A while back I was puzzled by a blog post at Politics & Prosperity that attacked me for believing in natural rights…while simultaneously advancing what seemed to be natural rights positions I share. P&P has now posted a long reply, that, if I understand correctly, our difference lies in my teleological view of humanity: I believe that rights are “an inherent feature of the human condition…[but I] might just as well say that it is in the ‘nature’ of a baseball to be…thrown, hit, and caught.” Thus our difference is that P&P does not believe man has any natural ends, so that the assertion that man has rights cannot be true by necessity, only by convention—although he and I would agree on the qualities of those rights once their existence is granted.
This is a reasonable argument, and I certainly don’t have time to defend the idea of teleology in full in a blog post right before Christmas. But I will clarify one point. P&P seems to find it inconceivable that I might be at once an atheist and a believer in the idea of teleology. In fact, there is no inconsistency in holding the position; but the consistency is obscured by the disanaology of the baseball. A baseball has an end—to be thrown, hit, and caught—because it is designed for those purposes by a conscious being who created it with those ends in mind. Human beings were not designed by a conscious being who created us with an end in mind, but that does not mean we do not have ends. We just have ends in a different way. Living beings have ends because life is capable of continuing or being destroyed, as inanimate matter is not, and, being capable of self-generated action, they naturally seek the end of further survival. That pursuit is not a matter of social convention, but is natural in the relevant sense. We are not the products of intentional design but we are the product of a design process—the process of natural selection, which selects in terms of the capacity to reach certain ends. This is not a claim that all our ends are determined by biological imperatives (a position I reject) but is intended only as an example of the fact that something not intentionally designed may nevertheless be said to have ends. Reproductive success is an example of a system in which, even absent a conscious designer, an entity can be said to pursue a goal and to succeed or fail in terms of that goal. Or language; it is not designed, but it definitely has an end. Francisco Ayala, Harry Binswanger, Den Uyl & Rasmussen, and others have addressed these questions very well, and I’ll leave the curious to inquire there.