As Americans we’ve all become accustomed to Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence. “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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” They’ve become such an integral part of Americana that they’re often taken for granted and criticism applied to their meaning often brings about blank stares or hostility. The idea that our rights are derived from God and are unalienable often puts the opponents of human rights on the same perceptual level as Satan. On the surface the idea that we’re born a human being, and by default given certain freedoms, which cannot be infringed upon by any legitimate institution, and those corporate institutions which compose society have as their primary function the protection of those rights sounds very appealing and comforting. As a result political groupings from the far left to the far right have always attempted to integrate their ideologies with American political doctrine, regardless of any attempt to maintain ideological consistency. Political movements are only as strong as the doctrines they’re built around. Personalities come and go, but ideas are what drive movements and policies. If core ideas conflict with each other it’ll be reflected in frustrated policy outcomes not squaring with those ideas. For example, the belief that governments exist solely to protect life, liberty, and property does not provide any kind of justification to ban abortion, drugs, prostitution, pornography or any myriad of social moral ills. The failure of Conservative politics can be laid at the door of their ideology of classical liberal individualism. To be successful must be able to articulate opinions and ideas which add up and don’t contradict each other, and if by doing so, we sacrifice popularity in the short term, we will reap the rewards in the future.
American exceptionalism often prevents us from looking at 1776 as a part of a greater string of events which continues to this day. Americans typically perceive it as the seminal event in world history ordained by God, something which outweighs any other era in world history. Theories of rights and government go back to the dawn of time, with each era affecting the development of the one succeeding it. The one commonality amongst the various doctrines of rights is the absence of anything resembling today’s Universalist interpretations. Nowhere amongst the ancient doctrines of rights is described a belief that being born a human means inheriting a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way free from restraint by the State or other members of society, and then applying this theory in an egalitarian fashion to cover all of humanity. Instead what you find is a system of privileges bestowed upon certain classes or individuals by the sovereign in exchange for a given service. Rights were the product of being a citizen of a political community and were given by the State. This is brought up not for the purpose of copying completely ancient conceptions of life but to bring to a skeptical audience the idea that what they believe now to be the whole truth, has not always been and that there are valid alternative conceptions which have existed throughout time and continue to do so to this day.
A valid conception of rights containing truths so as to effectively combat the modern notions of rights would have to be philosophical in nature. Modern thought on the issue first developed in the 17th century with the Social Contract and enlightenment theorists which as described above awarded rights on a universal basis based upon a shared conception of humanity. Given that human rights presuppose an ability of the person exercising them to actually use them. We have to ask ourselves does this ability exist, and if so what is its source? The Declaration of Independence gives credit to God, while the French Declaration of the Rights of Man doesn’t credit any specific source. It simply states that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights…” What all rights advocates have in common is a very vague and hazy conception as to the source and the exact content which constitutes their ideas. They’re very effective at creating a fictional universe where rights are abstractly created and a theoretical man described as exercising them, than actually extrapolating their ideas from human history and nature. The fact that there’s not one time in human history where people came together to form a State along the lines they describe doesn’t seem to bother them at all.
There are also basic points of logic, which are regularly missed, such as in the American view. Where are the biblical justifications for rights to be found. If God is the source, then how was this justification reached? The Bible? How can a right belong to an individual when the ability to practice that right is based upon being a member of a social group? Even something as basic as speech can only be developed through interaction with others, Freedom of the Press, Religion, the Right to Vote all presume the existence of a stable social order which can only exist side by side with the State. If the existence of these rights is predicated upon a social construct, then the State has a wider function than being just a night watchman with the sole purpose being the protection of these rights. If an argument is to be made for the existence of rights, then the only logical receptacle of those rights would be the social units which comprise the building blocks of any society: The State, family, churches, etc. Without these institutions providing the framework for the individual to act, even the individual would fail to exist. When individuals or groups receive a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way. More often than naught it is for services performed or is derived from a show of lasting responsibility. The ability to act in a certain fashion without regards to the context which the individual interacts within is a perversion of political thought which views man as an atom with no essential connection to any other constituent part of society. History and modern society on the other hand has shown that no individual lives in a bubble. How that person lives their life has an effect on his neighbors and local community. This does not imply that the State should regiment the daily lives of each individual. It does imply, though, that the view that the State’s actions should be limited to its necessary functions is one not based upon reality and is more of an abstraction.
If the source is social, then rights cannot be allowed to jeopardize the origin of that source. We are born with duties, our existence requires it, whether it’s to the family, which gave birth to us, the State which instills civic virtue, or God who provides salvation. It’s through the fulfillment of those duties that we realize our true selves and earn our rights.