Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Anatomy of Natural Rights - Literature of Liberty, October/December 1978, vol. 1, No. 4
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The Anatomy of Natural Rights - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, October/December 1978, vol. 1, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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The Anatomy of Natural Rights
“Human History and Human Natural Rights.” In Human Rights and Human Liberties: A Radical Reconsideration of the American Political Tradition. Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1975, pp. 2–46.
A disturbing moral paradox looms over modern culture. On the one hand, it is common to rhetorically invoke natural rights to protest local and international violations of human rights. On the other hand, it is no less common for philosophers to maintain that no convincing rational theory can justify natural rights. How did the doctrine of natural rights arise and how did it come to suffer Jeremy Bentham's sceptical caricature of it as “nonsense upon stilts”?
Historically, natural rights theory evolved to answer the perennial human question: Can we rationally know what is right and wrong in morality and politics, or are these urgent issues merely matters of subjective opinion, sentiment, and convention? Despite kaleidoscopic diversity, the natural law tradition from Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero to Aquinas and more contemporary exponents, has tended to affirm the reality of an objective and natural “court of last resort” capable of settling human disputes in ethics and politics. Natural rights advocates appealed not to shifting nomos (convention, custom, or man-made law) but to the more stable physis (nature, especially human nature) as an intersubjective arbiter by which human reason could adjudicate questions about values.
Natural right is closely related to, and at times conflated with, natural law: “... natural right is to natural law as truth is to fact—the first are aspects of beliefs, ideas, or statements, while the latter are what exists, about which beliefs, ideas, or statements are entertained, thought, or uttered, respectively.” Natural rights theory, basing its beliefs about right personal conduct on the widely varying interpretations of what philosophers viewed as human nature, received different formulations at the hands of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, and Locke. Plato and Aristotle regarded reason and free will as the distinguishing features of human nature, whereas Hobbes saw man as psychophysically determined, and viewed reason as a tool of the passions whose only absolute was individual survival. Within the natural rights and natural law tradition, dissent also raged as to how absolute and unchanging were such norms.
These and other internal debates set the stage for many moderns to reject natural rights theory by challenging the core of natural law: the possibility of rationally understanding the truth about the world, human nature, and moral or political rightness. Resurrecting pre-Socratic sceptical attacks, David Hume (1711–1776) fathered the radical challenge of the very possibility of scientific moral knowledge. In his Treatise on Human Nature Hume claimed that an unbridgeable gap separated factual “is” statements and moralizing “ought” statements: How can we legitimately cross over from empirical knowledge of value-free facts to claim that we know what is morally good, right, wrong, or evil? This Humean fact/value distinction has exercised a weighty influence on subsequent philosophy and the social sciences, which characteristically restrict themselves to value-free evidence and argument over positive facts for fear of unscientifically trespassing into the “ought” of value.