Natural Law and Human Interaction
In all other fields, such as mathematics, or physics, 'laws' are natural things, intrinsic to the universe, which can be understood through the application of analysis, the scientific method, and theoretical research. In the social "sciences" there exists a similar concept-- that of "natural law".
The idea is that there is a universal, higher law, which transcends time and space. This, in contrast with "positive law", which are the pseudo-arbitrary, relativistic man-made edicts of societies and governments. You can read more about this topic on Wikipedia.
This concept dates back thousands of years, at least as far as Plato and Aristotle, and weaves throughout most of history's famous philosophers, including such estimable names as Thomas Acquinas, Cicero, Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, and Thomas Hobbes. American school children will recall that John Locke's "natural law theory" was-- ironically-- the basis for the American government's charter, "the constitution".
Unlike Locke, who thought that "natural law" was handed down by God, I derive my perspective in a purely secular way-- that universal principles and laws are products of logic, arrived at via the rational mind. And I'm not the only one to arrive at that conclusion; one day I stumbled across Immanuel Kant's "first formulation", and was astounded at how closely it mirrored my views. I will let Kant speak for me on this point:
"Always act according to that maxim whose universality as a law you can at the same time will" and is the "only condition under which a will can never come into conflict with itself... decide whether any contradictions or irrationalities arise in the possible world as a result of following the maxim."
The same logic applied to the notion of "natural law" then: for something to be a "law", or a "right", it has to be something that can be acknowledged as applying universally to all rational beings, without causing "contradictions or irrationalities".
- "I have the right to steal." This creates a contradiction; if others also have the right to steal, and I thusly allow them to take from me, then the act no longer qualifies as "theft".
- "I have the right to attack others." Two people can't sit in a room and agree to "attack" each other, since being willingly received, the "attacks" would in fact not be "attacks" at all. It presents a logical contradiction.
- "I have the right to defend myself from attack." This can be applied universally without any irrationalities at all.
Further, consider: a contrary ethical system which asserts that actions such as assault or murder are moral, are simultaneously stating that the opposite actions are not ethical.
But this kind of ethical system is, quite literally, impossible to practice; one can't steal while one is sleeping, nor can one kill but for extraordinarily brief moments-- the interim during which of course, the perpetrator is in a continual state of moral lapse! More generally, one can't ascribe moral laws to positive actions.
Now that the foundation is laid, consider that one can reduce all natural rights down to a single one: "I have the natural right to live my life as I please, so long as I do not inhibit any other man's right to do the same."
In the realm of human interaction specifically, the principle can be re-worded: "I have the right to freely associate with others who wish to do the same." This is important, because to Kant's views on "maxims", which I extend to the concept of "rights", I will add a second condition of something in order for it to be considered a "natural right": it can not obligate others to action. Supposed "rights" that do obligate others to action-- these are occasionally referred to as "positive rights"-- are inherently contradictory because they, by definition, violate the right to freely associate.
Marx and his contemporary charges often postulate that humans have a "right to an income", or a "right to health care." But the only way this can be is if humans do not have a right to freely associate-- after all, someone has to provide the income, or the "health care."
Then what if people don't have the right to freely associate? This argument readily invites the counter-question: then who determines the nature of associations, if not the individuals themselves? The argument presupposes that someone has the "natural right" to dictate to others who can or can not associate with whom, without having the right to make the same decision for them self. It is an insoluble logical quandary.
Any time a "natural law", or a "right", appears to be in some sort of contradiction with some other "right", then one or perhaps even both of the conflicting "rights" are not, in fact, "rights" at all. I presented some such examples immediately above. Or, provided the "rights" in question are not "positive" in nature, they may merely need refining to make them more specific, so that they are no longer at loggerheads.
Natural Law and Property
I subscribe to what I've seen described as a "use-right theory"; it is a hybrid combination of the anti-private property views of left-anarchists, and the more absolutist property outlook of libertarians. It can be logically arrived at in the following manner, and building on the "natural law" section presented above:
- From the previous section: man has the natural right to live his life as he pleases, so long as he does not inhibit any other man's right to do the same.
- Man has values that he wishes to achieve. He takes actions to fulfill his values.
- To fulfill his values, man interacts with objects in the world around him. This creates an implicit claim on the given object, for the specific purpose required to fulfill whichever value he is then pursuing.
- Another person taking a subsequent claim on that same object, in such a way that interferes with some prior claim by someone else, is a violation of the axiom in bullet number one, and is thus wrong.
- Another person taking a subsequent claim on that same object, in such a way that does not interfere with some prior claim by someone else, is ok.
- When someone has achieved a given value, they automatically abandon the specific claims they had previously made against objects that were utilized in order to achieve that value.
Natural Law and Authority
People routinely use the word "authority" when describing government actions; "Congress has the authority to do XYZ", or "This action was taken by the Such-and-Such Authority Commission." But what does the word "authority" actually mean, and how does it relate to the concept of "natural law"?
To answer those questions, I once visited a plethora of dictionary aggregation websites, and transcribed every definition of the word "authority" that I could find into a spreadsheet. I then went through the exercise of eliminating all duplicate definitions. Once the exercise was complete, I was left with only three:
Let's say I am leaving town for a month, and I need to sell my house during that time-- or, in other words, I need to relinquish my claim to that piece of property. Because I have the "natural right" to relinquish one of my own claims, I can delegate that right to someone else-- for instance, my attorney. My attorney will then sell the house on my behalf.
There are two important things to note: first, because the "natural right" is mine in the first place, logically I can delegate or undelegate that right as I choose, and for any reason. Second, I can only delegate rights that I have; conversely, I can not delegate rights that I don't have. Similarly, I can not delegate someone else's rights. I apologize for those latter points' preposterously obvious natures-- I'm not trying to patronize you, dear reader. But they need to be explicitly expressed, for reasons that will become obvious in the "conclusions" section of this post.
Let's entertain a different scenario, and say that I hurt my knee. I may choose to visit an orthropedic surgeon, because they are an expert-- an authority-- on knees. The surgeon may recommend surgery, and I may very well accede to their recommendation due to their expertise. But also note that the surgeon can not force me to have the surgery-- it is still my decision.
And now, a final scenario: let's presume that I am a first grader on the playground, and a giant second grader bully walks up to me: "give me your lunch money or I'll pound you into a bottle cap." As clearly described in the previous section, the bully does not have the "natural right" to take my money-- and yet, I will probably give it to him anyway, because I don't particularly want a broken nose.
Authority and Justice
As described above, "natural laws" are universal, static, never in conflict when universalized, and transcend time and space; they are utterly inviolable. Thus, it only makes sense to define "justice" as "in accordance with natural law", and injustice as "in contravention with natural law." Because of the cosmic nature of "natural law", it simply does not make sense to define "justice" in any other way.
Now let us introduce the previously-described definitions of "authority" into the mix: if someone takes an action according to "authority" that they either have via a "natural law", or that they have had delegated to them by someone else, then that action is "just"-- in accordance with "natural law." It is a legitimate action.
If someone takes an action according to advice given them by an expert, then provided they are not violating someone else's "natural rights" with that action, the action is "just". It too is a legitimate action.
If-- as in the case of the school yard bully-- a person forces someone else to do something against their wishes, then that force is "unjust". It is illegitimate.
Nothing I have presented above is particularly controversial; it all flows from the thousands-years-old "natural law" concept, and simple deduction. The following conclusions are all further deduced, and therefore are equally uncontroversial.
They may be uncomfortable because they conflict with existing, emotion-based belief systems-- but they are highly rational. It is my hope that identical or very similar perspectives will be held some day by a critical mass of people all around the world, at which point varying forms of anarchy-- peaceful civilizations that largely operate without and active combat illegitimate organizations-- will spontaneously emerge, en masse.
It is also worth noting that the following are an absolutely tiny sampling of conclusions; they are meant merely to stimulate thinking. Each individual should apply the above framework in order to reach their own conclusions.
- Non-human animals do not have the inherent capacity to formulate maxims, "will" them, or detect contradictions or irrationalities. So, the body of "natural law" does not apply to them, any more than it applies to rocks or trees. Any movement that proclaims a squirrel to have some sort of "right" to self-defense is in total error, as the squirrel lacks any intrinsic capacity whatsoever to exercise that "right", or to even know what a "right" is.
- By contrast, and provided that a human embryo is indeed human-- which any DNA test will confirm that it is-- it does have "natural rights", because by virtue of being human, it has the capacity for reason, even if it is at present unable to proclaim such. In the same way, a passed out drunk, or someone who is asleep, does not suddenly lose their "natural rights" simply because they are momentarily unconscious.
- "Governments" are intrinsically illegitimate because they are funded via taxation, which is theft-- a clear violation of "natural law." Even setting taxation aside, the vast majority of edicts they issue are in total contradiction with individuals' "natural rights." They attempt to mask their illegitimacy with what Locke and others coined the "social contract theory", whereby it is assumed that the State can legitimately engage in behaviors that could not possibly have been delegated to its actors, and that people can have had their rights magically delegated on their behalf by the State, and to the State, all in one fell swoop. It is also assumed that if a majority of "voters" wish something, then the act is somehow legitimate. We already know from the above sections that all of those assumptions-- and thus, the entire theory-- are in total error. For further reading, I explicitly address the "social contract" here.
- Continuing on, we further know that most State actions are not operating according to the "expert" definition of authority, because people are unable to resist the State's compulsions, lest they find themselves heavily fined, or imprisoned, or both. By process of elimination then, we know that the State operates according to force-- just like a school yard bully. It logically follows then that any individual that claims to value peace, prosperity, and justice must necessarily reject "governments"; it would be sheer hypocrisy not to.
- Governments operate in a very similar manner to literal farms, to such an extent that others have described them as "tax farms". Like hamsters in rolley balls, people are born into these "tax farms" all the while not even realizing that they are in a cage, just like the hamster has difficulty conceiving of the world outside of its ball. I highly recommend these two videos, which explore and break through "the matrix."
- People are under no moral or logical obligation to follow "positive laws"-- government edicts-- that violate their "natural rights", or in other words that are "unjust." State actors, such as police officers, are in fact acting immorally and "unjustly" by enforcing such decrees. For further reading, I highly recommend this post.
- It is commonly said that "people who don't vote can't complain." In fact, it's the total opposite; the only people who can complain are the people who don't vote. And in fact, it is very foolish to vote, and probably even unethical. I explore voting in depth here. More broadly, the only people with whom it is logical to fully sympathize with are those that don't vote, avoid paying taxes to the maximum extend possible, and who only engage in voluntary, mutually beneficial human interactions.
- There are some people who believe, in the absence of a totally immoral and illegitimate organization such as a "government", that individuals will spontaneously self-organize into communities in ways that make sense to them. The people who hold this view are called "anarchists." I am one such person. There are thousands of well-written, thorough articles on the internet that describe ways in which anarchic societies have operated peacefully in the past, are currently operating peacefully in the present, and most likely will operate peacefully in the future. A good starting point is this article, "Anarchy 101", by Bob Black.
- A common opinion is that anarchy is the failure condition of statism; think of how many times you've heard sentiments like, "the government collapsed, and the country descended into anarchy." But in fact, it's the other way around: statism is the failure condition of anarchy; if you have a state of anarchy-- local communities of people voluntarily cooperating with each other for mutual exchange and protection-- and then one faction gains so much power that it is capable of extorting protection money from people, and won't let anyone leave the community without paying off the local war lords, then you have what's commonly called a government. Put another way, if a government emerges, then that means anarchy failed. Or if you prefer, the emergence of a government is the worst-case outcome of anarchy.