scientific laws don’t govern (as in control) what happens. What happens determines what laws are being applied/used.
- Third, most religious folk claim that "rights" and "laws" come from God. The problem here is who determines what God claims is a "right" or a "law"? That determination is subjective as evidenced by the many differences of opinion over such issues as health care; birth control; abortion access; women’s, LGB, and Transgender issues; etc. in the U.S.
The Atheist and/or Secularist (who might also be a religious person) might claim that "natural rights" come with the "package;" they are part and parcel of being born a human being. They don’t come from God. Therefore, they believe that religious texts (the Bible specifically) have no bearing on what constitutes a "natural right" or a "natural law" and should not be referred to in any discussion of these issues.
From a scientific -- especially biological -- perspective, rights are a man-made moral concept, and have nothing to do with a state of nature or "natural laws".
This understanding, in my opinion shows a great advancement in moral and civil rights thinking and is something to be acknowledged and celebrated. It places moral and civil rights responsibility where it belongs -- with human beings.
Three rights were enshrined in (written into) the U.S. Declaration of Independence as unalienable (which means they can’t be removed or separated from the individual) and were granted to all humans. We haven’t lived up to this promise:
have continually fought to insure that the promise of unalienable rights for all includes them.
The three rights listed are the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are human cultural constructs not natural constructs.
We will never agree over what constitutes happiness let alone whether there should be limits (laws) placed that restrict the pursuit of it! And we even argue over the concept of life. Does this imply a right to clean air and clean water and access to health care. Without these things, a human can’t live for long! Or does it just mean you have a right not to be killed? But then if you are denied access to clean air or water or health care (when needed) that will eventually kill you!
And to muddy the waters even further, can’t one argue that, for the women with an unwanted pregnancy, eliminating that pregnancy is necessary for her liberty (to chose what happens to her own body) and her personal pursuit of happiness?
Then there has been the constitutional argument over whether these three rights are the only rights that are unalienable, or if they are simply examples of unalienable rights? Since Constitutional scholars and lawyers still argue over this I don’t see how a religious oriented panel will be able to settle the dispute without exposing their own bias and prejudices.
As I pointed out earlier, to claim that something is a "natural right" or a "natural law" is merely an attempt to add credibility to whatever is decided. As I mentioned earlier from a naturalist/Scientific perspective I don’t think humans have any "natural rights". I think all "rights" are moral and cultural.
In 2012 the arguments over what came to be called "Obama Care" heated up over the mandate to provide access to birth control as part of a health insurance package. I wrote an essay about this.
The Roman Catholic Church’s objection to birth control is that it violates "nature's plan" or what we might also call "natural law". Basically, Genesis 1 in the Bible states that God created male and female and ordered them to be fruitful and multiply. So heterosexual sex -- in the mind of Catholic Theologians and the official doctrine of the Catholic church -- is for the purpose of procreation and any interference in that purpose defies God’s plan or the "natural law."
A similar argument is used against homosexuals and transgender persons. The Church believes that both defy God’s plans and "natural laws."
The problem with this "natural law" argument is that there are many things that we do that defy God’s plans. For example vaccinations keep us from succumbing to the ravages of (including dying from) many diseases. Disease it can be argued is nature's plan to place limits on population growth. Other life saving procedures include blood transfusions, surgeries to remove an appendix, repairing a broken bone, drugs to lower blood pressure or cure cancer. Nature's plans include viruses and bacteria, poisonous plants and reptiles, hurricanes and tornados, earthquakes, floods, and fires. ALL these are part of nature's plans. It is hypocritical to insist that "natural law" means birth control can’t be used because they defy "natures plans/laws" but it is okay to use vaccinations which also defy "natures plans/laws"!
Also, one might argue that IF God didn’t intend for sex to be pleasurable and thus pursued for purposes other than procreation, He would have made it painful or difficult!
To insist that homosexuality, bisexuality, and being transgender is not natural and is a perverse immoral choice is to ignore modern scientific information about hormones, epigenetics, and brain development among sexual minorities. If people are going to insist that "natural law" should be the guideline they will have to make sure their arguments are in line with current established scientific understanding.
Here is another consideration. We have been given this magnificent complex brain that has the ability to devise ways to keep us from being held hostage by, or succumbing to "nature's plans" or "natural laws." So, shouldn’t we use our brains to the best of their capacity? Isn’t that part of "nature's (or Gods) plan"?
The challenge for Mike Pompeo’s panel will be to see if they can use their brains to eliminate subjectivity, bias, prejudice, and personal "agendas" to determine what the most basic human rights (natural rights) are, and what "natural laws" govern and restrict those rights. As I said earlier I think all rights are cultural not natural. I think that the claim that humans have some "natural rights" stems from the claim that we are made in God’s image and likeness. This gives us a certain degree or claim to dignity/rights that other living things don’t have.
But that is a religious argument, not an argument based on nature. So we must ask do "natural rights" apply to other living things? Do plants and animals have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? If the panel determines they don’t then they are simply making a subjective decision NOT a decision based upon "natures plans or laws"! I think it will be impossible to honestly claim that humans have rights based on "natural rights or natural laws" but animals and plants don’t! Since we are told humans share 99.6% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and bonobos, do they have 99.6% of the rights we claim for ourselves? 2
According to a New York Times article, Mike Pompeo said that some questions will be considered. "What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right? How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right, is it true, and therefore, ought to be honored?"
There are also other interesting articles about this issue. 3,4
I think Pompeo is addressing the wrong questions. The real problem is what do we as a society do when the rights (whatever they are — and they have already been well defined in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights) of one person or a group of people conflict with the rights (whatever they are) of another person or group of people? The attempt to claim that something is a "natural right or law" is the attempt to claim that these "natural rights and laws" take precedence over manmade rights and laws. BUT that still doesn’t solve the problem of what do we do when the "natural rights" of one person come in conflict with the "natural rights" of another. This is really the problem our society and the world faces.
As I mentioned earlier. we should be proud of the advancement in "man made" rights and laws and moral thinking that recognizes that all humans are created equal and that the rights claimed by one should be granted to all or to none—and that the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are simply examples of the rights we should grant to all people. Other rights include:
1. right to freedom of religious belief or freedom to hold no religious beliefs and the freedom from the religious beliefs of others!
2. right to be subject to the rule of law as opposed to the arbitrary rule of a dictator;
3. right to have access to health care and this includes access to clean air to breathe, and clean water to drink, and to a safe and adequate food and drug supply—all necessities to sustain life in this 21 st century;
4. right to have personal autonomy over your own body, which includes the right to chose the birth control that fits your needs or an abortion if that is what is best for a woman’s situation and the right to determine when your time is up and to end it with dignity:
5. Other rights that you think should be added to this list.
I think I need to clear up some confusion. When I said that "I don’t think humans have any natural rights". Some folks will stop reading, shut down their brains and will be unable to grasp the rest of the sentence where I said that "I think all "rights" are moral and cultural." Which doesn’t mean that we have absolutely NO rights, it means that we human beings are the grantors of rights.
For some folk from their Ego centered view of the Universe, humans are superior to all other life forms and that gives us rights that other life forms don’t have. For some folk from their God-centered view of the Universe, God grants rights to humans that he hasn't’t granted to other life forms. See: Genesis 1:26.
From a Biologic perspective we are different from other life forms, not superior to them.
- We don’t have the eyesight of the Eagle,
- we can’t run as fast or stop and turn on a dime the way a Cheetah can,
- we don’t have the brute strength of the Elephant,
- our hearing and sense of smell are inferior to that of other animals,
- we can’t regenerate lost limbs the way some salamanders can, and
- our upright bi-pedal posture causes us back problems
just to name a few of our inferior abilities!
From my perspective, as I mentioned above, we are different from other life forms and these differences don’t grant us superior rights over other life forms they create for us greater responsibilities.
Our differences give us the ability to imagine and anticipate short and long term advantages AND consequences of our actions and behavior. And the ability to do something about both -- either change or moderate our behavior, or invent something that can get us out of the mess we created for ourselves and all other life forms!
Our differences don’t grant us "natural rights" they (in my opinion) create for us "natural responsibilities." Because we have abilities that other life forms don’t have.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Edward Wong & Eileen Sullivan, "New Human Rights Panel Raises Fears of a Narrowing U.S. Advocacy," New York Times, 2019-JUL-08, at: https://www.nytimes.com/
- Ann Gibbons, "Bonobos Join Chimps as Closest Human Relatives," Science, 2012-JUN-13, at: https://www.sciencemag.org/
- Carol Morello, "State Department launches panel focused on human rights and natural law," Washington Post, 2019-JUL-08, at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/
- Muslim scholar catches flak for serving on new State Department rights panel," Religion News, 2019-JUL-10, at: https://religionnews.com/
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Original posting: 2019-JUL-23
Author: Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys