Where do rights come from? That’s a foundational question for anyone who advocates individual freedom. If “unalienable rights” exist, every action that would conflict with them should be legally constrained. If rights don’t exist, they’re merely pragmatic rules of a game that can be changed at someone’s whim.
On this day in the United States, we celebrate the pronouncement by the Founding Fathers that the 13 colonies were joining together to declare political independence of Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents in the history of classical liberal thought, because it not only asserted a right to break away from the controlling political entity binding those people at the time, but it laid out the philosophical case for why people had the right to be free. (Read the text and think about what it’s really saying. It’s quite well-written, even if your history or civics teachers bored you to death with it at the time.)
When it comes to the question of rights, the text says the following:
“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.”
Thomas Jefferson’s original wording said, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,” and it was Benjamin Franklin who suggested the change to “self-evident.” To me, that says that they, too, were struggling to figure out how to explain something that they understood intuitively. (I’m not going to get into the issue of their personal contradictions because of their failure to see women and those of other races as equal, but let’s acknowledge that that blind spot was huge.)
The question of where rights come from is a complicated philosophical issue without an objective answer we can all agree on. Those who come from some form of theistic background have an easier time accepting the idea that rights come from God, that is, that they are “endowed by our Creator.” For those who are atheist or agnostic, that’s a troubling position, so humanists have worked hard to make reasonable philosophical arguments to justify rights. Some of the arguments are pretty utilitarian, which ends up seeming more like the product of pragmatism than of rights to me. But we’re coming at it from very different frameworks, so I’ll let them struggle with their philosophical issues while I struggle with mine.
As a Christian, I’m quite comfortable saying that God made us and created us to have certain basic rights among ourselves. He is supreme and isn’t bound by our civil rights, so I don’t see those as being in conflict. As I’ve previously made clear, I don’t see any contradiction between being loving individual freedom and following Jesus.
Some of my fellow Christians have come up with arguments for why rights come from God, but in specific ways. (For instance, my good friend Doug Douma has argued that our rights are rooted in scripture, although he and I disagree on that point.) There have been various other attempts by Christian philosophers to explain where rights come from. Although this is a side point, if you’re a Christian who’s interested in ideas about liberty, you might find a lot worth reading at LibertarianChristians.com.
For me, our rights come from God, but I can’t point a specific chain of airtight scriptural logic — at least not without that argument breaking down for the same reason that I find others’ arguments unsatisfying. For me, it’s a reasonable scriptural inference from what the apostle Paul talks about in several places plus the fact that Jesus never asked His followers to coerce anyone about anything.
In Romans 1:19, Paul writes, “For what can be known about God is plain to [humans], because God has shown it to them.” Then in the next chapter, in Romans 2:14, he says, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.” Then in Second Corinthians 3:17, Paul wrote, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (I’m using the English Standard Version for the quotes here.)
Paul’s words — and other things in scripture — lead many of us to believe that God’s natural law is written on our hearts. This isn’t a satisfying answer for those who don’t believe in God. It’s also not a satisfying answer for those who want to point to a specific set of words as the source of liberty. For me, I simply accept that what I understand about the rights that everyone has is a natural and inherent thing that’s “programmed into us” at some level. Others will come to their own differing conclusions. I don’t have a need to convince anyone else of my view. It’s simply what my spirit feels. You’re free to disagree — and many will.
There are many paths to believing in human rights. The founders of this country believed we get those rights from our Creator in some way, even if they struggled to say exactly how. I agree with them. For me, I agree with James 1:25 when it refers to “…the perfect law, the law of liberty….” You won’t find any evidence that Jesus was in favor of coercing people into obeying Him. There’s no reason for His followers to coerce people, either.