Jefferson was wrong: there are no natural rights

This was a conference presentation I gave a few weeks ago. The idea has been distilling for awhile and I plan to turn it into a full-length article, but this suffices in conveying my general argument: claiming we have “natural rights” is incoherent historically, and inconsistent today. It is a weak premise if it is meant to serve as the bedrock claims we all have against one another and the state; and the mistaken force of tradition that natural rights theories carry is largely the product of Jefferson’s construction in the Declaration of Independence. Instead, we should defend “rights” from the Pragmatic concept of truth, which is that true things are true because they have instrumental value. In this view, something being true is not measured by whether or not is comports to “nature” or some Platonic form, but rather as William James said, it is “made true by events.”

I’m arguing that if the basic rights to our bodies and property constitute an “overlapping consensus”–the most basic things we can agree on–then let’s validate the truth of rights by testing the conditions which make them possible. In other words, rooting them in “nature” is an unnecessary and unhelpful abstraction. James said “truth happens to an idea.” On this view, we can simply validate the usefulness of bodily and property rights by agreeing on them. It takes the basis of consent as logically applied to theories of human rights.

From the essay: “Likewise, let’s demythologize natural rights and simply assert that a system of individual claims against one another and against the state is the most peaceful and productive way to perpetuate the blessings of modernity.”

Find the presentation here.