Philosophy, Science

Jim Crawford against natural rights

Jim Crawford’s autobiographical antinatalist manifesto Confessions of an Antinatalist(review here) contains an illuminating perspective on the idea of natural rights:

Concurrent with our wish to understand the human condition through over-simplification is our tendency to ground human desire and behavior in ‘natural rights.’ Such ‘rights’ are often gleaned, reasonably, from empathic awareness of the human condition. Where proponents get off track is when they assume these rights are imbedded in the very fabric of existence, like the laws of gravity or motion. To really get a grip on the fundamental difference between laws and rights, one only has to ask: when was the last time anyone had to enforce gravity? To understand human rights as something above and beyond a status granted by authority–or, conversely, the refusal of authority to interfere in what people want to do–is simply an attempt to elevate authority to the abstract. In a sense, it’s the canonization of the human condition. “This is it! This is good! There’s nothing more to be said!” It’s not so much a reflection of reality, as an attempt to make reality conform to a particular moral structure to settle ontological questions.

There is nothing more representative of this tendency than Austro-Libertarianism in which both economics and morality are placed outside of the realm of empirical investigation. In such views morality is not something that has evolved from the ground up to facilitate coordination and mutual advantage between people but a set of moral imperatives that is deduced from concepts such as “human nature”, “reason” or “action.” Historically, such approaches have been a formidable obstacle to the development of the natural sciences and experimental investigation of human conduct.

An important question when evaluating moral and political philosophy is whether it can be reconciled with what experimental science has discovered about human nature. It is striking how often the answer is “no” in the case of rationalist philosophy. One of the most notorious and embarrassing examples  is Ayn Rand’s discussion of free will. One can only wonder how much progress would have been made if such thinkers would have abstained from scholasticism and would have engaged with the relevant empirical sciences instead.