Monday, November 04, 2013

Whence cometh the rights of man?

I covered, on this blog's Facebook page this weekend, the minor kerfuffle between Glen Beck and the blogger "An Atheist in Wheaton", James Kirk Wall over the question of whether the rights guaranteed us in the Constitution are given us by god or by man.  Glen Beck had made the statement about our rights being god given, Wall wrote a post disagreeing, Beck then smacked back at Wall, and now Wall has replied in a post once again.

While I applaud Wall for a nicely put together answer to Beck's drek, I do have a problem with his statement about laws vs. rights:
A right is something considered to be morally good, justified or acceptable. A law provides rules and resulting penalties for certain actions.
I think he's got his terms defined incorrectly.  Let's consult Wikipedia, since Merriam Webster's dictionary online doesn't define it:
Rights are legal, social, or ethical principles of freedom or entitlement; that is, rights are the fundamental normative rules about what is allowed of people or owed to people, according to some legal system, social convention, or ethical theory. 
Laws, on the other hand, are different.  Since we consulted Wikipedia for the first term, lets stick with it here too:
Law is a term which does not have a universally accepted definition,[2] but one definition is that law is a system of rules and guidelines which are enforced through social institutions to govern behavior.[3] Laws can be made by legislatures through legislation (resulting in statutes), the executive through decrees and regulations, or judges through binding precedents (normally in common law jurisdictions). Private individuals can create legally binding contracts, including (in some jurisdictions) arbitration agreements that exclude the normal court process. The formation of laws themselves may be influenced by a constitution (written or unwritten) and the rights encoded therein. The law shapes politics, economics, and society in various ways and serves as a social mediator of relations between people. 
So, we have a definite difference between the two terms.  Rights are principles of freedom or entitlement.  Laws are rules governing behavior and often providing an organizational structure for some social or legal grouping of people.

From a practical point of view, say, in the US, a right is paired by a Constitutional limitation of the government's ability to infringe on that right.  It could also create the necessity for government to promulgate laws to protect that right, as in our 4th amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizures.  The government has had to make all sorts of rules governing the efforts of law enforcement agencies to prevent either deliberate or accidental abridgment of that right.

So, Wall IS closer to the idea of a law.  Laws do provide rules, and they also provide penalties for handling people who violate those rules.

Wikipedia also delineates between two types of rights - natural rights vs. legal or civil rights.  Neither Beck nor Wall differentiate between the two, but I think that difference is important.

Why?  Natural rights are the ones spoken of in the Declaration of Independence.  They are immutable, inalienable and cannot be taken away, because they are inherent in your existence as a human being.  A common right of this type is the Right to Life.  A movement today in the US is the idea that there is a human right to health care, because good health care both lengthens one's life and makes the one you've got of better quality.  Natural rights are universal and apply to all human beings, and are often seen as expanding as human society becomes more progressive in nature.

Legal rights, on the other hand, are better defined by Beck's idea that there are rights that can be given or taken by parliamentary edict.  These kind of rights are based on cultural norms and practices.  An example might be the right to drive.  Your right to drive is conditional, those conditions based on laws setting forth the rules for how to obtain a license, etc.  Not all citizens are allowed that right, and those rights may change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction or from time to time.  So, NOT inalienable.

Wall's description of how our rights are determined are very descriptive of natural rights.  He uses a quote from good old George Washington:
“The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government” 
George Washington, Circular to the States, June 8, 1783
 But Beck makes the complaint, as Wall describes it:
Glenn Beck implies this statement means I would have no problem with mankind taking my rights away. I would just say, “Oh well, evolution.”
Which is perfectly descriptive of a legal right.  A right that CAN be given or taken away by legal edict.

So, who is right?

I think Wall has it better outlined.  Beck is, as the right wing often does, using confusion and misdirection to attack the other side, with nothing more than simple declarations to make his own point.

If our rights were to come from a god, then our rights in this country would be severely curtailed.  The bible is NOT designed to protect nor organize democracy among men.  It is designed to lay the foundation for a theocratic form of tribal control over the ancient Hebrews, hence gives no basis for civil rights as we know them, nor any kind of guarantee of individual rights against governmental action.  In fact, fully half of the Ten Commandments are fully in violation of our First Amendment guarantees of freedom of religion and speech!

It is obvious to any even halfway educated person that our Constitution was founded upon the Principles of the Enlightenment as espoused and written about by many of our Founding Fathers.  The Constitution lays the foundation for a secular government, not a theocracy, so the idea that the rights it guarantees may have come from religion is, to say the least, absurd.

One last note.

The right wing, when it talks about our nation having a religious foundation, uses this tactic of mixing terms and loose definitions of terms to good use again, by its use of the phrase "We are a Christian Nation".

They talk about the government being a theocracy, while their arguments are often about the numbers of colonists who may have been christian.

Our GOVERNMENT is founded and organized by the Constitution, which is a secular document that only mentions religion in restrictive terms, limiting the government's involvement in it.

The NATION, on the other hand, was settled by mostly Europeans, who at the time, were mostly Christians of various stripes.

This conflation of the two ideas is deliberate, as too many liberals and supporters of the Separation of Church and State fail to see and remark on this tactic.  The government and the nation are NOT synonymous!  They are two different entities, with two different histories and origins.

The fact of whether this country was populated by mostly Christians or not is irrelevant to the issue of whether the Constitution mandates separation between the church and the State.  European history is rife with stories of wars, intrigue, and struggles over religion, its rules, whose rules would govern and which particular stripe of Christianity was the right one to rule.

Arguably, over the centuries, well over a million or more human beings were killed, either through deliberate action or through disease and starvation during the conflicts engendered by religion in Europe alone.

Our Constitution was intended to prevent that.  The solution was to keep the government OUT of the religion business and to prevent ANY religious group from dominating the government, and thus, the rule making business of governing the American people.

Thus, guaranteeing the American population the right to religious freedom, whether that meant a complete devotion to a religious culture, like the Amish or the Mormons, or a complete divorce from it, as we atheists would have it.

In other words, like the Republicans would say, leave it up to the INDIVIDUAL.  Keep the government out of it. (Another Republican principle.)

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