You Have No Rights

In the above video, George Carlin bursts the “rights” bubble and raises questions about in what way would these rights exist and how would they come about. Rights are an almost sacred concept to most Westerners, but the truth is that there are no absolute rights, that rights are not observable in nature, and that they are cultural products: human rights, civil rights, reproductive rights, animal rights, gay rights–all these things have been the result of generations of struggle and progressively sophisticated philosophical discussions.

Since today is the 4th of July, I decided that I would address some aspect of American philosophy. It seems like (at least some or most of) the Founding Fathers believed that we had natural rights. This creed stems from their agreement with Locke (who believed that humans are naturally sociable) and their disagreement with Hobbes (who believed that humans are solitary and brutish in their natural state).

If humans in their natural state are incapable of just relations (as the pessimistic Hobbes proposed), then rights were a cultural convention that people had to invent in order to have society. If humans were by nature capable of just relations, then a pre-political, pre-state instinct of “rights” of some sort may have existed. But how can they be enforced? In my book review of The Bonobo and the Atheist, I mention some of the mechanisms that anthropologists have suggested for natural morality: things like gossip, shame, friendship, bullying, etc.

If humans have an inherent, natural morality, then there was something like natural rights that preceded the state. On the other hand, Adams (“I Have Looked for Our Rights“) argued that “rights” exist only where enforced by some kind of organization. Where the organization chooses or simply does not enforce them, the “rights” do not exist, and as Adams says, the issues will either be taken into the hands of the living people involved, or not. It’s clear, however, that rights only exist in practice when they are enforced (people who violate them are punished, those who use their rights are protected while doing so) typically by the state (or some other state-like institution) using its monopoly on violence.

And so the humanist doctrine enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that

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

implies that whoever wrote the Declaration (we have always imagined it was Thomas Jefferson, but his draft was subjected to editorial feedback from others) had concluded that rights, in some way, preceded the state–that man, in his natural state, was born free, and that from this freedom stemmed some natural “rights” that preceded the state and its monopoly on violence.

Do Epicurean thinkers  take a specific stand in these matters? Before we look at Lucretius, let’s consider a few of the Principal Doctrines. PD6 states

In order to obtain protection from other men, any means for attaining this end is a natural good.

This does not specifically speak of rights or their origins, but indicates clearly that some government and some rule of law, at least enough to secure protection for ourselves, is “a natural good”. PD 33 and 36 makes it clear that we do not see absolute justice (that is, justice in nature predating the state and forever valid), and that what we do see is agreements to avoid mutual harm between consenting adults.

There never was such a thing as absolute justice, but only agreements made in mutual dealings among men in whatever places at various times providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.

In general justice is the same for all, for it is something found mutually beneficial in men’s dealings, but in its application to particular places or other circumstances the same thing is not necessarily just for everyone.

So people make their laws and invent their rights according to their mutual advantage, and people may also change them as needed (PD 37-38). This means that these rights emerge from people’s consent, and it also vindicates the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed. But as for the part about rights being “endowed by the Creator” (or by Nature), we just don’t find evidence of that in the study of nature.

As for the ideal type of government, we also do not find absolute answers when we study nature. Sean McConnell argues that kingship may at times have been found advantageous by the Epicureans if it efficiently secured safety, as per PD 6. This means that Epicureanism does not advocate Republican rule of law, or any other specific form of government. Rather, the ideal form of government varies according to specific circumstances.

Although Lucretius indicates that the tendency to befriend one’s neighbors and show them mercy exists in the natural state and predates the state, rights are man-made. This does not mean we should not cherish them and defend them: they were gained through blood, wars, struggle, and over many generations, but they are man-made. As our friend Cassius puts it: There are no “rights” floating in the air.

It seems like the Founding Fathers confused the natural, but fragile personal sovereignty that humans enjoy in our wild state with “natural rights”. But there aren’t many examples of peaceful anarchic societies in history. Good governance is typically required to preserve our natural, personal sovereignty to whatever extent this is possible in human society. And so Lucretius  explains how primitive man eventually found it desirable to yield the personal sovereignty that we enjoyed in our wild state, and to accept “the yolk” and the sovereignty of a ruler or of the state in order to secure safety–for which (if we remember Principal Doctrine 6) anything we do is naturally good. Here is the Better be a subject and at peace portion of De Rerum Natura:

Then, here and there, men learned to choose officials,
establish constitutions, and live by law.
For man grew weary: the life of violence
and hatred left him sick, and more disposed
freely to choose the yoke of law and statute.
For angered men kept calling for revenge
more savage than just law will now permit;
this made man sicken of life by violence. (DRN V.1136-1150)
Better by far be subject, and at peace,
than will to govern the world and hold a throne! (DRN V.1129-1130)

To conclude, rights and governmental infrastructures are a man-made invention. They do not exist in the state of nature, but they are a natural good insofar as they preserve our personal sovereignty better than anarchy.

Further Reading:

Dialogue on the Extent to Which the Declaration of Independence is Consistent With Epicurean Philosophy

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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