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Schools of Thought in Classical Liberalism, Part 5: Natural rights

Posted: May 28, 2012 at 4:33 pm   /   by

To learn why we are posting this series, click our introduction here.




Do all people have natural rights? Philosophers Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick think so. Dr. Nigel Ashford examines the “natural rights” school of thought, in particular the theories of Rand and Nozick. Nozick and Rand both argue that government should never infringe upon our natural rights, and that government exists only to protect these natural rights. They also find that capitalism is the only moral economic system because it is based on voluntary exchange, not coercion.


Textual summary:
(Note: This textual summary is based on several resources in addition to the LearnLiberty video.)

The core concept of natural rights libertarianism, also called deontological libertarianism, is that exertion of force or fraud against any person is morally impermissible. So long as a person is not engaged in any aggression or fraud towards others, no force may be used on him.

For the natural rights libertarian, this is a deontological position. In other words, people have a moral duty not to interfere with the natural rights of others. By contrast, consequentialist libertarianism judges actions and rules based on the results they produce, without specific regard to any moral imperative.

Among the most famous of the natural rights libertarians are Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick, though there are of course many others who have contributed to the field. The core of natural rights philosophy traces back to Enlightenment-era thinkers, most especially to English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704).

Ayn Rand, (1905 to 1982), novelist and founder of Objectivism, believed that there is an objective morality that can be perceived through man’s use of reason. As an atheist, Rand could not cite a Supreme Being as the source of natural rights, as did John Locke and others. Rather, she offers a teleological explanation: These rights exist because they serve a purpose. Man needs to survive, and he deploys his reason and labor to do so. Natural rights—liberty, property, movement, etc.—are both an outgrowth of this process, and a requirement of it. Thus, these rights are a necessary and purposive component of man’s inherent nature.

Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick (1938 to 2002), most known for his book  “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” took a somewhat different approach to explaining natural rights. Beginning with the notion, popularized by philosopher Emanuel Kant, that people should always be treated as “ends” rather than “means,” Nozick identifies rights as “side constraints.” This set of rules constrains people—and government—from acting to violate the rights of others. Because people are ends, not means, this constraint holds even when the violation of the rights of one may redound to the benefit of many others.

This concept is nicely explained, using an excellent hypothetical thought experiment, by Mark D. Friedman in his article Natural Rights Libertarianism:

It is clear that most people do hold a side constraint view of how persons may be treated, at least up to a point. We can pose the issue of the inviolability of rights quite starkly: suppose that a terrorist organization seizes a group of five innocent hostages and threatens to kill them unless our society executes another innocent person of greater interest to them.  Let us further imagine that because of this organization’s past history, information from our intelligence agencies or for other reasons, we have near absolute certainty that the terrorists will take the threatened action against the five hostages if we refuse, but will release them if we comply. And, suppose we have similarly persuasive evidence that making the proposed exchange will not encourage any future hostage-takings. Should we give in?

I believe that the vast majority of both academic philosophers and ordinary people would reject this “devil’s bargain.” If we were to make this exchange we would, in Nozick’s phrase, be adopting a “utilitarianism of rights” where our goal is merely to minimize the total violation of rights (see ASU, 28-29). Accordingly, our commonsense morality endorses the “inviolability” of rights in the sense described by Nozick.

In natural rights libertarianism, all political questions are run through this filter. Does a proposed policy secure individual natural rights, or does it violate them? The result is a government whose sole role is to secure the natural rights of individuals, and otherwise to stay out of the way.

Violations of natural rights by one individual against another are illegitimate, and the victim has the right to defense and redress. When this concept is moved from the state of nature into the context of a political society, the result is the creation of police and military forces, and a court system.

Similarly, violations of natural rights by government are an illegitimate act by that government. However, since government, by its very nature, requires some form of violation of natural rights to exist—involuntary taxation, for example—natural rights libertarianism finds itself with a conflict. When individuals transgress others’ rights, an impartial, third-party system of justice is an effective way of resolving the dispute. However, this aim does require a minimal state, which, as stated, then requires general violations of rights. The natural rights libertarian may best square this circle by stating that the establishment of these minimal systems serves to create a uniform environment that allows for the maximum exercise of individual rights. Again, here is Friedman:

Thus, we are faced with the question of whether the minimal state can be justified from Nozick’s natural rights perspective. I believe that the most promising approach to this challenge is to argue that coercion employed to fund the activities of the minimal state stands on a different moral footing than it otherwise would. This process starts with the observation that for Nozick our moral agency is the source of special normative status (see the discussion under the link “Natural Rights Libertarianism”). Accordingly, it may be possible to distinguish, from an ethical perspective, state functions that are essential for the preservation of moral agency and those that are not. Arguably, protection from foreign attack or criminal violence is a basic precondition to the exercise of our moral discretion, and thus justified by the very value that gives rise to side constraints against aggression.

The natural rights libertarian allows for a minimal state insofar—and only insofar—as that state’s transgressions of natural rights are done in order to create the basic conditions whereby we have the maximum preservation of our natural rights. Having police, military, and courts may come at a cost, but the impact to natural rights of not having these is seen as greater.

As we shall shortly see, anarcho-capitalists do not share this view.

And, of course, needless to say, free-market capitalism is the only economic system acceptable to natural rights libertarians because it is the only system that involves purely voluntary exchange.


Other sources used:



Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Milton Friedman and the Chicago School

Part 3: Public Choice

Part 4: The Austrian School

Part 5: Natural rights

Part 6: Anarcho-capitalism

Christopher Cook

Christopher Cook

Managing Editor at Western Free Press
Christopher Cook is a writer, editor, and political commentator. He is the president of Castleraine, Inc., a consulting firm providing a diverse array of services to corporate, public policy, and not-for-profit clients.

Ardently devoted to the cause of human freedom, he has worked at the confluence of politics, activism, and public policy for more than a decade. He co-wrote a ten-part series of video shorts on economics, and has film credits as a researcher on 11 political documentaries, including Citizens United's notorious film on Hillary Clinton that became the subject of a landmark Supreme Court decision. He is the founder of several activist endeavors, including (now a part of Western Free Press) and He is currently the managing editor of and principal contributor to
Christopher Cook

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Schools of Thought in Classical Liberalism, Part 5: Natural rights