Updated: Aug 11
The following is an email exchange between myself and a user who decided to delete his account shortly after sending the mail, so as not to receive my reply. Not liking wasting time writing a response to nobody; I've decided to post it so James can see that his email wasn't ignored.
Subject Clearing Something Up: Natural Rights
Message "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?" Let me clear up some confusion. Human rights don't depend on being a member of a group. When Jefferson said we have a right to life, he meant it's wrong to kill someone unless they deserve it. This is as true in the wild as it is in society. Would it be wrong if someone in your neighbourhood raped and murdered you? Is there a single person in your neighbourhood who could commit this deed without it being wrong? No? Then why would the whole neighbourhood coming together to commit the crime be any different? A crime doesn't become less wrong the more criminals are guilty of it. This is what it means to have a right to live; no human has such an authority over you that they may kill you (unless you deserve it because you've been trespassing on other people's rights). Natural rights can be boiled down to this: "It's wrong to hurt someone against their will, unless they somehow deserve it. Just as it's wrong for them to hurt you." The moral way to form a government is through consent and contract. You make a deal with other people where if you obey the rules, you will be protected and given certain privileges. If you break these rules, you have trespassed on the community, and they may take whatever punitive measures you agreed to be subject to. So if you become an American citizen, you're guaranteed certain protections and privileges, like the right to a trial. All of these are legal rights you gain in the context of joining a nation. These are NOT the inalienable rights which we have as sentient beings. This is where the author of the article got confused.
Me: I would argue that Jefferson's definition of the origin of rights was much more expansive than what you're giving him credit for. In the Declaration of Independence he not only mentions life, but liberty, and happiness as belonging to those rights coming from God, AKA Natural Rights. Now it's entirely possible that some of his other writings contradict what's contained in the Declaration but that document has provided the philosophical rationale for the development American political ideology and subsequently has provided much of the confusion surrounding issues such as abortion, gay marriage, gun control, etc. So in our attempt at deconstructing the ideology of human rights/liberalism we need to emphasize how it's historically been interpreted and thought of.
Let's take the example you give of killing someone. In the article I never argued for a different morality of actions based upon whether its committed by a group or an individual. What I was trying to explain was that the notion of the individual being invested with rights, just from being a human cannot be valid. It's only through contact with other individuals and being a part of a community that a person is able to even conceptualize what morality is. Look at it this way, an individual living by himself that has no contact with the outside world and no memory of his parents, would be incapable of speech, or any complex thought outside of basic desires. What would the concept of murder, adultery, theft mean to this person? Absolutely nothing, he couldn't even begin fathom their importance. It's only through being part of a group that the individual can even begin to construct a working morality. You confirm this in your above statement "no human has such an authority over you that they may kill you (unless you deserve it because you've been trespassing on other people's rights)." Even killing is permitted when it's in the interest of the community. The right to life is dependent upon a certain code of behavior determined by the collectivity. How can an individual have a right to anything if in his capacity as an individual he's incapable of recognizing those rights? Rights can be won, earned, and fought for, but independently of that they don't exist. When you say that "The moral way to form a government is through consent and contract." Where are you getting your definition of morality from? I don't recall a biblical passage discussing this. And I think you're ignoring American History. Only about a third of the colonists supported the Revolution and after the war the supporters of the Constitution had to rely on unethical means of packing State Legislatures to get it ratified. Consent if defined as 50% plus one didn't exist at our own founding. And the assertion that governments are formed through contract is not reflected throughout history. Those few times you see it happen have taken place only with a current government which decides to restructure their Constitutions. Are you implying that the 99% of States which have existed throughout history without contracts were immoral? This is similar to my argument regarding rights. The ability to even make a contract regarding a government is based upon the prior existence of a government