Where do Rights come from?
One night, sometime around when I was 28 or so, I flipped the channel to C-SPAN and heard a Republican congressman on the House floor say that Rights come from God. I didn’t think that made sense – and not because a Republican or congressperson had said it. I thought, “That can’t be right. If Rights come from God, then why were there slaves? How is it that one man can take another man’s Rights away if they come from God? If a man can take another man’s Rights away, and Rights come from God, then that must mean that: Man is as powerful as God; Man is more powerful than God; God is uncaring; God is not all knowing; God is not all powerful; or there is no God.” It was around this same time that I heard something on that evil, Leftist, NPR station. On one of the shows they had some people (I don’t remember if they were historians or not) talking about the Constitution (it might have been around the anniversary of some amendment or important Supreme Court case). One of the individuals mentioned how Ronald Reagan had “waxed on” about the Constitution whereas Thurgood Marshall’s view was a bit different. This all got me thinking, “Where do Rights come from?” So over the next three weekends I spent some hours walking around in circles up in bedroom trying to figure it out, and this which is written, with very little modification over the years, is what I got.
To figure this out, I looked at some Rights: Right to own property, Right to free speech, Right to assemble peacefully. What is common about them? So, I came up with a scenario to find out. If someone is thrown in jail, and their Rights to speak freely, assemble, and own property are taken from them, does that mean the prisoner can no longer do these things? No. The prisoner still has the ability, physical ability, to speak freely, possibly assemble (depending on the lock-up situation), and own property (they may still have the deed to their home; the prisoner can own a pack of cigarettes). The prisoner is just denied the opportunity to do these things (at least as much as he or she had done outside of prison).
Okay, so to test this “opportunity” idea I said, “What if someone was stranded on a deserted island all by themselves. What if this person wanted to bash-in the heads of all the little critters on the island?” The person is physically able to bash the little critters’ heads in (the little critters can’t run away fast enough). No human or other thing is going to physically stop the person. So does that mean that person has the Right to bash the little critters’ heads in? Hmmm. Well, it may not be wise, as some of those critters could be a future food supply, and some as companions, and it’s not nice to bash little critters’ heads in, but does that mean the person doesn’t have the Right? I decided to shelf that scenario for a bit and try something a bit more realistic.
Let’s say there’s a little, old lady at an ATM drawing out some cash. She’s all alone. It’s in a quiet area, nobody’s around. Maybe it’s evening or night time. Some guy comes up behind her and hits her on the head and takes her money. He had the physical opportunity to rob her so does that mean he had the Right to rob her? Well of course not (at least not in our society). Who would say yes? We have laws about what you can and cannot do. Okay, but why, how? If a Right isn’t a physical opportunity to do something then what is it? Why doesn’t the mugger have the Right? So I made up another scenario about where Rights might have come from.
Way back when, when humans were still in the Stone Age or so, back before civilizations sprung up, is the time I’m looking at. There must have been Rights way back in the day before things were written down, or how else could we have gotten to where we are today? Wouldn’t there have just been total chaos? So I came up with the “Early Human Origins of Rights Hypothesis”:
Let’s say there’s a caveman (I apologize for the names and that there are no women), Bob, and he’s carved a little wooden horse. His buddy, Tom, comes along and says, “Hey, that’s a nice horse. Can I have it?” And Bob says, “No, it’s mine.” Tom says, “But I want it.” Bob says, “Too bad, you can’t have it.” So Tom takes his club and belts Bob on the head and takes the little wooden horse. So next week, Bob goes by Tom’s place. “That’s a nice wooden fish you got there, Tom,” Bob says. “Can I have it?”
“Nope that’s mine,” says Tom. So Bob raises his club to crack Tom on the head and Tom yells, “Hey, what the hell are you doing, you can’t hit me in the head just because you want my fish!”
“Why not, you did that to me last week!”
“Well that’s different!”
“Well how!” Then Jim and Earl (because of course those would be the names caveman had) come rushing over hearing all the commotion. “What’s goin’ on?” Jim asks. Tom says, “He’s gonna hit me in the head if I don’t give him my fish!” Bob replies, “Well that’s ’cause he did the same damn thing to me last week!” Tom, “Oh, yeah. If you hit me in the head this week and take my fish, I’m gonna crack you in the head when you’re sleepin’ and take all your stuff!” Earl chimes in, “Oh yeah, you do that and I’ll crack you in the head when you’re sleepin’ and take all your stuff.” Jim turns to Earl and says, “Then I’ll just do the same thing to you.” And for the next few minutes these caveman, with terribly unimaginative names, argue amongst themselves about who’s gonna hit who on the head and take whose toy. Finally, Tom, the jackass that started all this, calms down a bit and says, “You know what, this ain’t gonna work. We need some kind of arrangement or understanding. How ’bout this: if somebody makes something they get to keep it if they want to.”
“Yeah,” Bob says, “And if somebody steals from ’em, then everybody gets to crack that guy in the head.”
“Works for me,” Earl says. “Me too,” says Jim. Tom also agrees. So, what the hell does that have to do with where Rights come from? So, does this mean that Rights come from caveman “agreements”. Maybe, maybe not. Let’s just look at the scenario for a minute. The Bob-and-Tom idea about one’s possessions became agreed upon because amongst those four guys everybody had an equal say. An equal say is equal power. But does that get me any closer to the origins of Rights? What if Tom said, “Ta hell with you all,” and started cracking the other three in the head until they gave into him and he started calling the shots? Well, then the understanding would be that Tom will crack them in the head if they don’t go along with what he says – through martial power, Tom dictates the rights of the group, meaning that Tom has the power. We could apply this to a larger group. Say if a peaceful tribe of early humans got invaded and cracked in the head by a small group of mean s-o-b’s that made the peaceful ones submit to them. The mean s-o-b’s via their martial power have made the peaceful folk submit to them and yield their opportunity to do and have what they want to do or have. Or, what if there were more then the four guys, say 40 people, and they took this issue to the council or elders to decide? Then obviously those in that council/elder group get to decide what people can have and do because the elders had the power. In all these scenarios there is a thread that runs thru them – those with power decide what others can do and have. And that thing you are allowed to have or do by those in power is what we call a Right.
I didn’t really have to go back to the caveman thing to see this idea that those with power decide what the Rights are and who has them. Why doesn’t the mugger have the Right to mug the little, old lady? Because those in power – the government, (and/or society at large) says he can’t. And this government (and society at large) is more powerful then him.
So, to put it all together thus far – a Right is an opportunity to do or have something, and this opportunity is granted by those in power. What kind of opportunity? Again, not a physical opportunity but a legal and/or societal opportunity. For example: In the area I live in, until about I was somewhere in my teens, a person had the Right to burn garbage in a barrel on their property. Then, the Law changed and people did not have the Right to burn garbage in a barrel on their property. Does that mean I lost the physical opportunity to burn garbage in a barrel in my front yard? No. I can still get a barrel, some garbage, and lighter ‘er up. However, if those who write and enforce the Law find out I get a fine.
So what is the Law? It appears to me that the Law is the tool that those in power use to give order to the societies they govern, and the Law is made of two components: Rights and Rules. Rights typically tell you what you can do and/or what you can have without fear of prosecution by those in power; Rules typically tell you what you cannot do and/or what you cannot have or you may be prosecuted by those in power You could say that Rights and Rules are two sides of the same coin.
What would a “societal opportunity” be? Maybe smoking weed in a state that outlaws that. A lot of people may say it’s okay to smoke a joint, but the Law doesn’t reflect that. Another societal opportunity might be something like a Bar Mitzvah where in the Jewish community a boy is seen as a man at age 13, but outside the Jewish community the 13 year-old boy is not considered an adult until age 18.
I think though there was an easier way to figure out where Rights come from. Let me not define what a Right is, and still try to figure it out.
(little conversation with myself):
What is a Right?
What’s a “freedom”?
What’s a “liberty”?
Well it means you can do what you want; you are free from tyranny.
What is tyranny.
Tyranny is the government or some other powerful entity or person forcing you to do things you don’t want to do.
Can you do everything you want?
No, you can’t do everything you want.
Some stuff would be stupid. Some stuff wouldn’t be safe. And there’s Laws.
Where do the Laws come from?
Well, the government makes the Laws. Which are supposed to be based on the Constitution that our Founding Fathers made.
So why did our Founding Fathers make the Constitution?
So that there would be order and people would have some basic Rights and protections under the Law.
And how did they do it?
Well they had a convention and argued and debated and amended things and voted.
Before that, what happened?
Wasn’t there a little “Revolutionary War”?
So, before the Founding Fathers could found anything, they had to not just “declare” their independence and state, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equally, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights”, they had to win, thru bloodshed the legal and/or societal opportunity to do what they wanted to do.
So they had to have the “power” to do what they wanted to do.
So, what a group of people wanted and had the power to make happen is where our Rights come from. What they had the power to make happen is why we have what we have today. See how simple that was?
I suppose I could have also looked in the dictionary to figure this out, maybe. The closest from Merriam-Webster online dictionary: Right – (noun) 2 : something to which one has a just claim: such as a : the power or privilege to which one is justly entitled voting rights his right to decide b (1) : the interest that one has in a piece of property —often used in plural mineral rights (2) rights plural : the property interest possessed under law or custom and agreement in an intangible thing especially of a literary and artistic nature film rights of the novel
3 : something that one may properly claim as due knowing the truth is her right
The problem with those definitions is the idea of a right being a “Claim”. So what is a Claim? From Merriam-Webster: 1 : a demand for something due or believed to be due an insurance claim
2a : a right to something; specifically : a title to a debt, privilege, or other thing in the possession of another The bank has a claim on their house.b : an assertion open to challenge a claim of authenticity advertisers’ extravagant claims
Basically, Claim, Right, Liberty, and Freedom seem to all get interchanged and we don’t actually every really seem to clearly define any of them without using one of the other terms in the definition.
You know, I think it struck me at the time I began this inquiry (again about 28 years old) that I, and seemingly most people, just use the word Right and never really defined it, never stopped to define it. We all just seemed, and still seem, to take it’s meaning for granted and/or that we all have the same definition. We just use the word and never really look into it.
Let’s return for a moment to our friend on the deserted island with the little critters. Does he have the Right to bash their heads in if he wanted to? So long as the island is not in the jurisdiction of any one nation or international body that has laws prohibiting the smashing-in of little critters’ heads, yes, he does. Why? Because he’s the society, the law, and he has the power. I’m not saying that what he’s doing is moral or humane, only that by the definition of what a Right is, he can do on that island what he wants to those little critters’ heads. Obviously, Rights and who has them, and who gives them out, differs from society-to-society, and the fact remains the same – Rights are legal and/or societal opportunities to do or have something, these opportunities granted by those in power.
Let’s also spend a few minutes discussing the belief(s) that Rights are God-given, natural and/or innate. I’ve heard someone say that Rights are God-given/natural/innate it’s just that Group A did not recognize the Rights of Group B (both groups are human). This leads to the question, how did Group A not recognize the Rights of Group B? Was it because Group A did not want to allow Group B to have or do something? Was it because Group A thought Group B was less than they? Was Group A somehow intellectually incapable of recognizing the rights of Group B? Looking throughout history, I think the usual answer is that Group A had more power of some kind (economic, martial, social, political, or some combination thereof) than Group B. And things only changed when Group B had enough power to cause Group A to reconsider it’s position and/or Group B became more powerful than Group A and could not dictate to Group A new terms of their relationship.
What makes us think that Rights are God-given, natural and/or innate? Besides the Declaration of Independence (which was a list of grievances)? Because we are told Rights are God-given, natural and/or innate – we’ve been told that all our lives and we have believed it all our lives. We believe it because we want it to be so. We need it to be so. Because we want to be able to shake our fists at some s-o-b politician we think is screwing us over and shout at ’em, “Who the hell are you? You can’t take my Rights from me – they’re God-given!” It makes us feel good. We think that Rights are built into being human, natural, innate. They’re just there. But Rights aren’t golden orbs that live inside us. There is no “Rights Gland”, or “Rights Organ”. When it comes to the idea that Rights are natural, or there are “Natural Rights of humans” it makes it sound like there is some golden-lit thing waiting for us out in some beautiful, primordial forest, or the light itself will bestow us Rights if we just stand in it long enough. We may want something, and justify the want of it by saying it’s a Right. Or we may need something and justify trying to get it by saying its’ a Right. We may feel that as humans, being sentient/aware of ourselves, they we have certain Rights. By virtue of being human I have Rights? Prove it. Where is the evidence? And again, what is your definition of Rights? When I hear people use the term Rights it almost sounds as though they’re talking about something you can hold in your hand, but you can’t. If Rights are not God-given, natural and/or innate, then what?
There is a practical implication to all this. If Rights are not God-given and/or natural/innate as many people want them/need them/believe them to be, what does that mean? It means, as human history shows, that those in power can take your Rights away or water them down to the point of uselessness because a Right: is (1) a legal and/or societal opportunity to do or have something, this opportunity granted by those in power; (2) an opportunity to do or have something without fear of prosecution by those in power. What this all means, keeping the history of slavery, revolutions, and civil rights movements in mind, is that we, especially those of us living in democratic societies, must always keep an eye on those in power because it is far easier for Rights to be taken away then given. We can believe whatever want to believe about Rights. Unfortunately, belief (or need or want) does not guarantee that your Rights will not be infringed upon or taken from you. There does not seem to be a direct proportion between one’s belief that they have Rights and if they actually do. The only thing that makes Rights real is power, and again, this is why we must always keep an eye on those with power.
Now, maybe after all of this you still think that Rights are God-given and/or natural/innate. Okay. So let me ask you this, Do you think you have a God-given and/or natural right to any of the following:
Buy a six pack of beer from a grocery store on a Sunday?
Own a fully operational, fully armed, Blackhawk helicopter?
Drive 22 and a half miles thru a school zone Monday thru Friday, 6 AM to 6 PM?
Drive 56 mph in a 55 mph speed zone?
Paint your house whatever color you want?
Buy cigarettes when you’re 17?
Sell one of your kidneys or other internal organ or organs?
If you live in the suburbs or city, keep a cow in your backyard?
Have a beer at the pizza place when you’re 18?
Store nuclear waste in you backyard?
Turn your basement into a casino for the public?
Kick someone out of your store/place of business because they have green eyes?
If you’re a woman, wear pants?
Wear you’re hair, if you have any, any way you like?
Thank you for your time and be well,