An Exchange Between Michael Anton and Chronicles Editor Paul Gottfried
Michael Anton states: Natural Rights Do Exist
About six or so months ago, I took to task an Alt-Right, anonymous blogger who calls himself “The Z-Man” for making the extraordinary assertion, on his own supposed authority, that “human rights do not exist.” (This was hardly his only extraordinary claim. In the course of the ensuing debate, he also called lust “a figment of the imagination” and asserted that “ancient Athens was a regime based on natural rights.”)
Many friends wondered why I bothered. Why even address a pseudonymous blogger? It’s a reasonable question. After all, not every error can or needs to be corrected. Indeed, if any of us dedicated our lives to addressing every error we see, we would never do anything else—and in the process, not come even close to rebutting all the errors out there. Plus, I try to follow my friend Charles Haywood’s admonition: “no enemies to the right.”
I found extenuating circumstances in this case, however. Saying that natural rights do not exist is no ordinary error. What convinced me a rebuttal was necessary is the extraordinary harm the rejection of rights would inflict on our side. Therefore I tried to explain two things. First, there is, within the horizon of modernity at least, no viable alternative to “natural rights” as the American founders understood them, and we are all but certain to remain within that horizon for the foreseeable future. Second, the forceful assertion of our rights is one of the last bulwarks against the regime ruling us in an utterly arbitrary or (more likely) punitive way. Hence to discard rights as a fiction—to convince young men not merely to disbelieve but even to mock the concept—is self-defeating in the extreme.
As to the other consideration, I went out of my way to praise the Z-Man for all his good insights and to avoid belittling language. Someone who knows and is on good terms with us both assured me that the Z-Man is a decent guy, so I made every effort to be respectful. In return, the Z-Man spat in my eye—repeatedly. I’m not going to go through it all again blow-by-blow. If you’re interested, you can read my prior rebuttals on the American Greatness site, first to Chronicles Editor Paul Gottfried on Jan. 14, and then to Z-Man on Jan. 26.
After all that, I noticed a few weeks ago Z-Man, in responses on Twitter to Young Turks host Cenk Uygur, suddenly affirming the existence of natural rights without so much as a nod to his prior denial and our debate. At first, my friends and I had a good laugh over this. Then I thought, if someone comes around to the right view of things, that’s all to the good. Pretending that past statements, even past discourtesy, never happened may not be ideal, but it’s better than continuing in error.
So welcome to the embrace of natural rights, Z-Man!
I would have let this pass without comment but for the Z-Man’s latest gratuitous attack. He claims to have “broken” me based on a piece of mine, “The Pessimistic Case for the Future” (actually a book chapter written months ago, but published in July in Compact). You can judge for yourself what this chapter has to do with our prior exchange (but the answer is obviously: nothing), whether I am “broken” for making a pessimistic case (if so, does that mean Z-Man is optimistic on all the points I raised?), or if the Z-Man is himself the cause of my breaking.
We also might ask whether Z-Man’s full-throated embrace of RFK, Jr. is consistent with the former’s avowed right-wing principles, and further ask whether that embrace is more or less inconsistent than my alleged departures from rightist orthodoxy for defending the American founders. That’s not to slight RFK, who is courageous and has taken some good positions. But for a rightist of Z-Man’s type, who calls everyone even a click to his left a traitor and a neocon, to embrace a man who’s spent most of his career battling “climate change” and has in the past endorsed the leftist narrative on race tout court—well, that’s a bit curious, to say the least.
Anyway, my point here is less for the Z-Man than for his readers, especially the young ones. America’s right-wing is devolving into a circular firing squad. Partly that’s a result of the primary fight, but that has only salted the wound, which was torn open long before. I suppose some of you will blame me for contributing; although, as I noted earlier, Z-Man attacked me by name a dozen times before I finally responded.
If we are to find a way forward, we’re going to have to have debates on complex topics, including rights, natural or otherwise. Immediately defaulting to insults just ensures that our enemies win. And some of the attacks are downright juvenile. To raise a complex issue like the existence or nonexistence of natural rights, and then snark that the explanation is “TL;DR” (Internet shorthand for the dismissive comment, “Too Long; I Didn’t Read”)—when what I wrote isn’t even a fraction as long (to say nothing about complexity) as a single chapter in the books in which the theory is propounded—is worse than juvenile. If my summary is TL;DR, that’s an admission that you haven’t read, and couldn’t grok, the original sources. So why are you declaiming on them authoritatively in the first place?
I gather that the Z-Man is an older gentleman—older even than I am. He should grow up and act like it. I understand (believe me, I do) that feuding on the internet satisfies some dark corner of the human id. But we are in an emergency situation. Catty trash that ill becomes middle school girls on TikTok has no place among grown men in the life-or-death struggle we face.
To the young: be better than this. The Z-Man and I are both almost certainly going to die before you reach the promised land. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we said here. On a subject as momentous as that of natural rights, don’t take any Internet source’s word for it. Go back to the primary texts, study them—best of all with a teacher who understands them better than you do—and judge for yourselves if you think the concept is (a) true and/or (b) useful in the present circumstances. If you are tempted to reject it, think through what you would replace it with in the present (if only as a matter of public assertion, since you have no power), but more importantly in the future, when you may play a direct or indirect role in founding a new regime.
Don’t declaim authoritatively on things you haven’t studied and don’t understand. When you make mistakes, admit it and correct them. The latter is more important than the former, but the former is essential to good character. Whatever you do, don’t keep piling on errors and continue spewing friendly fire. If you want to make it to the promised land, you’re going to need to find ways to get along. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, you must all hang together, or most assuredly, you will all hang separately.
Senior Fellow, Claremont Institute
Research Fellow, Hillsdale College
Prof. Gottfried replies: Do They, Though?
Although Mr. Anton in his provocative comments is responding to an attack on natural right from the blogger Z-Man, I may nonetheless be justified in publishing my own rejoinder. If memory serves, his chilly exchange with the Z-Man began with reference to a critique of natural rights thinking that I produced in a discussion that was posted on American Greatness in December of last year (“Contra Michael Anton and America’s Natural Right Underpinnings”). Since Mr. Anton and I have been discussing this theme for some time now, I am continuing my side of the debate in this magazine.
In his latest defense of natural rights, Mr. Anton offers an existential and civilizational case for his commitment. If we reject natural-rights thinking, he asks rhetorically, what else will help us in restoring constitutional government, family morality, and a non-woke civic order? Presumably we should cling to this natural rights cornerstone of the Claremont/Straussian tradition or else we shall fall more deeply into what he and I both see as a morally and socially degenerate America controlled by the totalitarian left and its media and academic minions. Natural rights, according to Mr. Anton, are the guardrail that will keep us from tumbling further into the abyss.
Although my debating partner is entitled to his view, which presumably he has considered with his usual care, I don’t find his plea in favor of natural rights to be especially convincing. Clearly people can be decent and even agree with most of Mr. Anton’s moral perceptions and laments about the present era without embracing his natural rights starting point. I certainly have no problem with any of his social or political criticisms. I’m entirely on board with them and have learned a great deal from reading them, without embracing his natural right premises.
I also read with fascination his mentor Harry V. Jaffa’s masterpiece, Crisis of a House Divided, without accepting Professor Jaffa’s position on natural rights or his unqualified idolization of Abraham Lincoln. I am therefore not sure why I or others must believe in natural rights as a precondition for addressing our present social and political ills. Why is this embrace of natural rights more helpful than accepting biblical morality, or than restoring traditional communal and hierarchical relations as a basis for human interrelationships?
The Presbyterian theologian Douglas Wilson, whom I recently chatted with on the Chronicles podcast, railed against natural rights thinking as destructive of Christian community. The Pauline notion of koinonia, according to Wilson, rests on people serving each other as members of the same fellowship, not as individuals protecting their material interests against the claims of others. Such a self-centered, self-interested view of the social good, according to Wilson, is incompatible with biblical morality.
My own major concern in this matter may be more mundane. I’ve noticed that the laundry list of supposedly inborn individual rights has continued to expand to include claims that Mr. Anton and I would both reject out of hand. Since the rights belonging to the individual in the state of nature in Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government reflected the age in which it was produced, why shouldn’t that list be expanded in light of our growing moral awareness? For example, why shouldn’t we have a natural right to transgender surgery as well as a right to liberty? And why shouldn’t we include gay marriage among the forms that our “pursuit of happiness” should take?
Moreover, aren’t we obligated to confer whatever we consider a natural right on all of humanity? Why shouldn’t we assist others to share in those liberties and rights that we claim are universal? Of course, in the process of doing this, we may have to confer on others what they don’t want or what they think they don’t want, even if David Hume exaggerated a bit when he stated that natural rights advocates and social contract theorists are selling something that is “repugnant to the common sentiments of mankind and to the practices and opinions of all nations and ages.”
By the way, Hume was not arguing against Great Britain’s constitutional monarchy. He was just noting the historically specific conditions that produced a desirable institution over a period of many centuries. Hume, like Edmund Burke, also approved of the fact that the British monarchy had become accountable to its subjects, which the Scottish philosopher thought was a good thing. And he took those positions, as Donald Livingston noted in his book on Hume’s historical thinking, Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium: Hume’s Pathology of Philosophy, as someone who was defending a tradition of government that he thought worked best for a particular people.
Hume did not feel it incumbent, any more than did Aristotle, to predicate his defense of particular governments for particular people by insisting that everyone on Earth was injected with certain individual claims at birth. Obviously early Americans accepted natural rights theory together with other theoretical justifications for their form of government. The question is whether that particular set of beliefs is the one that we are now required to bring back in order to restore a normal society and what we would consider a credible constitutional government. Although I would not hold it against others for embracing this belief, I remain unconvinced that a belief in natural rights is necessary for such a desired development.
On one point I’m sure Mr. Anton and I would agree. No decent, human society can survive that does not accept certain moral foundations. These principles we must assume are universally valid and can be known through moral reasoning. The alternative to such assumptions is doing what our political, educational, and media masters are now doing: e.g., forbidding the public to use gender-specific pronouns to refer to biologically distinct genders, operating on children to change their genders, and treating homosexual unions as the preferred conjugal state.
We have done all these weird things in furthering an insane extremist interpretation of equality as our highest value, and in the process, we are destroying the family and its biological basis. Allow me to suggest that we have not strayed because of “relativism” or “historicism.” We are acting in this lunatic manner in the name of “social justice” or because of a preoccupation with compensating official victims. We are also dealing with a virulent outgrowth of the administrative state that at some point will need to be tamed in order to allow normal people to survive in a normal society. Making matters even worse, we have exported our aberrations to other societies as examples of essential “human rights.” A future generation will have to surmount these daunting problems, whether or not they find it essential to believe in the concept of natural rights.
Since I have argued so often against natural rights thinking, perhaps I should confess that I, too, have bitten this forbidden fruit, albeit not too deeply. I’m a qualified Hobbesian, who believes, like Thomas Hobbes, that no government deserves our active or passive support unless it is committed to protecting us. One does not need to imagine a fictitious state of nature as an actual beginning point for civil society, as Locke and his disciples would seem to suggest. The state of nature described by Hobbes may still exist today wherever order and the sovereign power to maintain it have broken down. It is an existential and not necessarily historic crisis that Hobbes described, which can only be remedied by the restoration of political control by someone willing and able to exercise it. Undoubtedly my acceptance of this Hobbesian premise falls well short of what Michael would want me to believe about the existence of natural rights.