Extrapolating Our Natural Right

[NOTE: This is the second in a series of posts intended to work out the principles of Natural Law. It builds off of the posts that have come before it.  If you have not already read Defining Natural Rights, I strongly suggest that you do so before reading this post, as this post is a continuation of the former.  I also ask that you understand, while this is not technically a formal argument, neither is it a casual argument.  Thus, it is not necessarily the easiest thing to read, but then, this is because I am trying to explain some difficult concepts in a manner as easily understood as I know how.  I trust that you will bear with me.  In return, I will break the whole into smaller, more easily digested posts.]

Now that we have established a definition of a Natural Right, we need to explore the limits of the concept by expanding it until we find the point where our definition breaks down.  But before we start, I would like to quote something Jefferson said about the nature of a right:

“The right to use a thing comprehends a right to the means necessary to its use, and without which it would be useless.”

It is from this principle that we derive a claim to our life, for without our life, we cannot sustain and exercise our free will.  And from our claim to our life, we derive our claim to our body, which is necessary to sustain and exercise our free will.  From our claim to our body, we derive a claim to our labor, which is necessary to sustain our body, to sustain our life, to sustain our free will.  Do you see how this works?  It is a simple extension of Jefferson’s principle, and it is from this principle that Jefferson summarizes everything we have discussed in our first three posts on Natural Law:

“Under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the Author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.”

 –Thomas Jefferson  (Legal Argument, 1770. FE 1:376)

But there is one more important aspect of this principle, and that is the derivation of our claim to property.  If I have a Natural Right to my will, thus to my life, then to my body, and then to my labor, then I must have a Natural Right to that property which I obtain and/or make through the use of my labor as it is necessary to sustain my life.  I like to use growing pineapples as an example.  If I am stranded on a desert isle, and I use my labor to make a hoe so I can grow pineapples, both the hoe and the pineapples are my property: I have a just claim to them through the use of my labor to do that which is necessary to sustain my life.  However, just because I am the only person on the island, I cannot have a just claim to it as my labor had nothing to do with creating it.  Therefore, while I have a Natural Right to use its resources to sustain my life, I do not have and can never impart a Natural Right to the island as property.  This is the distinction Jefferson and Franklin were both explaining when they wrote these words:

“A right of property in moveable things is admitted before the establishment of government. A separate property in lands, not till after that establishment. The right to moveables is acknowledged by all the hordes of Indians surrounding us. Yet by no one of them has a separate property in lands been yielded to individuals. He who plants a field keeps possession till he has gathered the produce, after which one has as good a right as another to occupy it. Government must be established and laws provided, before lands can be separately appropriated, and their owner protected in his possession. Till then, the property is in the body of the nation, and they, or their chief as trustee, must grant them to individuals, and determine the conditions of the grant.”

–Thomas Jefferson: Batture at New Orleans, 1812. ME 18:45

“All the property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it.”

–Benjamin Franklin, letter to Robert Morris, 25 December 1783, Ref: Franklin Collected Works, Lemay, ed., 1

There is a crucial distinction between Natural and Civil rights in these words.  As we have already determined, a Natural Right is that to which you can lay just claim and to which no one else can lay the same.  However, those rights that exist only because of and as an act of government are not Natural but Civil Rights (government having been formed from the Natural Right to freely enter into a contract with others, and hence, the concept of the Social Contract).  Thus, Civil Rights are subject to modification and/or change, whereas Natural Rights cannot be altered or abolished because there are inherent to our being.

So, now we have a principle by which we can test whether or not a right is Natural or Civil.  Next, we need to define morality.

Next in this series:

Rights Bubbles: the Origin of Universal Morality

8 thoughts on “Extrapolating Our Natural Right

  1. (please assume Man = man/woman):
    Man has free will.
    free will = life
    life = time
    Man “spends” his “time” working and exchanges his time (life) for property.
    Property = life.
    Man is entitled to ‘his’ property.

    1. Texas,

      Close. Note the distinction between moveable property, which is necessary to the ability to sustain life, and non-moveable property, which only comes into existence after the establishment of government.

      One cannot claim to own the earth, nor any other piece of land, without a social convention to recognize and enforce that claim. Thus, a claim to property in this sense is not and can never be a NATURAL Right.

      I hope you see the difference as it is essential to avoiding many of the misunderstandings from which we suffer today.

      1. I see, and understand.
        I remember an “early Constitutional case on the very issue of “claim to real property comes from government.

        If we limit, my hypothesis to “property for self sustenance and propagation of species” does it work then?

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