What Rights Are

There’s an excellent scene in the HBO John Adams miniseries where two members of the Continental Congress, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and John Adams of Massachusetts, have an argument about rights. After Lexington and Concord, Adams pushes for action because “our natural born rights” have been violated. Dickinson answers, “I have looked for our rights in the laws of nature, and can find them only in the laws of political society.”

For a society like ours that values rights so highly, we rarely ask what “rights” actually are. Older times had better arguments. The exchange between Adams and Dickinson is a lucid demonstration of an old difference of opinion on the source of rights.

Adams, by his reference to “natural born rights,” places himself in a Lockean philosophical camp. Some rights can be created in mutual agreement, the “social compact,” through mechanisms like parliament or congress. But the purpose of any compact is to preserve the natural rights that are immutable, that cannot be changed by a  parliament, and which come from our nature, established by our creator. We may give ourselves the right to elect a representative in a civil society, but that civil right cannot be used to take away a natural right like our liberty.

Dickinson speaks like a Burkean, one who agrees with the English view of rights that Edmund Burke espoused. Critical of political philosophies that rely on unseen concepts of absolutes, absolutes which are paradoxically open to interpretation, Burke and Dickinson believe that rights only come from agreement and tradition. They believe that there is wisdom in experience, and change must come slowly. They distrust politics backed only by philosophy. They believe that to cast off tradition for a philosophy is to “brave the storm in a skiff made of paper.”

In the vote for independence, the natural rights school won the day, as reflected in the declaration that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But even the Burkeans were respected by the subsequent sentence which states, “all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms [of government] to which they are accustomed.”

This debate created a healthy balance in its wake. It avoids sudden disruptions, it looks to the input of a society to make change happen, and it acknowledges that while tradition is important, current practice needs more than tradition to prove its justice.

But what do we think rights are today? That is a good question.

Unfortunately, the ruling class is completely unmoored from this previous idea of rights. And since the ruling class also includes the educating class, this confusion trickles down to general society that may be more conducive to an Adams or Dickinson.

One reason for our change is that the idea that Man is created and therefore holds certain rights that derive from his maker, is not accepted. This is the death of Locke. A Lockean idea could be replaced with rights based on the nature of man: an idea about what Man immutably is, but that idea is also unaccepted. It is generally believed that Man is a blank slate, a product of his environment. He is the passing manifestation of evolution, not the finished product of a process with purpose. Just as he came from something different, he will go to something different. There is no “nature.” There is only chance. Such thinking makes “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” more of a useful superstition than an actual truth that can be reasoned from. We sit on the shell of Locke’s thought, but his actual hold on the collective mind is dead.

But if “unalienable rights” are to be preserved as a “useful superstition,” it requires a respect for the past which merits the word “useful.” But that does not exist, either.

The death of Burke is the disdain of the past. Rather than seeing our present position as a gift from our ancestors, our ancestors are seen as evil for not being as enlightened as the present age. It is difficult to have a conversation about sex, marriage, race, family, manners, faith, or politics without the word “old-fashioned” being used as a synonym for “wrong” or even “bigoted.”

This is an accusation of bigotry of the past that ignores the bigotry towards the past: it assumes that the men in the past were of somewhat lesser moral fiber or intelligence, rather than assuming they were the same as people today in a different environment. This ignorance is not only unfair, but dangerous, too. In the name of assumed progress, we let down the guard against new injustice which is equally damning as past injustice, crafted to our present environment just as past injustice was crafted to theirs.

An example of this bigotry towards the past was seen in the Obergefell decision on gay marriage. Proponents read the line, “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times.” It automatically clicked in their mind as an affirmation of a sweeping decision made by a unelected and unrepresentative body in our own times. It was so catchy that it became a slogan, despite the actual meaning of the words supporting the opposite conclusion. The only explanation of that mental jump is a predisposition to trust the present over the wisdom of the past.

As a consequence, when we speak of rights, our speech is splintered, and it usually doesn’t make sense.

When progressives try to pass a law requiring individuals to buy health insurance, they speak of a “right to healthcare.” This is (quite literally) as ridiculous as claiming a “right to be taxed.” It does not make sense. It may or may not be a wise governmental program, but it is a requirement, not a right.

When progressives attempt to expand the ability of women to refrain from have children while still being sexually active, they speak of “reproductive rights.” This claim is ridiculous for two reasons. First, the claimed right is the opposite its description “reproductive.” Second, since in it normally involves the provision of birth control, the “right” is not a freedom of the individual, but a requirement of a third party. It may or may not be a good thing to be sexually active and not have children, but receiving birth control from someone to facilitate that, as a matter of definition, is not a right.

When the Economist, speaking of “the right to die.” says, “The right to die may be a complex moral principle, but is it also a basic human right?” we know we have struck bottom. Normal rights are given by society even if they are not requested. You are given your liberty even if you do not want it. You are given due process even if you do not want it. You have a right to property, even if you think your belongings are junk. As Locke would say, this is because in the absence of society, your “natural state,” you already had these freedoms. Can you imagine trying to put “death” in this type of category? Death is the thing that rights are made to avoid. The right to die is as ridiculous as a robber saying “You are free to give me your wallet” at gunpoint and claiming it to be an actual liberty. We have completely lost our bearings.

The connecting thread of the new talk rights is merely “things that we want.” We speak of the right to healthcare, the right to gay marriage, the right to birth control, the right to a living wage, and the right to die. We speak of these rights even though our natural state does not provide us these things in society’s absence.  We speak of these rights even if there is no law that even hints at the agreement of society that they should be provided. The only reason it makes sense to say these things is that someone, somewhere WANTS them. And the general population cannot distinguish wanting something from a right to something.

And in a society void of any natural rights, tradition, or God which gives an “ought,” the only thing that remains is “want.” It is a truism that you can’t always get what you want. It’s a pity that we’ve begun to think of rights in the same way.


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