Friday, October 31, 2008

A Primer on Rights


I suppose it was inevitable that people would one day begin expanding on the rights upon which the US Constitution is ostensibly based, going even beyond the Bill of Rights.

Today, for instance, we hear about the right to a fair wage. The absurdity of that one may be seen by restating it: the right to a fair wage is the right to have a certain value attached to your services. Well, who says? These kinds of "rights" are directly contrary to the notion of the free exchange of commerce, the essence of capitalism. Hence the right to a fair wage is really a stipulation that society must be in essence socialist. This begs the question who is going to be put in charge of determining what the value of services should be. If that value is not set by the marketplace, it must be imposed. This is contrary to freedom, which is the heart of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Hence one may find an extrapolation of the constitutional basis in rights which is contrary to that basis itself.

Speaking of the Declaration of Independence, we will do well to consider carefully the meaning of "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

In the first place, there is the fact that the basis of authority here is what is considered to be "self-evident," an appeal to common sense. This document is the product of the age of Rationalism, whose consistent appeal was to Reason. The American ideal was tempered by a lack of excess, and comparatively speaking the Revolution was conservative in nature. A salient difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution was that the latter took the ideas of liberty too far. The elimination of the nobility gave way to mob rule and the enthronement of the Goddess Reason and an unfettered mess. In America, by contrast, the need for the rule of law was seen as part of what was self-evident.

But in principle, any appeal to what is self-evident contains a seed of trouble, since what is self-evident to one generation may not be so self-evident to another.

And in fact, the phrase "among these rights" implies that there are more rights which are self-evident than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Who's to say that the Bill of Rights must be the full range and extent of those rights?

Here's where the slippery slope upon which activist judges may base their rulings begins.

But what bears remembering is that the Declaration of Independence was written to tell the government what it had no right to do. This may be taken from the context in which it was written. The preamble was speaking first of all to the British monarchy, in effect saying, "We are not doing what is morally corrupt in our opposition to your throne; for we have from our creation as men as much intrinsic value and prerogatives as you; rather, it is you who are behaving immorally, in that you have denied us life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

The Declaration was in effect entering into the argument over establishmentarianism: was the throne established by God to dictate whatever it deemed legal, or not?

When this context is removed from questions over government, mischief arises.

Now rights may be applied to individuals over against other individuals, and consequently any notion of responsibility or of charity is left out of the discussion.

The fabric of life does not derive from the concept of rights. Only our obligations vis-a-vis the government may be argued to derive from it.

The fabric of life derives from God, to whom a brief nod is given in the Declaration; and what is in fact self-evident, though many choose to deny it, is that He has created life. We subsequently owe Him our existence. That is not a right; it is a debt.

4 comments:

Michael James Hill said...

Dear Reverend Doctor,

You are way over your head here.

First of all, the expansion of "rights" has been going on for decades at least. Or didn't you notice that there is no "right" to abortion, or "choice" in the constitution? You are coming in late on this issue and are thus ill informed of its merits and demerits.

Second, if some one has argued for a "right" to a fair wage, you should give your source. Full weight should be given to this arguement before refuting it.

Lastly, and most importantly, this is not theology. If you want to discuss politics, take your collar off, and dedicate this blog to politics. You should not imply in any way that what you offer here has anything to do with the Word of God.

Or have you forgotten the Lutheran distinction between the right and left hand of God?

Micheal James Hill

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

Well, I guess you've expressed your opinion, haven't you. Such fun.

Your first argument is an indication that you have misread my point, so I can hardly reply to it. But simply to prate that I am ill informed is what we call ad hominem, and in itself suggests that your position is a weak one.

Your second argument is not a response to my point. You seem to be questioning my claim that someone is arguing for a fair wage. But this is not a dissertation; it is a blog. I am not required to document my point just because you say so, especially when the documentation would only prove that someone is saying what I am arguing against. Well, so what?

Third, how brilliant of you to notice that this is not theology.
So since I am a theologian, perhaps I shouldn't vote tomorrow either.

A blog is a personal page. The author gets to decide what to write about. Sorry, in this case that's not you.

And it is also the author who gets to decide how far he wants to pursue pointless arguments.

Carl Vehse said...

"We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

"In the first place, there is the fact that the basis of authority here is what is considered to be "self-evident," an appeal to common sense. This document is the product of the age of Rationalism, whose consistent appeal was to Reason."


The document is not a product of the age of Rationalism, but primarily adopted from William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Law of England that was a best seller even after the Revolutionary War (which Blackstone, as an Englishman, strongly opposed).

The "self evident" reference come from the evidence of "the laws of nature and nature's God," based on William Blackstone's Commentaries, Book 1, Section II, "Of the Nature of Laws in General."

"Thus, when the supreme Being formed the universe, and created matter out of nothing, he impressed certain principles upon that matter, from which it can never depart, and without which it would cease to be. When he put that matter into motion, he established certain laws of motion, to which all movable bodies must conform.... If we farther advance, from mere inactive matter to vegetable and animal life, we shall find them still governed by laws, more numerous indeed, but equally fixed and invariable.

"And consequently, as man depends absolutely upon his Maker for everything, it is necessary that he should, in all points, conform to his Maker's will. This will of his Maker is called the law of nature....

"And if our reason were always, as in our first ancestor before his transgression, clear and perfect, unruffled by passions, unclouded by prejudice, unimpaired by disease or intemperance, the task would be pleasant and easy; we should need no other guide but this. But every man now finds the contrary in his own experience; that his reason is corrupt, and his understanding full of ignorance and error....

"This has given manifold occasion for the benign interposition of divine Providence, which, in compassion to the frailty, the imperfection, and the blindness of human reason, hath been pleased, at sundry times and in divers manners, to discover and enforce its laws by an immediate and direct revelation. The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the holy scriptures....

"Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these."


Thus the "self-evident" refers to the natural laws God wrote in man's hearts, which have been corrupted by sin. The inalienable rights that include "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" also come from Blackstone's Commentaries, Book I, Section II, Of the Absolute Rights of Individuals:

"Life is the immediate gift of God, a right inherent by nature in every individual; and it begins in contemplation of law a soon as an infant is able to stir in the mother's womb. For if a woman is quick with child, and by a potion or otherwise, killeth it in her womb; or if any one beat her, whereby the child dieth in her body, and she is delivered of a dead child; this, though not murder, was by the ancient law homicide or manslaughter."

"The absolute rights of man, considered as a free agent, endowed with discernment to know good from evil, and with power of choosing those measures which appear to him to be most desirable, are usually summed up in one general appellation, and denominated the natural liberty of mankind. This natural liberty consists properly in a power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, unless by the law of nature; being a right inherent in us by birth, and one of the gifts of God to man at his creation..."

and Book I, Section II, Of the Nature of Laws in General:

"As therefore the creator is a being, not only of infinite power, and wisdom, but also of infinite goodness, he has been pleased so to contrive the constitution and frame of humanity, that we should want no other prompter to inquire after and pursue the rule of right, but only our own self-love, that universal principle of action. For he has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter. In consequence of which mutual connection of justice and human felicity, he has not perplexed the law of nature with a multitude of abstracted rules and precepts, referring merely to the fitness or unfitness of things, as some have vainly surmised; but has graciously reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, 'that man should pursue his own true and substantial happiness.' This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law. For the several articles into which it is branched in our systems, amount to no more than demonstrating, that this or that action tends to man's real happiness, and therefore very justly concluding that the performance of it is a part of the law of nature; or, on the other hand, that this or that action is destructive of man's real happiness, and therefore that the law of nature forbids it."

Rev.Fr.Burnell F Eckardt said...

Thanks for this context, which I find fascinating and helpful toward understanding the Framers' intentions.