The folks at Positive Liberty are discussing natural rights (ht). Some deny that they exist (the rights, that is) others disagree; others say we need to get past the labels we apply to various ideas; but no one got around but no one got around to asking what it meant to call a right natural, even though everyone seems to admit that there are rights of one kind or another. It is reasonable to admit this, since my rights are that by which something is justly due to me, and there are at least some times when some thing is justly due to me.
When we call rights natural we oppose to them to something artificial- much like when we use the word “natural” in “natural flavors” or “natural hair color”. Natural rights are therefore whatever is justly due to me before any convention or artifact, that is, before statues are written or customs made firm.
As a parent of a three year old and a two year old, I judge and execute claims to natural right all day. Plaintiffs and defendants usually represent themselves:
Boy: No Mine!
Girl: No James, GO ‘WAY!
(screams and punches follow. Repeat as necessary)
Neither claimant appeals to custom or statute or even reason. It’s just theirs. That being said, one of them is usually right, even if they didn’t try to be. One of the claims is rational, even though none of the claimants are. Many- but by no means all- cases get solved by noticing who had the thing first. So what kind of right, in this particular situation, does the one who had it first have? I couldn’t just as easily have a statute or custom that gave it to the second one who had it, since this would be simply irrational. So far as any custom or statute is measured by something already given as reasonably just and due, it is measured by a natural right.
This natural right is not self- enforcing, it is not obviously from God, it is not universal in the sense that we could determine some absolute law that applied in all cases, it is not limited to merely rational beings (something is owed to some non-human animals) it is not any number of things that it is assumed to be both by those who affirm it and deny it. But if reason in any way receives its notion of right by looking at things, it observes and respects a natural right. “Natural right”, on the most basic level, follows from our gathering our notions of justice from experience.