Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner
The Declaration of Independence famously announced that all human beings not only are created equal, but are endowed by their Creator with certain “unalienable” rights. Among those rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These were, as the Declaration also held, self-evident Truths, even to someone like Thomas Jefferson, the document’s author, often described as irreligious, a Deist, or a lukewarm Christian. The phrasing was not unique to the Declaration, but differed slightly from the version by John Locke from whose writing this selection of “natural rights” was drawn. Locke had assigned “property” as the third category of natural rights, the most common formulation, also used, for example, in the Bill of Rights. Moreover, Locke had urged that property was the foundation of liberty and happiness, because of the property each had in his own person, and because government’s abusive power over property, such as through arbitrary taxation, threatened one’s personal liberty and happiness.
Humans derive their equality from being God’s creatures, king and commoner, master and slave, prince and pauper alike. This is essential Christian teaching. The Creator is not an impersonal force or one who has set in motion the laws of nature but otherwise sits back and watches that creation passively as if enjoying a model railroad layout. Rather, he has actively endowed each person with certain unalienable rights. Those rights exist for the purpose of each person’s flourishing as a human being. It is for that end also that governments are established, and on consideration of which the powers of rulers are inherently limited. There is a purpose for government and, by implication, for human law, all directed by the Creator.
There is, then, a normative test for all acts of government. Such acts must be directed only to this purpose and must not violate one’s sacred rights which are beyond the authority of others to transgress. Governmental legitimacy depends on conforming to those Truths. This constitutes the very basis of the social compact, the construct by which, through the consent of the governed, political society was established in the minds of Americans in the late 18th century.
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase expressed these principles in 1798 in Calder v. Bull, about the constitutionality of a Connecticut law.
“There are certain vital principles in our free Republican governments, which will determine and over-rule an apparent and flagrant abuse of legislative power; as to authorize manifest injustice by positive law; or to take away that security for personal liberty, or private property, for the protection whereof the government was established. An ACT of the Legislature (for I cannot call it a law) contrary to the great first principles of the social compact, cannot be considered a rightful exercise of legislative authority.”
Chase’s distinction between an act of government and a law defines an inherent quality in the latter. It is not enough that a particular statute was adopted by a properly constituted governmental entity in accordance with prescribed procedure. The statute’s substance must meet the standard of a “good” law. Government can bind people to obedience to its directives in two ways. One is through the law’s moral legitimacy, in that it promotes human flourishing and does not conflict with those natural rights. The other is through sheer power of enforcement. The former is stable. The latter is the path to suffering, discontent, and revolution, as set out in the Declaration’s list of grievances against King George.
The natural rights framework of external ethical limits on law builds on a long Western tradition of a universal higher moral law that obligates human lawmakers. Norms for judging a human law must exist outside the structure of that human law itself. The older tradition, going back to ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, conceptualized an order based on law, within which physical and metaphysical forces operated predictably and constantly. Laws imply a lawmaker. As a result, expositors of this approach always assumed a connection between natural law and some divine or morally perfect eternal existence.
There is, however, a difference, in that natural rights metaphysics focuses not on a classic universal order of creation of which humans and the moral laws to which they respond through their reason are a part. Rather, natural rights are inherent in the sovereignty of personhood of each adult derived from existence in a hypothesized state of nature. Some of those natural rights are surrendered as individuals choose to leave that state of nature and join a social compact to form a political society. Others, among them the rights listed in the Declaration, are retained even upon entry into political society.
In the version of John Locke and subsequent expositors of Lockean political philosophy, the decision to enter into such a social compact is made out of rational self-interest to gain better protection of one’s property in person and estate. The decision is made by free will consenting to be governed. Although Plato had written much earlier about government formed by such consent, the concept was insignificant in his work on the best government. It was the influence of the Renaissance and the secular ramifications of the Protestant Reformation that shifted the focus from humans as part of a universal order governed by divine reason and intelligible through our reason, to humans at the center of everything and controlling their destiny through their wills. The philosophic shift to a focus on rational self-interest as the ethical foundation of the state matured in the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively.
Yet even as the metaphysical cosmology of a divinely-directed order was challenged, there remained a significant problem. Where do these rights originate? Why do humans have rights at all, while horses, rhubarb, and iron ore did not? Why are some rights “unalienable”? Which rights? Some social contract theorists veered close to severing the entire matter from its ancient connection to divine morality. Thomas Hobbes’s version of the social contract laid out in Leviathan, a work best considered as an apologia of rational totalitarianism and glorification of the absolute State, is a prime example. The German philosopher Samuel Pufendorf, writing in the late 17th century, studied Hobbes. He was less anticlerical and less militant than Hobbes, but still deified the State by establishing it as a “moral person” charged with the ordering of rights and duties. His work became a source of legitimacy for European “enlightened despots” in the 18th century.
But old concepts die hard, especially if they reflect crucial foundational considerations. Locke quite overtly connected his theory of rights to God. Near the beginning of The Second Treatise of Government, Locke defined man’s liberty in his state of nature as governed by a law of nature that none may harm another “in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Why not? Because “men being the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker—all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business—they are his property whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not another’s pleasure;…” Because of that essential equality, “there cannot be supposed any such subordination that may authorize us to destroy one another.” Neither may anyone, “unless it be to do justice to an offender, take away or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb or goods of another.”
The connection to God as Creator is as fundamental to the existence of inherent, natural rights in humans and the correlative duties owed to others as it is to the existence of a universal moral order within which humans live and which is the source of their duties and rights. Moreover, recognizing this relationship and the existence and unalienability of these basic rights is an exercise of reason itself. Hence, these are self-evident Truths to any rational being and need no further proof for Locke, Jefferson, or the Americans of the Founding Era more generally.
There are problems with this reasoning. It depends on assumptions that some may not share, such as a belief in the existence of God. Some may scoff at the idea of a pre-political “state of nature” as either an anthropological fact or even an appropriate political construct. Less intellectually rigorous individuals may get lost by its hyper-rationalism.
Certainly, there has been no shortage of critics. In Candide, the French philosopher and satiric writer Voltaire mocked the Enlightenment’s faith in reason and the propensity of his academic contemporaries to construct idealized systems for the progress of humanity based on those writers’ conception of self-evident truths in turn based on reason. The Scottish parliamentarian Edmund Burke, representing the views of many conservatives, reacted against the version of natural rights in the French Declaration of Rights as revolutionary and as delusional about the “monstrous fiction” of equality when viewed thorough the experience of “men destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life.”
Liberal utilitarians reacted against the lack of concreteness of the doctrine. The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham derided it as “nonsense on stilts.” He described such rights as ambiguous and not empirically verifiable. He asserted that rights can only come from human law, not from “imaginary” natural law. Thus, to call “liberty” and such concepts natural “rights” was a perversion of language to Bentham. The idea that humans might possess rights beyond the control of human law was anarchic and directed “to excite and keep up a spirit of resistance to all laws—-a spirit of insurrection against all governments.”
Romanticism in the 19th century and its resultant European nationalism, especially in Germany, turned away from the Enlightenment’s optimistic universalism and refocused rights and law through a historical lens, the peculiar history and ancient customs of each national community. The Anglo-American movement of legal positivism taught that rights were the result of human law, and that the only criterion for law was that it was the command of a political sovereign. Thomas Hobbes would have approved. The Progressives of the 20th century reduced the notion of law to utilitarian legislation or administrative regulation, and characterized rights as whatever such legislation or regulation permitted. Formerly, such grants would have been described as “privileges.”
The current approach continues to retreat from the Founders’ self-evident Truths about the relationship among humans, their Creator, and their unalienable rights. All over the Western World, there is a trend away from the traditionally dominant view of God directly involved in human flourishing. The deification of the State continues. With a few unorthodox exceptions, rights today are not viewed as something with which each individual is inherently endowed. Rather, rights increasingly are claimed to belong to certain groups, with a manichaean division of humanity into oppressors and victims, which reflects the Marxist origins of the approach. Unlike the economic classification of traditional Marxism, today’s groups are defined by characteristics of physical or psychological identity.
Rights today are those activities which the community or some elected or merely appointed official is willing to let people undertake. Rights fundamental to human vitality as social creatures, such as the right to interpersonal association and the liberty of moving about, are curtailed or prohibited by stoking fear and panic over contrived emergencies earlier generations would have scoffed at. At best, today we exercise rights at the sufferance of a majority of the community. We have none inherently, because everything is based on human will and consent. Today’s human rights declarations are simply lists promulgated by functionaries of, for example, the United Nations. The drafters of its Declaration of Human Rights consciously refused to include Jeffersonian language about the nature and source of rights in the document. One might be excused for being unimpressed by such lists overseen by a council composed of China, Cuba, Eritrea, and other habitual violators of essential human rights. What one human lawmaker can legitimately grant, a subsequent one can legitimately rescind. Before their War of Independence, Americans pointed to the Magna Carta of 1215 as a source of their ancient rights which the British government was said to be violating. But that tactic fell out of favor when it was discovered that the document repeatedly said that the king was “granting” those rights, not that people possessed them inherently.
Finally, there are today no Truths with a capital “T,” self-evident or otherwise, except, perhaps, an unassailable Truth that there are no Truths. In the past, skeptics claimed that our minds and reason are not sufficiently incisive to discern such Truths, and that, therefore, the best we can humbly do is to make utilitarian decisions on what is perceptible to us and appears to be the best result for our society at the time. These are truths with a small “t,” which can claim no inherent superiority over another society’s truths.
Today, following radical “critical studies” theory, “truth” is deemed a narrative imposed by oppressors to perpetuate power relations. In short, there simply is no Truth. Everyone can create his or her own truth. At the same time, in an ironic twist, no one (at least not those denounced as oppressors) may disagree or may challenge another’s truth, no matter how absurd such “truth” might appear to an observer. Not only may one not say that the emperor has no clothes. One must profess that the emperor is truly wearing clothes if he identifies his naked body as clothed. Who can really know? There is no “right” answer, because there is no objective reality. Plato weeps.
The result of such extreme subjectivism is the chaos it creates in society. To achieve a fulfilled life that balances both parts of human nature, the unique aspects which shape each individual and the character of humans as social creatures, people seek order. That is why revolutions always end, and Maoist plans for “permanent revolution” are merely dreams, albeit nightmarish ones. But when there is no inherent right or wrong, just competing random perceptions with no hope of shared objective reality, order comes about through the unrestrained exercise of power.
However, no government claims to act simply on the basis of raw power. The reason is that humans also have an innate attraction to ethics, although the extent of such innate moral sentiments has long been a topic of debate. Therefore, an ethical basis for government is quickly put forth, a justification for the duty to obey society’s rules. In the past, the ruler’s legitimacy might simply have been based on a claim that he is the embodiment of a divine entity, as was the case in many non-Western cultures. Today, “oppression theory” seeks to vest political legitimacy in the actions of those or which benefit those who are anointed the oppressed and to divest it from those stigmatized as the oppressors.
The contribution of Western political philosophy has been to desanctify the ruler, first by bringing him down to the rest of the community within a broader order governed by a universal moral law created and administered by God. The price for his rule was that he must not transgress against that moral law, which sought to protect the community from arbitrary exercises of power contrary to human flourishing. Though the conceptual structure later was secularized and redefined on the basis of rule by popular consent, the ruler still must not transgress against certain individual rights essential to humans and their flourishing. Those rights, too, are universal, and arise out of the universal moral law created by God.
The very longevity of such basic assumptions about the relationship among individuals, their rights, the rulers, the moral law, and God attests to their conformity with human nature and their connection to human flourishing. That longevity is evidence of their Truth. Indeed, it may be said, perhaps with some embellishment, that such Truths are self-evident. The words of the Declaration of Independence are expressions of optimism and hope. They will prove to be more significant and will outlast the current depressing fads of sanctifying or demonizing persons or actions based on arbitrary group identity, decoupling law and political action from ethical standards founded in a higher order, and rejecting the existence of an objective reality.
Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.