Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Natural Law Take on "Avatar"

James Cameron recently released his multi-million dollar blockbuster Avatar. I went to see the film (with my dad in tow) despite sub-zero-freezing-cold weather. Although we risked our health by going out in the crummy weather, Avatar was well worth the price of admission as we both gave each other that "wow" while exiting the theater. Rarely, have I had a reaction to film as I did with Avatar. My reaction, however, was not directly attributed to the amazing 3-D technology. Rather, the film illustrated three simple self-evident principles we as a nation have lost sight of in this country: property, liberty, and the right to be self-sufficient.

To give you a little background, the film takes place on the planet, "Pandora", where a human coalition (multi-national corporation with paid military contractors) undertakes a mission to harvest a precious and rare mineral called Unobtanium. The coalition's contractors appear to be paid mercenaries who were former Marines, such as the main character, Jake Sully. The apparent reason for ex-military personnel is to protect the miners from the natives on the planet, known as the Na'vi. The Na'vi are categorized as "hostile" and threaten the basic logistics of the mining operation. The coalition also hires engineers and scientists who have developed Na'vi-like bodies, ("Avatars"), grown from human DNA and alien-Na'vi DNA. Each Avatar is specific to the originating DNA of the human that can drive said Avatar. The purpose of the Avatars is to be pseudo-Ambassadors to establish some type of treaty or exchanges of goods or services for the mineral rights where the main Na'vi tribe's habitat ("Home Tree") rests.

Right To Property

One of the founding principles of our country is the theory of natural law or the law of nature. Natural law follows the belief that our rights do not come from governments or from other men/women; rather, our rights come naturally from our humanity through our birthright. Many great thinkers from St. Thomas Aquinas to John Locke have written compelling treatises on the theory of natural law. Locke's belief in natural rights exists in the text within the Declaration of Independence which states: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." While "the pursuit of Happiness" exists now, the original phrase in this epic line was actually "property", but was removed since the founders did not want it to be mistaken as a mandate for perpetual slavery (considered property at the time). So, we can equally assume the right to property as being just as "self evident" as any other natural right.

Why is this important? Well, on the planet of Pandora, the Na'vi seem consummately aware of natural law (or the law of nature). They know they possess these rights I've discussed, including the right to property. The Na'vi are fully sentient of their ownership of "Home Tree" as their unequivocal property as understood by the homestead principle. While many other places on the planet might arguably be considered public land or fair game for other parties (foreign or domestic) to explore and lay claim, "Home Tree" is not one of them. 

For this reason, any attempt to violate the rights of the Na'vi's property is immoral, unlawful, and the equivalent of outright theft. Absolutely no justification exists to think any other party has rights to someone else property, such as "Home Tree" in this case. We know this to be true since the Na'vi are clearly able to reason and use logic and determine good from evil. Thus, the natural law and natural rights we as humans understand is no different than how the Na'vi practice and live their lives.

Right To Liberty

John Stewart Mill in his work, On Liberty identified the difference between liberty as the freedom to act and liberty as the absence of coercion. Clearly, the Na'vi understand these concepts and embody the very essence of liberty. If we recognize the Na'vi have the right to their property and liberty, we can also conclude that they have the right to defend these values from those who wish to steal or plunder. 

One of the most understood Amendments in the Bill of Rights is the the Second Amendment: the right to bear arms. Ironically, the Second Amendment (I argue) is absolutely required for preserving and protecting all of the other rights bestowed to us by our Creator. The Second Amendment is derives from the basics of self defense which a free and sovereign individual possesses in order to prevent others from infringing on their right to their life. The Na'vi, like Americans, also have this right for all of the reasons I've listed. The Na'vi take to arms not because they are terrorists or brutal barbarians motivated by a lust for carnage. They are motivated because they are sovereign and free people who have the right to live their lives and protect what is rightfully their own. 


The Na'vi have been blessed by an abundance of plants, life, and unlimited natural ecology that allows their tribe to be totally self sustaining and self-sufficient. They are able to use their natural abilities to harvest the necessary resources around them to live the life they want to live. They are true stewards of their natural surroundings and are even able to manifest special powers over horse-like creatures as well as giant-flying-lizards.

Now, despite the offers from human coalition to provide several types of "public goods" (roads, schools, etc) in exchange for the necessary mineral rights of the Na'vi, the Na'vi decline. While it may be inexplicable to the humans in the film why the Na'vi would turn down these items as an equitable barter items, the Na'vi are 100% self-sufficient and have all of the resources they need to sustain their chosen way of life. Certainly, the Na'vi civilization and economy is rather primitive, simple and agrarian, yet no one is forcing or coercing them to retain this standard of living. It is a personal choice based on traditions the tribe believe in, which is the essence of individual liberty.

Self-Defensive Non-Intervention vs. Aggression

In closing, Avatar is a very diverse film that made me think outside of the box. Naturally, some critics of the film are obsessed with the allegorical military references which critics subsequently present as evidence James Cameron "hates the troops." Honestly, I think the topic is a red herring and a distraction from the other more important concepts in the film I've already discussed. This natural reaction of negativity towards a film or director seems common place these days whenever the plot or sub-plot of the film involves the use of force by our military or casts our troops in a bad light.

While James Cameron may or may not "hate the troops", I personally do not care and do not think it matters. So many Americans (even James Cameron perhaps) have forgotten the true purpose WHY the national defense was established in the first place after the Second Continental Congress. The Constitutional calls for the establishment of a "National Defense" to defend the sovereignty, liberty, and property rights of our country. Whether its composition is made up of national guard units, local militia, a navy, marine corps, or any other military division, the purpose remains the same, and that is for self defense. The national defense was NOT intended to be a blank check to apply aggression or police the world as a internationalist arbiter of justice. This is why in Article I Section 8, the Congress has the power to declare war and not the Executive branch. This power was instituted after the founding fathers saw repeated times in history where kings and monarchs would stir up trouble by engaging in wars all over the world at the expense of the citizens who would be conscripted into service and levied with taxes to fund the war effort. The result always yielded terrible consequences to the economies and impoverished the people in the name of safety and security. As Randolph Bourne (a progressive statist) once said, "War is the health of the state" for a reason.

If anything, Avatar IS patriotic and very pro-national defense. The film is a lesson of how a just war should be declared as shown by the Na'vi taking to arms and unifying their people for the sake of moral self defense. Maybe we can learn something from this film from a national defense standpoint by examining the constructs of what just war really means. I love our military brothers in arms who serve and risk their lives. My father is a Veteran and he is my personal hero. I have many friends who serve in the military and they possess all the respect and admiration I can offer. When we ask them to sacrifice their lives, honor, and time away from their families, I would hope it would be only when Congress uses its powers under Article I Section 8 to unleash the fires of hell after declaring war as a matter of self defense. To do otherwise would be wasting our precious blood and treasure as an act of aggression which would never be in the best interest of our proud country.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece, Andy. A point of view of the movie I have not heard yet. Having not seen the movie I cannot comment any further.