Letters and Replies: Abortion, Natural Rights, Hayek

Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh answer a letter about abortion rights; Craig Biddle answers a letter from Timothy Sandefur about “natural rights”; Richard Salsman answers

An Objective Case Against Abortion?

To the Editor:

The thing I most admire about Objectivism is its uncompromising affirmation of life. No other philosophy I have encountered consistently holds thriving human existence as its chief value. I was therefore disappointed to read Diana Hsieh and Ari Armstrong’s argument for an alleged right to terminate the life of the unborn (“The Assault on Abortion Rights Undermines All Our Liberties,” TOS, Winter 2011–2012).

In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that I am a Christian, and thus not an Objectivist. I nonetheless consider myself an advocate of Objectivism’s prescriptions for civil society, and I am cognizant of the necessity for objective rational argument in the craft of public policy.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of pro-life activism is motivated by religious dogma, there is an objective case against abortion. The crux of the issue is whether or not the unborn are human beings with an inherent right to life. If they are, then that right must not be infringed upon. Hsieh and Armstrong make the case that the unborn are not individuals and therefore not endowed with the rights of the born. Their case rests upon boilerplate abortionist arguments regarding dependence and development, which are arbitrary.

There is no event that distinguishes an individual human being’s existence from his nonexistence, aside from conception and death. Birth is a threshold of development, not of identity. The notion that a fetus is not an individual because it exists inside its mother and is sustained by her biology is wholly arbitrary. Surely, a mother is not one with her unborn child. They are distinct if physically connected organisms. Nor is a fetus some foreign parasite that has invaded the mother to cause harm. An unborn child is a healthy and predictable product of sexual behavior. A newborn is as dependent upon its mother as it was in the womb. Indeed, once born, children require more from their parents, effort above and beyond that required to sustain themselves. If it is rational to kill the unborn in light of the “burden” they present to their parents, it is also rational to kill a born child.

The responsibility to care for one’s offspring is not a sacrificial duty, but a rational obligation. Dependent children are not others to whom we owe nothing, like a neighbor. They do not come into our lives arbitrarily. Their conception is a direct consequence of our sexual behavior. The Objectivist emphasis on the importance of sex does not excuse blanking out the known biological consequence of sex. Although contraception is a right of the individual, upon conception, there exists another individual whose rights establish new boundaries. The role of parents in conceiving a child makes them responsible for their child’s well-being and guardian over their child’s rights. Just as government empowered to protect our rights may not rightfully violate them, parents empowered to protect their child may not rightfully deprive him of life.

Hsieh and Armstrong are correct regarding the stakes of this debate. It indeed affects our argumentation in defense of all liberties. If we accept arbitrary definitions of human life, and recognize the rights of only those who meet our handpicked developmental and dependency criteria, we provide philosophical cover for those who would regard some individuals as more human than others. The pseudo-science of eugenics is replete with such arbitrary distinctions, and the precursor to the culture of abortion we live in today. The philosophical defense of individual rights requires an uncompromising affirmation of human identity from conception until death.

Walter Hudson
Farmington, Minnesota

The writer is chair of Minnesota’s North Star Tea Party Patriots, a contributor to PJ Media, and serves as volunteer communications director for the Dan “Doc” Severson for Senate campaign.

Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh reply:

Walter Hudson’s letter regarding our article neglects our central argument and relies on a faulty theory of rights.

Hudson rightly recognizes that the philosophy we subscribe to, Objectivism, entails an “uncompromising affirmation of life”; however, this must be understood in its proper context. Each individual properly acts to sustain and advance his own life, neither sacrificing himself to others nor others to himself. As concerns pregnancy, the key question is whether an embryo or fetus is a person with the same moral and legal rights as a born infant (in which case abortion is murder) or not (in which case abortion is a woman’s right).

Hudson claims that “birth is a threshold of development, not of identity,” that the embryo or fetus is distinct from the pregnant woman, and that the embryo or fetus is no more dependent on its mother than is a newborn. But in making these criticisms, Hudson fundamentally misunderstands our arguments.

Our central argument is not that birth marks a new stage of development (though it does), that the embryo or fetus is indistinguishable from the pregnant woman (obviously it is distinct), or that a newborn can survive independently (it is still wholly dependent on others for survival). Instead, our central argument is that rights are moral principles arising from the need for freedom to act on one’s judgment in a social context. An embryo or fetus is not in a social context; it is wholly encased within the body of a woman; consequently, individual rights—principles formed for the purpose of guiding human actions in social circumstances—do not apply to it.

An embryo or fetus is not an individual with rights, but a potential individual who will acquire rights only if and when it is born—for that is when it becomes a separate, individuated person and enters a social context. This vital distinction is confirmed by (among other things) the fact that any claimed “right to life” of an embryo or fetus can be enforced only by violating the woman’s right to control her own body.

Hudson’s attempt to connect our defense of abortion rights with eugenics is deeply confused and ironic. We advocate the principle of individual rights, which is solidly grounded in individualism and the requirements of the individual’s life among other individuals. Eugenics is the collectivist practice of violating individuals’ rights by forcibly interfering with their choices regarding conception and pregnancy in order to achieve some supposedly “better society.” If eugenics is to be associated with any side in the abortion debate, it is properly associated with the side that seeks to force women one way or another with respect to their reproductive choices.

Finally, Hudson’s view that rights begin at conception relies on the false notion that rights are somehow “inherent” in human nature. Rights are not inherent in human nature; they are not in people (potential or actual), say, just to the left of the heart. Rights are not parts of us, like lungs. Rather, rights are abstractions; they are conceptual identifications of the requirements of man’s life in a social context. (For more on this, see Craig Biddle’s article “Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights: The Moral Foundation of a Free Society” in the Fall 2011 issue of TOS.)

Although advocates of “inherent” rights cannot explain what rights are or why we have them (assertions that rights come from “God” explain nothing), they do not hesitate to claim that the “unborn” somehow have rights to which women’s rights must be subordinated. The result, when translated into correspondingly baseless laws banning abortion, is that the lives, health, and happiness of real individuals with real rights are sacrificed for the sake of embryos and fetuses with none.

We urge Mr. Hudson, as Ayn Rand would say, to check his premises.

Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh
Westminster and Sedalia, Colorado

Is Rand’s Theory of Rights Properly Classified as a “Natural Rights” Theory?

To the Editor:

I must take issue with part of Craig Biddle’s article “Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights” [TOS, Fall 2011]. Mr. Biddle is right to distinguish Rand’s view of rights from both the religious notion that we are endowed with rights by God and the positivist argument that rights are government-created permissions. But his attempt to distinguish Rand’s view from natural rights theories is unconvincing. He characterizes this third category of rights theory as the view “that rights come from a law of nature created by God,” and he notes that this amounts to the first category—the religious argument.

But as Mr. Biddle’s article makes clear, Rand does believe that rights come from a law of nature—just not one rooted in religious faith. He acknowledges that she invokes a “moral law . . . [that is] the principle of egoism,” and he analogizes this moral law to the principles of the hard sciences: “Just as the abstract nature of the principles of physics and biology does not change the fact that those principles are true, so, too, the abstract nature of the principles of morality does not change the fact that these principles are true.” But the principles of physics or biology refer to natural phenomena, and surely Mr. Biddle would not hesitate to refer to them as “laws of nature.”

Rand roots her view in the observed facts of man’s nature and observable, natural reality: Human beings are of such a nature that their existence naturally depends on certain conditions. Her view is a genuinely natural rights theory.

I believe that it would be more profitable for Objectivists to reject the efforts of writers such as John Finnis, Hadley Arkes, or Robert George to co-opt the term “natural” for their supernatural rights theories than to discard the distinguished term “natural rights,” to which Objectivists have a superior claim.

Timothy Sandefur
Sacramento, California

The writer is a principal attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation.

Craig Biddle replies:

I appreciate Mr. Sandefur’s letter, and I’m sorry to hear that he found unconvincing my argument that Ayn Rand’s theory of rights is not properly regarded as a “natural rights” theory.

As I discussed in my article, Rand’s theory is distinct not only from “man-made rights” and “God-given rights” theories—and not only from “natural rights” theories that actually amount to “supernatural rights” theories (which Mr. Sandefur notes that I addressed)—but also from “natural rights” theories that refer to so-called “inherent rights.” I addressed this in my article as well (see pp. 31–32 and endnotes 45 and 46), but it is an important subject, so I’m happy to elaborate here.

In addition to the problem that “natural rights” theory has historically referred exclusively (or near exclusively) to God-given rights theory, there is the problem, as I put it in my article, that

“natural rights” theory holds that rights are “inherent” in man’s nature—meaning, “inborn” and a part of man by virtue of the fact that he is man. But rights are not inherent or inborn—which is why (a) there is no evidence to suggest that they are, and (b) belief that they are is mocked as “one with belief in witches and unicorns.”

Rand’s theory holds not that rights are “inherent,” but that they are objective—not that they are “inborn,” but that they are conceptual identifications of the factual requirements of human life in a social context.

Rights don’t exist in man, like bones or lungs. Rights are not physical existents or physical processes but mental integrations of observed facts. This is why they are properly regarded not as “natural,” but as objective. A few analogies may help.

Tigers are natural; they exist in nature whether or not man recognizes their existence. But the concept of “tigers” is not natural; it does not exist in nature. Rather, the concept of “tigers” is objective; it is a mental integration of perceived entities in nature. Both parts—the mental integration and the entities in nature, consciousness and existence, the mind and the referent, the “in here” and the “out there”—are necessary for a concept to exist and be valid.

Likewise for principles: Things are what they are, whether or not man recognizes this fact, but the fact alone is not a principle; the fact alone is not the law of identity. The law of identity, the principle, comes into existence only when man mentally integrates his observations of the world into a fundamental generalization: Everything is something specific; everything has properties that make it what it is; everything has a nature—a thing is what it is. The principle is not “natural” but objective.

Likewise for theories: Evolution is a fact of nature—the process occurs whether or not man recognizes it. But the fact or process of evolution alone is not a theory. The theory of evolution comes into existence only when a man (in this case Darwin) mentally integrates a massive amount of observed data into a system of concepts, generalizations, and principles. The theory is not “natural”; it is objective—it is a mental integration (consciousness) of many observed facts (existence).

Likewise for the principle of rights and for Rand’s theory of rights: Man’s need of freedom in order to act on his judgment is a fact of nature, and it is so whether or not man recognizes the fact. If man is enslaved he cannot act on his judgment, thus he cannot live as a rational being. But until man recognizes this fact, until he forms a fundamental generalization to the effect that “in order to act rationally, in accordance with man’s nature, man must be free to act on his judgment,” there is no principle of rights.

Rand did not merely formulate the principle of rights. She integrated a massive number of observations, concepts, generalizations, and principles from all the basic branches of philosophy into a demonstrably true theory of rights (see my article for details). At every stage of development, she observed facts (existence) and made mental integrations (consciousness). And the rights that her theory set forth are not mere facts of nature; they are recognitions of facts of nature. Her theory and the rights it validates are not “natural” but objective.

Rights do not exist in nature apart from man’s consciousness; to hold that they do is to commit the error of intrinsicism. Nor do rights exist in man’s consciousness apart from nature; to hold that they do is to commit the error of subjectivism. Rights are conceptual identifications of certain facts of reality; this makes them objective. (For a discussion that parallels this point, see Rand’s essay “What is Capitalism?” [in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal] in which she discusses “three schools of thought on the nature of the good: the intrinsic, the subjective, and the objective.”)

This is why Rand spoke of rights as being “derived from [man’s] nature as a rational being” but never as inherent in man’s nature. It’s also why she never referred to her theory of rights as a “natural rights” theory. (It’s worth noting that in her article “The Only Path To Tomorrow” [Reader’s Digest, January 1944], Rand did refer to rights as being “granted to [man] by the fact of his birth.” But this was before she had fully developed her philosophy, and, to my knowledge, she never put it that way again.)

Mr. Sandefur notes that I wrote, “Just as the abstract nature of the principles of physics and biology does not change the fact that those principles are true, so, too, the abstract nature of the principles of morality does not change the fact that these principles are true.” He then comments, “But the principles of physics or biology refer to natural phenomena, and surely Mr. Biddle would not hesitate to refer to them as ‘laws of nature.’” This is correct. The principles of physics and biology refer to facts of nature. The facts themselves, however, are not laws or principles. The laws or principles are mental integrations of facts. For facts to become a law or principle, someone has to conceptually integrate them.

Historically, “natural rights” theory has referred exclusively to “God-given” rights and/or “inherent” (aka “innate” or “intrinsic”) rights. This fact alone is sufficient to disqualify the phrase as descriptive of Rand’s theory. The stronger point, however, is that Rand’s is a theory not of “natural rights” but of objective rights.

I sympathize with Mr. Sandefur’s desire to term Rand’s theory of rights a “natural rights” theory. That label would make her theory instantly more appealing to a large number of people. The problem is that if people embrace her theory under the impression that it’s a natural rights theory, they do not understand and are not embracing her theory.

That objective rights theory may be more difficult to explain and less appealing to some people than “natural rights” theory is doesn’t change the fact that rights are not “natural” but objective. Egoism, too, can be difficult to explain and is certainly less appealing to many people today than the muddled yet widely accepted “golden rule,” but we still must advocate egoism if we are to advocate the truth.

Craig Biddle

Are Hayek and Keynes Really So Similar?

To the Editor:

Though I enjoyed reading Richard M. Salsman’s review of Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics (TOS, Winter 2011–2012), I thought his characterization of Hayek as substantially similar to Keynes was unfair. Worse, the fact that he repeats some variation of this characterization several times throughout the review creates an emphasis that appears to be intentional. While Mr. Salsman describes some such similarities in the closing paragraphs of his review, he ignores substantial differences that would go a long way to counter his opinion that “Keynes and Hayek agreed about more principles and policies than they disagreed about.” In fairness, there is a chasm between Keynes and Hayek in terms of their approach to economics and their perspective on the role of government in affecting the economy as well as the importance of markets left free to regulate themselves. While an academic debate can certainly be had with respect to whether Hayek was a perfect free marketer, his analyses led him to conclusions in favor of capitalism and free markets that compare very favorably to Keynes’s conclusions supportive of government interference and manipulation of markets.

My point can be made by examining what Mr. Salsman identifies as the reason for the renewed interest in this topic: the 2008–9 “Great Recession.” Mr. Salsman’s repeated references to similarities between Keynes and Hayek might justifiably leave the reader to assume that their approach to the financial crisis of 2008–9 might have been the same. However, the crisis was created by adherence to Keynesianism: Governmentally implemented easy credit fostered a false expansion within the housing market resulting in a bubble (or a boom in the boom/bust cycle). Hayek would have predicted that the expansion of credit beyond what is naturally created by a free market would lead to such a bubble, which is precisely what happened. In terms of what to do about the recession once it occurred, Keynesianism was employed in the form of trillions of dollars worth of “stimulus” via government intervention. Hayek would not have agreed with this approach. Rather, he would have argued that prices need to normalize to actual market demand, both in terms of the cost of housing and in terms of interest rates, via free market determination.

It seems that Mr. Salsman would compare Hayek favorably to Keynes only if Hayek had been the perfect embodiment of a laissez-faire capitalist economy down to the most-minute detail. Although he may’ve fallen short of perfection, he came far closer in both substance and degree than did Keynes.

Jeffrey A. Kimble
Bridgeport, West Virginia

Richard M. Salsman replies:

I wish to thank Mr. Kimble for his thoughtful letter and for the opportunity to further clarify the similarities among Keynes’s and Hayek’s ideas.

To demonstrate whether Hayek was “substantially similar” to Keynes (Mr. Kimble’s formulation, not mine) requires a criterion, such as whether they were similar because both were economists (yes), because both focused on aggregate demand (no), because both rejected the gold standard (yes), or because both endorsed a mixed economy and opposed pure, laissez-faire capitalism (yes). Like Keynes, Hayek defended all the usual welfare-state functions, including state unemployment benefits, minimum wage laws, government-sponsored medical care, public pensions, trust-busting, fiat paper money, central banks, and graduated income tax rates (see Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom [1944], The Constitution of Liberty [1960], and later writings). It is true that in some cases Hayek advised a lesser degree of statism in his preferred mix, while Keynes sought relatively more state intervention. My standard is “capitalism the unknown ideal,” and by that gauge these men differed in degree but not in kind about the welfare state; on this count we can say, objectively, they were “substantially similar.”

Yet of the founding Austrian economists, this judgment applies only to Hayek, in contrast to whom both Carl Menger (1840–1921) and Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973) were proponents of pure, laissez-faire capitalism.

There is no basis for the claim of “a chasm between Keynes and Hayek in terms of their approach to economics and their perspective on the role of government in affecting the economy as well as the importance of markets left free to regulate themselves.” Hayek’s case for a mixed economy is overt. My primary objection to Wapshott’s treatment, as I wrote in my review, is that “he tries to portray Keynes and Hayek as near black-and-white opposites, in both theory and policy” and “does not explicitly identify the fundamental similarities underlying Keynes and Hayek’s ideas.” There is ample evidence in Wapshott’s book to discern fundamental similarities. We might consider three levels of analysis, from more fundamental to less: ethics, politics, and economics. The deeper we go, the more we see Keynes and Hayek in general agreement (that altruism is moral, or that social democracy is legitimate), but even on economic theory and policy their differences are not as great as Wapshott (and other fans of the mixed economy) suppose. My review provided numerous, concrete examples of the similarities between Keynes and Hayek on economic theory and policy (see p. 104). Where they differed, they did so mostly on nonfundamental aspects of the question.

As to speculating about what Keynes and Hayek might have advised were they alive amid the financial crisis of 2008–9, I concede that Keynes would have been more interventionist. Hayek would have told officials to do nothing, not even enact pro-rights, pro-wealth policies, say, to stabilize the currency, cut tax rates, slash government spending, or abolish regulations. Keynes would tell government to further crush capitalism, while Hayek would prohibit any rescue of it from statists’ clutches. Regardless, the similar result would be: more statism, less capitalism.

Richard M. Salsman
Durham, North Carolina

Thanks and Appreciation from a World-Class Athlete

To the Editor:

I have been a subscriber to The Objective Standard for more than a year and could not be happier with the journal. I’m a weightlifter training at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colorado in preparation for the Pan American Games to be held in Guadalajara, Mexico as well as the world championships to be held in Paris, France. I was thrilled to read Daniel Wahl’s review of the film Lifting King Kong (TOS, Fall 2011), a great story about an injured weightlifter turned coach. As a weightlifter who has dealt with injury, alcoholism, and the trials and tribulations of young athletes, I found this review quite moving.

I also appreciate your mentioning my sport in your journal. Weightlifting is highly demanding, and athletes who compete in it for this country get very little recognition despite how hard they train. I have shared Mr. Wahl’s review with the entire U.S. team, and we all thank you.

Sport has always been a romantic venture—tenacious men vying for victory with everything they’ve got. In addition to TOS being a source of intellectual guidance for me, it is also a source of emotional fuel, in that it emphasizes the heights men can achieve when they persevere. Thank you for that, as well.

Donny Shankle
United States Weightlifting


Editor’s note: Mr. Shankle (right) went on to earn himself and the United States a bronze medal at the Guadalajara Pan American Games in October 2011. Then, in early March, he took first place at the National Weightlifting Championships 105K Class. Congratulations to Mr. Shankle from all of us at TOS, and best success to him in his future endeavors. —Craig Biddle

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