Why we must acknowledge and understand natural rights
“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.”
These monumental and sacrosanct words are written within the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, the document declaring America’s rebellion against the tyrannical yoke of the British crown.
This brief yet crucial statement represents a core belief at the heart of our society: the belief that all humans possess certain unalienable rights no matter their race, creed, religion, class, and whatever other differences separate us.
This idea was etched into our nation’s bedrock the minute the American Revolution began, yet many in the modern world have frequently challenged the concept of natural rights, going so far as to claim that the rights we have by virtue of existing are not inherent. Rather, they are merely social constructs concocted by men using flowery language with no actual logic or weight behind them.
Not only do I find this belief foolish and illogical, but I honestly think that this line of thinking is borderline dangerous for not only the individual but also society as a whole.
The question of where these natural rights come from and why they’re important can be broken down into two sections: the origin of natural rights and why they exist, and the consequences of ignoring them in favor of social constructs and moral relativism.
The origin of natural rights has been called into question many times by many different people, and I honestly understand their line of thinking. The statement in the Declaration that these inalienable rights are endowed by a “Creator” is seen as insufficient and illogical by many of those who don’t believe in any divine creator or omnipotent god.
As I said, this doubt is understandable. The assertion that natural rights are God-given doesn’t leave much in terms of traceability, leaving no real link to the origin of our rights.
But rather than seeing the existence of natural rights as some sort of Christian leap of faith, the origin of natural rights can be seen through the use of different phrasing, as existing inherently within Nature itself.
The Enlightenment philosopher John Locke was one of the philosophers that popularized the idea of natural rights and the state of nature, his work inspiring Thomas Jefferson’s language within the Declaration of Independence.
According to Locke, natural rights were not some sort of baseless theological assumption, but rather they were objective and observable within nature.
Mankind in its most primitive state within nature exists in a complete and utter anarchic lifestyle in the wild, where humans only attempt to survive day-by-day and reproduce. In this state of nature, what exactly is it that guides humanity’s actions? What drives us to fight to stay alive every day and avoid death?
In essence, what drives us is self-preservation. When you strip away all the technology, laws, and cultural norms that influence us in the modern world, all we’re left with is the innate drive for self-preservation.
This natural drive for survival makes sense in a theological and non-theological sense. For the religious, human nature is the result of a divine spark, a gift implanted in us by our Creator.
For those who do not believe in the existence of God, the innate desire for self-preservation is not some social construct cavemen agreed upon some 6,000 years ago, but rather it is inherent in our nature as humans.
The desire to stay alive, to live by your own decisions, and to keep and protect what is yours is ingrained in our psyches by virtue of human nature. No one forced you to want to stay alive, no government regulation or decree suddenly made humans want to preserve their personal freedoms and existence. Just as a squirrel’s nature drives it to eat nuts and avoid predators, our nature drives us to preserve our life, liberty, and property.
This is what John Locke understood and what those who dismiss natural rights do not. Life, liberty, and property, according to Locke, were desires all humans had due to their nature, and no amount of government regulations or cultural shifts will change that.
These natural laws do not exist simply because a handful of politicians wrote them down on a dusty piece of paper 300 years ago, they exist because it is our nature. So it logically follows that anyone, whether they be a common street criminal or a government agent, trying to rob you of your life, liberty, or property is in violation of those natural rights we all have.
This is why any government created by society should exist with the goal to preserve and protect the natural rights of the people, not to exert its will onto those beneath it.
I know I’m probably sounding long-winded and presumptuous so far, but the acknowledgment of these natural rights we all have is imperative if we as individuals and as a united nation wish to preserve our freedoms and liberty.
Consider just for a moment the consequences of the belief that natural rights do not exist, that they are only social constructs concocted by people in a feeble attempt at preserving their preferred liberties.
If that’s the case, the government and the society it governs is what decides whether you have or do not have the “right” to do something. A government permission slip is all that stands between you and your freedoms, whether it’s given by a king or by the majority vote from a senate of elected representatives.
Under this mindset, your rights are merely granted to you by society. Society created and owns these rights they so generously gifted to you. If the government of this society wants to strip you of these rights, whether it be your freedom to speak your mind, practice whatever religion you choose to believe in or even your right to life, then there’s no inherent injustice being done.
You never had those rights to begin with. They never belonged to you, they were merely privileges afforded to you by the government and you haven’t been ethically wronged if that same government takes them away.
A government is simply whichever person or group of people have the biggest guns. No amount of academic fluff or bureaucracy is going to change the fact that the reason most people obey their government is that the government has a monopoly on legitimate force.
Even in a representative republic like our own, if natural rights are a mere social construct and the government is what grants you your rights, why would it be an injustice if 51 percent of voters simply decided to seize all your property and execute you?
Your right to life and property doesn’t inherently exist, therefore it doesn’t belong to you and no wrong has been done. It was only a privilege granted to you by society. If I decide to murder you and enslave your family and the king or queen is on my side, then under this framework, there’s been no wrong committed.
I don’t know about you, but this type of society frightens me. The belief that natural rights only exist as a social construct is a recipe for moral relativism and injustice. The idea that what’s right and wrong isn’t observable and true within human nature, but rather it’s decided by whoever happens to be in a position to exercise their subjective morals onto others at the time.
This subjectivist society is not a society at all, only a slippery slope into chaos, anguish, and nihilism. Personally, I’d rather not live in such a place. I’d rather we as humans acknowledge we have an inherent right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness no matter what culture or country we live in.
I hold these truths to be self-evident, and I hope I’ve convinced you to as well.