Last week, Garrett West argued that we should abandon the dis­course of “human rights” and instead adopt the lan­guage of “human goods” (“The unap­pealing pol­itics of uni­versal rhetoric,” Oct. 30). His solution makes it seem that we have only two options: Franklin D. Roo­sevelt or John Rawls. Con­sid­ering the con­se­quences from these two lines of thought, this seems like a sick game of “Would You Rather?” for con­ser­v­a­tives.

Yes, there is a problem with modern political dis­course, espe­cially “human rights” talk. Yet West’s article fails to address the real problem: The rejection of a per­manent human nature. Instead of speaking in terms of “human goods,” with no standard other than public opinion, pol­itics should shift back to what policies best secure our natural rights.

First, to address the problems with his pre­sen­tation of human rights. He is wrong to assume that modern politi­cians’ “ultimate cri­terion for the justice” is “human nature.” Main­stream pol­itics aban­doned that standard long ago.

Due to the rejection of a per­manent human nature, human rights and goods seem to come from gov­ernment. FDR helped pop­u­larize “human rights,” which, he explained, we must “gain” and “keep.” Natural rights, on the other hand, we already possess; government’s purpose is to protect these rights.

It is true that modern political dis­course invites bitter dis­cus­sions, but its problem does not lie in rights lan­guage. Without any standard grounded in nature, fac­tions compete for more rights from gov­ernment. Con­trast that with the founders, who debated the means of pro­tecting pre-existing rights. Most know of the heated debates between Hamilton and Jef­ferson, but they argued over what par­ticular policies would best secure cit­izens’ rights, not prin­ciples.

While human rights are a bad standard, the alter­native of human goods that West advo­cates is worse. The first and most obvious problem with human goods is that they lack an objective standard, which means that majority pref­erence becomes law. The second problem is with West’s example of welfare. What part of the standard of human goods limits the redis­tri­b­ution of property? Is that left to messy public dis­course? If so, that seems dan­gerous for those whose property is being con­fis­cated.

Eval­u­ating this from a natural rights stand­point, the law of self-preser­vation and the right to life offer a clearer solution. Welfare is jus­tified only to pre­serve a person’s life. This pro­tects the property rights in general, it does not allow indi­viduals to be com­fortable on welfare, and it encourages indi­viduals to be indus­trious and pro­ductive.

Rawls’s “Theory of Justice” rejects this idea of a limited welfare state in favor of policies to benefit the “least among us.” Along with liberty and oppor­tunity, Rawls clas­sifies income, wealth, and self-respect as “social primary goods.” I agree that dis­course should con­sider, as West says, “the well-being of all,” but we must return to natural rights for this to be just. If not, how do we refute Rawls’s for­mu­lation that social goods should be “dis­tributed equally unless an unequal dis­tri­b­ution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favored”?

Instead of talking in terms of human rights or goods to arbi­trate between claims of justice, returning to natural rights is the most just solution to our failing political dis­course. But first we must rec­ognize the dis­tinction between human rights or goods, which gov­ernment grants, and natural rights, which gov­ernment pro­tects.

This dis­tinction is important for several reasons. First, it means rights are not subject to public opinion. Second, natural rights are the standard to which we hold all public policy: Is a policy pro­tecting rights or not? When we agree on these prin­ciples, political dis­course centers on the “how” of pro­tecting rights, not the “what” of human rights or goods.

Granted, this requires a con­sensus on natural rights, which is unlikely. But if we are going to shoot for reforming political dis­course, we should at least aim at the right prin­ciples.