In a recent post you emphasized the slipperiness of the term “autonomy” and the duplicitous ways the state uses it.  Do we have to use the language of personal autonomy in order to make the case for natural rights?


I don’t think we have to use the language of autonomy in order to make rights claims, and I don’t think we should.  Let me patch in some observations about natural rights from something else I wrote recently.

Discussions of natural rights sometimes distinguish between objective and subjective rights.  Even before we get to the term “autonomy,” that terminology is already somewhat misleading, because in a certain sense, every genuine right has both objective and subjective dimensions.  My rights are objective in the sense that it is objectively right for me to have them, but they are subjective in the sense that they are mine, something that I, the subject, “have.”  Usually, those who speak of objective and subjective natural rights are not really distinguishing between different kinds of rights, but between different theories of rights that may, respectively, be called classical and revisionist.  Classical and revisionist theories disagree about where rights come from, about what rights one really has, and about how an individual's rights should be interpreted.

The classical view holds that natural rights exist to safeguard the ability of all persons to do their duties and to have the liberty to direct their lives in such a way as to develop their human gifts.  This theory understands the various gifts to exist not only for an individual's own good but also for the good of others, hence it sees the need to codify these natural rights as civil rights with appropriate legal sanctions to protect these rights against the potential tyranny of individuals, social groups, and the state.  The human power to make free and responsible decisions within the limits of the natural law is thus cherished as a gift of God.  But according to this view, not everything that one chooses is good just because one chooses it.  There is no moral right to do evil.  Classical thinkers view natural rights, natural duties, and the common good as strongly connected.  Even the right to acquire private property exists for the sake of doing one's duties, with due respect for the common good, and can be limited by these considerations.  Moreover, according to this theory, not only individuals but also certain forms of association, such as families and religious communites, have rights.  Children have a natural right to parental care precisely because their natural well-being requires it; parents have a natural right to direct their children's education because otherwise they cannot fulfill their duty of care.

In the revisionist view, however, the only real rights are individual rights.  Rather than being correlative with duties that one has under the natural moral law, these rights are regarded as morally fundamental.  Duties are envisioned as flowing from voluntary agreements, often including a social contract; individual rights, in turn, are viewed as arising from personal autonomy – there is that word again – in this case understood as self-ownership or self-rulership.   In extreme cases, autonomy in this sense is identified with the sheer power to exercise one's own will.  Revisionists commonly argue, for example, that because I own myself, I own my labor; because I own my labor, I own whatever property I have invested my labor in; and because I own my property, I may do whatever I wish with it.  Many of the proponents of the revisionist view permit, or tend to permit, certain acts that the classical view regards as intrinsically evil.  For example, some revisionists argue that because I own myself, I own my body; because I own my body, I may do whatever I want with it; because I may do whatever I want with it, I may abort an unborn child that is developing inside it.  Thus, in the revisionist view it can be difficult to limit the claims made on the basis of natural rights, and it is unclear in some systems how, if at all, they are connected with duties.

As all this shows, I think discussion of rights is clearer and more consistent if we don’t use the language of so-called autonomy than if we do.