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Reason Ralliers Need the "How" of Reason-Based Rights

Michael_Shermer“America was not founded on God and religion. America was founded on reason,” said Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, at the 2012 Reason Rally in Washington, DC. He added:

The Age of Reason . . . was the age when humanity was born again, not from original sin, but from original ignorance and dependence on authority. Never again shall we allow ourselves to be the intellectual slaves of those who would bind our minds with the chains of dogma and authority. In its stead we use reason and science as the arbiters of truth and knowledge.

Applying reason to the question of rights, said Shermer, “we discovered natural rights that dictate all people should be treated equally” under the law. These rights, he said, apply to women, homosexuals, atheists, and others.

That sounds great. Rights grounded in reason is exactly what we need if we are to uphold and defend rights. But how exactly are rights discovered by reason? As inspiring as Shermer’s words may be, they offer no indication.

If atheists (or agnostics or theists for that matter) want to uphold and defend rights, they need to understand how rights are derived through reason. Fortunately, Ayn Rand identified the relevant facts.

As Craig Biddle argues in explaining Rand’s theory of rights, rights do not exist in nature as objects or energy; they are not “natural” in the sense that lungs, bones, and magnetic fields are natural. We can’t directly observe in nature that people have rights the way we can observe under a microscope that a cell has structure. Instead, Biddle explains, rights are moral principles relevant in a social context: “Just as on the personal level we need principles of action to guide us in pursuing our life-serving values, so on the social level we need principles of interaction to protect us from those who attempt to interfere with our plans.” Rights, he shows, are properly understood as objective principles rather than “natural” properties. (See also Biddle’s reply to a letter from Timothy Sandefur about the difference between objective rights and “natural” rights.)

It is not enough merely to claim that rights are somehow “natural” and discovered through reason. If advocates of reason and liberty are serious about establishing and maintaining a free society, they need to understand and be able to explain to others how rights are grounded rationally in observable reality.

I urge fellow atheists and lovers of liberty to read Biddle’s article, and his reply to Sandefur, and see whether they make sense. I think you’ll find that they do. And with this understanding, you’ll be better equipped to apply reason in defense of freedom.

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