William Gillis rejects natural rights theory as a basis for libertarianism, on the grounds that “as a theoretical physicist I find its assumptions (like the distinction between positive and negative action) about as reasonable as golden thrones in the clouds and holy trinities.”
I must gently point out that if an idea is inherently crazy when it shows up in the premises, it cannot suddenly become okay when it shows up in the conclusion (even if the conclusion is now derived from different premises). Or, equally, if it is okay in the conclusion, then it can’t be inherently crazy in the premises. In other words, when an idea (such as the distinction between positive and negative action) is all-pervasively presupposed in one’s policy proposals, one cannot coherently reject the distinction as part of the basis for those proposals.
Incidentally, I don’t know what the grounds for William’s skepticism of the positive/negative distinction are, but some critics of the distinction argue that if one’s decision (be it a decision to “kill” or a decision to “let die”) is part of the overall constellation of circumstances that is sufficient for someone’s death, then there is no interesting metaphysical (not just ethical) distinction between the two cases. I think this argument is confused; here’s a story from Fred Miller that’s useful therapy for such confusion:
A and B are hitchhikers who catch a ride with C. C drops A off in D-town and B off in E-town. In D-town, A sees F standing near the edge of a cliff; A pushes F off the cliff; F falls into the river and drowns. In E-town, B sees G standing near the edge of a cliff; G falls off the cliff on his/her own; B could save G, but instead stands and watches G drown.
Now in order to claim that there is no interesting metaphysical difference between A’s relation to F’s death and B’s relation to G’s death, one must in strict consistency also claim that there is no interesting metaphysical difference between C’s relation to F’s death and C’s relation to G’s death; C either makes a causal contribution (and we’re not talking about moral responsibility, just causal contribution) to both deaths or to neither. But no one (presumably) will seriously make such a claim. Obviously C makes an (inadvertent) causal contribution to F’s death but not to G’s. (To deny this, I maintain, is to fail to recollect the grammar of the concept of causation.) Hence there must also be a difference between A’s relation to F’s death and B’s relation to G’s death, QED.