Are “Natural Rights” Natural or Right?

There has been a lot of talk about “natural rights” recently. Someone in a comment stated quite graciously (or not) that I had no idea what I was talking about concerning natural law, and that there was a difference between natural law and natural rights. So I decided since I had already displayed my vast ignorance of natural law, it’s only fair and balanced of me to pontificate quite vapidly on natural rights as well.

The most convenient place to start is with Thomas Jefferson’s now immortal, and quite cliché, declaration: “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.”

The idea of natural rights certainly existed before 1776, but the Declaration and the successful “Revolution” that followed it has all but emblazoned this concept on the universal human consciousness. There are a number of things that need to be addressed concerning the philosophical foundation of the Declaration’s first declaration:

  1. When is a truth “self-evident”?
  2. What does “unalienable” really mean?
  3. Is a Creator necessary for the concept of rights, natural or otherwise?

We’ll start with the idea of a “self-evident” truth. Notice the first words of the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” In other words, “In our opinion, these truths are self-evident . . .” And there, from the beginning, is the rub. What if someone else doesn’t agree that these truths are self-evident? What about people who deny that there are any self-evident truths? And this was certainly the case then, as it is today. An appeal to a “self-evident truth” is an appeal to a transcendent and objective standard. Most Americans do not believe such a standard exists. Which is just one more reason why the most recent touting of “natural rights” is so humorous to me.

Then there is that word “unalienable,” which means “unable to be taken away from or given away by the possessor.” Hmm. Is it not rather strange then to set up a civil government to secure rights that are “unable to be taken away”? How could such rights ever be in jeopardy? Paradoxically, the Declaration starts off by proclaiming truths that are purportedly “self-evident” to secure rights that are purportedly “unalienable.” Very odd indeed.

But the next issue is the most problematic. We have already seen that the Founders were comfortable with transcendent concepts, but now they bring in a transcendent God: the Creator. Of extraordinary import for this study, Jefferson’s original wording for the Declaration was that men derived their rights “from that equal creation”—in other words, from our common humanity and the inherent ontological nature of being human (whatever that means). He intended at first to leave the Creator out of it—at least explicitly. He eventually changed the wording, possibly to avoid any conflict with Deists or Christians.

But even mentioning the commonality of our creation implies a Creator. And that is the crucial component of the American understanding of rights that sets it in opposition to the later French Declaration of the Rights of Man or the even later declaration by the United Nations.

Notice Article 1 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It reads similarly to Jefferson’s, but there are profound differences: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

The UN’s declaration leaves a Creator out of it altogether, implicitly and explicitly. People aren’t even “created” in the UN’s wording. They are “born.” Notice that this means that people, before they are born, do not have equal rights. Sound familiar?

The UN declaration is actually much closer to the original concept of “natural rights.” As such, it goes down with the sunk ship of the failed Enlightenment project. Once you remove a Creator from the equation, holding to “self-evident” or “universal” truths and “unalienable” anything becomes completely untenable. In a world that has no transcendent God, there is really no basis for transcendent truths. All consistent atheists understand this: “Without God, everything is permissible.” The very basis of evolutionary thought is the destruction of fixed categories and the obliteration of ontology. This could not and did not stay confined to biology. Its implications have completely revolutionized philosophy, theology, and every other metaphysical arena. For believers in Darwinism, that is.

It is odd to me that people don’t understand this. If something is given by God, men are not allowed to take it away. But without a transcendent God, where do rights come from? Are they bestowed upon us by a temporarily benevolent civil government? This would put those rights in constant jeopardy. (Sound familiar?) These rights would not be “unalienable” in any sense.

Or perhaps rights come from nature? Then why should we have rights that cows or plants don’t have? Why should humans be the sole beneficiaries of nature’s “rights”? Nature does not give out rights. In case you hadn’t noticed, nature doesn’t give a dung-beetle’s lunch what happens to you or anything else. If evolution is true and God doesn’t exist, then there are no “unalienable” rights or “self-evident” truths. That is the flat fact. Sorry if that level of consistency makes you uncomfortable. But you can’t have “unalienable rights” and moral relativism at the same time. You can’t reject God and still cling to universal truths.

Some people seem to be okay with this consistency. It would mean that the most powerful institution on earth—the State—is then the only giver, definer, and protector of rights—including life, liberty, etc. It would mean that might is right. This was why many Anti-Federalists didn’t like the Bill of Rights (and it is one of the reasons the Tenth Amendment was included). They thought that, if the civil government were to define rights, American citizens would assume the civil government had given (and, therefore, could restrict or remove) those rights. They recognized that civil governments do not have the right to give rights, if there is in fact such a thing as a right. But many of them also understood that rights cannot be inherent to our nature or our common “brotherhood.” Rights must be given by someone. Either God gives them, or someone else does. And whoever gives them can take them away.

That is why, even though the Founders were obviously very influenced by the natural rights theories of their contemporaries (e.g., Locke and Paine), they knew better than to found American rights on thin air. So they appealed to a fixed and unchangeable (“self-evident”) Truth and a transcendent Creator. This is why America is still here (for a limited time I’m afraid), whereas France’s Republic went up in the steam of its bloodbath and capitulated to a complete tyranny within a mere generation or so. It is also why I find it so very stupid that people who have denied God and any transcendent truth should appeal to their natural right to anything. And to whom do they make their appeal? To their only god: the State. How ironic that they should go hat in hand to the State to “gain” rights that, purportedly, cannot be given and cannot be taken away. And how ironic that, at that moment when they succeed in getting the State to play God concerning their “rights,” and they are most intoxicated by the “victory” they have won for all humankind; at that very moment, human rights will, in actuality, have suffered another grave defeat.