If Not God, Where Do Our Rights Come From?

We tend to view freedom as certain types of Rights or Civil Liberties that are provided for us by the Constitution, by the government, or by a Creator. However, this is a very limited understanding of what freedom is. In this post I will demonstrate how our freedom comes from nature.

Natural Limits and Conflict

Our values are shaped by our relation with other living beings and with the natural world. It is easy to see the extent and limit of our freedom if we think about it in relation to the natural world. For example, in the most simple sense, humans cannot pass through dense solid objects. In other words, this is a natural limit* to our freedom. Yet – for whatever reason – a person may hold the value that his freedom is not limited by dense solid objects. In such case this person’s value conflicts with the laws of nature.

This fact alone does not prevent the person from holding such value. The person may realize that this value conflicts with nature through reason (if he learns about the laws of physics, or about the experience of others), or through his other senses (if he attempts to walk through a wall). In the latter case the consequence of his conflict with the laws of nature is immediate and obvious. The result is that the person needs to modify his understanding of the value of freedom and integrate the natural limits within it.

We are also naturally limited to an environment that can sustain us. A person may deplete the resources that support his existence to such an extent that nature cannot sustain his life – for example, if he does not have enough food or water. While the result of this action is less immediate and obvious, the result is still a conflict with nature.

There are also natural limits in the relation between us and other living beings. In the most abstract sense, two individuals cannot occupy the same physical space. This is another natural limit to our freedom. What results from two individuals attempting to do so is a physical conflict (ie. violence). Again – and this is obviously much more common than a person thinking his freedom is not limited by the physical world – a person may hold the value that his freedom is not limited by the presence of other individuals. In this case the person’s value, again, conflicts with the laws of nature.

The person may again realize that his value conflicts with nature through reason or through experience. Yet the problem in the latter case is that the consequences of his conflict with another individual (and with the laws of nature) is not immediate or obvious, and therefore holding this value may persist for much longer. Unlike a conflict with a solid object, the direct consequence of a conflict with another individual may be of some benefit to that person. Though the more serious, and long-term negative consequence may be obscure to that individual.

In the same sense a person may derive some perverse pleasure from hitting walls. In that case the negative long-term consequence may also be hidden from the individual. Yet not seeing the harm has nothing to do with the fact that not conflicting with other individuals is a natural limit on our freedom.

In the most broad sense, our freedom is naturally limited to conflicting with/harming others, or ourselves, or conflicting with the natural world around us. We are naturally free to do everything else. Freedom is a core value, while its corollary values are self-control, personal responsibility, tolerance, and peace.

Artificial Limits

In addition to the natural limits on our freedom, there are also artificial limits that are forced on us by other individuals, society, religion, or government. These may include limits on the freedom of conscience, speech, expression, movement, possession (of arms, or marijuana), dress, economic or political freedoms, and countless more.

We may choose to tolerate these artificially imposed limits – for the sake of societal stability – yet in no way is there a reason for their indefinite continuation. We should recognize that change in society or government is painfully slow and gradual, and many individuals may be skeptical about removing these artificially imposed limits. Just like previous generations were skeptical about allowing women’s rights or civil liberties. In the words of Thomas Paine: “time makes more converts than reason.” Thus, the most prudent way to advance freedom is through education, and gradual and peaceful evolution.

Education

Just because we may understand the value of freedom and its natural limits, or even embrace it, does not automatically mean that we have mastered its implementation in practice. Instead, we need to consciously improve the way we act toward ourselves, others, and toward the world.

Here are a few examples to illustrate this point: just because we may be free to drive a car, or fire a gun, does not mean that we should do so without having the proper training. Just because we are free to consume any amount of food – and should be free to consume other substances – also does not mean that we should do so excessively. In all these cases the sensible path is developing the needed skills and personal responsibility, rather than government or other institutions creating artificial limits to prevent us from driving, using arms, or consuming substances. Practicing our freedom skillfully implies prudence, education, consciousness, and moderation.

Dynamics of freedom

After discussing the natural limits of freedom, let’s consider the possibilities. Human ingenuity has allowed us to transcend many of our previous limits. With the aid of science and technology we can now better understand the laws that govern the physical world, or the intricacies of the human brain. We can see other galaxies or subatomic particles. Look far into our past and predict what the future holds for us. Explore the depths of our oceans, travel to foreign lands, or reach far above our skies. We can cure debilitating diseases and live long and meaningful lives. We can share our feelings, experiences, and ideas with one another, instantaneously, all the way across the globe. And create the tools to open up even more possibilities for us.