Rights Are Right, Right?

Everybody’s got “rights”. Just ask ’em!

Rights to freedom of _________.
Natural rights.
Human rights.
Civil rights.
Property rights.
Privacy rights.
Abortion rights.
Women’s rights.
Gay rights.
Marriage rights.
Workers’ rights.
The right to a minimum wage.
The right to free healthcare.
The right to clean air.

Good Job and Clean Air picketsYou name it, and somebody’s gonna claim it. Everybody’s so sure they’ve got all these rights,… but why? What are rights? Where do they come from?

Simply put, a true ‘right’ is a just claim to something. Someone or something is obligated to allow or provide you that thing you claim and perhaps some associated protections, and others are then obligated to recognize that right. So, rights are, in fact, matters of justice.

There are two main categories of rights. The first is “legal” (or statutory) rights. They are man-made — invented by humans who decide that people within their jurisdiction/influence should be guaranteed a particular thing. Many of these rights are fine, great even. They get codified into laws (obviously), which usually come with certain requirements or obligations in return. Want to drive a vehicle in your home state (and elsewhere)? You have that right, but first you have to prove you are of a minimum age and pass certain tests; then, you have to observe traffic safety laws. (If you ask me, you should also have to prove you are a U.S. citizen or legal resident. But, that’s another subject.) Similar thing for various business licenses, though some are more demanding than others. The thing about these man-made rights is that they are conventional. In other words, they may be given, modified, or taken away, according to the will of the majority or of the ruling body. There is no one and nothing higher to appeal to, if you don’t like it.

The other kind of right is the “natural” (or inalienable) right. Mere humans don’t invent or decide on them; humans discover them. They are “transcendent”. These rights also work in harmony with each other, so that none by itself is better or overrides the other. Examples include the right to life, the freedom to determine your own destiny, the right to the fruit of your own labors, etc. Philosopher John Locke boiled them down to Life, Liberty, Property. Others, like Thomas Jefferson, took a little different read. (Still others, like Jeremy Bentham and Edmund Burke, dismissed them as groundless. The debate continues.) The wonderful thing about natural rights is that you don’t have to do anything (like pass a test or pay a fee) to earn them, nor can they be changed or taken at whim, because no other human being has granted them. They are owed to everyone by virtue of their being human. That is why they are sometimes called “human” rights.

Now, let’s look a little closer at the “transcendent” aspect. You don’t have to make much of a leap to realize I’m referring to a connection to God and morality. If natural, human rights are derived from something that transcends mere humanity, what is that something? Answer: Objective moral principle and the unchanging God from whom those moral obligations originate.

The Founding Fathers of America (and most of their contemporaries) understood this. We see it in the opening paragraphs of The Declaration of Independence:

Declaration of Independence + section of American flagWhen, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….”

There are plenty of other examples of this understanding of the connection between God, morals, and natural rights in the writings of the Founders.

Just to clarify, both “man-made” and “transcendent” rights can and are made into law within every society, though not every society recognizes the same rights with the same sorts of laws. Further, laws granting man-made rights can & should have a moral basis. (In fact, I would hope they all are; otherwise, they become tyrannical (e.g., Nazis & Communists).) Safety laws, for example, are to help ensure people’s health and, uh, safety, which are tied to the right to life. And, as mentioned, the American founding documents begin by recognizing natural rights, then proceed to work out & codify other rights that derive from them — e.g., freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, right to vote, etc.

You might not like the idea of God or of an objective morality that applies to everyone equally. And, of course, you can deny that they exist. But, if you’re going to claim to have any sort of fundamental rights that no one (including church or state) should be able to take away from you, you need to justify such a claim from moral — and, I would say, Biblical — principle. Without a transcendent God, there is no grounding for objective morality. Without objective morality, all “rights” — even the ones you think are basic and “good” — are man-made and can, therefore, be taken away at any time. You can’t scream “No fair!” or “That’s wrong!” or “You’re a bad man!”, because — to be consistent with your view — there is no obligation to do what you think is right or wrong, good or bad, regarding how people (or things) ought to be treated. It’s all personal opinion, preference, and social conventions.

Such is the curse of moral relativism.

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