Mondays are for questions from students. This student hails from my own institution, the University of Texas.
Although the Declaration of Independence proclaims “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” American political thought seems to have severed its connections with those ideas. How did the American tradition understand God, and how did that understanding justify natural rights?
To say that we have natural rights is to say that we have certain rights because of the kind of being that we are. What kind is that? A human being is a person, an individual reality of a rational nature, “the most perfect thing in all nature.” He can never be a mere part of something else, in the way that your arm is a mere part of your body. That’s why, even though a human being can be subject to authority, he cannot simply be owned by the state, to be used as the state desires. Not even God views us as mere tools, for though we were created by and for His love, and we owe Him our utter loyalty and obedience, the Creator made man in His image.
Fortunately, the American Founders were influenced by this robust tradition. Unfortunately, they were also confused by various early modern thinkers who thought they were raising the stature of natural rights, but subtly distorted them. Not even the best of them, the English thinker John Locke, realized that a man is a more excellent thing than a tool. He argued that the reason you have rights against me is merely that you are God’s tool, not mine. Take a close look at his Second Treatise of Government, Chapter 2, Section 6, and you will see what I mean.
This view – affirming natural rights, yet for confused and insufficient reasons -- was like a lovely, fresh red apple with a worm in it. The apple can’t remain as it is; if you don’t do anything about the worm, it decays. That is what has been happening, for the people of our day are deeply mixed up about rights. At one extreme are legal positivists, who think that there aren’t any natural rights – that government creates rights and can take them away again. At the other extreme are people who think that the autonomous self is utterly sovereign -- that anyone who wants something badly enough has a transcendent right to it, and the government has a duty to back him up. Oddest of all, some people try to occupy both extremes at once.
The classical view that rights depend on the kind of being that we are could bring order to this chaos, but is widely rejected. For example, the supporters of abortion -- whether they realize it or not – are logically committed to the view that either not all human beings are persons, or else personhood is a matter of degree. Either way, we are headed for a caste system in which some people have greater rights than others and may privately decree death for them. Infants. The old. The infirm.
The only way to save the apple is to get rid of the worm, and that, I think, is the task for our day.
Tomorrow: Child and Chimp