For the Non-Believers Out There: Where Do our Rights Come From?

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 life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…

So quotes our most important founding document. Rights come from God.

Except, if you don’t believe in God, where do our rights come from?

What say those that don’t believe in a Creator?

  1. Crow
    Zafar: Rights only have meaning in the world because people agree that they do.

    This view is sometimes called conventionalism, and I reject it in favor of natural law.

    But, for the sake of the argument, let’s say that we accept your premise. I presume that even if they only exist through agreement, you think the agreement is good, yes? You think it should be maintained, yes?

    The immediate question which follows is, “okay, then how do we convince people to agree?” It appears to us that the only way is by force or fraud.

    We either impose rights upon them by superior force or we do so by fraud: we give them a fiction that inspires them to assent to rights and to assertively defend them against people who would strip them of them.

    But then we’re in trouble, because if this is so, we can’t run about telling them its a fiction, because as soon as they learn this, they’ll no longer want to believe in it or will not be capable of the feats necessary to maintain it, or be unable to distinguish it from anyone who promises them anything. So agreement collapses.

  2. Zafar

    But we have to agree about what natural law is.

    What if we agree that there IS a natural law, but we disagree about what it consists of?

    It comes right back to agreement.

    Crow’s Nest

    Zafar: Rights only have meaning in the world because people agree that they do.

    This view is sometimes called conventionalism, and I reject it in favor of natural law.

  3. Bryan G. Stephens

    I like this one. But then, I think our rights come from God.

    Leigh: I was just trying to research the whole “unalienable” thing for something completely different. 

    My way of thinking of it — my unalienable right to life does not mean that I cannot be killed.  It means that the person who kills me is guilty of murder, before God and before the laws of any just society. · 4 hours ago

  4. Black Prince
    Zafar: But we have to agree about what natural law is.

    What if we agree that there IS a natural law, but we disagree about what it consists of?

    It comes right back to agreement.

    You said it better than I did!

  5. katievs
    Bryan G. Stephens: I like this one. But then, I think our rights come from God.

    Leigh: I was just trying to research the whole “unalienable” thing for something completely different. 

    My way of thinking of it — my unalienable right to life does not mean that I cannot be killed.  It means that the person who kills me is guilty of murder, before God and before the laws of any just society. 

    So did the founders.  

    The American experiment is grounded on a conviction of the reality of God and the intelligibility of His design of man.

    If there’s no God, there’s no such thing as unalienable rights.  If there’s no such thing as unalienable rights, then the American experiment is a giant farce.

    If it’s a farce and an illusion, it’s hard to understand why it’s worked so well for so long.

  6. Zafar

    I love America, but fwiw

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Empire

    The Roman Empire (Latin: Imperium Romanum) was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization…The 500-year-old Roman Republic, which preceded it, had been destabilize through a series of civil wars. Several events marked the transition from Republic to Empire, including Julius Caesar‘s appointment as perpetual dictator (44 BC); the Battle of Actium (2 September 31 BC); and the granting of the honorific Augustus to Octavian by the Roman Senate(16 January 27 BC).

    The first two centuries of the Empire were a period of unprecedented stability and prosperity known as the Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”).[8] It reached its greatest expanse during the reign of Trajan (98–117 AD). In the 3rd century, the Empire underwent a crisis that threatened its existence, but was reunified and stabilized under the emperors Aurelian and Diocletian. Christians rose to power in the 4th century, during which time a system of dual rule was developed in the Latin West and Greek East. After the collapse of central government in the West in the 5th century, the eastern half continued…

  7. Barkha Herman

    Where does God come from?

  8. katievs

    Zafar, far be it from me to argue that American can’t fail.

    If she does (which looks all too likely at the moment), it will be because she lost sight of her founding vision and abandoned the moral and religious commitments that uphold it.

    This is something the founders were virtually unanimous in recognizing.  The kind of government they instituted relies for its maintenance on a moral and religious people.

    Let the people become irreligious and immoral and before long, it will collapse.  See history.

  9. Scott R
    Barkha Herman: Where does God come from? · 3 minutes ago

    To the non-believer, from man.

    To the believer, it’s a silly question — that is, by definition, God doesn’t “come from” “somewhere”. He is, ever was, and always will be.

  10. Black Prince

    Well, to paraphrase Mao Zedong, “Power comes from the barrel of a gun”—I would add, “and so do our rights”.  I would even go as far to say that there’s no such thing as a “right” and there’s certainly no such thing as an “unalienable right”…what is self-evident to one person may not be self evident to another.  If our rights really were self-evident and unalienable we wouldn’t have had to fight for and defend them in so many wars.  Wikipedia says the following about rights which I agree with:

    The connection between rights and struggle cannot be overstated—rights are not as much granted or endowed as they are fought for and claimed, and the essence of struggles past and ancient are encoded in the spirit of current concepts of rights and their modern formulations.

    By the way, I’d really like to know where in the Bible it explicitly states that God has grated us us the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…that is, apart from the promise of eternal life.

  11. No Caesar
    Central Scrutinizer: Might. · 22 minutes ago

    Christopher Hitchens certainly seemed to think they came from force of one kind of another.

  12. Bryan G. Stephens
    Scott Reusser

    Barkha Herman: Where does God come from? · 3 minutes ago

    To the non-believer, from man.

    To the believer, it’s a silly question — that is, by definition, God doesn’t “come from” “somewhere”. He is, ever was, and always will be. · 1 minute ago

    Well said.

  13. katievs
    Scott Reusser

    Barkha Herman: Where does God come from? · 3 minutes ago

    To the non-believer, from man.

    To the believer, it’s a silly question — that is, by definition, God doesn’t “come from” “somewhere”. He is, ever was, and always will be. · 14 minutes ago

    It’s a silly question not just to the believer, but to the metaphysician.

    You don’t have to accept the real existence of God to get the concept of an Unmoved Mover or an Uncaused Cause.

    UPDATE: In case anyone saw my original formulation, I want to say I thought it needlessly abrasive, so edited.  

  14. Jerry Broaddus

    I have trouble accepting that rights (or morals, for that matter) can be maintained in a society where nobody believes in absolutes. To maintain a right, people have to defend it, sometimes fanatically. Because eventually someone with a political interest will fight to curtail that right, and will pursue it’s abolition with a great deal of foam flecked enthusiasm.

    As our faith melts slowly into reliance on government or even in ideology, our rights will fade as well.

    So, since I can’t answer Bryan’s question as someone who doesn’t believe in God, I can say that without God, those rights will be absorbed by “pragmatism” until there are none left to speak of.

  15. katievs
    No Caesar

    Central Scrutinizer: Might. · 22 minutes ago

    Christopher Hitchens certainly seemed to think they came from force of one kind of another. · 40 minutes ago

    In other words, there’s no such thing as unalienable rights.  

    The whole American experiment is a farce.  

    Forward, comrades!

  16. rosegarden sj dad

    The right to life, liberty and property is the lost 11th Commandment, sadly lost in a tragic wagon accident.  The right to privacy is the 12th, but because it is private God did not share it broadly. 

  17. Leigh
    Black Prince:

    By the way, I’d really like to know where in the Bible it explicitlystates that God has grated us us the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…that is, apart from the promise of eternal life. · 1 hour ago

    Edited 22 minutes ago

    Well, the Declaration doesn’t claim explicit biblical authority.

    However, I’d say it is pretty explicit in the 10 Commandments.  The “right to life” is just a way of stating positively “thou shalt not kill.”  And property is protected too.  Slavery isn’t explicitly forbidden, but a careful reading makes it quite clear that — like polygamy — it goes against God’s design for mankind.  There is no question that the slave and master are equal before God.

    I do think the difference between the positive and negative formulations is interesting.  Rather than giving us permission to assert our own rights, the biblical phraseology commands us to respect those of others.

    “Pursuit of happiness” is trickier, and in the modern use of the word “happiness” I’d argue that in fact we have no such right biblically. Jefferson didn’t intend quite our meaning of the word.

  18. Mr. Bildo

    Well, I’ve heard of some old greek and roman guys talking about natural law, so I guess nature? 

    I saw a show on History Channel that said we all come from aliens. So maybe invisible all-powerful alien onlookers weave the fabric of the universe in such a way we don’t understand and that is where our rights come from–alien magic?

    I’m somewhere in between Cicero and ‘Alien Architects.’ 

  19. katievs
    Black Prince: By the way, I’d really like to know where in the Bible itexplicitly states that God has grated us us the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…that is, apart from the promise of eternal life. 

    America isn’t founded on the Bible.  It’s founded on natural law.  The notion of unalienable rights comes from long and deep and serious reflection on the nature and dignity of persons.  

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