Lately I have been surrounded by what appeared to me large doses of dogmatism; and dogmatism never fails to torment me with a sense of suffocation. As an almost inadvertent backlash, I have developed a voracious appetite for criticism, for diverging assessments and different perspectives on a number of topics that are foremost among my intellectual interests. In the process, I have come across a certain Edward Feser (see also here), who strikes me as one of the finest minds I have met in quite some time.
I recommend wholeheartedly full perusal of Feser's clear and fascinating juxtaposition of the Catholic natural law tradition with the thought of Friedrich Hayek and Murray Rothbard.
Writes Edward Feser:
The natural law theory associated with Aquinas and the Scholastic tradition in general is committed to the idea that human beings have a natural end or purpose and that their particular natural capacities (whether intellectual, procreative, or whatever) have natural ends or functions as well. These various natural ends determine the content of the moral law, including (for those Scholastic natural law thinkers who are also natural rights theorists) the rights we possess. By contrast, Locke, who is also usually classified as a natural law theorist, denies that we can know the real essences or natures of things, and thus rejects any appeal to natural ends or purposes as a basis for determining the content of the natural law. Locke instead grounds his natural law theory directly on God’s ownership of each human being, and derives our rights from the idea that to harm anyone in his life, liberty, or property is to damage God’s property.
Locke’s approach, rejecting as it does the traditional Scholastic grounding of natural law in natural ends and functions, is notoriously problematic. Without any appeal to such natural ends or purposes, it is hard to see how to give natural law any detailed content. Merely referring to God’s ownership of us may suffice to show that we cannot do just anything we want to each other, but deriving specific moral principles is much harder. Yet Rothbard’s position seems if anything in worse shape. For if Lockean natural law is a watering down of the traditional Scholastic conception of natural law, Rothbardian natural law theory seems itself little more than a watering down of Locke.
To be sure, Rothbard does pay lip service to the Scholastic tradition, and even endorses the general idea that human beings have natural purposes. But there the similarity to the Scholastic tradition ends, for Rothbard appears to accept none of the distinctive ends or purposes that that particular tradition would attribute to us. Instead, he formulates the content of the natural law in terms of the thesis of self-ownership, which he borrows from Locke. Now for Locke, talk of self-ownership is really just a shorthand way of talking about the lease God has given each of us on our own lives. Locke’s view is that it is, strictly speaking, really God who owns us and that we are merely stewards of His property. If we “own” ourselves at all, it is only in a loose sense and only relative to other human beings. But Rothbard rejects any such theological foundation for self-ownership. His aim is to give it a purely secular basis.
That basis seems to me to be severely inadequate, however. Rothbard’s defense of self-ownership is stated in the form of a dilemma: if a person A does not own himself, then either some other person B owns him or A and B have joint ownership of A; and either alternative to self-ownership, Rothbard goes on to argue, will have absurd consequences. I will not bother discussing those consequences here, though, because I think Rothbard’s argument has gone wrong already insofar as the dichotomy he describes is a false one. There is a third alternative he fails to consider, namely that no one at all owns either himself or anyone else. To own oneself, after all, is just to have certain rights over oneself, and there are certainly philosophers who would deny that we have any rights, or at least any natural rights, at all. So before Rothbard can establish that a person A owns himself rather than being owned by B or sharing ownership of himself with B, he first has to establish that anyone owns anything at all, and thus that anyone has any rights at all.
The only hint Rothbard gives of how this might be done is to suggest that a person has by nature and in general a need to use his body and its parts in order to interact with the world in a way that will allow him to survive, and in particular a need to use his cognitive faculties, vocal chords, and the like in order even to argue about whether or not there are any natural rights. He seems to think that this shows that a person does in fact have rights over his body, cognitive faculties, vocal chords, etc., otherwise he wouldn’t be able to survive or do so much as consider the question of whether he has rights. But in fact it shows no such thing. To have a mere need is not to have a right: a maggot might need rotting tissue to consume if it is to survive, but it does not follow that maggots are self-owners or have rights. Nor does the pragmatic self-contradiction Rothbard seems to think is entailed by using your vocal chords, etc. to deny the existence of rights establish what he seems to think it does. The most this argument would prove, if it really proves anything, is that we have to act as if we have rights over our body parts; it does not show that we really do have them. Moreover, even if Rothbard’s argument succeeded in proving that we have any rights at all, it would at most show that we have rights to the use of our body parts to the extent required to stay alive. It would not establish that we have full ownership of ourselves in the sense Rothbard thinks we do. After all, a person might have a right to use something for certain purposes without having full ownership of that thing, or any ownership at all for that matter.
Now the Catholic natural law tradition would argue that the fountainhead of all rights is the natural end human beings have. And by “end” it means purpose or aim, not mere need. The Catholic natural law tradition, that is to say, is teleological through and through, committed to the objective existence of final causes or purposes in nature. This is one reason why even though Catholic natural law thinking, unlike Locke’s natural law theory, does not appeal directly to God’s will in order to determine the content of natural law, it nevertheless does insist on the existence of God as a precondition of the intelligibility of natural law, because without God there can be no objective ends or purposes in nature. There can at most be, perhaps, certain naturalistic/evolutionary analogues to ends or purposes, but without God these can only be ersatz, “as if” purposes, not real ones, and thus they cannot be the source of genuine moral obligation.
Given that we do have an objective end or purpose, however, and that we have moral obligations that follow from this end or purpose, it follows according to the Catholic natural law tradition that we have certain natural rights. But the ground of these natural rights is nothing other than the fact that the recognition of certain rights is necessary if we are to be able to follow our moral obligations and fulfill our natural end. The natural rights we have just are, and can only be, the rights that we require in order to fulfill those obligations and realize that end.