freedomconscienceThis post is the second of a series. The first post was Why The Law Written In Our Hearts Is Not Enough. Here we discuss the nature of God-given rights.

What Are God-Given Rights?

Our Nation’s Founders Fought For God-Given Rights

Instead of just calling our rights God-given, we now call them “human rights”. Why? Well, here is the excuse.

Attributing human rights to God’s commands may give them a secure status at the metaphysical level, but in a very diverse world it does not make them practically secure. Billions of people do not believe in the God of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. If people do not believe in God, or in the sort of god that prescribes rights, then if you want to base human rights on theological beliefs you must persuade these people of a rights-supporting theological view. This is likely to be even harder than persuading them of human rights. Legal enactment at the national and international levels provides a far more secure status for practical purposes. (from here)

Is that what happened in the United States? Were people just persuaded without the benefit of theological support to respect each others rights? No. Consider.

Natural law was deemed to pre-exist actual social and political systems. Natural rights were thereby similarly presented as rights individuals possessed independently of society or polity. Natural rights were thereby presented as ultimately valid irrespective of whether they had achieved the recognition of any given political ruler or assembly. The quintessential exponent of this position was the 17th. Century philosopher John Locke and, in particular, the argument he outlined in his Two Treatises of Government (1688). At the centre of Locke’s argument is the claim that individuals possess natural rights, independently of the political recognition granted them by the state. These natural rights are possessed independently of, and prior to, the formation of any political community. Locke argued that natural rights flowed from natural law. Natural law originated from God. (from here)

The ideas, if not the words of John Locke, found their way into our Declaration of Independence. Here is a pertinent excerpt from the SECOND TREATISE OF GOVERNMENT by JOHN LOCKE.

Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrouled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power, not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men; but to judge of, and punish the breaches of that law in others, as he is persuaded the offence deserves, even with death itself, in crimes where the heinousness of the fact, in his opinion, requires it. But because no political society can be, nor subsist, without having in itself the power to preserve the property, and in order thereunto, punish the offences of all those of that society; there, and there only is political society, where every one of the members hath quitted this natural power, resigned it up into the hands of the community in all cases that exclude him not from appealing for protection to the law established by it. (from here)

Those who founded our nation were familiar with John Lockes ideas. Hence, these words in 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, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. (from here)

Complicated “Rights”

Our “rights” are growing more and more complicated. Positive Rights, the Constitution, and Conservatives and Moderate Libertarians By provides a relatively straightforward and tolerably brief explanation of the term “rights” from a legal/academic perspective.

What Volokh focuses upon in his presentation is something called positive rights. What are positive rights?  Volokh believes “positive” rights should remain limited, but we should not deny they exist. What are “positive” rights? Wikipedia provides this distinction between positive and negative rights.

Philosophers and political scientists make a distinction between negative and positive rights (not to be confused with the distinction between negative and positive liberties). According to this view, positive rights usually oblige action, whereas negative rights usually oblige inaction. These obligations may be of either a legal or moral character. The notion of positive and negative rights may also be applied to liberty rights. (continued here)

Basically, when we observe each others negative rights, we don’t commit crimes against each other. We don’t murder, rob, and enslave our neighbors. On the other hand, when the government insists that we observe other people’s positive rights, we have to give other people something. If we did not agree to give other people something and don’t want our government to give away our life, liberty, or property, that can be especially irksome.

This distinction between positive and negative rights is a 1979 invention by the Czech jurist Karel Vasak. Still unsatisfied by the additional complexity he had added, Vasak split our “rights” into three separate generations.

There are three overarching types of human rights norms: civil-political, socio-economic, and collective-developmental (Vasek, 1977). The first two, which represent potential claims of individual persons against the state, are firmly accepted norms identified in international treaties and conventions. The final type, which represents potential claims of peoples and groups against the state, is the most debated and lacks both legal and political recognition. Each of these types includes two further subtypes. Scholar Sumner B. Twiss delineates a typology: (continued here)

Effectively, first generation rights are negative rights, and the second and third generation “rights” are positive rights.

What is the problem with “positive rights”? Since Libertarians have a pretty good understanding of this issue, let’s hear from one. See the video below.

Prof. Aeon Skoble accepts the nomenclature of “positive” and “negative” rights, but he points out a basic problem with so-called “positive” rights. Unless government infringes upon people’s “negative” rights, government cannot guarantee anyone’s so-called “positive” rights.

Here is the problem in a nutshell.

Natural rights—or, as they have been un-euphoniously dubbed, “negative rights”—pertain to freedom from the uninvited interventions of others. Respect for negative rights requires merely that we abstain from pushing one another around. Positive rights, by contrast, require that we be provided with goods or services at the expense of other persons, which can only be accomplished by systematic coercion. This idea is also known as the doctrine of entitlements; that is, some people are said to be entitled to that which is earned by other people. (from here)

Biblical Support For God-Given Rights

The first book of the Bible speaks of human rights. Genesis 1:27 says we are each made in the image of God.

The image of God in man also means that murder is a most heinous crime. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, / by man shall his blood be shed; / for in the image of God / has God made man” (Genesis 9:6). The severity of the punishment underscores the severity of the offense. The Mosaic Law is full of examples of how God expects everyone to be treated humanely. The Ten Commandments contain prohibitions against murder, theft, coveting, adultery, and bearing false testimony. These five laws promote the ethical treatment of our fellow man. Other examples in the Law include commands to treat immigrants well (Exodus 22:21; Leviticus 19:33-34), to provide for the poor (Leviticus 19:10; Deuteronomy 15:7-8), to grant interest-free loans to the poor (Exodus 22:25), and to release all indentured servants every fifty years (Leviticus 25:39-41). (from here)

Are there positive rights in the Bible? Not exactly. What the Bible speaks of is our responsibilities towards each other.  When Jesus told The Parable of the Good Samaritan, He gave us an example to follow, not a government program.

Consider this quote from John Quincy Adams.

Jesus Christ. . . . came to teach and not to compel. His law was a Law of Liberty. He left the human mind and human action free. — John Quincy Adams (from here and here)

Additional References


  1. @Tony

    Time to move on to the next post. I will work to post it by Sunday, and I expect I will respond to some of your comments there.

    Obviously I don’t agree with many of them, but still I thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Specifically to you Tom, I would like to second something that Stephen said. What makes what you are saying unintelligible is that, one the one hand, you seem to say that government should reflect God given laws and God given rights, and on the other, your attitude toward government and the governing class seems to be the distrust that one would view those with a Nietzschian “will to power” or pecking order view of governing and government (of which Donald Trump would be the poster boy). You want government to achieve some perfection that it can’t but there is no way that you would give it the power to do so even if it could.

    What we have is actually neither system. As a man made machanism, it far from perfectly reflects God’s will (and there would be a good deal of disagreement on that if it tried), but it also tries to check and balance our worst Nietzschian tendancies. You have many, sometime deserved, criticisms of the current system, but it is really hard to tell what you actualy want or what your alternative to our current system might be.

  3. The Declaration of Independence.

    As important as the Declaration was, we should not take these documents out of the context of the time and purposes for which they were actually written. The Declaration was not a treatise on government or even a structural legal document in any formal sense. Although it is persuasive legal precedent in certain ways, the Declaration is not controlling law in the same sense that the Constitution is. The Declaration was written by some of the same and some different people than those that wrote the Constitution, which came over a decade later. (Jefferson who is said to have mainly authored the Declaration was not even at the Constitutional Convention although his influence through Madison was definitely felt there). Unlike the Constitution, the Declaration was never actually ratified by the individual states. (One could even argue that the attendees when the Declaration was drafted were not even originaly empowered to do to do what they did).

    In short, the Declaration was a polemic written with the purpose of revolting against England and with justifying that revolt. The twin purposes of the Declaration were therefore to declare an independence from the sovereignty of England and to persuade everyone that bloody revolution was justified. The Declaration therefore is as much a propaganda tool as it is a legal document to declare independent sovereignty. Everyone always focuses on a couple of paragraphs in the Declaration, but if you read the whole thing, most of the body of the document is a list of grievances. Knowing the difference between the Constitution and the Declaration is to know the difference between a revolutionary manifesto and a founding governmental blueprint.

    No one doubts that Loche’s philosophies on a tyranny that justifies revolting against the sovereign was very influential in the Declaration of Independence. Some of Loche’s language was, for all practical purposes, plagiarized by Jefferson. However, just because Jefferson agreed with some of Locke’s philosophy and used it as a flowery justification for revolt does not mean that there was anything close to consensus with the founders and framers of the Constitution that Locke’s philosophy is the basis of our governent. Many of the founders and framers of the Constitution probably had never even read Locke, much less agreed with Locke. What so many people don’t seem to want to take into account is the profound differences between the two documents, and that Locke’s philosophy, or any mention of natural rights, or even God, were most conspicuous by their complete absence in the Constitution. Why do you think that is?

    To believe that the founders and framers universally believed in God given rights flies in the face of the fact that some of the most influential founders actually owned people, and actually enshrined that ownership in the Constitution. Also, by today’s standards, our original republic would not even be considered a democracy – it was actually a patronage system. Only land owning white males could vote and hold office, and leadership was traded amongst a few elite. Most of the founders and framers would have been horrified by the thought that the uneducated poor masses should have much say in government – leadership and governing was a grave moral responsibility and a privilege of only the elite.

    The Bill of Rights was not even in the orginal Constitution, but came later during the ratification process. The absence of original rights in the original Constitution should also give us pause because they were indeed very controversial.

    Contrary of popular thought, the Bill of Rights were not an individual universal protection from government at the time of their adoption. For example, individual states could and did have established religions – nothing in the original Constitution prevented that. The orginal Bill of Rights were a shield that individuals and states had against only the federal government. The Civil War and the post Civil War Amendments, particularly the 14th Amendment, changed that dramatically and turned that state shield into a federal sword that gave the federal government primacy in the protection of individual rights. By then “these” United States had become “the” United States, and through more universal suffrage, our system of government had gone from a patronage system to a clientelism, but that is another long explanation.

    The point of all this is that all law may stem indirectly from a foundation of God’s natural law and all positive and negative rights may flow somehow indirectly from Jesus’ positive law of love, but the process of human law is not direct and determinative and the founders knew that when they wrote the Constitution. If human law and rights were a direct and determinative continuous flow of God’s law then we would have priests, mullahs and theologians running our governmental institutions instead of mainly lawyers. The founders would have been saints and prophets instead of mainly lawyers. To understand the differences, distinctions between God’s natural law, God’s law in the Bible (such as the Commandments) and human law is really too complex to explain here and I don’t think that I am equipped to do ao anyway. I can tell you though that the broad rhetoric here doesn’t really mean much to achieving that wisdom.

    For example, let’s say that I come upon a man who is in desparate need of my care and I have the means to help him. The reason why I should help him is not transactional and it is not based upon material reasons. It is not directly based upon that man’s “right” to my help. The moral good that I incur for helping is it’s own moral reward, done for it’s own sake (and that man’s gracious acceptance of my help is also it’s own moral reward). Anyone asking for a rational explanation from me to justify my actions has shown that he or she is already morally arrested simply by the asking. Having to explain myself is a long and maybe even impossible process. Without this common language of morality and virtue, deliberating the details is just a waste of time here.

  4. There are absolutely “positive rights” in the Bible.

    Thou shalt love the Lord you God and love thy neighbor as thyself. Upon these two hang all the laws and rights and duties of man.

    Locke sought to find rights apart from God. The result was the subjectivist view we have today. As Nietzsche rightly points out, without Locke basing his natural rights in anything more concrete than a 17th century metaphysics sans God, the Enlightenment appeals to rights become hollow. They come to the brink of God-given rights without taking the next logical step.

    Consequently, we receive the “categorical imperative” from Kant several years later and the subjectivity of what a right is enshrined in western thought for generations. What Locke and the rest of the Enlightenment boobs failed to realize is that without the common reference point of God, their philosophies relied on the cultural and political reference points of their day. Now, centuries later, the cornerstones upon which they built their philosophies have eroded as the existence of morality itself is questioned.

    Jefferson, by some desperate spark from the Divine, acknowledge the theological and teleological nature of rights in the Declaration.

    1. Agree with all of that Stephen, but I think we have some semantic confusion here between what is a “positive” (verses a negative) right and what is a “positive” liberty and what is “positive” (or human made) law. That confusion notwithstanding, how a Christian’s “positive responsibility” converts to an obligation to positively do something, or negatively not do something, that another person can expect and even demand of us is really the question. Even if we agre on the answer to that question, how those God given positive rights are manifested in the rights and responsibilties of human law is another big question. All of these questions can be deliberated and resolved by people of good will, except for a big problem that you allude to – due to going astray in the Enlightenment when we tried to logically prove morality apart from God, we essentially lost a common language from which we can even deliberate toward common God given goals in personal morality and directing human made laws. There is an assumption on one side that means and ends come in God given rule driven absolutes rather than a balancing of moral virtues based on a common ontological and teleological view of God acting and suspending in the universe here and now. Without this common moral grammar, we may as well be conversing in two different languages here. Do you see what I mean?

      1. I think the whole confusion is born entirely out of the Enlightenment’s epistemological failure. Locke based his whole conception of natural rights on a priori knowledge based on Christian theology. Kant, though he succeeded in partially divorcing himself from a priori aphorisms, he could only end up with the harm principle, which is entirely subjective in its own right.

        This semantic problem is, as you say, derived from the divorce of nature and God. Taken from a strictly Christian world view, all rights are positive i.e. they allow man to do something rather than prevent him. The Law as taught by Christ is a proscription to do, to act, to love, not to refrain or abstain. It is in this way that we can speak of Christian liberty. The freedom granted, the rights bestowed, have an end in God and are ontologically related to him.

    2. @Stephen

      We have a choice to love God. We have a choice to love each other. Without such a choice, meaningful love doesn’t exist. Look up the definition agape love. Agape love has nothing whatsoever to do with supporting Robin Hood government. To obey God’s command to love our neighbors, we must do so of our own accord. We cannot pass the buck to a politician. Giving government the power to bestow “positive rights” just corrupts our leaders and sets a bad example for weak souls. Some people think it is great idea to vote for politicians who will put them on the public dole.

      When Jesus separates the goats and the sheep, do you actually think the fact you voted for politicians so they could rob your neighbors is going to keep you with the sheep? Do you actually think giving away other people’s money and giving some people special rights are powers we should give the people we elect?

      Locke sought to find rights apart from God? Really? That’s a pathetic assertion.

      In the SECOND TREATISE OF GOVERNMENT by JOHN LOCKE (=> http://www.gutenberg.org/files/7370/7370-h/7370-h.htm), the word “God” occurs 58 times.

      Here is quote from someone who actually read what Locke wrote.

      In Locke’s theory, divine law and natural law are consistent and can overlap in content, but they are not coextensive. Thus there is no problem for Locke if the Bible commands a moral code that is stricter than the one that can be derived from natural law, but there is a real problem if the Bible teaches what is contrary to natural law. In practice, Locke avoided this problem because consistency with natural law was one of the criteria he used when deciding the proper interpretation of Biblical passages. (from => http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke-political/

      1. So you are saying that governments have no obligation to enact laws that conform to the proscriptions of the natural or divine laws?

        The government has the duty to ensure that the natural and divine rights of men are preserved. Laws must be enacted towards those ends.

        We have talked at length about public assistance. I have given you my position and you have chosen to ignore it and create strawmen. When you are actually willing to discuss things, perhaps we can pick it up again. As of right now, I don’t have time for the same tired rhetoric that in no way answers any of my objections and yet another fruitless discussion.

        That said, I HAVE read Locke. His treatises on government are not as pernicious as his letter on toleration. Were we to follow Locke’s plans for government, religion would have no influence on anything, including private business. Say goodbye to the religious rights of cake makers.

        To see you post the opinion of some academic from a traditionally liberal institution is hilarious and actually helps my case. Locke sought to interpret the Bible through his perceptions of natural law i.e. he sought to define divine truths through human reason rather than revelation. It is a complete reversal of Christian legal theory of previous generations. Locke sought to define the boot by his perception of the foot print. Naturally, he comes to the wrong conclusion. It is a backwards approach that places man as the determining actor in what is true and false rather than Divine Revelation. If human reason could determine the proper interpretation of the Bible, there would not be such a diverse opinion on it. Furthermore, Locke’s approach to the Bible is specifically condemned in it by Paul who says that human wisdom cannot reveal the things of God. If Locke’s approach were true, then Christ would have said, “Blessed are you Simon bar Jonah because your understanding of the natural law has allowed you to deduce that I am the Son of God.”

        If you are going to defend Locke’s attempt to rationalize the Scriptures, don’t pick a quote as evidence that specifically refutes you.

        The only way to reconcile the Divine Law with the Natural Law is to recognizes that the latter comes from the former and the former is, at all times and in all instances, superior to the latter. The latter is an imprint of the former, but it does not have fullness unless seen under the light of the former.

  5. I didn’t use the word “merely” and I think I decline to let you insert it into my comment. And I must take issue with your idea that the Signers “did not sincerely believe in such rights.” They risked a great deal to assert them as a foundation of the decision to break with England. I think they did so not, as you state, because they were insincere. I think they did so because they felt the relationship with the Mother Country was unsalvageable, and that they had a grand opportunity to put into place the Enlightenment’s fresh thinking about the relationship between Man and Government.


  6. There’s some very good material in this post, Tom, although, as often happens, I’m not sure where you’re headed with this. Perhaps it will all be made clear in the fullness of time. Nonetheless, it is a good read.

    The only nuance I would add is that the “natural rights” discussion of the 18th Century, particularly as it relates to the foundation of the United States, was an antidote to the divine right of monarchs construct that had undergirded European monarchies for centuries prior. “Natural rights” provided a philosophical counterweight to the supposed legitimacy of monarchs. It was an extremely useful concept in this context and at the time of the American colonies seeking to justify their separation from the English Crown. The concept provided the non-royal subject with a counterweight to the ultimate argument for the legitimacy of the royal line. With a declaration based on natural individual rights, both individuals and monarchs had God on their side and the contest was even.


    1. @novascout

      What a curious way to put your observation. What you seem to be suggesting is that “natural rights” were merely a stratagem. “Natural rights” were merely a counterbalance to what European kings called their “divine right” to rule. Hence the signers of the Declaration of Independence did not sincerely believe in such rights. If that is the case, I wonder why you think the signers risked their lives, the safety of their families, and their fortunes by signing the document.

  7. @Tony

    Thank you for the compliment.

    We are not especially bright. Consider Psalm 23 (See => https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+23&version=NKJV). In Psalm 23, the King of Israel compared himself to a sheep. Sheep are abysmally dumb creatures.

    So why did it take until the 17th Century for someone to come up with the notion of God-given rights? Why did it take a bloody civil war to end slavery in the United States? You. Me. Everyone else. We are stupidly sinful. That is why Jesus called Himself our shepherd. We are too inadequate to save ourselves.

    Consider again what I wrote in the last post. God has written His law in our hearts. We know we are not suppose to kill, rob, insult, enslave, and so forth. Nevertheless, we connive for advantage, and it does not take much to convince us that we have the “right” to do anything we want to do.

    So what usually happens? We define a group of people we call us. Those people we treat as relative equals before the law and according to custom. Everyone else we define as them, and the further we can remove them from our own identity group the more we are willing to abuse them.

    How does that work? In every society or tribe, there are classes. The upper classes control military forces and access to god (religion). In between there are people with special expertise and craftsmen. At the bottom there are workers. Within each class, the people respect each others rights. Those in the lower classes have patrons in the classes above them, and those patrons protect them. Outsiders have no rights. “Strong” tribes or societies bring in outsiders to be slaves of some sort.

    For thousands of years slavery in some form has been an integral part of every economic system. In the South, prior to the Civil War, the people considered slavery so normal they felt utterly insulted by the abolitionists. Hence they fought tooth and nail and as honorably as anyone ever fights a war. Nevertheless, they thought whites had God-given rights. How ironic is that?

    So you don’t think we should sacralize our rights as God-given. Well, as that reference scatterwisdom mentioned said (=> http://www.compellingtruth.org/human-rights.html), God has already commanded us to respect each others lives, liberty, and property (and, yes, I saw the reference to the freedom to immigrate, but read the verse).

    Anyway, I think you are still missing the point. Government does not exist to define our rights. God has already done that. It doesn’t need to be done again.

    Without the belief that we are all made in the image of our Lord, that He expect us to love each other, we will not respect each others rights. Why should we? If God has not defined our rights — if the government can define our rights — then lawyers will just define them away.

    Consider your last paragraph.

    If we are living up to our responsibilities to God, to ourselves and to each other, and if we can have confidence in very human political institutions for deliberating and instigating common goals for meeting those responsibilties in an imperfect world full of imperfect people, then, with a good deal of peaceful struggle, compromise and debate, then with hope, faith and charity, the rights will ultimately take sort themselves out.

    We are electing people, not God. We have no reason to have unbounded confidence in mere people. If we let our elected officials define our rights, then our rights will just become whatever those in power think they ought to be. And that is exactly what the lawyers have been doing. Our rights are becoming what those in power think they ought to be.

    1. I’m more than a little confused at your point here Tom. If you are trying to say that we have God given “responsibilities” to treat each other virtuously with dignity and love, then that is very true. The Good Samaritan parable overtly says as much, and indeed, expands our God given responsibilities by implication to needy strangers, foreigners and those of other religious faiths (such as refugees from Syria maybe?). Turning those responsibilities into actual laws is difficult, however.

      For example, take the commandment not to kill one another. This seems simple: Thou shalt not kill. On the other hand, the man made laws that define and enforce this responsibility are made up of several elements, each with its own complex and controlling legal history, and have complex exceptions to the rule even when all the elements of the crime are met, such as when one kills in self defense, in the defense of others or to protect one’s home. These human laws are far from perfect, and as you say, have existed in countries and at times where the human law allowed the killing of a slave or a foreigner or someone of a different religion, but regardless, God’s imperative not to kill would have still applied. And even within the best system of man made laws, we still give the accused the benefit of the doubt – someone very well may be quite guilty of an immoral killing in God’s eyes, but not be guilty under the human law. However, as imperfect and as subject to corruption by powerful men as these laws may be, having such man made laws provides us with a “more perfect” system than not having a government at all. Indeed, it is just because these human laws are imperfect and are subject to human corruption that we should NOT ever conflate or confuse these man made laws with God’s law. The same is true of rights.

      One could imply that because we have a God given responsibility not to kill another person that that other person also has a God given right not to be killed. The two things, rights and responsibilities, are therefore, as I said, indirectly and implicitly related, but they are not quite the same thing, are they? And even insomuch as we may indirectly imply such a God given right not to be killed from our God given responsibility not to kill, from a practical standpoint, we still need very imperfect and very subject to corruption human laws and human invented government institutions to protect that right not to be killed.

      And furthermore, although human and imperfect, those government institutions can only be “more perfect” if we make them so, and can only work if we have “confidence” in that they are indeed more perfect. For example, if people have no confidence that our institutions of traffic laws are just and will be enforced fairly, they won’t stop at stop lights if they think they can get away with it. “Confidence” certainly requires constant reform and accountability, but without basic confidence in our institutions they simply cease to work – we creat a self-fullfilling prophesy of increasing corruption which leads to even less confidence, and so on.

      This is why what you wrote here is so confusing:

      “We are electing people, not God. We have no reason to have unbounded confidence in mere people. If we let our elected officials define our rights, then our rights will just become whatever those in power think they ought to be. And that is exactly what the lawyers have been doing. Our rights are becoming what those in power think they ought to be.”

      The Bill of Rights in the Contitution was written and adopted by “mere people” (mostly lawyers). In so doing “we the people” empowered those mere humans so that they did “define our rights” and they set up the institutions of government (yep, full of those awful lawyers) that continue to define, arbitrate and enforce those rights. If you want to pretend that the right of an individual to have a gun is somehow “God given” and implied somehow indirectly from our God given responsibilities, then that’s an interesting argument, but at best, as it is expressed in the Constitution and applied to the states under the 14th Amendment, that right was imperfectly written by humans, and it continues to be arbitrated and enforced by human institutions set up by mere humans. And recognizing that they were just mere humans writing mere human laws and establishing mere human institutions of government, our founders and framers purposely never had the impertinence to put into our Constitution anywhere that those rights and responsibilities of law or those institutions of government were “God given”.

      So I guess, my question is, if you don’t like this mere human constitutional system that we have, what is your so-called “God given” alternative? Anarchy?

      1. @Tony

        Anarchy? Were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison anarchists? Why do you have to accuse me of such nonsense? Didn’t they require you to read the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers in law school? I am not using any arguments you cannot find there.

        The Constitution exists to charter the Federal Government. If the Constitution does not say the Federal Government can do something, it is not suppose to do it. You and I both know the Federal Government has broken out of that straitjacket. The Bill of Rights is primarily a list of restrictions on the power of the Federal Government. The citizenry demanded the Bill of Rights because they had the good sense to be afraid of a powerful government.

        The Bible gives Christians the responsibility to be charitable. That responsibility has nothing to do with government. What about non-Christians? Are you going to point to the Bible and use it to twist their arms? Bullshit! You don’t have a coherent argument for giving away other people’s money and rights, and deep down you know it.

        What the basic problem? It is a conflict of interest. Government exists to protect people from each other. Unfortunately, when we create a government, we end up having to protect ourselves from our own creation.

        Whenever we create government programs to give us so-called “positive rights”, we empower politicians to infringe upon the very rights we created the government to protect. That is, we create a conflict of interest that makes our government far more difficult to control.

        When we insist we have “positive rights” at the expense of other people’s “negative rights”, we start voting for politicians to give us money and privileges they have no business giving us. Further, with our flagrantly bad example, we entice each other into further raids on the Federal treasury. Worse still? We start demanding special privileges from our fellow citizens.

        You think we ought to love our neighbor? Fine. I think that is a good idea. I just don’t see how that is done using the force of government. What has love got to do with threatening people, taking what belongs to them, and giving their property and rights to other people? Exaggeration? No. That’s how we enforce our tax laws. That’s how we enforce crap like same-sex “marriage”.

        We have this belief about freedom of religion, but once we start demanding “positive rights” we jeopardize our freedom of religion. Sharia law? Well Muslims have a right to immigrate and they vote big government. Abortion. You think it is murder. So what? Big government thinks it is a right, and big environment thinks you should not have too many children.

        The point is that the implementation of “positive rights” encourages factional politics. It empowers focused minorities to buy politicians and demand ridiculous rights. That’s why there is no such thing as “positive rights”. There is just an old fashion abuse of power.

        BTW. The gun thing is easy. The Bible gives us a right to self-defense. You said you liked http://www.compellingtruth.org/human-rights.html. Didn’t you read it?

        1. Nice rant and a great many new rabbit holes that I have no desire to follow you down, but I still don’t see what any of it has to do with proving, much less defining and enforcing any of your God given rights. You say government should not define rights, but you seem to like the Bill of Rights which were written by men, mostly lawyers, in the Constitution that those same men of government wrote to define the structure of a new government in which more men, mostly lawyers, will arbitrate and enforce those new rights. Whether or not any of those rights are indeed somehow God given from the beginning of all time, they did not seem to exist in practice until men started writing them down into human laws, and creating human government institutions to arbitrate and enforce them.

          You’re mad because these man made laws have expanded beyond the orginal Constitution. In some cases, me too. For example, where in the Constitution does it say anything about corporations having rights to speech? Nowhere because corporations were not invented yet. Presumably these new corporate rights flow somehow from an “implication” of what is written in the 1st Amendment, but even if you agree with it, it is undeniably an expansion from anything that the founders and framers knew about. Reasonable people disagree but the majority if the court said corporations have some. constitutional rights and now they do. We need the Constitution to be applicable to issues of modernity whether or not the founders forecasted these new inventions or not. Did Jesus expect corporations to have rights? God, I don’t know, but I know that one would have to extrapolate pretty far from God to get there. Do you really want to allow humans, mostly lawyers, either at the founding or now, to decide which rights are sacred?

          You deflect to a great many other of your favorite bugaboos, but on the issue that your post is about, that I responded to, I know what you don’t like, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what you want, or what is your practical God given alternative to our all-to-human laws and institutions. I know that you think that sacralizing your argument somehow makes it more righteous and absolute, but what I’m getting from a practical standpoint is just incoherent and without any positive workable replacement for the human institutions we already have, which is of course, as you say terrible, except it is better than anything in the history of civilization.

          1. @Tony

            Rant or not I have posed issues you refuse to address:
            1. John Locke published what he wrote in exile. Perhaps he left England for other reasons, but his ideas are not the sort that tyrants want to hear expressed. Yet our hearts demand that we respect the rights of those close to us, people we cannot avoid recognizing as human and like ourselves. The Bible goes further. The Bible demands that we must respect the rights of all. Yet you have just brushed off what the people who founded our government believed as not pertinent. Yet Locke just put into words what many already knew in their hearts.
            2. I never said government doesn’t have a role. What does the Declaration of Independence say is the purpose of government? Why does it say it? Why did the founders believe they were justified in rebelling against the king?
            3. Consider the purpose of my post. I established what the people who the Constitution believed. I pointed out that so-called positive rights create obvious conflicts of interest. And what do you do? You pointed out that because men codify the law that men have the right to define the law, that men do in your belief define the law. Doesn’t work that way. Just because scientists write scientific laws does not mean scientists created the laws under which Creation operates. When we do not codify laws which work in accord with the moral law written in our hearts, those laws create chaos. Don’t judge require wisdom? What is wisdom?
            4. What am I angry about? Our people are perverting our government. We are trying to use it for purposes it CANNOT fulfill. When you just deflect and pretend there is no problem, of course I fume. When our leaders say the Constitution says what it clearly does not say, we have a serious problem. Such people are not honorable. They are just scoundrels, and you are defending their lies.

          2. 1. He was implicated in the Rye House Plot and supporting the political coup commonly referred to as the Glorious Revolution. Basically, Locke was a rabid anti-Catholic philosopher who hated James II, and used that as justification for a foreign invasion of England to install a Dutchman as an even more pernicious autocrat. In fact, the Act of Settlement of 1701 was purposed to deny succession rights to Roman Catholic heirs in favor of the Hanoverian dynasty that would latter oppress the American Colonies. In fact, it is theorized that the American Revolution would have been rendered unnecessary since the Stuart line was more lenient with the colonies and later supported their independence or semi-independence.

            2. But you are immensely critical of anyone suggesting government have any role so no one can really tack down your position.

            3. You seem to have an inconsistency here. You say that positive i.e. human laws that do not conform to the Divine law lead to chaos but you are against governments enacting such laws.

            4. What the Constitution says or does not say is not really the question. The question is whether what the Constitution says or doesn’t say matters.

        2. “The Bible gives Christians the responsibility to be charitable.”

          Is this one such proscription of the moral law that, if not enacted, creates chaos or do we get to pick and choose?

        3. Also, it is keen to note that Muslims in American voted almost unanimously for Bush in 2000 and 2004. In fact, American Muslims have only recently begun voting Democrat due to what is perceived as anti-Muslim sentiment in the GOP. Research shows that Muslims would actually support the GOP if Donald Trump was not the nominee. They side with conservatives on nearly every issue, including fiscal and social concerns. What divides them is basically just the perception that the GOP is full of racist bigots who hate Muslims. And when you have the nominee saying he will block all Muslim immigration–thereby blocking their friends and families from lawfully immigrating and peacefully residing–it tends to alienate them.

  8. Tom – wonderful expose on the concept of rights. Nice work and very enlightening. For the most part, however, I agree with the site that scatterwisdom links to.

    The Bible provides very little from which a concept of divine rights can be directly defined, else why wouldn’t it have happened long before Locke came up with his social contract theories of government. Any “God given” rights must be extrapolated secondarily and implicitly from our God given responsibilities and from what we know of natural law. (And by “natural law” I mean that term in a Thomist theologian and metaphysical sense, not the contorted rule-driven sense that many folks talk about today.)

    As you have pointed out, the idea of a “God given right” is mainly a Seventeenth Century phenomenon that the first Christians (such as Paul and later, St. Augustine) would have found completely foreign, if not totally absurd. The idea of God given rights then always ends up begging the question of, if these rights were so darn “natural” and so “God given”, how come no one recognized them early on, or at least since the very advent of Christianity?

    I think the answer to that question is that these rights were an invention, not so much of God, as of the authors of the Enlightenment. They were manufactured from a kind of materialistic, transactional reasoning that was completely broken lose from Christianity’s early metaphysical or ontological basis. They have a ring of truth to them because, as scatterwisdom’s site shows, they indirectly draw from scriptural and theological inferences about our God given and natural responsibilities to God, to ourselves and to each other. On the other hand, as that logic of an indirect inference of God given rights extrapolates further and further afield from God given responsibilities they become more and more murky and theologically questionable.

    Personally, I think we should just stop trying to sacralize rights in absolute black and white terms to begin with and instead just recognize human rights for what they are: wonderful, imperfect, manmade inventions that attempt to balance our natural and moral dependency on one another against our natural and moral need for independence from one another. Whether rights are positive or negative perhaps helps in categorization, but means little to any real moral prioritization about which kind of rights are more or less God given.

    If we want to understand what are our moral responsibilities to one another, we would do better to give up completely on the idea of absolute rights, and instead focus on our God given responsibilities. To do that we need to explore our earliest Christian metaphysics and ontological roots and then modernize them to current application in a shrinking and globalizing world.

    If we are living up to our responsibilities to God, to ourselves and to each other, and if we can have confidence in very human political institutions for deliberating and instigating common goals for meeting those responsibilties in an imperfect world full of imperfect people, then, with a good deal of peaceful struggle, compromise and debate, then with hope, faith and charity, the rights will ultimately take sort themselves out.

  9. Great and very thoughtful Article Tom. How you find the time to write your posts is a wonder to me.

    However I do not concur with most of the philosophers. Rather I concur with


    My next post will explain why and link both of you to explain in more detail. I was waiting for your No 2 before I completed my thoughts on the subject of human rights and am glad I did.

    Regards and goodwill blogging.

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