Inalienable rights vs. Alienable rights

Happy Birthday, America! Here is something to ponder on this memorial day to the Declaration of Independence: Back in 1776, both Christians and Deists considered it “self-evident” that human beings were “created” and thus had equal moral and spiritual standing before God. Furthermore, the “Creator” “endowed” human beings with rights, which, because they have a transcendent foundation are “inalienable”; that is, they cannot be taken away.

Today, belief in a creation and a Creator are far from “self-evident”; creation is widely treated as a myth (with random evolution being the only acceptable view) and belief in God is not allowed to have any kind of legal or governmental standing. Right, instead, are endowed by the state.

It follows, therefore, that rights are “alienable,” that they CAN be taken away. The state has recently been generous in creating rights that have nothing to do with God–that indeed violate God’s ordinance–such as the right to an abortion. But without a transcendent foundation for rights, aren’t we left with arbitrary, self-interested power and the foundation for tyranny?

Can American ideals and liberties long survive without the foundation set forth in the Declaration of Independence?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://liberalmorality.blogspot.com William

    Fortunately, even as recently as DC v. Heller (the big 2nd amendment case), a majority of the Supreme Court ruled that the Bill of Rights enumerates preexisting rights, and does not create them. English legal tradition and Common Law, predating the Declaration, also back up the view of natural rights, which are protected, not given, by the State.

    But you’re right; without a God, there’s the big question of where these rights come from. It becomes easier to ignore them and create new rights, like the right to happiness (no pursuit required) and the right to a good job and health care (i.e., the right to wealth). That, of course, requires state intervention, and before long, your true rights are not respected and tyranny is at hand. F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is a good read on the subject.

    So the answers to your questions are yes, we are left with a foundation for tyranny, and no, our liberties will not long survive, unless water, both Christian and political, can be made to flow uphill.

  • http://liberalmorality.blogspot.com William

    Fortunately, even as recently as DC v. Heller (the big 2nd amendment case), a majority of the Supreme Court ruled that the Bill of Rights enumerates preexisting rights, and does not create them. English legal tradition and Common Law, predating the Declaration, also back up the view of natural rights, which are protected, not given, by the State.

    But you’re right; without a God, there’s the big question of where these rights come from. It becomes easier to ignore them and create new rights, like the right to happiness (no pursuit required) and the right to a good job and health care (i.e., the right to wealth). That, of course, requires state intervention, and before long, your true rights are not respected and tyranny is at hand. F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is a good read on the subject.

    So the answers to your questions are yes, we are left with a foundation for tyranny, and no, our liberties will not long survive, unless water, both Christian and political, can be made to flow uphill.

  • http://www.theavailablelight.net Dean

    The reason so many of our rights continue to be observed now is that people are used to a long tradition of believing in them. Nothing underlies our rights now except this vague tradition and each individual’s belief he ought to be able to do whatever he wants.

    I fear that a truly major change in material conditions or political stability such as a major economic depression or large-scale terrorist attack could expose the absence of any real foundation for our democratic order.

    We are indeed set up for tyranny, but its implementation just requires a crisis which is almost sure to come.

  • http://www.theavailablelight.net Dean

    The reason so many of our rights continue to be observed now is that people are used to a long tradition of believing in them. Nothing underlies our rights now except this vague tradition and each individual’s belief he ought to be able to do whatever he wants.

    I fear that a truly major change in material conditions or political stability such as a major economic depression or large-scale terrorist attack could expose the absence of any real foundation for our democratic order.

    We are indeed set up for tyranny, but its implementation just requires a crisis which is almost sure to come.

  • Anon

    The short answer is no; the tattered rags of the liberties once we had will not long endure.

    As an example, a number of commentators have noted that Barak Hussein Obama is proposing what would be a fascist and totalitarian State.

  • Anon

    The short answer is no; the tattered rags of the liberties once we had will not long endure.

    As an example, a number of commentators have noted that Barak Hussein Obama is proposing what would be a fascist and totalitarian State.

  • http://markkelly.wordpress.com Mark

    Apart from the reality of a Creator in whose image we are made, and apart from a resurrection that conclusively demonstrates who is telling the truth about God and his moral will, all moral and religious truth is merely tradition or opinion. No one has any “right” to impose their tradition or opinion on others.

  • http://markkelly.wordpress.com Mark

    Apart from the reality of a Creator in whose image we are made, and apart from a resurrection that conclusively demonstrates who is telling the truth about God and his moral will, all moral and religious truth is merely tradition or opinion. No one has any “right” to impose their tradition or opinion on others.

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    The idea of “inalienable rights” is in contrast to “alienable rights,” which also exist. Such rights, like your right to you car, could be voluntarily signed over to someone else. The point in the Declaration was to argue that King George III was a tyrant. The British were likely to argue that all the things that he did were within his authority. Some of the more liberal would have said that even if the colonists had had such rights at one point, they had consented to giving them to the king. The “inalienable rights” idea was that these rights, being inalienable, could not have been given over even voluntarily.

    Our God-given rights seem to consist of both alienable and inalienable rights. So we should not be too quick to jump from a right being God-given to it being inalienable. The question to ask is whether the right in question is one that a people could even voluntarily sign away when they delegate a duty to their government officials.

    The other complication in rights talk is this. The Bill of Rights comes after many years of English law. And it was decided upon by people who disagreed over the philosophy of law. When you’re arguing against those who think the people have fewer innate rights, you might cite past precedent, saying, “Even the English recognized that people needed to do x.” Some rights in the Bill of Rights may be narrower than our actual rights. They may be continuations of narrow rights that the English government had conceded to the people. In such cases, we should argue to retain them. But we should also make a natural rights argument that what is spelled out in the Bill of Rights is not all there is to our rights.

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    The idea of “inalienable rights” is in contrast to “alienable rights,” which also exist. Such rights, like your right to you car, could be voluntarily signed over to someone else. The point in the Declaration was to argue that King George III was a tyrant. The British were likely to argue that all the things that he did were within his authority. Some of the more liberal would have said that even if the colonists had had such rights at one point, they had consented to giving them to the king. The “inalienable rights” idea was that these rights, being inalienable, could not have been given over even voluntarily.

    Our God-given rights seem to consist of both alienable and inalienable rights. So we should not be too quick to jump from a right being God-given to it being inalienable. The question to ask is whether the right in question is one that a people could even voluntarily sign away when they delegate a duty to their government officials.

    The other complication in rights talk is this. The Bill of Rights comes after many years of English law. And it was decided upon by people who disagreed over the philosophy of law. When you’re arguing against those who think the people have fewer innate rights, you might cite past precedent, saying, “Even the English recognized that people needed to do x.” Some rights in the Bill of Rights may be narrower than our actual rights. They may be continuations of narrow rights that the English government had conceded to the people. In such cases, we should argue to retain them. But we should also make a natural rights argument that what is spelled out in the Bill of Rights is not all there is to our rights.

  • allen

    I can’t speak for the Atheists, but if I were one, I imagine I would answer thus -

    “I don’t know how or why the universe came into existence, but I know it did. I don’t know how or why people have rights, but I know we do.”

    The knowledge of good and evil is engraved on their consciences the same way it is on ours’. They don’t believe it, but that doesn’t change the fact.

  • allen

    I can’t speak for the Atheists, but if I were one, I imagine I would answer thus -

    “I don’t know how or why the universe came into existence, but I know it did. I don’t know how or why people have rights, but I know we do.”

    The knowledge of good and evil is engraved on their consciences the same way it is on ours’. They don’t believe it, but that doesn’t change the fact.

  • http://lutheranguest.blogspot.com/ Jim

    Let me echo Rick’s comment: The point of stating that a right is “inalienable” is not to say that it can’t be taken away, but rather is to emphasize that the right cannot be given away.

    Why that? The argument for social contract theorists like Locke, goes something like this: If a despot rules over an area, and if all rights are alienable, then it’s possible that the despot has good title to all his power — he’d then be able to deprive life, liberty, property, and/or happiness when he wanted, and it would not be unjust. The only way you could object is to prove that these rights had not, in fact, been alienated by the population.

    But if those rights are inalienable, then the despot cannot deprive those rights, irrespective of what the populace agreed to.

    Sounds like a stretch? There are many examples, particularly in ancient history (the despots of Sicily, etc.), where a populace voluntarily endows a leader with extraordinary powers in order to fight an enemy.

    If fundamental rights are alienable, then those despotic powers would be “just,” and the despot could just continue to exercise them after the emergency.

    A more modern example: The debate over legalized suicide, and assissting suicide, is a debate over whether the right to life is alienable or not.

    But the Founders would argue that more than is at stake than the life or death of a few benighted souls. For them, the proposition that life is an alienable right is a postulate of despotism. Agreeing with the postulate, for them, would have political implications for governance far exceeding the immediate impact on the suicides themselves.

  • http://lutheranguest.blogspot.com/ Jim

    Let me echo Rick’s comment: The point of stating that a right is “inalienable” is not to say that it can’t be taken away, but rather is to emphasize that the right cannot be given away.

    Why that? The argument for social contract theorists like Locke, goes something like this: If a despot rules over an area, and if all rights are alienable, then it’s possible that the despot has good title to all his power — he’d then be able to deprive life, liberty, property, and/or happiness when he wanted, and it would not be unjust. The only way you could object is to prove that these rights had not, in fact, been alienated by the population.

    But if those rights are inalienable, then the despot cannot deprive those rights, irrespective of what the populace agreed to.

    Sounds like a stretch? There are many examples, particularly in ancient history (the despots of Sicily, etc.), where a populace voluntarily endows a leader with extraordinary powers in order to fight an enemy.

    If fundamental rights are alienable, then those despotic powers would be “just,” and the despot could just continue to exercise them after the emergency.

    A more modern example: The debate over legalized suicide, and assissting suicide, is a debate over whether the right to life is alienable or not.

    But the Founders would argue that more than is at stake than the life or death of a few benighted souls. For them, the proposition that life is an alienable right is a postulate of despotism. Agreeing with the postulate, for them, would have political implications for governance far exceeding the immediate impact on the suicides themselves.

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