What are Rights?

So, I had a very brief debate with somebody on Facebook about the concept of rights, based off of someone else’s status regarding the difference between rights and privileges. My personal opinion on the matter is that rights are something the government acknowledges, while privileges are something the government grants. The other fellow claimed that there was no difference between a “right” and a “privilege” since both were granted by the government.

This got me to thinking about such things, and I began to wonder about how to construct, without resorting to Scripture, a concept of “rights” as something that governments acknowledge, but do not create. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wonder long, as the first gentleman (hat tip to Dalton) said that it made sense to define them as things that are intrinsic to being human.

This makes a lot of sense, honestly. Consider the Declaration of Independence–life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the rights mentioned within it, a trifecta based on the work of John Locke, who had as his third right “property” instead of “pursuit of happiness.” (It is my contention that, had the Founders kept the original formula, a lot of nonsense could have been avoided. Mostly within the past fifty years, but still.)

All of these are, whether one is atheist or theist, part of being human. Life? This should be kind of obvious. Your humanness kind of stops when you’re dead. Liberty? All living creatures can make choices, and man is the only one able to reason and rationalize him, and liberty is about the ability to choose (preferably to live virtuously). Property? In the original world, to work or hunt a bit of land, or make a tool, was to make it yours, and theft was punishable by death.

And, let’s face it–protecting these rights from people who wanted to take them away by killing/enslaving/stealing was kind of why governments were formed in the first place. In point of fact, popular revolutions tend not to arise until people decide that the current government is doing such an utterly lousy job at protecting those three things, in various forms, that anything else would be better. They are very often wrong, but still.

Thing is, though, this isn’t just a matter of pedantry. To put it bluntly, what the government gives, the government can also take away whenever it wants, and the only real reason for opposing such an action is “It made me feel bad/hurt me” or “Long-term, this will lead to trouble.” The people likely to be attracted by the first tend to be poor at post-revolutionary rebuilding, and people likely to be attracted by the second are few and far between, and tend to be lousy revolutionaries.

If, however, there’s an actual notion (and not just a fig leaf) that the government is transgressing its bounds by going after these rights beyond what is necessary to keep the rights in play, one may actually get a shot at having A. large portions of society join in on the revolution and B. Having large numbers of people who happen to be good at revolutions and/or rebuilding join in.

And, for that matter, having such notions embedded into society decreases the likelihood that the government will transgress those bounds to the point where revolution is necessary, which is really a much better option than a bloody revolution every generation or so.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness


One thought on “What are Rights?

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