You can’t avoid it. Any discussion about the law, religion, government, society, economics, anything causes someone at some point bringing up the terms “Rights”. When you discuss Rights in of themselves you get varied degrees on where they come from. As Americans, especially those who don’t look far beyond a narrative of our own history talk about the “God Given Rights” that the founders inscribed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Some will parse that a bit and will cite “Natural Rights”.
On one twitter thread I was involved in regarding gun control, my worthy opponent didn’t want to go so far as to say Rights came from God but instead from Man evolving from the Neanderthal who developed a “genetic sense” of rights. An interesting take on the subject and certainly got me thinking. He was adamant though. Rights are absolute and constant and cannot be abridged and constitutions and laws don’t create rights, they merely acknowledge they exist and that even if they do not exist in any legal document, no man has any right to violate them.
Well the concept of Rights predates our revolution, going back literally thousands of years. If you believe in a Deity or Deities, you’re apt to believe that is where they come from. If, as my friend above tried to explain, they are essentially genetic, then you would expect some consistency in those Rights throughout time and region. Indeed there is some consistency, but not complete consistency. When you look at various cultures in various regions at various times, the concept of Rights do differ. Are they evolving? Perhaps, but if that is the case, then this rules out any single Deity or Deities providing them for they would be absolute and unchanging.
I reject the concept of God given rights and I’m not willing to accept the proposition of “natural rights” either. Full disclosure, my major was Sociology, so I look to culture in determining how societies came to exist and develop. I believe that the concept of “Rights” develop among societies over time depending on the physical and social environment where they exist. They also depend on the perceived necessities of the time, place and region.
At our founding, Europe was in the grips of the Enlightenment. An important aspect of the Age of Enlightenment was the belief that man had greater control and influence over life and environment than previously thought or tolerated by the strict teachings of the Church. Man had the ability of expansion of thought, creativity and doing better and being greater. God was still involved in many ways, but man had a say too. Humanism was coming to fruition. In the Colonies, a bigger rift was developing between the colonists and the mother Country ruled by a God anointed Monarch who saw his authority as a Right given him by God, family and class; as well as an English Parliament who saw their right to control the colonies, to ensure the Mother country’s wealth and prosperity. By that I mean the upper wealthy elite classes of society. Their rights were truly God given.
Back in the Colonies, a class of some ruling elites and influential businessmen were seeing their rights being infringed upon by the Crown and nation of elites abusing their rights over the colonists. The rights were conflicting. The founders enumerated their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they felt were being denied by the Crown and Parliament who were asserting their right of privilege over the colonies and colonists, who were by divine right, subservient to them. Since the colonies didn’t have a standing army, only militias and Great Britain had the greatest Navy and armed forces in the world, the colonists felt they had a right to have the arms necessary to ensure their right of freedom in opposing the Crown exercising their right to keep control over their colonies.
Let us not forget, the only rights being discussed and enumerated during this time were those of the White Male property owners. Owning property gave you rights. If you didn’t own property, you really didn’t have or deserved any particular rights. Rights were determined by socioeconomic class, race and gender. There was, even in the enlightenment, a caste system of rights. After the revolution and ratification of the Constitution, where the rights were enumerated, they were geared towards the white property owners and nobody else.
Over time as the country grew and more of her inhabitants became organized and began to demand things, rights were expanded and new rights were expressed to meet the needs and challenges that presented themselves as our American society developed. We remained a class society; however the lower classes weren’t going to sit idly by while their desires were left unfulfilled or acknowledged. The upper classes knew their rights could be endangered and lost if some token of reconciliation wasn’t given to those they depended upon to grow their personal wealth and influence, so things evolved. As the lower classes became larger, more educated, more self aware and more cognizant of where they stood, their desire grew as did their demands for recognition and their “natural rights” which really amounted to desires.
I don’t believe there are universal rights that came from the dawn of man or society; I believe that rights are nothing more than identified “desires from the masses” that the societal system eventually permits and recognizes to keep order. Our Constitution didn’t enumerate long existing “rights” per se; it codified desires of the masses and called them rights. Over time those desires/rights were expanded to others in the nation in order to keep order.
They’re not God given, they’re not natural, they’re societal. As the world changes and desires/rights conflict, we need to step back and determine where the greater societal right/desire exists to maintain order, structure, growth and peace.
An environment of open warfare, wilderness, need to provide for yourself and family created a desire, later codified as a right to bear arms. Over time a standing army has been created as well as police. Wilderness has given way to cities and towns. Since crime is ever present, the desire to have guns, as well as a rather paranoid view of tyrannical government is seen as a right that is absolute and shall not be infringed upon, even if it endangers the rights of other to not be killed by guns in the wrong hands.
Those who claim a right to own guns conflicts with those who claim rights to live in safety. The two rights/desires conflict. Which is more important? Where is the compromise? If you hold to the paradigm of “rights are absolute” you will be hard pressed to come to a good solution because your rights are more important and absolute than another person’s rights.
If we can step back and replace the term rights with the term desire and accept that compromise is needed to maintain peace, structure, growth and society perhaps a solution beneficial to both sides can be found.
It’s not a popular or safe position to advocate, but in my humble opinion, rights aren’t guaranteed because at times they do conflict.
Rights must be massaged, as they have over history to keep society growing as the environment and desires of people change. Some rights do trump others and we need to accept that and come to a compromise that benefits the greater number of people and ensure their needs, their desires, their rights are protected and expanded for the betterment of our entire society, not just the angry and spoiled few.
Again, this is just my view as is my right to express and yours to accept or reject or debate as you wish.