Natural Right and the Traditional Reproach

The “new Right,” or whatever we want to call that part of the Right that rejects the bromides of Conservatism, Inc. and supports Trump (or at least Trumpism), remains philosophically befuddled. To some extent, this is to be expected. No great thinker has emerged to synthesize “new Right” thinking, much less blaze a new path in the manner of, say, Plato or Nietzsche. We are forced, therefore, to look to the great thinkers of the past and glean what we can from their insights. 

This new Right is especially hostile to the idea of natural right. It is hostile to it, however, without quite knowing what it is. The latest example is from The Z-Man, a popular blogger who, until recently, also wrote for Taki’s Magazine. I have found many of Z-Man’s insights true and useful. He and many like him are correct about the horrible consequences of the terrible theories foisted on us by irresponsible (or worse) modern intellectuals. But, as I hope to show, many of this new Right’s proposed solutions are a version of cutting off your nose to spite your face—self-lobotomizing to stick it to lefty eggheads. 

In a recent post, Z-Man confidently asserts that “human rights do not exist.” Human rights are beloved by the Left, you see. Which may be a true statement, but it certainly is not certainly exhaustive. It turns out what modern leftists mean by “human rights” is not the same thing as what the great early modern philosophers who pioneered the concept meant by “natural rights,” as I also hope to show. 

In any case, to say that rights do not exist is a bold claim. It may be true (naturally, I do not think so), but establishing its truth would require a sustained argument Z-Man does not even pretend to provide. Nor does he bother to cite, much less summarize, the work of other thinkers who have attempted to demonstrate the same claim. I don’t know if this is laziness or ignorance, but it is unsatisfying. 

Z-Man says that human rights are “a figment of our imagination, like the concept of lust.” Really? Lust—a human appetite/passion/sin that is treated extensively in the Bible and has been a subject of profound reflection for philosophers, poets and theologians for millennia—is a “figment of our imagination”? Common sense laughs at the assertion. We can know lust exists simply by observing human behavior. The historical record also supplies ample evidence. 

To cite just one, what does Z-Man think explains the Jeffrey Epstein saga? I suppose, like most on the new Right, he thinks it was an intelligence agency-sponsored blackmail operation. That explanation is plausible. But what explains why so many powerful people were willing—eager!—to make themselves susceptible to blackmail? What internal motivation led them to it? Some “figment of the imagination”? Does Z-Man think the sex drive itself is a “figment of the imagination”? Or is he rather saying that there is no difference between lust and the sex drive, that the sex drive is lust and vice versa? That man is ultimately indistinguishable from the beasts? If so, why does he bother to blog? Who is he trying to convince, and to what end? 

These questions go directly to the heart of the issue under consideration. The denial of lust and of human rights stems from a denial of human nature, the ground of justice and of all human good. Like most on the new Right, the Z-Man appears to want to support the human good, and probably doesn’t think he’s denying human nature. But he is; there can be no other way to describe his denial of elementary aspects of our being. 

Some will immediately ask: why yet another essay on such a well-worn topic? First, because the truth matters and is worth knowing for its own sake. Second, because some arguments bear (more or less) endless repetition, the same way that you have to paint a picket fence constantly to keep it white. Third, since no human institution lasts forever, sooner or later the United States will end. People will still be alive on the North American continent, though, and will have to reorganize. On what basis? I think the survivors will do better to reorganize on the basis of truth rather than error. 

This is not to insist that I believe myself in possession of the final, complete, capital-T “truth.” But like any rational person who has thought about something and come to a conclusion, however tentative, I believe my conclusions are superior to the alternatives I’ve examined; otherwise, I would have concluded something else. I present what follows not as authoritative but as an alternative—a superior one, in my view—to the new Right dismissal of nature as the ground of morality and justice. 

Human Rights, Natural Rights, and Natural Right

First, some elementary corrections and clarifications. “Human rights” are a contemporary lefty update to “natural rights,” which are derivative from “natural right.” These are separate but related concepts. Philosophy discovered (or asserted, depending on whether you believe it exists) natural right, singular, before natural rights, plural. Natural rights are the basis of the “liberal” or classical liberal regimes of mid-modernity, above all the United States of America. They find their first exposition in the philosophies of Hobbes and Locke (and a few others less famous) and, before the American Revolution, inspired (among other events) the Glorious Revolution. “Human rights” is a much more recent attempt to torque natural rights into a doctrine that advances the tenets of up-to-the-minute leftism while ignoring those aspects of natural rights that leftists don’t like (i.e., anything that supports conservatism). If Z-Man understands any of this, he gives no indication but rather elides the three concepts as if they were one. 

But let’s back up. Natural right, singular, was introduced by Socrates, who claimed to have come to an impasse in his study of nature (what we would call the physical world) and so made the “Socratic Turn” to the study of the human things, i.e., right and wrong, just and unjust, noble and base, good and evil, etc. As Cicero famously put it, “Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from heaven and set her in cities and even to bring her into households and compel her to inquire about human life and customs as well as matters good and evil.” 

What Socrates finds, as demonstrated in the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon, is that human opinions about good and bad are often contradictory. They differ not only from place to place, tribe to tribe, civilization to civilization, but are sometimes even internally contradictory. That is, it’s not merely that the Greeks disagree with the Persians about what is just, but even the Greeks themselves believe, or profess, contradictory claims about justice. 

Roughly speaking, five possible conclusions may be drawn from the existence of these contradictions. The first, which was generally accepted in Socrates’ time and has remained powerful since, is to assert that only the ways of my particular people are true; all the others are false. The second is to insist that somehow they are all true, just true in different ways for different peoples. The third is to argue that they are all false (or at least inadequate) but that there is a true standard. The fourth is to say that their truth is contingent not just on their place (which people profess them) but with time, and the truth changes over time. The fifth is to say that they are all false and there is no standard, no true account of justice, right, the good, etc. 

The Socratic dialogues show, among other things, that while the first two conclusions are ultimately incoherent, all of the first three rest on a common foundation: that nature provides a standard for right and wrong. Indeed, the distinction between nature (physis; φύσις)—the eternal given, that which man cannot create, destroy or change—and law or convention (nomos; νόμος) is fundamental to all philosophy, or, to say the same thing, to any “science” or mental effort to sort truth from falsehood. 

The question at the heart of the Socratic Turn is whether that effort can make the leap from the investigation of the physical world to the human things. We today all know that lightning is not hurled by Zeus but is the result of electrostatic buildup in clouds. The comic playwright Aristophanes depicts Socrates as explaining this to a shocked Athenian—and then going further, telling the man that “Zeus doesn’t even exist.” 

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National Right as Dynamite

That moment neatly illustrates perhaps the chief danger of philosophy: it is, or can be, corrosive to the religious and political beliefs that undergird all human life and that may be said to make possible human life as such, i.e., for man as a social and political animal and not a wandering brute.

What is true of the philosophic demystification of the physical world is doubly true of philosophical investigation of human things. Human sociability—the political community—is possible only on the basis of authoritatively posited and accepted assertions or opinions about good and bad. From the perspective of the political community, these beliefs are not mere opinions; they are truths. Philosophic dialectic exposes the contradictions and impossibilities inherent in these alleged truths and thus shows their inadequacy. To accept natural right is, then, at least in the first analysis, to destroy the basis of the political community. This is one reason why Leo Strauss described natural right as “dynamite.” 

There are two ways philosophy can be corrosive to tradition. The first would be to expose all tradition as false and then establish (or assert) that there is no true account of the good or the just, because the truth is that those things do not exist. They are “figments of our imagination.” The second is to expose tradition as false but then expostulate the true account of the right, the just, the good, etc. Clearly, both these approaches are corrosive, but just as clearly, the first is far more corrosive than the second. Everything, of course, hinges on what the truth actually is. Is it nihilism or natural right? Philosophy for the most part believes it is the latter. 

I use the word “believes” advisedly. On one hand, philosophy is defined by rejecting belief as the basis for accepting something as true (or false). Philosophy is characterized by the gentle, if firm, refusal to submit to any authority. On the other hand, philosophy knows that while it can achieve knowledge of parts or things or individual beings, full knowledge of the whole is elusive and likely exceeds the grasp of the human mind. Philosophy cannot “know” or fully establish the truth of natural right. What it can do is examine the arguments for and against, weigh them, and pronounce which are more rational, more plausible, and more likely to be true. Most philosophers—roughly from the ancients through the 18th century—conclude that natural right is superior to and more plausible than the various posited alternatives. 

The reason why natural right is less corrosive than nihilism should be obvious. If the truth is that there are no truths—no rules, principles, hierarchies, etc.—then men are free of all obligation and may rightly (if “rightly” even exists as a concept in such a world) behave however they want. Such a world would be anarchic, bloody, chaotic, and awful. (Though, again, absent some standard for judging good from bad, it’s not clear how concepts such as “awful” apply or even have meaning.) 

A natural right teaching, by contrast, supports the noble, the good, the just, etc., and seeks to place them on a firm foundation. Granted, that foundation—unassisted human reason—is, on one level, potentially corrosive of any tradition because it refuses to accept tradition’s appeal to authority. But on another level, natural right’s conclusions mostly comport with the dictates of a good tradition. For instance, a good tradition forbids murder and theft and exalts courage and justice; so does natural right. And since philosophy knows that man requires authoritative guidance, it knows that natural right must support tradition: not this or that tradition, necessarily, but any good tradition and, above all, tradition per se. To this end, philosophy constructs (or instructs others on how to construct) an ennobling rhetoric that supports tradition while sanding off some of its rough edges. 

Philosophy’s investigation into the nature of man and political things determines that laws and customs (nomoi; νομοί) are necessarily an admixture of natural justice and convention. Philosophy does not expose all opinions as false. To the contrary, it finds that many—perhaps most—ordinary political opinions are true, reasonable and natural. And in the best regimes, that percentage can be high. But it’s never 100 percent pure abstract justice, which is what philosophy, by its nature, seeks. 

An Authoritative Code, Sincerely Believed

According to pre-modern philosophy, man finds himself in the following, if not quite paradoxical, at least somewhat quizzical situation: To live and live well, he must live according to the dictates of an authoritative tradition. All such traditions, however, can wither when exposed to rational critique. (This is perhaps why God forbids Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.) Yet because human beings possess the faculty of reason and are naturally inquisitive, some inevitably will investigate the claims to truth of their authoritative tradition and, likely, find it at least partially wanting. As that investigation continues, these humans (philosophers) will discover that there is a true account of the human good that accords with nature but that few (if any) authoritative traditions accord with it fully. 

Tradition cannot be dispensed with; because the vast majority of mankind is not and can never be fully rational—the fully rational society is impossible. Man requires not merely an authoritative code but one that is sincerely believed. For it to be believed, its origin must be shrouded in mystery. It does no good to make up a “tradition” on the spot and say “This shall be our code”; that will not be believed. The sources and causes of belief are mysterious from a rational point of view. Philosophy does not accept religion’s self-understanding as the revealed word of God and, therefore, simply true. Yet philosophy asserts as true that men need such a code, and that belief, whatever its source and however it operates, is, therefore, natural (in the sense of inevitable) and salutary. But not all authoritative codes are equal; some are better than others and a few are simply bad. The one thing most needful for man then is a blending of the rational and the traditional, of nature and convention, a sincerely-believed authoritative tradition that conforms as closely as possible to nature. 

This is why, despite its potentially corrosive effects, philosophy is—at least at its best—supportive of tradition. Because it seeks, and to an extent finds, the truth about nature, philosophy knows that human beings require authoritative guidance in order to live and live well. It knows as well that in each particular case, this authoritative guidance is not perfectly coterminous with the truth. Each set of guidance or tradition—the ways of the Greeks, the ways of the Persians, etc.—contains falsehoods and contradictions. Philosophy’s approach to those falsehoods is twofold. It wishes to investigate them so as to find the truth. But it also realizes it has a responsibility not to advertise them—not to destroy the only possible basis for the political community and decent human life. Or, put another way, philosophy understands a double, and at first seemingly contradictory, truth: no tradition or account of the right way of life is perfectly natural or rational; yet that man must have an authoritative account of the right way is natural. Hence for philosophy to be rational, it must support tradition. 

Moreover, since human beings have bodies as well as minds, passions as well as intellect, philosophy is anti-utopian in its expectations and teachings. Philosophy recognizes that the pure justice discovered by unbridled philosophic inquiry is dangerous in part because, in its pursuit of the complete and precise truth, it challenges those imperfect, conventional admixtures; the pure natural right—the “dynamite”—it discovers is unrealistic in its perfection. It cannot be achieved by men in the real world. That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t real or preferable in the abstract. 

For instance, most everyone would agree that government corruption is bad and not to be chosen for its own sake. That we may prefer a venally corrupt government over an incorrupt but totalitarian one only shows the superiority of corruption to crusading zeal, not the superiority of corruption to incorruption. Since, all other things being equal, incorruption is always preferable to corruption, the best government of all would have zero corruption. But such a government “has never been seen or known to exist in truth.” It exists only as an idea, as an “imagined republic.” That idea is still superior to the reality of corruption and we would all choose it if we could. But in the real world, given the fallen nature of man, a certain amount of corruption is always going to exist. Moreover, one can exert more effort in rooting out every last little bit of corruption than that effort is worth. And the effort itself can lead to worse consequences than the corruption itself; the cure can be worse than the disease. Philosophy thus must be careful to avoid creating unreasonable expectations for what can be achieved in the realm of prudent politics. 

New Right’s Two Arguments Against Natural Right

There are, broadly speaking, two rightist arguments against natural right. The first is akin to the philosophic observation that natural right is “dynamite.” That is, it is corrosive to authoritative belief and tradition, and hence destructive to the political community. 

As we have seen, this is correct as far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn’t go very far. The philosophic investigation begins from the premise that the traditional beliefs might be wrong; the purpose of the investigation is to find the truth. The “trad right” account, by contrast, rests on a contradictory foundation. It believes that the traditional beliefs are true, or at least good; why else would their corrosion by philosophy be bad? But the traditional beliefs must also be untrue, or else why would philosophy be able to undermine them? If the traditional beliefs were true, then philosophic investigation would confirm their truth, not expose their falsehood. If philosophy is inherently corrosive, it can only be because that which it examines is false. A philosophic investigation that established the truth of tradition would be supportive, not corrosive. 

Are the traditional beliefs true or false? If they are true, according to what standard or metric? For the pure traditionalist (if he is being coherent and consistent), that standard can’t be nature; natural right is after all a “figment of our imagination.”

Are the traditional beliefs genuinely believed or merely professed? Either answer presents a logical problem. If tradition is true, then nature—and hence natural right—has been presupposed. No tradition qua tradition believes itself to be a myth; all traditions self-understand as the truth. At the end of the day, “myth” and “belief” are incompatible. No one believes in myths. That is to say, an outsider may conclude that this person or that tribe over there believes a myth (e.g., that Zeus hurls lightning bolts), but that is not how the believer or the tribe understand themselves. Once you’ve claimed something is a “myth,” by definition you’ve stopped believing in it. 

But if tradition is not true, then the anti-nature trad Right is in a position of saying “I believe in something that I know is not real.” The contradiction cannot be escaped by saying, as many seem to want to, “This tradition may not be true, but it is nevertheless salutary,” because the concept of “salutary” is derivative from the good, which again points to nature. “Good” according to what standard? Some will want to say “It is good because it is mine (or ours).” But this still leaves the tradition open to philosophic critique, i.e., open to being shown to be false or inadequate by investigation. And if any tradition is “good,” or “good for this group,” simply because it “belongs” to that group, then literally anything can be good.

But any time anyone—especially those writing about politics—asserts that “this is good” or “this is bad,” they are presupposing natural right. Appeal to tradition does not offer a way around this. What makes your tradition good? More to the point, what makes tradition qua tradition good? What moral principle justifies an appeal to tradition at all? For “the rights of Englishmen” (or whatever) to be a sufficient basis for declaring something just or unjust, there must be some reason why the appeal to those rights (or that tradition) is just, and that reason must be (in Aristotelian terms) prior in nature to those rights or that tradition. It must also be outside and beyond the power of human will. 

Many rightist critics of natural right, when they see arguments like this, accuse me of “attacking” or “hating” tradition. (Others accuse me of a “low-IQ” inability to understand Heidegger, but let’s leave that one for another time.) For the most part, I view such comments as willful misunderstandings, not to say proffered in bad faith. No matter how many times I praise tradition, or specifically praise the “Anglo-American tradition,” the counter-charge is made, and will be made again in response to this essay. My point is simply that for tradition to do the work that its rightist upholders want it to do, it cannot be arbitrary. There are good and bad traditions. I agree that ours is good; but it is good not merely because it is traditional, or even because it is ours, but because it conforms (more or less) to a standard outside and above itself.

I might also point out that the “Anglo-American tradition” did not arise in isolation from considerations of nature, but was informed by philosophic reflections on nature at virtually every turn. As Machiavelli enjoys rubbing in our noses, all traditions have origins. They were once not traditions but innovations. Most (likely all) of what the trad Right praises as the “Anglo-American tradition” arose as Englishmen, and later Americans, said “no” to some injustice; or, you might say, asserted their natural rights. Any time a subject or subjects make some appeal to justice, if that specific appeal has never been asserted before, then by definition it cannot be traditional. It must point to a source of justice more fundamental than tradition.

In sum, both the pre- (or non-) philosophic or traditional as well as the philosophic accounts of good and bad begin from the premise that the truth exists and is knowable. In this, they make a common front against all denials of truth and justice, whether nihilistic, relativistic, or historicist. 

The second trad-Right argument against natural right is that it inherently leads to the liberalism, egalitarianism, and leveling characteristic of our times. This argument rests on the assertion that any universal claim is ipso facto homogenizing and leveling. Why this should be so, however, is never adequately explained. Why does the claim that (say) tyranny and child sacrifice are always and everywhere wrong inevitably require or lead to McWorld? 

The argument that a universal standard—in the sense of one regime that is simply best, as the classical philosophers assert—seems to impel homogenization toward that standard is more compelling. This is, in a sense, the claim of Nietzsche and those he inspired. Nietzsche believes that the discovery or invention of philosophy was a disaster for man because philosophy exposes the inherent nothingness and falsity behind all myth. Man can no longer believe, and in not believing he no longer honors anything as sacred. Men become beasts or, worse, appetite-driven automatons. The problem inherent in this argument, as far as I can see, is that Nietzsche assumes or asserts not only that all traditions hitherto destroyed by philosophy were false, but that any and all possible traditions will be false. Yet Nietzsche also insists that man was better off when he genuinely believed in something. This raises the same problem discussed above. If tradition or religion are said to be “untrue but salutary” . . . salutary according to what standard? Nietzsche attempts to replace nature (or God) with the Eternal Return—and not, I believe, altogether successfully. 

At any rate, philosophy could replace myth with rational truth and still be open to a similar objection: that rationalization even to a true standard destroys what is distinctive in the various communities of men and thereby diminishes man. 

The classical philosophers actually anticipated and agreed with this objection. Yet they were fairly sanguine on this score because they believed philosophy lacked the power to homogenize the world, that most men are simply un- or even anti-philosophic and would not stand idly by while a bunch of pointy-heads tried to rationalize and homogenize their communities out of existence. Human nature would rebel. Philosophers also put a considerable effort into making their own rhetoric—the public presentation of their conclusions—supportive of human distinctiveness and what is best in the various traditions. Finally, as we have seen, philosophy defends the idea of tradition as in itself natural, necessary, and beneficial to man, and so—until Hegel—opposes the rationalization/homogenization of the world precisely on natural right grounds.

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Where Natural Rights Came From

Above all, rightist critics of natural right object to the concept of natural rights, plural. It is these alleged rights, they say, that inevitably give way to egalitarian leveling.

The first thing to understand here is that natural rights are downstream from—epiphenomena of—natural right. Natural rights are far more philosophically controversial than natural right. The classical philosophers lack any conception of natural rights and, based on what we can read of their political philosophy, it appears that they would reject the idea. To explain all the reasons why would take a book (or books).

But is it really true that the classics would reject natural rights out of hand? Certainly they would reject them as inapplicable in pre-modern theologico-political circumstances. But circumstances have changed. If a philosophic defense of natural rights, plural, is to be made, we may say that natural rights are the specific form natural right takes in Christian modernity. To reduce a very long argument to very brief compass, the specific bases of pre-philosophic political legitimacy—people’s genuine belief that their laws come from their gods and the total lack of any distinction between civil and religious law—were eliminated by the Roman conquest of the ancient world, the destruction of the polis, the eclipse of republicanism, the emergence of Christianity, and the division of Christianity into sects. The classical philosophers’ practical recommendations for how to imbue the authoritative traditions of ancient pagan cities with as much rationality as possible and advisable no longer applied. A new solution to the theological-political problem had to be found.

Here we bump against another seeming paradox: historicism is untrue, and yet the classical solution became unworkable because of fundamental historical change. That change, however, was not “historicist” in the sense of an inevitable rational process. It was either (depending on one’s point of view or presuppositions) the product of divine intervention, accident, or a clever plot by a clever man.

Z-Man says that natural rights “always rested on something that is not timeless and that is a Christian concept of God and man’s relationship to God.” This is sort of true, but not in the way he means it. Perhaps the most enigmatic remark in all of Aristotle’s ethical and political philosophy is his observation that natural right is “altogether changeable” (Nicomachean Ethics V 7, 1134b30). Scholars will probably argue about what that means for as long as Aristotle’s text survives. I can only explain what I was taught it means and what I think it means in this context; I leave to readers whether to accept or reject what follows.

For Aristotle (and for all pre-historicist philosophy generally), human nature and, thus, the human virtues are fixed and eternal. How human beings are to be governed and how the virtues are to be cultivated and supported must, however, change with circumstance. What is naturally right for a given circumstance might be inapt to, or even naturally wrong for, another. To cite the most obvious illustration of this principle, a course of action that is wrong in 99 situations out of 100 (or 999 out of 1,000) might be necessary, and thus right, in a rare, extreme situation.

Or the requirements of right might change because of a fundamental change in circumstances. To repeat a most important point, before Christianity—whether we are talking about a pagan city or the monotheistic Jewish kingdom—all law came directly from God (or the gods) and there was no distinction between civil and religious law. The law was all-comprehensive; it regulated everything, including belief. (Socrates, recall, was executed in part for impiety.) 

Such communities were inevitably closed and small; Aristotle says that a city above 10,000 citizens is impracticable, if not impossible. In the ancient polis, citizens mutually supervised one another to ensure strict adherence to the law. This is obviously impossible in a territorially immense state with a population of millions—and, crucially, one in which God is not the source of law, and in which each man’s relationship with God is a matter of private conscience that precedes, both temporally and in the order of being, his citizenship in the state. In this new circumstance, the ancient formulation that “whatever the law does not command, it forbids” becomes a formula for tyranny. But the first task of decent politics—the first imperative of natural right—is the prevention of tyranny. (The highest is the cultivation of the virtues.) 

A key difference between paganism and Christianity is that paganism was largely ceremonial. With Christianity, doctrine takes on a much greater significance. It was only when Socrates was 70 that Athens finally executed him for his decades of rather open challenges to civic piety. For the most part, if Athenians performed the expected rituals, no one inquired much about their beliefs. But as the wars between Protestants and Catholics in Europe showed, relatively minute differences in the interpretation of scripture could lead to violent conflict. In an age in which different interpretations of the same religious doctrine give rise to religious persecution, the prevention of tyranny requires freedom of conscience, or (to say the same thing) the natural right of religious freedom. In an age in which the laws are manmade and known to be such, the prevention of tyranny requires limits on the power of legislators and rulers. Natural rights become the ground of opposition to tyranny and hence the manifestation of natural right. The new formula becomes: anything the law does not forbid, it permits.

A Concept Discovered, Not Invented

This brief sketch demonstrates another seeming paradox: how “timelessness” needs “timeliness” in order to manifest itself in differing circumstances. The concept of natural rights did, of course, emerge at a certain time and therefore is not “timeless.” The emergence of Christianity—whether one understands that emergence from the perspective of a believer or from that of a philosophic analyst of theology—spurred the emergence of the conception of natural rights out of the conception of natural right. Still and all, if that conception is true, it was discovered, not invented, by man. And its fundamental purpose is to preserve and exalt things that are not timebound or historically contingent. In these senses, it is “timeless.” 

It is untrue to say, as Z-Man does, that natural rights require an adherence to orthodox Christian theology and that “[i]f you reject this concept of God, then you reject what naturally flows from it, which is why the concept of natural rights is a cultural artifact.” Aside from being a straight-up historicist argument, this overlooks the inherently—and intentionally—dual nature of the natural rights concept. Natural rights are meant to be compatible with Christian revelation and, at the same time, demonstrable by unassisted reason. The premise is that, since (or if) God is the author of nature, then the moral principles discernible in nature ought to be compatible with God’s revealed world. This proposition may be true, or it may not be. Z-Man points to places like China where it has never held purchase. But the fact that an idea is not universally shared throughout the world is not evidence, much less proof, that it’s false. 

Among many other things, natural rights philosophy is an attempt to take the Christian concept of man’s equality in the eyes of God and duplicate it as political equality before the law, equal citizenship in the political community. It is meant to solve the problem of the division of Christianity into sects, the loss of the ancient derivation of the laws from the gods (or God), and the sundering of civil and religious law. The Christian God gives only the vaguest guidance about government and, in fact, instructs believers to submit to the reigning civil authority; there is nothing in the New Testament like the comprehensive law code of the Old, or the legislation of Solon or Lycurgus. One can no longer look to the Book for a source of political legitimacy. One must look elsewhere. 

The new revelation—one that does not proclaim clear political commandments—required new political principles, and a new political philosophy. The proffered solution from early modern philosophers and practical statesmen alike was natural rights philosophy. That philosophy is also intended as a roadblock to tyranny, both the overt kind and the kind that dresses itself up in ermine and claims God’s authority for its rule. A country that respected the equal natural rights of its citizens would not, among other things, lock up dozens of them in pretrial detention for “parading.” 

The Road to Leftism

Returning to the charge that natural rights lead to leftism, all we know is that leftism happened. That it was the inexorable result of natural rights teaching is, to say the least, not established. Natural rights may be compatible with—even indistinguishable from—“liberalism” as originally understood, but they are anathema to modern leftism, which exalts government-created and bestowed rights such as the right to transition but despises the natural rights to self-defense, to free speech, and to be secure in one’s person or property. I might ask, as an aside, of those who disparage the concept of natural rights but love the Second Amendment, what do you think justifies it? The men who wrote and ratified it claimed the natural right to self-defense. But since you believe natural rights “do not exist,” you must have some other basis. What is it? Also, since natural rights “do not exist,” why are you always complaining about Big Tech censorship and deplatforming? Why do you bemoan the courts’ and civil rights bureaucracy’s bullying of Christian bakers and website designers? Similar questions could be asked regarding the other eight amendments in the Bill of Rights. 

The “rights-gave-us-leftism” argument also ignores the role of technology and its main fruit, sustained economic prosperity, which in all societies—including those that reject natural rights—has fueled decadence and decline. 

What seems to me to have happened is rather that leftism conquered natural rights, just as it is in the process of conquering the entire West. Leftism is not the logical outcome or consequence of natural rights but their deadliest opponent. (Leftism may be the logical or inevitable outcome of modernity itself, though even if that turns out to be true, it would not prove that natural right is a fraud or that natural rights were an obviously bad solution to the specific theologico-political problem of the early modern world. But that is an argument for another time.) 

One may reply that the fact leftism is winning in a rout proves the inadequacy of natural rights. But by that same logic, since older traditions—emphatically including those to which the trad Right appeals—also succumbed to leftism in one form or another, this would have to prove their inadequacy as well. Before leftism conquered natural rights, natural rights had to supplant tradition. But if natural rights are so obviously wrong and illusory, and tradition so obviously strong and life-affirming, how could that have happened? Isn’t that like a high school team defeating the Super Bowl champs? 

From the vantage point of 2022, it would appear that no tradition or philosophy is capable of fending off leftism. How discarding natural rights and returning to “tradition” (supposing that is even possible, about which more below) is supposed to fix that, I cannot see. The classics would say that the reason all prior systems of human organization perished is owing to the imperfect nature of man: No human institution can last forever. If the standard by which we judge natural rights is whether they were able to stand for all time as an organizing principle without being corrupted and discarded, then natural rights must inevitably fail. But so have all traditions, and so will all those that might emerge later. Permanence as the standard of truth or goodness is irrational because permanence is impossible. 

The question then becomes whether natural rights are superior to this or that tradition or to tradition per se. The answer to the first depends on the tradition in question. The answer to the latter, as we have seen, is a qualified no. Tradition and philosophy—and natural right(s)—need one another and strengthen one another. The reason we are in the mess we’re in, it seems to me, is that both have been critically weakened. The path to salvation, it seems to me, is to strengthen both, not discard the one or the other. Especially since natural rights are, in the decisive sense, our tradition.

Here the American trad Right is at its least convincing. They want to return to “tradition” a people who declared their independence, and thus formally came into being as a united people, on the basis of natural right (and rights). They want to discard natural rights for a people who penned and enacted a Bill of Rights, to which that people has been appealing for more than 200 years. How is that even vaguely “traditional”? Similarly, natural right is an integral part of the whole Western tradition. So, in order to be consistent and avoid all recourse to nature and its attendant abstractions, the trad Right must also discard Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Shakespeare, and all the moderns from Machiavelli to Montesquieu. How do they propose to do that? Book burnings? More to the point, in what way will Western man still be Western when, in order to cut off appeals to nature, we have expunged the entire Western canon? Must we destroy the West in order to save it? 

Even on its own terms, the argument makes no sense. “What we think of as our natural rights are a product of a specific people living in a specific time,” the Z-Man writes. “They are no more universal than [sic] conception of God. Natural rights may be more than just a fad, like powdered wigs or waistcoats, but they are tied to a people. Like all traditions, they live on in the memories of the descendents [sic] of the people who invented them and once there are no more descendents [sic] to carry on the traditions, they are gone.”

OK—so since natural rights are ours, why don’t we keep them? Instead of denying, denouncing, and renouncing them? 

As for what to do or where to go next, “man, unlike a crab, cannot crawl backwards.” Simple appeal to a prior tradition presupposes many questions. Which tradition? Whose? How will that tradition be (re)established as a source of authority? 

Natural Rights: True, and Ours

I don’t discount the possibility of a new tradition arising—or to be more precise, a new revelation, or a revival of the old one on a new basis. But here we recur to the question of belief. For that new order to take hold, the authoritative account on which it is based will have to be sincerely believed. This presupposes some kind of prophet, whether genuine or huckster, but one who necessarily appears genuine to his followers. The likelihood that such a prophet might succeed rises with the scale of the calamity that brings down the present order. 

But in the absence of an “occasion” that allows such a prophet to instill (or compel) belief, some other standard of legitimacy will have to do. Put bluntly, if people do not believe that the prophet who claims to speak with, or for, God actually does, they will not follow him. They will either find another prophet or, in the more likely event that one in whom they can believe cannot be found, look to some other guiding principle, some other basis for organization, some other foundation of legitimacy. What that is likely to be, it seems to me, is something like the American founders’ political philosophy of natural right(s), since it is A) true and B) ours. 

As is typical of those trad rightists who disparage natural rights, the Z-Man does not explain what he would, given the chance, replace the founders’ regime with. Theocracy? Aristocracy? The ancient polis? The longhouse? 

But I think I can safely make an informed guess. He and his ilk want some form of hierarchical regime that rejects equality as inherently, inevitably leveling, and that rejects rights as the camel’s nose under the tent for an expansive liberalism. The problem for him will be how to establish authority in such a regime. I don’t see how it can be elections. Will the hierarchies simply be chosen by the people? If so, how will they be hierarchies? A true hierarchy is not determined by popular vote. 

This points to a fundamental problem with hierarchy. The trad Right rejects nature as the standard for politics because, they say, nature is abstract, universalist, corrosive, etc. But for a hierarchy to have any meaning, it must be based on some evaluation of higher and lower, better and worse. In the trad Right understanding, natural rights are bad (or false) because all men are not created equal; some are superior to others. The superior should justly rule the inferior. But what is superiority versus inferiority if not a claim that appeals to nature? Why is this man superior to that one? There must be some substantive reason(s) that make him better—superior intellect, courage, leadership capacity, etc.—and those reasons are grounded in nature. The answer “because I say so” is no answer at all.

Philosophers have always recognized that some men are superior to others, especially in the art of ruling. This is just obvious. The question or problem is how to ensure that the superior always or mostly occupy the offices of government. One solution is to make rank hereditary. This has two problems. The first is simple regression to the mean. A great man may have—is likely to have—mediocre descendants. By permanently privileging a few families, you are effectively guaranteeing the rule of the mediocre, if not immediately, at least eventually. You are also locking out non-ennobled persons, which is unjust to them, and thus a potential cause of instability, and deprives the state of talents it could use and might need. 

The more Nietzschean (and consistent) on the new Right point to biology. A popular (and trite) conservative slogan holds that “politics is downstream from culture.” The inadequacy of this soundbite aside, this part of the new Right counters that both politics and culture are downstream from biology. Superior men are not randomly distributed; they are, literally, generated. If this argument sounds like eugenics, that’s because it is. But Plato showed, more than 2000 years ago, that eugenics as the basis for a stable aristocracy cannot work (check for yourself; Republic VIII). Biology is inherently mysterious; humanity has not and will never, Plato indicates, master it to the extent required to maintain a bio-aristocracy. Plato appears to have been right. Washington had no children. Marlborough had no sons. Lincoln had Tad. Churchill had Randolph (and Diana). Even Archie and Olivia Manning had Cooper. I could go on. Plato’s best regime or “city in speech” founders on precisely this rock. 

Which points to the second problem: on what principle do you select this aristocracy? If “genetics,” someone still has to choose whose genes get to rule. Even if you assume there is someone available who knows how, how are you going to get the rest of society—especially those not chosen but who believe they deserve to be—to follow him? Plato understood this problem as well. Even the perfectly wise philosopher-king will have a problem (to say the least) convincing the unwise multitude to consent to his regime. How is our new aristocracy going to manage it? 

We know how aristocracy happened historically: warlords established local dominance by defeating rivals and protecting peasants. That, and many aristocrats were elevated by a direct grant from the monarch. 

I could see the emergence of a warlord class—or “armed patronage networks,” as my friend Charles Haywood calls it—after a collapse. That might coalesce into a new aristocracy, given the right conditions and enough time. Even then, however, the specific reason why this person—and then his descendants—get to rule in perpetuity will not be obvious. It’s one thing to place oneself under the protection of a warlord in a time of crisis and quite another to consent to the rule of his heirs forever. For the latter really to take hold, some theological basis for the justness not just of aristocracy in principle, but for why these particular families get to be aristocrats, will have to be not merely asserted but widely and genuinely believed. “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.” 

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The New LARPy Aristocracy

To be blunt once again, is anyone going to bow and kiss the ring of “Duke Z-Man” and genuinely believe that he is a lord by the grace of God? If he can find anyone simple enough to believe him, I wish him well. I also assure him that, contrary to what he may fear, natural right does not require or compel me to intervene in his new country just because I think his regime is fake and silly. In fact, natural right requires the opposite: strict non-interference in the domestic affairs of any foreign country that is not threatening my security. 

But I suspect that he will have a hard time finding many takers. Even in the most tradition-bound parts of this country, I expect one will still encounter large majorities who, when some aspirant to authority attempts to push them around, will reply “You’re not the boss of me” and “I got my rights.” Those responses are as American as apple pie—and part of the American tradition. 

One or more warlords might be able to maintain a position of superiority by force for some time after the initial calamity justifies it, but then we are talking about tyranny, not just or legitimate political rule. I suppose the Z-Man wouldn’t care about that because, after all, natural rights are a “figment of the imagination.” That means, though, to be consistent, he could have no coherent objection to be ruled against his will, without his consent. But whatever. This new LARPy “aristocracy” would work out about as well, and last about as long, as CHOP, aka CHAZ, Seattle’s 2020 utopian experiment. 

Even if an aristocracy did emerge, and commanded real belief, the magnitude of the calamity required to make that possible would result in a collapse of civilization and living standards not seen since the fall of Rome. Is the rejection of natural rights such an urgent priority that we should wish for such a calamity so that we can all regress a thousand years? Were the Dark Ages really all that better than pre-1960s America? 

I keep returning to the following point because it is so important. The Z-Man and the trad Right correctly hate the worst and most hateful aspects of the present leftist hegemony. But they reject the soundest basis for hating and opposing those things: the idea that right and wrong are part of the natural order which includes man. I do not believe I will ever understand the source of this intense hatred of the idea that some things are right and wrong by nature; I find it irrational. 

But I know that irrationality is part of human life and will always be with us. I know that I will never convince any of them. I write not for them, but for others. 

For them, I have a simple proposal. After the collapse, let’s not live together. I at any rate will not seek admittance to your new country. I don’t want to be ruled without my consent and I don’t want to submit to a fake aristocracy. Those are, in fact, among my chief objections to the present regime: it rules me without my consent, and it rules not for the common good but for the private good of a fake aristocracy. I don’t doubt that you could do better than the present monstrosity in many respects, but I still think whatever you’re planning won’t work; or, to be more precise, I don’t think you’ve done much planning at all. I don’t think you’ve even begun to think through how you’ll organize your new post-natural-rights society, which is why I expect it either to be a mess or else to revert to natural rights without admitting it. The more you do the latter, the better it will work. 

But I still won’t come. I know you don’t want me there. I know you hate me and my kind and our ideas a thousand times more than you hate the globalist Left. And that’s fine. Natural right not merely allows but blesses incompatible peoples with incompatible visions to separate. I hope we can have cordial, mutually beneficial cross-border relations and trade. That is, if you can stomach the idea of trading with a society that believes in natural right. If you can’t, so be it. We won’t try to force it. Part of natural right is recognizing the sovereignty of borders and the obligation of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states. We will expect you to respect the same and act accordingly. 

Good luck!

About Michael Anton

Michael Anton is a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, and a former national security official in the Trump Administration. He formerly wrote under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus when he was a senior editor of American Greatness. He is the author most recently of The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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