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What Are Human Rights?

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, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….

Thomas Jefferson – The Declaration of Independence, Paragraph 2 (excerpt)

Human rights are rights that we just have because we are human beings. They are part of the natural law, which predates, informs, and limits the written constitutions and laws that have developed (with mixed success) over millennia of human existence.

Because all humans have these human rights, no government, no business, no association, and no person has the right to trample upon them. In fact, the primary purpose of any just government is to defend these rights for all people.

Any law, court ruling, policy, or regulation that violates human rights is invalid and unenforceable. No government has the authority to overrule natural law.

Where Human Rights Come From

In the classical understanding of human rights, they are given to all people by the creator — that is, God.

But the existence of human rights is not necessarily predicated upon the existence of God, and the natural law theory of human rights is not an inherently religious theory. Even an ardent atheist can (and should) agree that the natural laws, and the human rights contained therein, exist. If they are not established by God, then they established by nature, or even by the course of our evolution and the development of our sentience.

Whether the human rights come from God, nature, or evolution, they are fundamental and undeniable. Human beings living in society can only be truly happy and successful when they, and the governments they create, understand and defend these rights.

What are the Three Human Rights?

The U.S. Declaration of Independence summarizes the unalienable human rights as “Life, Liberty[,] and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is a memorable phrase, but it is a slight corruption. In fact, the three human rights are the rights to life, liberty, and property. Additionally there are two associated human rights: the right to defend life, liberty, and property, and the right of a society to self-govern for the purpose of protecting human rights.

These, of course, encompass many other rights…but all human rights fall into one (or more) of these basic categories. The “pursuit of happiness,” for example, should properly be included among the liberty rights.

John Locke argued, nearly a century before Jefferson, that the purpose for which people join together into political societies is “the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates” (Second Treatise on Government, ยง123). But perhaps the best summary comes from one of the American founders, and is still today part of the Constitution of Virginia:

That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

George Mason – Virginia Declaration of Rights, Section 1

What Is (and Isn’t) A Right?

We’ve gotten pretty sloppy about how we use the word “right.” Let’s use two things we call “rights” as an example: The right to free speech (which is a liberty right) and the right to education.

Free speech is indeed a right. You can say whatever you want, with only a few reasonable limits to prevent direct harm to others. Nobody has to give you anything to let you speak. You can just do it. And others, if they wish, can ignore your speech…or fight back against it with speech of their own. Free speech rights impose no positive obligations on the government, or on other people. They only impose negative obligations…like they can’t imprison you to shut you up.

The right to education, however, is not actually a right…except in the limited sense that nobody can stop you from becoming educated if you want to be. Note that this doesn’t mean that it’s not a social good to educate people; it is. But you do not have the right to require that any person or government send you to school or pay for it, even if we agree it’s good public policy to do so.

In other words, you cannot impose a positive action on other people and call it a right. The decision to make education available to all children in America was a political decision — and it was a good one, even if we haven’t implemented it well. But it did not create a right in the proper sense of the word. This same argument applies to the proposed right to health care, which may also be a public good (see my thoughts here) but is not a right.

When we talk about rights, we need to be more precise. Something can be a social good, and worthy of public policy, but not be a right. The easy way to tell is to ask yourself this question: Does this idea require others to do something for me? If so, it’s not a right.

When Rights Conflict

There are times when one person’s rights conflict with another’s. In this case, the first thing to do is consider the order of rights. The categorization of rights into life, liberty, and property also gives us insight into the priority of rights when they come into conflict. Life is the first and foremost right. Liberty is the second. Property is the third.

So a person’s right to life trumps another’s rights to liberty and property in the event of a conflict.

A person’s right to liberty trumps another’s right to property in the event of a conflict, but does not trump another’s right to life.

A person’s right to property does not trump another’s rights to life and liberty when they conflict.

Only in the event of direct conflict of rights in the same category is there a dilemma. In those rare cases, it will fall to individual conscience to decide what to do…or, if it must be adjudicated in the courts, the courts must apply the most reasonable and prudent judgement that they can. In these rare cases, there may not be an obviously correct outcome. We have to do the best we can.

What About Civil Rights?

Human rights are, as explained above, rights that come from God, nature, or evolution, and they predate the existence of governments. That is why all just governments are obligated to protect and defend them.

Civil rights, on the other hand, are rights established and defined by governments. Often times they connect to human rights. Sometimes they are completely separate rights that do not correspond directly to a human right. Because these are established by governments, the government has the authority to impose reasonable restrictions on them, and they may be modified in ways that the human rights cannot.

For example, the right to vote is a civil right, not a human right. It is associated with the secondary human right of self governance, but society has the right to define exactly how self government will happen. The people of a society could, for example, choose a constitutional monarchy as their mechanism of self government and not hold direct votes at all. This would not automatically violate anybody’s human rights, unless that monarchy were to become despotic.

Therefore, is is perfectly acceptable for our governments to impose reasonable restrictions on the vote. They may not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion, etc., because that would violate liberty rights, but they can decide that only citizens may vote, impose identification requirements (so long as they are equally applied to everybody), and so on.

Civil rights are important, but they are creations of the state and there is a lot more leeway with how they are defined and enforced. And civil rights cannot exist at all in a society that does not first defend the human rights, which is why the reassertion of human rights is the primary focus of my campaign. We can loop back to the civil rights after we get the basics back in line.