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.