In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the irreducible facts of existence and identity, how God is the ultimate picture of these concepts, and how we are shaped in that image.
In Part 2, I went on to discuss the role of relationship and the value I believe God places in human freedom.
In this section, I’d like to talk about the tools we use to govern those choices – what we call “rights.”
In the Declaration of Independence, the founders of the United States claimed that rights are “endowed by our Creator.” While I believe this to be true, I do not believe my interpretation of how rights work to be dependent on a theistic worldview. Nor do I believe that this salient quote from our founding document tells the whole story. I believe rights are given to me by God . . . but what are they??
This has been the subject of many a debate over the years since the concept of “rights” was first envisioned. Prior to the Declaration, it was assumed that rights were bestowed by virtue of birth based on nationality and class – the “rights of the nobility” or the “rights of Englishmen” or the “Rights of Roman Citizens.” The Declaration was both an extension of, and a break from, that viewpoint. It broke from the view that governments can have a say over what your rights are, or are not. At the same time, it held to the belief that rights are innate – they are something we are not given, they are something we are born with.
Their vision of rights wasÂ not universal – minorities and women were excluded, but this was a factor of the prejudices of their time, rather than an inconsistency in their beliefs. Indeed, the worldview they espoused were later used to extend to those same excluded groups the rights they were initially denied.
So that’s where our notion of rights came from, but the question still remains – what are they??
Here is what I believe: I agree with our founders that rights are something we are born with, not given. I believe rights are the means by which we make the choices we have available to us. I believe, in fact, that they are an extension of the two axioms of existence and identity. That is, because I exist, and because I exist as a unique, independent individual capable of cognizant choice, the ultimate arbiter of what I do with that existence is . . . me. This is what I meant in my last segment that God values humans’ ability to make choices for ourselves. Has He expressed a desire for us to choose certain things? Yes, but ultimately, He has given us the freedom not to do so.
So here I am, an extant individual . . . existence and identity . . . in a world full of extant individuals. As such, I believe all the rights in the universe boil down to one. Ultimately, there is a single, basic right. The right to exist!
From my previous blog posts, you can easily tell, then, what I think that right entails. It is my right to live as a individual, free to engage in relationships with other individuals as I see fit, and to make the choices I see fit to make. From this basic right flow corrollary rights. I have the “right” to choose how I relate to that world – how I act, how I think, what I say, who I associate with, and how I spend my time. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of press, freedom of association, freedom from illegal searches and seizures, freedom to defend myself against attacks . . . all of these extend from that one basic right to exist.
That is not to say that I have the “right” to do whatever I choose, if that choice infringes on the rights of another to do as they choose. For if relationships are the points at which our “selves” touch one another, and if choices are the ways in which we interact, then rights are the boundaries between those independent selves. I have the unlimited right to do whatever I choose to do with my body, my abilities to think and communicate, and my time . . . right up until that choice infringes on your right to do whatever you choose to do with yours. As the cliche goes, my right to swing my fist ends at your nose.
This concept of rights is more inclusive than some . . . for example, it negates the old adage about “shouting fire in a crowded theater,” because it places the responsibility on the hearer to be aware of his or her surroundings. If each person in that theater bears the responsibility of both making informed choices – rather than running around in a panic – and respecting the rights of others, then I have the freedom to shout away all I choose.
But this concept of rights is alsoÂ less inclusive than some. President Franklin Roosevelt spoke of four freedoms – Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. I would submit that he was half right . . . or more precisely, that only half of these are “rights.” Freedom of Speech and Religion are, indeed, a result of simply respecting one another as individuals. However, the so-called “freedoms” from want and fear are really the opposite – they are not freedoms, but demands. “Save me from shortage!” . . . “Save me from fear” . . . “Save me!” The difference is this: I believe that my rights make no demands on another except to do nothing. My freedom of speech does not demand that another stay silent . . . only that they not interfere with my speaking. My freedom of religion does not demand that another believe what I do . . . only that they not attempt to control what I believe. My freedom of association does not demand that another associate with me . . . only that they not attempt to stop me from associating with whomever I choose.
Contrast that to the vision of “rights” espoused by FDR. Freedom from want, freedom from fear. These so-called “freedoms” are not freedoms at all. The demands they make are on meÂ . . . on you . . .Â on us as a societyÂ . . . Â to step in – to interfere.
I’llÂ say more about rights in my next post.