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Monday, 2004 October 4, 14:18 — constitution, law, religion

who stole whose concept?

Atheism and Unalienable Rights by Robert E. Meyer (also cited today on RRND):

Skeptics want to deny that rights come from God, but if they are correct, then there is no sound philosophical footings undergirding their perpetual claim to any rights. They are walking on a tenuous tightrope of conceptual fiat. Obviously they have not thought this issue through very carefully. . . .

In other words, atheists who speak of rights are guilty of what Ayn Rand (an atheist) called “the fallacy of the stolen concept”. Obviously Meyer has not taken the time to find a libertarian atheist (how hard can it be?) and ask a few questions. It would be amusing – for a few minutes – to hear him and an Objectivist debate the roots of rights.

The economic analysis of law, a discipline that did not exist in the time of those sainted statesmen who are often quoted for the proposition that rights come necessarily and solely from God, fully accounts for the concept of natural rights. Humans form social groups for a collection of benefits, and adopt rules that tend to maximize each one’s expected benefit. Experience shows how each of us is better off if we reciprocally recognize self-ownership. Just as free and honest inquiry in the sciences leads theories to converge toward truth, our concepts of justice tend (we hope) to converge toward natural law.

Such a theory explains what divine commandment cannot: why every culture, including the majority that never received the tablets at Sinai, has prohibitions against murder and theft (at least between men of equal status within the tribe). It also explains why wild animals have no concept of rights: without language there is little benefit in voluntary social interaction, and therefore no reason to organize such interaction with conventions.

The alternative, it seems to me, is that God’s notions of right(s) and wrong(s) are so arbitrary that we cannot guess at them without direct revelation; that, in principle, a rule could be harmful for each of us yet still divinely ordained.

Which view is more consistent with God’s presumed benevolence?

The Atheist/Humanist removes God from the equation, while living on the generous capital pilfered from a theistic worldview. Rights can only be unalienable if they are transcendent and bestowed by God. . . .

Meyer ironically misunderstands the word inalienable. It does not mean that such rights cannot be lost; it means they cannot be transferred to another (Latin aliênum ‘of another’).

If I sell you my rights over some of my chattels, you can thereafter enjoy those rights exactly as I did and add them to whatever other property rights you hold; I have then alienated those rights in your favor.

But if you deprive me of life or liberty, or of my general right to acquire and hold property (as distinct from my rights in any one piece of property), you do not thereby acquire more such rights than you already have. You cannot enjoy a right over my life in the same way I do, and thus that right is inalienable. A murderer denies the right to life but does not transfer it.

The historic relevance of this distinction, between those rights that can be alienated and those that cannot, has to do with the functioning of the State. It may be argued that by transferring certain property rights from me to itself (by taxation or eminent domain) the State makes more effective use of that property; but this applies only to that which is alienable by its nature. Such an argument cannot justify abridgement of an inalienable right.

(I have forgotten, alas, who explained this to me.)

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