The subject of rights is what I like to think of as a cornerstone subject. It is the premise from which so many other arguments fall into place. I was planning to write a post on America’s dysfunctional healthcare “system,” for instance, but that’s a topic which, in my mind, begins with the fundamental question of what our rights are. Consequently, rather than do an inordinately lengthy post involving two equally important subjects I would like to first talk about the subject of rights. Maybe tomorrow I’ll get onto healthcare (I know you can hardly wait).
The concept of human rights, and the rights of American citizens in particular, is something that I’ve given a great deal of thought to over the years. I wrote an essay on the subject on my old blog back in July of 2011. Thinking I might save myself some time and just tweak that post a bit I revisited it this morning, but upon reading it again I ultimately decided just to re-post it in its originally form even though I might have revised it somewhat if I were starting over today. The reason I’m doing so is because the ensuing discussion in the comment section, which I am also re-printing following the essay, includes what I believe is a thought-provoking dissent and discussion between myself and a fellow blogger whom some of you may remember, DrPete. Here it is from 2011:
What Makes a Right a Right?
There’s a lot of discussion over at Townhall, and I’m sure it’s the same on other conservative blogging sites, about the origin of our “rights.” Some say our rights come from God, some say they are derived from the Constitution, some say they come from nature and some say they simply exist and are not granted or bestowed on us by anyone or anything. In reality, none of the above is true.
What makes a right a right – what gives it value, in other words – is the mutual agreement that such a right exists and/or the ability to defend that right.
Consider a scenario in which two people are stranded on a deserted island with no expectation of being rescued. Now suppose that the stronger of the two demands that the other work as his slave, or else he will kill him. If the right to life and freedom were truly unalienable, then the weaker fellow need simply assert those rights and the problem would be immediately resolved, correct? In reality though, if the stronger man does not agree to those rights and cannot be held accountable for depriving the weaker man of them, then those “rights” are meaningless and may as well not exist at all.
It is the Declaration of Independence which declares that, “…all men…are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights;” however, the mere declaration of such rights is not sufficient to establish them. If it was, then we would also be enjoying the right to free food, housing and medical care as per the declaration of such rights by one resident leftist over at Townhall. Anyone can declare themselves entitled to “rights,” as the Left frequently proves. Going back now to the DOI, England did not agree that our right to liberty was “unalienable.” We had to fight to defend it, with many learning in the process that the right to life is not so “unalienable” either. Ultimately it was only the demonstration of our ability to defend those “rights” that preserved them for the remaining Americans.
The Constitution does not “grant” us rights; however, it does three vital things that give us the best chance for being able to exercise certain rights. First, it defines those rights with specificity, the founders having undoubtedly understood that specificity is key to enforceability. Next, by incorporating the Bill of Rights into the Constitution they established the presumption of mutual agreement by virtue of citizenship. It is this presumption of assent that then makes it possible to establish a means to defend those rights by way of due process and our justice system. Brilliant? That’s up to each of us to judge, but what it says to me is the founders astutely understood the intangible and precarious nature of “rights” and the problems associated with both guaranteeing and not guaranteeing them.
Ultimately our “rights” are only as good as our ability to enforce them. Keep that in mind whenever someone presumes to declare what their rights are.
Posted by CW
Oh geeez, there’s such a love fest here. Why do I wanna rain on a parade with everyone so in step with each other? That a right isn’t a right unless you are powerful enough or have bigger weapons for self-defense is nonsequitur. Though a misuse of the phrase, might does NOT make right.
I guess our government has a right to hand us unfunded liabilities of $120 trillion, current debt of $14+ tril, and deficit exceeding $100 bil per month. Why? They/ve done it and we weren’t powerful enough to stop them. They have the tanks and the nukes.
The Bill of Rights does NOT specify our rights. It provides civic examples of them. For example, the 2nd amendment affirms our unalienable right to liberty and to self-defense of our unalienable rights.
Because I have an unalienable right to life, doesn’t NOT mean that I’m impenitrable. Someone who murders me violates my right to life, and THAT is why murder is a crime.
Actually, drpete, although I’d been mulling over this subject for some time, it was something you said that finally inspired this post. You said something about having the right to abuse your dog if you like, because of your inalienable right to property (I’m paraphrasing so please correct me if I got that wrong). This was a bit puzzling to me, since most local governments have laws against abusing animals and hey, didn’t Michael Vick spend a couple of years in prison for abusing his dogs? How can that be, I wondered, if we have “the right” to treat animals as we please? I considered debating the issue with you but ultimately I figured, what was the point? All declarations aside, you can’t enforce your “right” to abuse animals, and the reason you can’t enforce it is because society won’t let you. So what does that say about your “right” to abuse your dog? If it’s a right, it’s a worthless one. That’s why the premise of this post was to understand what gives a right VALUE. That understanding, IMO, is of greater consequence than any one individual declaring what his rights are because, as you know, 10 different people will give 10 different lists if they’re asked to list their rights.
>>”Someone who murders me violates my right to life, and THAT is why murder is a crime.”
What about those countries where men can legally murder their wives or daughters? If it’s not a crime, does that mean those women and girls don’t have a right to life? While I agree in principle that people have the right to live, I would say that murder is a crime here because citizens have come to a mutual agreement that it will not be tolerated and society has enforced its will by creating and enforcing laws against it.
I am more convinced now, CW, that our disagreement is semantic. If some people have government pass and enforce law infringing on my unalienable (from the Creator) right to liberty, I contend that such a right still exists, but is being illegally infringed. You say that, since the right is no longer exercisable, it doesn’t exist.
Am I correct, then, that while I’ll fight to the end to impeach the progressive plunderers, you’ll merely say “c’est la vie”?
Yes, drpete, I think semantics is definitely a factor in our disagreement.
>>”You say that, since the right is no longer exercisable, it doesn’t exist.”
I wouldn’t say that they don’t exist, in part because I can’t say that they ever existed in the first place. I would say that if you cannot exercise a “right,” it becomes meaningless.
>>”Am I correct, then, that while I’ll fight to the end to impeach the progressive plunderers, you’ll merely say “c’est la vie”?”
No, that’s not correct. A right BEGINS with our belief that we are entitled to certain things, and when we declare something to be our right we are essentially asserting that we intend to fight for that entitlement. That’s what the authors of the Declaration of Independence were doing when they wrote that document. They were notifying England and anyone else of concern what they were prepared to fight for. It was, essentially, their line in the sand.
Like everyone else, I believe there are certain things in life I am entitled to, including life, liberty and property, and I am willing to sacrifice and fight for those things. But my declaration of these entitlements does not guarantee that others will agree with me and honor my right to them. This is why the Constitution, to the extent that we are able to uphold it, is so vital. As the Law of the Land it provides the assumption of mutual agreement and the mechanism of defense that give our rights significance.
I think, CW, that the Founders DEDUCED that humans must be born with certain rights, that human life made no sense without these rights having been endowed. They were certainly also aware that in the entire history of humankind, those rights had been infringed and plundered by despots of one or another stripe.
These men set out to forge America as the first place in history to respect, protect, and defend those rights. I agree with their thinking processes, their deductions, and their conclusions. And I’d like to help restore their vision.
I think you’re right, drpete, but in the end they were merely men and their deductions were merely their opinions, just like you and I (except that I’m not a man, but you get what I mean). I agree they showed enormous wisdom and I, too, would like to see it restored, but this brings us back to the eternal struggle – what gives us the “right” to do so if others disagree with that vision? I would say that, to the extent we have the “right” it’s because the Constitution is still the Law of the Land and mutual agreement is implicit; but enforcing it is a whole other ball of wax.
In your last post you talked about marching on Washington to physically remove those people that you perceive to be illegally messing with the Constitution, and restoring the founders’ vision via your own “benevolent dictatorship.” Doesn’t that sort of smack of the “might makes right” which you chided me for? That’s not meant to be any sort of gotcha. I’m sincerely interested in what you see as the difference.
Might, CW, doesn’t MAKE right, but self-defense with force as necessary to protect and defend life, liberty and property is an unalienable (from the Creator) right with which each of us is endowed. It is THAT — self-defense — that We the People empowered our federal government, the authority and duty to do collectively what each of us had the right to do individually.
Now that the federal government has overstepped its authority (by in my estimation fourfold) and plundered, rather than defended, individual liberty, it is the right of each and all of us to UNDO that.
As aside, it scares me that the federal government is not only the enemy of the people, but it out “guns” us by a cubic pantload.
I want to disagree, CW, with your contention that the Founders’ “deductions were merely their opinions . . . ” The conclusions they drew from reasonable premises and deductive reasoning, it seems to me logically follow.
Humans have intelligence both different from and superior to other animals and all plantlife. They are capable of planning and organizing, of inventing, of agriculture and manufacturing, of choosing and behaving as they choose. Choices have consequences. Behaviors have consequences. Humans are capable of living and surviving, indeed thriving, sans cooperation or assistance.
They must be free to choose or they cannot help in their own survival. Their first property is themselves. The taking of a human life is totally unnecessary for a human to survive and thrive. The right to control one’s own property, oneself, is. Etc. Etc.
Such thinking isn’t just opinion. It’s logic. It’s rational. It’s the opposite of progressivism which is mindless feeling.
drpete: I agree with you that it’s logical and rational, but so what? That’s merely my opinion, agreeing with your opinion which agrees with the Founders’ opinions. To the extent that you can persuade people with that reasoning, that’s great.
A liberal I used to argue with once said that the right to life means we also have the right to food, housing and employment because life cannot be sustained without these things. That, to him, seemed perfectly logical, therefore HE was right. You see?
The only thing we have going for us right now is the Constitution, because (at the risk of being obnoxiously repetitive) it is still the Law of the Land and it still contains the assumption of mutual agreement that existed at the time of the founding, and which is the only way, IMO, to enforce our “rights” (other than by physical confrontation, and the odds, as you point out, are against us). Granted, the Constitution is hanging by a thread…
Your arguing here, CW, reminds me, sorry, — Oh don’t go there, Pete, don’t — of my wife. “It’s just YOUR opinion. Others have THEIR opinions. Doesn’t make you right.”
There ARE facts. And 2+2=4, regardless of someone’s opinion. I have a pantload of facts to support my premises that humans have assets that other animals don’t and that plants don’t. Once there, reasonable premises added to facts yield logical and supportable and verifiable conclusions. Data and observation prove those with contradictory opinions WRONG.
I knew I shoulda quit while I was only slightly behind.
It’s obvious, drpete, that your wife is an intelligent woman (she chose you, didn’t she?). If facts and logic ruled the day, we wouldn’t have a leftist in the Whitehouse.
I rest my case. 🙂
November 15, 2016, epilog:
The subject of what determines rights, along with many other subjects, churns in my head continuously and refines itself as – I like to think – I refine myself. If I were to start over and write that post today I would change the last sentence of my first paragraph which said, “In reality, none of the above is true.” Instead, I would say, our belief in where our rights originate doesn’t necessarily matter except to ourselves, or except to the extent that we are able to persuade others of our logic or righteousness. I stand by my contention that what gives a right value is our willingness to assert and fight for that right as well as our ability to defend and exercise it.
In this country and around the world we are constantly seeing epic struggles over the question of rights. Today, groups like Black Lives Matter and other leftist organizations are increasingly trying to assert “rights” not found in the Constitution through violence, force and intimidation. Any failure on the part of our ostensibly representative government to fight back with equal force, as has certainly been the case under the current leftwing regime, is akin to recognizing their claims. We can take some comfort in knowing that these movements have come and gone in the past and establishing rights by violence and hissy fits has been rejected by virtue of the voters directing a change in control of government, but the peace generally comes with some unwritten bargain that nudges that line in the sand to give more room to the would-be anarchists and less to those of us who still support the Constitution as originally intended. The election of Donald Trump – and rejection of Hillary Clinton – is one side’s way of telling the other side that they have once again gone too far. The question now is, where will Trump & Co. reset the line?