Whence our Rights Derive

2011 February 1

The question has been posed: whence does humanity derive its inalienable rights?  Quickly, the corollary follows; from God?  What about nonbelievers?  Inalienable rights, those rights so cherished that they must be defended at all times, in all places, and in all ways: the right to Assembly, Speech, Religion, and to Petition the redress of Grievances.

As a child being raised and educated in the United States, I am taught, through beautiful, revolutionary language, that those rights are “endowed by our Creator” and, after many years of thought and consideration, that phrase is fine with me and succinctly captures my philosophy on the matter, regardless of any discussion of religion or non-belief.

But the question has been posed.

I don’t think that this question should, ultimately, be answered with the same philosophical, logical progression necessary to “sell” the idea in the Enlightenment.  We need not look to Locke, Rousseau, god forbid Classical Athens, which our Founders used in their consideration of our national experiment.  They were making a bet and taking a guess in what they sought to construct.  They did not know that a government of, by, and for the People, operating on the premise of democratic rule and republican administration, would hold long its independence.  They were looking to history, philosophy, and common sense (the attribute, not the pamphlet) and wagered that such a government would prevail, not because they believed it would succeed, but because they believed it would succeed.  They wagered that if the government was built on the premise that the People were sovereign and the rights listed were protected against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that the nation they created would be able to peacefully transfer power and get about the business of living life.  They felt that this form of government was the most likely to make that possible.  We, the modern day People, are much better equipped with evidence than the Founders of this country as to the likely success of that bet.  We have the benefit of nearly a quarter millennia’s peaceful transfer of power (compared to the rest of the world over that time frame, the South doesn’t count because they lost).  So, yeah, it’s a good idea to support those inalienable rights because, on balance, you get far more benefit than cost when applied (I know I know I know, the United States has not always protected these rights for all citizens and we have done horrible things in our history in our own self interest, etc. etc. etc., but that’s not the point of this philosophical discussion).  So, in addition to my own philosophical education on the matter, I have almost 250 years of evidence that, for the most part, things get better for everyone if these rights are sacrosanct and that’s enough for me.

But the question has been posed.

The ultimate reason that these rights should be feverishly protected domestically and fervently supported throughout the world is far more primal than that.  The real reason we must protect the rights enshrined in our First Amendment is that, without those guarantees, there is no civil society.  There exists deep in all of humanity, in the Crocodilian brain, the vicious animal instinct of survival.   I don’t mean survival in the sense of, “I better get a college degree so that I can earn a good living to support my family and contribute to society.”  I refer to the far more basic, “I will kill anyone in front of me who attempts to keep me from taking my next breath, eating my next meal, or drinking my next drink.”  It is that instinct that individuals agree to surrender in order to become the People.  It is that instinct that individuals agree to channel and direct through the rules of the game created by living in society, whatever its government.  But for our agreement as individuals, we each exact a price: don’t say I can’t talk; don’t say I can/can’t worship a god in which I believe; don’t say  I can’t try to change the rules of the game from within; and don’t cut me away from the herd in order to accomplish any of the above.  I think that is a fair price: we as individuals agree not to lay waste to each other so that we can survive and civilization gets a pretty powerful instinct harnessed, in theory, for the forces of good so that each individual can prosper far more as part of a group than alone.

Whence do our inalienable rights derive?  From the original price civilization needed to pay to entice the individual out of the cave, the original bet made by the individual that the chance for prosperity is better with the group than the vicious, yet meager, fight solely for survival.

One Response leave one →
  1. March 12, 2018

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