Ideas have consequences

Where do our human rights come from? According to the Declaration of Independence,

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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

Our rights, according to the Declaration, are ours because God gave them to us: we have certain rights by virtue of being human. Just because of who and what we are we have rights which cannot be taken away from us.

Okay, so what happens when (for example) a government pretends to grant us those human rights, and presumes on that basis to have the authority to withhold them from us when it deems fit? In the event that this happens, that government will have usurped its authority. It will have taken upon itself powers which it intrinsically lacks, and to the extent that it abridges human rights it has delegitimized itself.

This seems rather obvious on the face of it, I suppose, but sometimes we need to have cold water thrown in our faces. The truth may be obvious, but that does not mean it is always acknowledged. Sometimes we have to be reminded of what we should never forget. Pope Leo XIII gave us such a reminder in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (aside from many other reminders in that excellent document). In particular I have in mind what the Pope had to say about the family as one example of what I am talking about:

Hence we have the family, the “society” of a man’s house – a society very small, one must admit, but none the less a true society, and one older than any State. Consequently, it has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State. (RN 12)

Families do not exist at the whim of the State, as though they are some kind of stop-gap to hold things together only because the State lacks the resources to fill the role of the family. So if a court (or some other agent of the State) pretends to be the source of the family’s authority, we may be sure that it does not know what it is talking about, or that it is attempting to exercise an authority which it emphatically lacks.

So it is with all our natural human rights. The State does not grant them to us, and consequently it cannot withhold them from us (though I would not deny that a prudential regulation of them may in some cases be necessary for the common good, of course: I am not allowed to shout Fire in a crowded theater unless there really is one, and this is for the best). We need to remember where our rights come from. If we forget, we may acquiesce in the day when usurpers take them away from us. Ideas have consequences, and to forget the idea that our natural human rights are ours by nature and not by the State’s whim or donation is to become helpless in the face of tyranny.

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Posted in America, Rerum Novarum, Veritatis Splendor, Western Civilization
6 comments on “Ideas have consequences
  1. Unfortunately, it seems that a variety of people claim to speak for God. A fundamentalist Muslim may believe that women have no right to show their face in public, and requires them to wear a burka.

    Basically there two kinds of rights: “rhetorical” and “practical”. Those who invoke God or Nature are speaking rhetorically. They are attempting to convince you to believe in their vision of rights by appealing to your emotional attachment to God or Nature. And that was Jefferson’s motive for saying men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”.

    It’s rhetoric. To show that it is more than rhetoric Jefferson would have to arrange for God to come down here and speak for Himself. And, who knows, He might say women need to wear burkas.

    But Jefferson goes on. He says, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. And now we are talking about “practical rights”.

    A practical right is one that we have agreed to respect and protect for each other. We reach agreement through a legislature made of people we elect. They pass laws against behavior that violates a right. Laws against theft protect the right to property. And we agree to provide a judicial system of courts to hear cases of theft. And we agree to finance the building of correctional facilities for the guilty. And we agree to hire police to arrest the thief.

    All practical rights arise by agreement. If I’m your neighbor and see someone trying to steal your car, then I will call the police. And I’d expect you to do the same for me. That’s our agreement with each other, to respect and protect certain rights for each other.

    And that is the difference between rights that are practical and those that are merely rhetorical.

  2. aquinasetc says:

    Hello Marvin,

    Thank you for commenting. You wrote:

    Unfortunately, it seems that a variety of people claim to speak for God.

    That’s as may be, but I make no such claim for myself. :-)

    Basically there two kinds of rights: “rhetorical” and “practical”. Those who invoke God or Nature are speaking rhetorically.

    I see no reason to accept your claims here. To simply sweep away talk of God or natural law with a rhetorical wave of your hand is a long ways from justifying the deed. :-)

    And that was Jefferson’s motive for saying men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”.

    I would be very interested in documentary evidence to the effect that his personally declared motive was solely rhetorical.

    To show that it is more than rhetoric Jefferson would have to arrange for God to come down here and speak for Himself.

    No he wouldn’t. All he would have to do is appeal to the Western philosophical tradition, which is millennia old.

    A practical right is one that we have agreed to respect and protect for each other.

    As you yourself concede, this reduces talk of rights to a matter of majority rule. That is a thin reed to lean on. A majority of Germans in the mid-20th century voted for some rather appalling abrogations of rights. Does the fact that they were a majority legitimize what happened? Of course not.

    Natural law is based upon far more than mere consensus, and appeals to divine authority aren’t necessarily just tugs on the heart strings. In defense of my article I appeal to Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, which is essentially unanswered by modern philosophy inasmuch as the moderns have followed Descartes, who wanted nothing to do with Aquinas or Aristotle. Reading Aristotle is what transformed Tony Flew from a flaming atheist into a cautious theist. He should not have stopped there, though; he should have read Aquinas as well. :-)

    Peace to you,

    Fred

    • Yes. The majority is often very wrong. After all, we had a couple hundred years of racial slavery followed by another hundred years of segregation and discrimination, and we are still dealing with the damage done to both races.

      But I suspect that God was invoked on both sides of the debate, and, since there is nothing biblical that says to stop slavery, we must assume that the point was rhetorical, since God did not speak for himself on the issue. Even Jefferson had slaves and had to put up with the compromise in the Constitution.

      So we cannot really go by a set of rights defined by God. Agreed?

      That leaves Nature or perhaps “that which seems natural”. I believe that “what seems natural” will also vary from person to person. One may claim it is natural to own slaves. Another may claim it is unnatural to own slaves. How do we determine which is “more natural” than the other?

      I believe that both are equally rhetorical devices.

      The sorry fact is that we are left with “us” as the final arbiters in matters of rules and the rights they protect. As Pogo is oft quoted, “we have met the enemy, and he is us”.

      So how do rules and rights get better (hopefully) over time?

      Moral persons seek the best good and the least harm for everyone. Moral judgment evaluates rights and rules in terms of the benefits and harms they are likely to produce for everyone.

      After all the rhetoric is removed, slavery was abandoned because the harm being done to those enslaved was finally viewed as greater than the benefit of cheaper cotton goods.

      It was only after people made this judgment in their hearts that they would rhetorically enhance their decision by attributing it to God or Nature.

      First comes moral judgment. Next comes steps to create a new social norm. Finally, the norm is disseminated and blessed by the church and the state.

  3. aquinasetc says:

    Ugh. I did not know that block quotes in comments would be formatted the same as in blog posts. Sorry for the eyesore here.

    Fred

  4. aquinasetc says:

    Hello again Marvin,

    You wrote: “But I suspect that God was invoked on both sides of the debate, and, since there is nothing biblical that says to stop slavery, we must assume that the point was rhetorical, since God did not speak for himself on the issue.”

    This assumes first of all that there are no indications in the Bible that slavery was provisionally tolerated by God, and secondly that there is no development of doctrine. But both of these premises are false. In the first place, the Jews were not allowed to make slaves of one another except temporarily; in the second, St. Paul says in Galatians that in Christ there is neither slave nor freeman because the slave is free in Christ and the freeman is Christ’s slave.

    In the second place there is clearly development of doctrine even within the Bible: in the OT polygamy was tolerated (and even regulated) but in the NT monogamy (the creation institution) became established again as the norm.

    Lastly, the fact that two gentlemen both appeal to the Bible doesn’t make the Bible useless as a rule, since one (or both) of the gentlemen may be wrong in their understanding of Scripture. So the fact that both North and South appealed to the Bible does not mean that we cannot identify those who were correct and those who were incorrect. It seems to me (though I may be mistaken of course) that your view (so far as I understand it) depends upon the idea that there is no authoritative interpreter of the Bible such that the truth of one man’s interpretation cannot be distinguished from whether another man’s is true. But this is an unwarranted premise.

    You wrote: “So we cannot really go by a set of rights defined by God. Agreed?” No, I’m afraid we are not in agreement, for the reasons I have just put forward. Furthermore we are not limited in our understanding of human rights to what God has revealed. We can by means of reason reach quite a few conclusions about how we ought to behave towards each other. The Golden Rule, for example, was formulated not just in the Bible but in cultures all over the world.

    You wrote: “One may claim it is natural to own slaves. Another may claim it is unnatural to own slaves. How do we determine which is ‘more natural’ than the other?” By the simple fact that both slave and master are human beings, which implies that they are equal in dignity and ought to be treated that way. That is why St. Paul can say what he does about there being neither slave nor free in Christ.

    Reducing truth claims to rhetorical ones has what I assume is the unintended side effect of placing a barrier between us and reality: we cannot speak truthfully about how the world is, but only rhetorically. But if this is so then there is literally nothing that cannot be justified by rhetoric, nor is there any way that we can anchor ourselves in the real world. This is clearly a mistake, it seems to me.

    I need to go for now.

    Peace to you,

    Fred

    • The key principle is in Matthew 22:37-40. As a Humanist, I would translate that into “Love Good, and love good for others as you love it for yourself. All rules (and rights) are ultimately judged by how well they serve this purpose.”

      “God’s laws” vary throughout the Bible, but I believe they were written by men seeking to satisfy this purpose.

      “Natural law”, derived from whatever logic, will ultimately be judged by how well it serves this purpose as well, such that what is “natural law” must eventually be derived from this correct basis and purpose.

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