Yesterday, Ed wrote a lengthy essay on the subject of the rights of man as established by natural law. This was a companion piece to an article published by Matt Lewis speaking on the same subject. When the topic arose, I briefly mentioned my disagreement with Ed and promised to compose my own thoughts on this. He referenced that at the end of his piece, and this essay is the completion of that hastily arranged contract.
The first thing to address is what seems to be some varying opinions about what the word “rights” actually means. To me, a “right” is something which is essentially immutable and can not be dislodged without great effort. The establishment and maintenance of such rights can be largely (though obviously not always) achieved, but it takes a significant, concerted effort. Also, a “right” should, to my way of thinking, be essentially universal to all men, particularly if it is to be considered a natural right, as in something directly ordained by God or the natural order of the universe.
So what are these universal, “natural rights” which are so widely discussed? The right to life? That sounds like the easiest one we might all point to. And yet, while you may claim to have a “right to life,” my garrote, applied to you unawares from behind, disagrees. If you are unable to stop me, your right to life was overridden by something constructed from a piece of piano wire. How about liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Just look around the world. Many go without liberty and have no avenue to pursue any better life, say nothing of happiness. If there is any punishment coming to those denying them these rights, it often comes only when their oppressors shuffle off this mortal coil and go to meet their Maker. When Ed wrote his essay yesterday, he correctly quoted an immortal document which includes the phrase, “among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” If the phrase starts with “among these” then what are the others? Where are they delineated? Or am I left to pick and choose as I wish?
Then there are the rights listed in the Bill of Rights which Ed also mentions. All are near and dear to my heart. How about some of these other rights we cherish as Americans, such as the right to keep and bear arms, freedom of religion or of the press? Right here at home in many states your “right” to bear arms is suppressed if not nearly eliminated in larger, liberal cities. Our friends in the United Kingdom – one of our closest allies with whom we share a coveted, special relationship – have no such right to arms and can be locked up for unapproved speech in some cases. What of their rights? Has God forsaken them? And the people in Russia can only dream of the rights the British have.
Oh, you can insist that my definition of “rights” is ill conceived and that these are just universal truths. But without some concrete anchor to prove their infallibility, all you are really describing is a wish list. The Founders were wise to be sure, but they were the ones who claimed that these rights emanated from God and defined them for us. Where is that list of rights specifically documented? The last time I checked the Bible, the rights of man were not a large topic of discussion. The duties of man to God are very clearly spelled out, along with rules for how a God fearing, decent person should behave. But a list of the rights of man requires a rather significant leap of interpretation. In the end, while most all of us in the United States can surely agree on what these rights should be and that God would most certainly approve, they were defined and assigned by freedom loving men, not the Creator. And they are hardly universal.
Certainly these “natural rights” are things that most rational, decent people could agree upon as things that would be wonderful indeed. But if we are to accept that, then how do you deny someone else claiming a “right” which you don’t support? What of the liberal who claims they have a God given right to health care? Or even the right not to be offended by the speech of others? I can find you a library of examples of both with only a few moments on Google. Some of these same folks regularly point to the General Welfare clause and insist that this means they have a God given right to social security and any other number of safety net items. Are they right? Or are they misinterpreting the words of the founders? Oh, my… now we have another debate on our hands.
So which rights shall you claim are natural and God given while saying that the rights your neighbor claims are false? And who among you will provide us with the full list, “among which” are found life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? At this point I would revisit a portion of Ed’s essay which was well received by those supporting the concept of natural rights.
The combinations of an enforceable Constitution and the deliberative nature of the structure of our republic keeps our society from imposing its will by mob rule. Many nations have constitutions, both written or traditional, that carry little weight, and most of those only use them for window dressing for tyranny. Our tradition remained vibrant because we believed that our rights didn’t come from condescension by politicians, but from God and “unalienable” by human action, regardless of the power and corruption that may be presented. Our Constitution protects against both, however imperfectly, and will — until we stop believing in the philosophy that fuels its power.
Sound good? Excellent. Now let’s trim that down a bit and just look at the first two lines.
The combinations of an enforceable Constitution and the deliberative nature of the structure of our republic keeps our society from imposing its will by mob rule. Many nations have constitutions, both written or traditional, that carry little weight, and most of those only use them for window dressing for tyranny.
Who is enforcing that Constitution and holding off mob rule? It is the tenuous grasp of mortal men. Certainly you can fire back at me and say that this is only true and possible because of the will of God, but I could fill up an encyclopedia with examples of places where two people sitting in the same church pew on Sunday morning or a pastor and a priest standing at pulpits only a mile apart will disagree on the precise specifics of what the Lord wills.
The Constitution was not written by God, but by very good and largely God fearing men hoping to be guided in their work by His teachings. They were patriots, not prophets or saints. The founders were wise, but referring back yet again to what Ed wrote in his essay, they created a document which contained an unspoken acknowledgement that it was not flawless scripture. Our rights were set forth at that time but apparently we missed a lot of details as to what the Good Lord intended, since we continued adding to or modifying those rights as we progressed. (We were still editing the right to vote as recently as 1971.) The founders were not carrying tablets down from a mountain top, but debating – sometimes fiercely – precisely what our rights would be. And they built into that framework the mechanism for it to be altered, expanded and improved by the generations to come. The same can not be said of the Bible.
I do not quibble with the use of the word “rights” when it comes to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights or the actions of the government which I feel infringe on these same principles. Calling the first ten amendments the Bill of Rights is just fine by me. I only come into conflict with my friends on this topic when we begin talking about “natural rights” and “natural law” in relation to these concepts. On that score, I have my own views. And with that we come to the core of my own long held musings on an important philosophical point. I say this with the full knowledge that it sounds cold, harsh, and to a certain degree hopeless, but it seems undeniably true.
If we wish to define the “rights” of man in this world, they are – in only the most general sense – the rights which groups of us agree to and work constantly to enforce as a society. And even that is weak tea in terms of definitions because it is so easy for those “rights” to be thwarted by malefactors. To get to the true definition of rights, I drill down even further. Your rights are precisely what you can seize and hold for yourself by strength of arm or force of wit. Anything beyond that is a desirable goal, but most certainly not a right and it is obviously not permanent. And that’s why you must be eternally vigilant and careful in protecting those “rights” we have established for ourselves as part of our imperfect attempts to interpret the will of the Creator.