L.A. Rollins – The Myth of Natural Rights

First published in The Pragmatist: A Utilitarian Approach, Vol. 2, No. 1, September 1984

Reviewed by Jorge Amador

I heartily endorse this book. Without beating around the bush, I will state that Lou Rollins’ brief work is packed with enough analytical insight to send proponents of natural-law theory into hiding.

My first encounter with The Myth of Natural Rights was through another review in The Hawaii Libertarian earlier this year. As soon as I read its title and learned what it was about,  I knew I wanted to see this book very badly. It was gratifying to discover another individual — without prodding by, or even apparent knowledge of, The Pragmatist — engaging in the same myth-shattering activity that The Pragmatist set out to do. This was particularly exciting because, in the history of scientific progress, this sort of spontaneous parallel independent research has been an indicator of the emergence of an important new development in a field study, presaging major changes in that field’s body of knowledge.

Once I started reading it, the book did not disappoint me. In a few dozen very readable pages laden with humor and biting sarcasm, the author manages to dissect and refute the moral systems of such prominent theoreticians as Ayn Rand, Tibor Machan, and Murray Rothbard as well as other, less-known advocates of what Rollins refers to as “natural-rights mythologizing.”

“In my view, natural law and natural rights are human inventions (not discoveries) intended to further the interests of the inventors” (p. 3). Quoting George Smith, Rollins notes that “natural law” or “natural rights” have been used by various philosophers to propose such disparate and contradictory theories as oligarchy, theocracy, feudalism, and socialism. Citing other sources, we find that natural law has been used to defend slavery, genocide, censorship, and a right to medical care and “a decent livelihood.”

Particularly ironic is the treatment of the supposed champion of the virtues of selfishness, Ayn Rand. We find that Rand’s “right to life,” which in her moral system forms the basis for all other rights, in the end must logically lead to a rejection of any action that will promote human life.

Utilizing his own insights and liberal doses of citations from other writers, Rollins finds holes, contradictions, absurdities, and vagueness in the written expositions of numerous natural-rights advocates. A recurrent theme is his observation that whereas natural-rights theorists posit that “man’s rights” stem from his requirement for survival, they are uniformly — and inconsistently within their systems — unwilling to grant the same rights to animal and plant life. “Rothbard’s argument,” for instance, “bases ‘human rights’ on human survival needs, which raises the question: Why don’t the survival needs of all other organisms generate ‘rights’ for these organisms? After all, they need freedom from violent interference with their survival activities as much as men do” (p.29).

Rollins describes himself as an “amoralist” and an “egoist.” He could also be described as delightfully empirical. Referring to “natural rights” as “fake or metaphorical rights,” Rollins notes the frequent use of metaphor in natural-rights discussion, like “moral philosophical barriers” against state oppression. But a ‘moral philosophical barrier” is merely a metaphorical barrier, and it will no more prevent the State’s encroachment upon ‘Society’ than a moral philosophical shield will stop a physical arrow from piercing your body” (p.2).

So it is, too, with the notion of “duty,” which natural-rights theorists slip into their discussions as that which others “ought” to do in order that rights not be violated. “Duty” is used in the same sense as “obligation,” which has the Latin root for “tying” — as Rollins quotes P.H. Nowel-Smith, “an obvious metaphor for coercion.” Thus duty is a matter of metaphorical or fake coercion. If you want someone to do something which he has no personal reason for doing, but you are unable or unwilling (perhaps afraid) to use real coercion to get him to do it, then you can try to get him to do it by means of metaphorical or fake coercion. You can tell him it’s his duty to do it.”

The Myth Of Natural Rights is an important libertarian work for both theorists and practitioners. It can serve several useful purposes. It can liberate libertarians from morality and the outreach burden of explaining to nonlibertarian moralists why libertarian moralizing is “better” than their present moralizing. It arms libertarians with analytical techniques and tools that can be applied to dismantle other, non-libertarian moralities. Finally, it can free libertarians and others from the shackles of moral “duty,” enhancing everyone’s potential for happiness and pleasure.