Humanist Voices
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Humanist Voices

Natural rights and moral desert

Why we should avoid unverifiable moral claims

We should avoid magical thinking when discussing morality.

Natural rights

As I explained in “Abortion is harmless”:

  • Premise 2. When somebody has the right to do something, that thing should be legal.
  • Conclusion. Therefore, abortion should be legal.

Moral desert

The idea of moral desert is similar. In both ends of the political spectrum, we find violent and punitive ideas being justified on the basis of moral desert. People on the right think criminals deserve to suffer because of their crimes, and so do people on the left in the case of those guilty of rape or hate crimes. In addition, an increasing number of leftists also seem to think people deserve hostility and ostracism when they say something racist, sexist, etc. Their punitive behavior is rarely justified, however, on the basis of consequences.


Ideas of natural rights and moral desert are so old and firmly enshrined in our moral and political language that it is hard to imagine ever getting rid of them. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, although historically based on the idea of natural rights, is a tremendously important milestone in the history of moral progress, and it should certainly be celebrated. However, it should be detached from the old superstitious idea of natural rights. Indeed, most people in the general public who support human rights today do so without even knowing the term “natural rights”, which is mostly used as philosophical jargon, so this process of detachment is already taking place.



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