On Rights: What They Are, Which We Have, and Where They Come From

posted in: Philosophy | 0

The preamble to the Declaration of Independence states, in part:

“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.”

America also has a Bill of Rights, outlining several more specific rights which the government should respect. For instance, the 2nd Amendment says that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

For another example, the 4th Amendment says We the People have the right “to be secure in [our] persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.” For still another example, the 1st Amendment says we have “the right… peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

For an even more startling example, the 9th Amendment says, “the enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In layman’s terms, our rights should not be thought limited to only what is written down in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Rather, our rights extend beyond, must have existed before, and come from some place higher than these documents.

As you have surely been told, devising and instituting a government on these terms was a bold move by the Founding Fathers. No, it was more. It was an unprecedented move. To establish a government on the premise that people should be free, that the government should serve the people only to preserve their liberty – this was and still is a monumental departure from the paradigm of nations and rulers all over the world and throughout history.

But were those Founding Fathers being presumptuous?

What are rights?

What are rights, and do we have any? There is a great deal of disagreement surrounding this and related questions these days.

Women march in the streets wearing obscene hats in defense of a supposed “right” to abort their children or receive free or heavily subsidized contraceptives at the expense of the government. Meanwhile you can expect blank or hostile stares in many parts of America by referring to your right to keep and possess firearms, even though this right is found near the very top of the Bill of Rights.

This then begs the question. What are rights, and do we have any? If you say you have the right to terminate your children, I say you do not. If I say I have the right to keep and bear arms, you may say I do not. Which of us is right in which case, and how can we know?

In the first place, what are rights? Are they the opposite of wrongs? Perhaps in part that is what they are. But more fundamentally, rights are the liberties we have before God to do or have this or that thing. Rights are the decisions and freedoms we are entitled to.

According to Merriam-Webster.com, one definition of a right is “something to which one has a just claim.” Another is “something that one may properly claim as due.”

So then, whatever we have a just claim to, and whatever we can properly claim is due us is our right.

That question settled, we move on to the next. Do we have any of these rights? Are there things we have a just claim to, or that we can claim are our due? Here I am inclined to agree with the Founding Fathers. We do indeed have rights. This is self-evident.


What rights do we have?

Supposing we have rights, what rights do we have? And how can we know what they are?

First, let us go back to the idea of our rights being, in some sense, the opposite of wrongs. For instance, it would be wrong for you to break into my house and steal this computer I am writing on. We know this from many sources. For one, as a Christian, I recall the Ten Commandments in the Law of Moses. “Thou shalt not steal.” For another, we have what is known as “the natural law” written on our hearts and consciences. Even a godless person will instinctively agree it is wrong to steal, at least from him.

But we must be able to see both sides of the coin here. If it would be wrong of you to trespass on my private property by breaking into my home unwelcome, and if it would be wrong of you to steal this computer that belongs to me, that invariably means two things.

First, you do not have a right to do whatever you please with my property, coming and going into my house whenever you like, and taking my things without my permission.

Second, I do have a right to my property. These things are mine to do with as I please, so long as I am not violating the rights of others in the process of exercising my own.

I would argue, therefore, that we have rights where we know it would be wrong for someone to do something against us. If the Ten Commandments say “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” we know we have the right to not be slandered.


Where do our rights come from?

Supposing we have rights and know what they are, where do they come from? Do they come from human authorities or from God?

Remember again that in America today many women suppose they have a right to terminate their unborn children. And many others suppose you and I do not have a right to own and carry a firearm to defend ourselves from those who would molest and abuse us. Who is right, and who is wrong, and how can we know?

It helps to establish where our rights come from. Let us consider the options.

Do our rights come from the government? If so, the government can say you have no rights whatsoever if it suits them. But that is not right, and we know it instinctively.

A Christian living in North Korea has no less right to own a Bible than a Christian living in the United States. Neither the North Korean government nor the American government decide what our rights are. They merely decide whether to acknowledge, respect, and protect our rights, or not.

How about the people, then? Do our rights come from the culture and community around us? And are our rights limited to what those around us accept? This is arguably more absurd than supposing our rights come from the government.

Suppose a kid goes to school with lunch money. Is it wrong for one kid to beat him up and take that lunch money, but right if most of the class votes that the kid has no right to his own money? Or does the kid only have a right to his own lunch money if most of the school agrees?

Supposing our rights come from the people or government invites tyranny and oppression. Our rights must be universal and come from God.


What should we do when our rights are infringed?

Supposing I have successfully settled the prerequisite questions – what rights are, what rights we have, and where our rights come from – I would like to ask, and hopefully answer, one final question. What should we do when our rights are infringed?

Suppose someone breaks into my house and steals my computer. My rights have been infringed by another. I should alert the authorities. I should call the police. The trespasser and thief should be arrested; my property should be returned. Does anyone have any objections to this course?

Suppose further that someone attacks me. They intend to abuse or kill me. One of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not murder.” I deduce from that a right to not be murdered. And if I call law enforcement to come and save my life, are they murderers if they use deadly force to defend my rights and oppose the evildoer? Or am I an accomplice to murder for having called them if my assailant is killed by the police as they try to save me from him?

I believe the answer to these questions is, again, self-evident. It may not be easy or comfortable, but things that are right are not always easy and comfortable. So that is beside the point.

But suppose the government does not recognize my rights. More troubling still, suppose the government too violates my rights, and might become the chief violator of my rights. What then? Suppose the people or the government drift away from securing our rights and begin supposing they are the supreme arbiters of rights and wrongs. If they decide to deal capriciously with us, what should we do and say? And should we not defend our rights in word and deed?

If not, why not?

Follow Garrett Mullet:

Christian, husband to a darling wife, and father to seven children - I enjoy pipe-smoking, playing strategy games on my computer, listening to audio books, and writing. When I'm not asking you questions out loud, I'm endlessly asking myself silent questions in my head. I believe in God's grace, hard work, love, patience, contemplation, and courage.