Are There Any Limits to Natural Rights?
I’d like to discuss today an argument that is popular among some contemporary political philosophers. If this argument is correct, it undermines the sort of natural rights found in Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty. I hope that I am not spoiling the surprise by telling you immediately that I think the argument is wrong.
Natural rights of the sort that Rothbard favors are prepolitical. In other words, these rights aren’t dependent on the state for their existence. Each person is a self-owner and may acquire property in the “state of nature,” before there are states and state-created legal systems. Indeed, in Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism, there aren’t any states: people hire private defense agencies to protect their rights.
According to the argument I wish to examine, prepolitical rights make no sense because there are no ways to define the boundaries of these rights. If each person is a self-owner, when does self-ownership begin? Are children self-owners? What about abortion—is a woman, as the owner of her body, entitled to abort a baby she doesn’t want? What are the permissible limits of self-defense? Is your right to life entirely negative, i.e., other people must not use force against you, or threaten you with force, unless you have aggressed against them, or do you in some cases have the right to the aid of other people to preserve your life? If you are accused of a crime, what (if any) rights do you have to be tried by fair procedures? The questions multiply when we reach property rights. What is the correct principle of initial acquisition? What about intellectual property?
Given the lack of clear boundaries to natu
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