At the center of pro-liberty philosophy and American constitutionalism is the concept of “natural rights,” meaning individuals are created with rights that are an innate part of our humanity or existence.
Yet there are those who say we don’t have natural rights. We may have “rights,” they’ll argue, but they can be taken away or limited under abstract justifications such as “the greater good,” “the will of the people” or whatever certain institutions decree.
I hold that natural rights, in fact, do exist, and their existence is proven by the mere act of thinking.
For the purpose of clarity and consistency, I define a “right” as “a thing to which a person has a just claim.” A “natural right” is defined as “a thing to which a person has a just claim as an innate part of their existence.”
It is important to note that rights do not exist outside of human relations. Rights are a construct to determine what is and is not allowed within human relations and interactions, but they are not a physical thing. You have the right to life, but that does not prevent you from starving during a famine, dying from cancer, or getting mauled by a bear. Your right to live concerns what other people may or may not to do you, and vice versa. Also, having a just claim to something has nothing to do with your ability to defend that right against someone violating it. Just because a right is violated or no longer recognized by other humans does not mean it no longer exists.
With that in mind, my argument is as follows: That thinking proves the existence of natural rights because the act of thinking is something a person has a just claim to as an innate part of their existence.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll summarize the argument as follows: In order to think that natural rights do not exist, a person must exercise that very right. It is akin to someone saying “I do not exist,” a statement that is self-evidently contradictory.
First, let us examine the argument that natural rights do not exist. Logically, this means that you do not have a natural right to anything. By necessity, this includes the right to think.
If natural rights do not exist, then we do not have a natural right to think.
Now, someone may retort that we nevertheless still have a right to think. However, this evades the original premise that there are no natural rights. If natural rights do not exist, it must follow that you do not have the natural right to think.
This leads to an interesting question: What’s the difference, if any, between a natural right to think and the mere right to think? To put a finer point on it, attempting to separate “natural rights” from “rights” implies that one is absolute while the other is ultimately conditional. Further, natural rights are a part of the individual, whereas rights come from external sources outside the person.
So, in what way is a person’s right to think conditional, and where does it come from?
One may point out that while thinking requires that the person exists, the inverse is not true. A person’s existence precedes thinking and one can, scientifically speaking, live without the capacity to think. So, the argument might go that you have the right to think when you begin to think, and so the right to think is not a natural right.
But how is the “right to think” under this definition any different from a natural right? It is like saying you have the right to exist only when you begin to exist, and not a moment before. A person has their natural rights when they begin to exist, which is why no one has the ability to think before they have the right to think.
The distinction may appear subtle, but it is significant in the sense that the just claim to something is not contingent on one’s current ability or capacity to exercise it.
Yet even if a person’s right to something begins when they are capable of doing it, then it still must follow that it is a natural right, because the right to think does not come from an external source. They gain the right to think the same way they gain the ability to think, naturally.
Would anyone argue that it is “natural” for a person to be incapable of thinking or that it is unnatural for a person to think? No one looks at a brain-dead person incapable of thought and thinks to himself, “It is perfectly natural they are this way.” Nor does one wonder how someone gained the ability to think, because we know it is innate.
All other arguments against the natural right to think — that the right to think is not natural or conditional even when one was the capacity to think — raise even more problematic issues. If the right to think is not a natural right, then the right must come from somewhere else other than from within a person.
Where then does the right to think come from, and how do we know this?
This also means that one has to explain where they got the right to think that thinking itself is not a natural right.
The most significant, and damning, implication of this view is that it also holds that it is possible for a person to think even when they do not have the right to think. If your right to think is not natural, then it must originate from an external source. What source might this be? How does one determine this without going beyond one’s admittedly conditional right to think?
The greatest flaw in the argument that the right to think is not a natural right, is that it is a zero-sum game which requires circular reasoning; to say the right to think is conditional is to say that in some circumstances Person A’s right to think is limited even if their capacity to think is not. In other words, they don’t always have the right to their own thinking.
Who decides this and, more importantly, who now has the right to Person A’s thinking? No one? Everyone and anyone? No one can “think” for someone else.
But let us entertain a possibility. If Person B, or possibly others as well, has a just claim to Person A’s thinking, how do they have the ability to exercise that right?
The impossibility of such a notion is self-evident. Though a person’s thinking can certainly be influenced and manipulated by externalities, ultimately only they have the authority to determine how, when and what they think, and that authority cannot be usurped or even delegated in a literal sense. It is impossible to “lose” one’s right to think or to hand it over to another. Even if one were to lose their ability to think while still alive, that does not mean they lose their right to it.
Furthermore, no one can exercise the right to think for someone else in a literal sense.
If this was not the case, then one must concede that under certain circumstances it is legitimate for a person to respond to the rhetorical question “What were you thinking?” with, “Nothing, someone else was thinking for me, as I didn’t have the right to my own thoughts at the time!”
Yet if Person A’s right to think is limited, then so is Person B’s; how can one have the right to the other’s thoughts when they don’t even have an absolute right to their own?
But if one finally concedes that there is no difference between the right to think and the natural right to think, what implication is being made by saying natural rights do not exist?
If we have a right to think, and this right is not conditional and does not come from anyone, then it must follow that it is a natural right.
A person has total exclusivity over their thinking, which is a key foundation to the concept of property ownership. This is why they also have a right to the thoughts created by their thinking.
Let us entertain another possibility: That thinking is not a right, but a privilege. The problem with this argument is that all privileges require the existence of rights. It is a privilege for Person A to use something because it ultimately belongs to Person B, who has the right to take it back when they wish.
So how does one person have the right to another person’s thinking when their own thinking is a privilege? Who ultimately has a right to people’s thoughts?
Again, since thinking is not a natural right, or even a right under this argument, then the privilege to do so must come from somewhere.
Once more, we run into a logical dead end; even if thinking is a privilege, it is only a privilege in a limited sense; one man’s privilege is another man’s right. Thus, thinking is still a right, and we’re no closer than before in trying to determine where this right comes from.
One might conceivably argue that thinking is neither a right nor a privilege, yet this adds further problems. If thinking is not a right, then it logically follows that you do not have the right to think; this includes thinking that you have no right to think. And since thoughts are property created by the act of thinking, you do not have any right (just claim) to think that.
So to be consistent, if one believes that one does not have the right to think the thought that natural rights do not exist, then they are claiming that their thought is invalid because they have no just claim to it.
It is logically impossible for to think that you do not have the right to think, because by thinking this thought, you are exercising that very right you claim does not exist.
So having proven by deductive reasoning that A) we have a right to think and B) That this right is a natural part of our existence, we arrive at our logical and rational conclusion:
You think, therefore you have the natural right to think.
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