Thursday, July 19, 2007

Endowing rights

According to Ramesh Ponnuru:

President Bush has kicked off a bit of one in the blogosphere by telling Rich Lowry, David Brooks, and some other conservative columnists that “a gift of [the] Almighty to all is freedom.”

(Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan, via Norm.)

Well, Bush wouldn’t be the first to take such a line. Thomas Jefferson and colleagues independently declared:

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.

Victor Reppert has been wondering what an atheist could make of this. He suggests an atheist version would say: “all men have evolved equally, and that they are endowed by Evolution with certain Inalienable Rights”. But that seems absurd: “Evolution doesn't make people equal, it doesn't endow anyone with inalienable rights”.

A political document, though, doesn’t need to get involved with evolutionary science or theology. You could perfectly well say “all people [it’s the 21st century, chaps] are born equal, having certain unalienable rights” and then leave questions about origins and meta-ethical foundations open for debate.

But Victor wants that debate: “The idea here is that it is a function of how we came to be what we are that gives us those rights. …if you supplant the creator with an evolutionary process, then couldn’t we say ‘It's a dog eat dog world, and we're top dogs,’ and on that basis deny someone those rights.”

Thing is, you can leave the creator in and still have a certain group of people as top dogs with others denied rights. Women might be prevented from voting and blacks might be enslaved… I’m afraid my American history is a bit sketchy here. But the point is that the mere hypothesis of a creator doesn’t say anything about what that creator might want.

Furthermore, even if we add to the hypothesis that this creator is a fan of equality and of us being alive and at liberty to pursue happiness, this just crashes us into yet another Euthyphro-style situation. Why exactly does this creator have the right to bestow certain rights upon his creations?

A couple of other unrelated remarks:

(1) It’s obviously not “self-evident” that we have a creator. It might be evident from reading scriptures, from examining the complexity of the world or from considering a philosophical argument (although I don’t think it is), but it certainly isn’t self-evident. If it were, there wouldn’t be atheists or agnostics.

(2) Do we actually have the right to life? If I die after being struck by lightning or suffering a sudden brain embolism, have my rights been infringed? Can my bereaved relatives sue anyone? It would make more sense to say that we have the right to reasonable protection from death.

7 comments:

Matt M said...

How do you go to war, or shoot a wannabe suicide-bomber, without taking away somebody's inalienable right to life? How exactly does prison fit in with an unalienable right to liberty? If we have an unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, why aren't drugs, alcohol and hookers all perfectly legal to everyone? I want my drugs and hookers, damnit!

All rights are contingent on the political environment you live in, whether you believe in God or not.

el Tom said...

Natural law sucks.

How about a legal positivist take on rights? 'We hold it to be self evident that we have created these rights in law'.

Tom Freeman said...

Interestingly, the very next bit of the declaration says: "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" (also apparently self-evident).

So the justness of a government and its laws comes from the consent of the people. Not from on high.

(Matt: surely a wannabe suicide bomber has waived his right to life - although it's arguably during his exercise of the right to pursue 72 virgins. Er, I mean, happiness.)

Matt M said...

Can you waive an inalienable right? Surely that would make it... alienable.

Of course, quite how the inalienable right to life of the bomber (suicide or not) meshes with the inalienable right to life of the people near the bomb is beyond me. But then that's why I absolutely avoid absolutes.

I think the founding fathers just liked the word inalienable (though alienable is better in my opinion) and didn't bother to properly think it through.

Tom Freeman said...

Actually the word they used was "unalienable". Dull but true.

Yeah, it's a bit like that old Abe Lincoln quote: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time."

Sounds great, but deeply ambiguous: there are four possible construals. Did Lincoln know this and have one in mind? Does it matter?

Matt M said...

Unalienable... ahhhh. Y'see, if I'd actually read your post properly I would've noticed that.

Did Lincoln know this and have one in mind?

I suspect he was drunk at the time. They normally are.

anticant said...

All people are not born equal, but they should be acknowleged as being of equal worth and treated accordingly.