SODOM & GOMORRAH: Where do rights come from?
Hardly a day goes by where I don’t read a complaint against Rick Santorum, liberals, or the government about the origin of rights. Any time someone makes a statement that rights come from the government, an army of people line up to shout.
I have seen a few arguments in response to the claim that rights come from the government.
First, rights come from God. God grants rights, we use those rights, and government has no say in the rights. The main justification in America for this view is the Declaration of Independence which states “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.” There are a few sentences that follow that, for our purposes, deserve to be included here:
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Now within this, we see a few things. First that the Creator endows people with unalienable (cannot be given up) rights. These include the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Following this, we see that to secure these rights, we make governments. When the government fails to secure these three plus others (the others are unknown, we merely see that the three are “among” certain unalienable rights) that we also have the right to abolish or alter the government. So we have four rights clearly laid out: life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and the right to alter or abolish the government.
Others, we must assume, are enumerated in the Bible. The question of where is raised here. There are some decent responses in the comments, but naturally this site must rely on arguments that go deeper than “Bro, it’s common sense…”
Second, rights come from the Constitution. Is this seriously an answer to the claim that the government gives us rights? A simple reply that yes, in fact, they do give us our rights. The Constitution sets up the government of the United States, plus certain amendments that guarantee rights – free speech, free religion, free assembly, bearing arms, not being searched without cause or warrant, etc. Per Article 5 of the Constitution, all of this is, presumably, fair game in a constitutional convention. If we can make an amendment to ban alcohol, then to un-ban alcohol, we can likewise make an amendment to disallow free speech. There is no limit to what Congress can change. What the government guarantees, it can un-guarantee.
Third, rights are a social construct. This article is just silly. One, it’s an insult to lump “conservatives” with “John Locke.” Baboons have come up with more well-thought out arguments than Locke. The man and all his followers disparaged God and opened the door for rights “subject to change.” Two, it’s an insult to say that “philosophers” are concerned with is/ought problems. David Hume came up with the ridiculous idea that the state of the world (“is”) couldn’t be confused with the wished-for state of the world (“ought”). The argument is that morals and science never cross paths; they are separate domains. We say this is a ridiculous idea because science tells us that we get hungry and the minute we put food in our mouth, we have crossed the is/ought line by saying “I ought not to feel this way.” We may assume that Hume and the author of the article died within a few days of writing this brilliant idea down. Three, the author is stupid. He or she claims that “no one seriously defends” the idea that God gives rights because God supposedly blessed monarchy, genocide, polygamy, parental killing of disrespectful children, etc. The author clearly does not read the same sites I read… And I dare say that genocide is an entirely modern concept – one that stems, in part, from the notion that rights are subject to change due to social consensus. The setting up of death camps and factories to do away with entire ethnic groups was a modern invention. Four, just because these mysterious, unnamed philosophers have disagreed with each other over where rights come from doesn’t mean that there isn’t an answer – it more likely means that philosophers (at least the ones that the writer of the article appears to be reading) are also idiots.
Defenders of “rights as a social construct” must come up with a better argument than the absence of a definitive answer.
So where do rights come from? From God, I would argue – if we’d bother to actually read what HE said about rights instead of what other people say He guarantees us. However, most rights are tied to the government. The right to a fair trial assumes a world where trials take place and where laws are enforced. Rights are social, not because they’re constructed socially, but because they operate in a social world. Rights are political rights because they are rights within the polis; rights are civil rights because they are exercised within the civis.