Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.
Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832) 1

The delicious phrase "nonsense on stilts", and less frequently the original version of "nonsense upon stilts" is occasionally used in the English press to scorn something, implying that not only is it wrong, but it is wrong in a pretentious, stilted and grandiose manner.

The phrase suggest that proceeding from false premises, it constructs a brain-numbing edifice, like one of Salvador Dalí's absurd elephants with long, spindly legs. And perhaps it does not seem wrong when viewed from above – it looks grand if you are distracted from the illogical foundations of the complexity. See also the saying If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.

Many people find much of philosophy, literary criticism, postmodernism and other academic pursuits to be nonsense on stilts. However the phrase can and has been applied to just about anything, government policy being a particularly ripe area.

The philosopher Jeremy Bentham originated the phrase in the quotation given above.


1) Bentham was not arguing that people should not have rights, but is saying that these rights do not exist in nature and are not absolute, but are human institutions decided by law – i.e. are matters for debate, not of dogma. See utilitarianism. I can see his point but I don't entirely agree. In my opinion, there are some absolutes in human nature and some questions of morality are not up for grabs.

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