Defending Natural Right

A response to Chronicles Editor Paul Gottfried’s critique

Chronicles Editor Paul Gottfried and I had an exchange in the current issue of the magazine on the topic of natural right, which in modernity takes the form of “natural rights,” plural. I regard this topic as one of the most important of our time, or even of all time, because it gets directly to the heart of political legitimacy.

Since America and the entire West are facing perhaps their gravest legitimacy crisis since the birth of the modern world 500 years ago, it seems to me that no theoretical question is more urgent. Many practical questions, especially political ones, are of course more temporally urgent, but I would argue that satisfactory answers even to those questions ultimately depend on getting the theory right.

To that end, I’ll respond to seven of Prof. Gottfried’s points, if only to correct or clarify the record. I freely admit that I have already made these points elsewhere, above all in the “Pre-Statement on Flight 93” and in Chapter 2 of The Stakes, to say nothing of a seemingly infinite number of magazine and journal articles. Interested readers may want to check out my review of Patrick Deneen’s Regime Change, which appears in the Summer 2023 Claremont Review of Books and covers much of the same ground.

Point One: Prof. Gottfried wrote, “Natural rights, according to Mr. Anton, are the guardrail that will keep us from tumbling further into the abyss.… 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 issue is not so much natural rights vs. nihilism; the choice is not binary but ternary: it is natural right, singular vs. revelation vs. nihilism. The specific problem arises within modernity. Faith (biblical or otherwise) may be sufficient support for some people, perhaps a great many people, to lead fulfilling and moral lives. But it cannot be a basis for public authority within modernity, and we still live within the modern horizon.

I go further and maintain that since the advent of Christianity, faith was not able to serve as an adequate basis for public authority even before modernity. Indeed, the problem Christianity poses for public authority is what gave rise to or necessitated modernity in the first place; it was the problem modernity attempted to solve. Faith can serve as a basis for public authority only in a pre- (or perhaps post-) modern situation, in which civil and religious law are united. In other words, in the kind of regime the modern left derides as “theocracy.”

Now, I don’t know what lies ahead. I suspect that decrepit late modernity may imminently give way to something else. I don’t know what that “something else” may be. It might look a lot like the past or it might be something entirely new. But as long as we remain within the modern and, dare I say, Christian horizons, faith is off the table as a basis for public authority because faith disconnected from law cannot be the basis for public authority. As it says in the Gospel of Matthew, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”

If modern legal and political legitimacy cannot rest upon biblical revelation, a rational basis for public authority must be found. This, incidentally, is my main disagreement with the so-called integralists: those thinkers who want Christian, particularly Catholic, theology to again dominate Western political decision-making. Either they understand that this can’t work within the modern horizon and play coy about what they really want, or they don’t understand, in which case they don’t understand the logic of their own position. I suspect the former is true.

In any case, with faith off the table as a basis for public authority, at least in the Christian West (though I have to say even the Israelis haven’t attempted it, and those Muslim nations that have tried aren’t doing especially well), that does, indeed, leave as the only alternatives either some form of natural right, or nihilism. The logic of this seems to me inescapable. Either moral concepts such as right and wrong, just and unjust, and good and evil, exist independently of man’s will—or they don’t. On this, natural right philosophy and biblical theology agree: they exist independently of man’s will.

Prof. Gottfried has in the past indicated that he agrees that these things do exist independently of man’s will, but also that he rejects “natural right theory.” I regard the one and the other as the same thing: asserting that right and wrong exist independently of man’s will is natural right theory, insofar as one bases that assertion not on any authoritative religious text or source but on one’s own reasoned investigation. Of course, there’s no reason at all why reasoned investigation cannot agree with the authoritative statements of revelation. On the contrary, precisely if said authoritative statements originate from the living God, then human reason, which is part of His creation, should discern the validity of those moral rules which are also part of His creation. So, given this fundamental agreement between the Bible and philosophy, from this perspective, the three possibilities do, in the end, boil down to two: either natural right or nihilism.

The question before us is, again: What can properly serve as the basis for public authority within modernity? I maintain that faith cannot, unless faith is reunited with law, but that reunion cannot happen within modernity. Indeed, if such a reunion were to occur, that would constitute necessary and sufficient proof that modernity had ended. Hence, as a practical matter, the dismissal of natural right within modernity does, indeed, lead to nihilism. Not, I agree, necessarily for the individual believer, but for society or the political community as a whole.

Point Two: Prof. Gottfried never quite says what he would prefer to natural right as the basis for public authority. I understand that he prefers some combination of faith and tradition as the basis for individual morality and perhaps for societal guidance. But how these can become a firm basis for public authority or political legitimacy, he does not explain. I’ve had my say on the inadequacy of tradition as such a basis—at least, tradition without God. Tradition with God—that is to say, with recourse to divinely revealed law—is of course both theoretically sound and has a proven track record of success (so long as we don’t define “success” as “permanence”). But Prof. Gottfried has not explained how such an arrangement can be resurrected in modern times, or how a, let us say, theologically diverse people can be unified around an understanding of God that contradicts or excludes many of their present beliefs.

Point Three: Prof. Gottfried wrote, “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.… For example, why shouldn’t we have a natural right to transgender surgery as well as a right to liberty?”

This claim, common among rightist opponents of natural right, is that the adoption of this theory inevitably led to an ever-expanding list of “rights.” It’s certainly true that the list has expanded well beyond what the originators of natural theory ever intended. Like nearly everyone on the dissident right, Gottfried implies, and his argument demands, that this was inevitable. But also like them, he does not say why that must be so. If that descent was inevitable, is such inevitability true of every philosophy that tries to answer human necessities? Why wouldn’t, say, a faith-based approach that rejects natural right culminate in a second Inquisition? And so on, across the range of possibilities that Prof. Gottfried and others prefer to natural right? Why should only the philosophy of natural right succumb to the inevitability of its alleged internal logic while all others remain exempt from that dynamic?

Point Four: Prof. Gottfried wrote, “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? … And why shouldn’t we include gay marriage among the forms that our “pursuit of happiness” should take?”

Locke and other philosophers of the natural rights tradition did not believe they were writing for their time; they believed they were writing for all time. They, and the American founders who (partially) followed them, believed they were expounding permanent principles that reflected a permanent human nature and nature of things. They would say, in answer to Gottfried’s question, that we should not include homosexual marriage on the list of rights because homosexual marriage is not a right and no mere assertion can make it so. They would reject the inevitability argument with the counterargument that, if their philosophy and principles really do reflect unchanging nature, then no progress beyond them is possible, but only regress and/or corruption. They would regard regress and corruption as permanent dangers owing to flawed or imperfect human nature, not as the inevitable outgrowth of faulty first principles.

Point Five: Prof. Gottfried wrote, “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.”

Here Prof. Gottfried tries to dismiss natural right theory as the sectarian pet project of a small group of so-called “West Coast Straussians.” But this is not the way we understand ourselves. We see ourselves as scholars trying to explicate the truth of past philosophers’ teaching and the truth about the American founders’ principles. We may be wrong (I obviously don’t think we are) but if so, we are not willfully wrong by trying to force a novel interpretation that we know to be false. All our arguments have been amply presented by dozens of us in the scholarly record over the last 50 years. I refer those seeking a one-stop summary to Tom West’s Political Theory of the American Founding.

The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom (2017) by Thomas G. West
The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom (2017) by Thomas G. West

Point Six: Prof. Gottfried seems to share with other dissident right opponents of natural right the, I believe, unrealistic expectation that the American people can be talked out of believing that they have rights. This is a separate question from the existence of rights, or even from the question of what the founders actually believed about rights. I know that, on the latter question, most if not all paleoconservatives believe that the founders did not believe in rights, or if they did, rights were a minor component of an overall approach to politics that prioritized religion and tradition. I will again point to 50 years of Claremont School scholarship, which shows that the founders really did believe the natural rights theory that they explicitly expounded.

But whether that scholarship is right or wrong is not the point at issue here. The point is that for 250 years the American people have believed, and continue to believe, that they possess, by nature, unalienable rights—many of which are specifically enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution. The American people are not philosophers and might be wrong about the existence of those rights, but how are you going to convince them of that? Especially when so many of those rights are explicitly written down and have been invoked ubiquitously for more than two centuries?

Moreover, is it wise to attempt to convince Americans that they have no rights? Prof. Gottfried passes over in silence my prior assertion that the assertion of our rights in the face of an increasingly tyrannical regime is a crucial bulwark against further tyranny. Is dismissing the existence of rights prudent when we face a government that seeks to censor and stifle speech, and to criminalize self-defense?

Point Seven: Prof. Gottfried wrote, “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.”

I find the invocation of Hobbes extraordinary. Not for the usual pearl-clutching reasons about the “Monster of Malmesbury” and his allegedly scandalous and heterodox religious teaching. In this, as in much else, I follow Tom West, who has done more than anyone I know to rehabilitate Hobbes from the various attacks, including from other  Straussians. But Hobbes is, literally, the discoverer or inventor (depending on one’s point of view) of the concept of natural rights, plural. The concept may preexist him (and must, if one believes that natural rights exist) but only in his works do rights first find public expression. (Natural right, singular, of course, traces all the way back to Socrates.)

So to claim to be against, or at least skeptical of, natural rights and then to invoke the authority of Hobbes I find to be (to quote Machiavelli on Lorenzo the Magnificent) a “quasi-impossible combination”; or, to paraphrase Hobbes, is to invade oneself with contradiction.

I would also pose the following question. For Hobbes, the fundamental (if not sole) ground of natural rights is the fundamental impulse in all men to defend their lives, to protect themselves from physical attack. This is an inborn passion that men cannot help feeling and acting on; they will simply do it regardless of what law or custom says. Hence it would be tyrannical for government or any other third party to try to suppress this passion. Does Prof. Gottfried disagree with that? I assume he does not reject the notion that men may justly defend their lives from violent attack, but if he does not believe that is a right, on what basis does he assert it as morally defensible?

That said, I agree with Gottfried that government’s most fundamental purpose is to protect the people; but I believe that is because just governments exist to secure natural rights. I also agree that the state of nature can recur, and is recurring, in places where government is failing, either from neglect or by design. It’s true I do not believe that the exercise of sovereign control is the sufficient condition for good government, but I believe it is a necessary foundation of good government.

What Prof. Gottfried, the integralists, and others on the dissident right seem to desire here, or at least what the logic of their argument points toward, whether they desire it or not, is a complete upheaval, not just of the present corrupt American regime, but if the entire “sect” or civilization in which it was born and once thrived. That is the only way, it seems to me, to get beyond “rights” or beyond the broader concept of natural right. Such an upheaval may be necessary. It may even be good. But those two considerations may not matter since, if such an upheaval is to happen, it may happen whether or not it is necessary or good, or whether we wish for it or try to stop it. In any case, to wish for such a thing seems to me to be untraditional, and even antitraditional, and so seems an odd position to take for those who reject natural right in the name of tradition.

(See Chronicles Editor Paul Gottfried’s rejoinder to this article, “Inherited Traditions Are More Credible Than Natural Rights“)

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