Natural rights, founding principles, consitutionI am supposed to be trying to explain individual liberties and rights as a founding principle of America. Natural rights don’t make any sense to...

Natural rights, founding principles, consitution

I am supposed to be trying to explain individual liberties and rights as a founding principle of America. Natural rights don’t make any sense to me. My professor says that it is wrong to consider rights “social constructs” and the liberals who champion that position are “destroying our republic.” In a lecture he told us, that people are given rights from God (not the government) and no one can take them away. I agree that rights don’t come from the government, but they can clearly be taken away. Did slaves and women have (“God given”) rights when they were born? If they were born with the three rights (“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”) how did they lose them?  If so weren’t they taken away from someone at some point? Did “We the People” even include those two groups of people?  It seems to me that establishing who is entitled the rights is something that our government has decided. Also how are all people unequal (they are all different and have diiferent capablities) and still equal under the law? Even equality and the political status of certain Americans e.g. women and African-Americans has changed.



Expert Answers
Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Two concepts are being conflated into one, which happens when figurative language is used (e.g., "taken away") and used for so long and by so many that it is forgotten that it is figurative. Since rights are not like a pair of shoes that one dons or that one may or may not be permitted to don, they can not literally be taken away as shoes can most decidedly be taken away by heartless (or maybe desperate) individuals. In reference to rights and the United States Founding Documents, "taken away" is a figurative euphemism for oppressed and/or violated. What your professor is wisely asserting is that humankind has innate qualities of dignity and humanity and honor that include the freedom to live under their own volition (though not harm inducing volition, since harm violates a few rights on its own) without the brutality and dehumanization and exploitation of tyrants or greedy mercenaries or other powerful and destructive people or groups. In this sense, these rights are not a negotiable social contract.

In another sense, literal legal rights are a negotiable social contract. Two examples are "We, the people ..." and Swedish health care. In the first example, the groups included in the literal legal social construct of rights as expressed in "We, the people ..." did not include, women, children, slaves, and non-Christian immigrants, and possibly others. This is, in fact a literal legal social construct that forms an agreement between people of a society as to what literal legal rights may be had by whom (though it is speaking of humankind's innate inviolate qualities of dignity, humanity, honor etc, that are not a social construct).

As legal rights, these may--upon a change in the social agreement that results in a change in the social construct--be altered to include or exclude those not previously specified. This is precisely what has happened with Constitutional Amendments, new laws and Supreme Court rulings. On the other hand, no Constitutional Amendments, laws or Supreme court rulings can ever alter the innate humanity and dignity and attendant rights held by every person living--we have already established that these rights may be and are violated and abused, but they can not be altered or disenfranchised.

The second example of Swedish health care is a happy example of inclusion (as opposed to the original exclusion of "We, the people ...") in a literal legal social construct that specifies legal rights that a social group has agreed to. Sweden has agreed that all citizens--because of their innate, inviolate humanity and dignity--have the legal right to any and all needed health care (and education, for that matter) without restriction for any cause.

So, to understand these questions you ask, you must be able to isolated and separate (not conflate) the two concepts of (1) innate human rights and (2) legal rights that devolve to members of a society based upon legal documents that agree to and specify the legal rights recognized within that society. For more clarity, compare the legal social construct of health care rights for citizens in Sweden to the legal social construct of health care rights for citizens in the United States (a political "hot button" right now, I know, but a very clear example of the point I'm making [though I'm not inviting a battle over policy by mentioning it]).

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I'm responding here to one of your responses to my answer to your question in the Q&A section...

Yes, I would say that slaves' right to be free was never taken away.  It was simply that they were not allowed to exercise it.  A right is not a promise that something will happen, just that it should happen.  There is no power on Earth that can possibly guarantee that a given thing will happen.  We have the right to life and a government that tries hard to protect that right, but we can still be murdered.  The government can't always prevent this.  If we didn't have the right to life, then there would be nothing immoral about killing us.  Since we do have the right to life it's not impossible to murder us, it's just immoral.

I guess maybe you could think of it in those terms.  We have the right to life but can be killed.  Animals (most people think) have no right to life.  So when we are killed, it is immoral.  When an animal is killed for food, it is not immoral.  That's because we have this right to life (this idea that we "ought" to be allowed to live until we die naturally) whereas animals do not.

brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

So much for liberal bias in the college classroom, eh?  I would beware anyone who tells you who to fear or hate.  They usually don't have your best interests at heart.

The context in which we discuss rights makes a difference.  There are legal rights and human rights and the former is much more enforceable than the latter, at least, if history is any indication.

Women and slaves always had human rights (unacknowledged and thus, of course, unenforced) but only quite recently were they granted legal rights, and only after determined nonviolent political pressure were their natural, human rights redefined and supported in our legal and judicial institutions.

The collection of codified rights enshrined in our founding documents is indeed a social construct, a social contract with the citizens of the republic.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think when we consider rights we need to consider the way in which rights require upholding, maintaining and developing. Just because a country has "rights" does not mean that all citizens are able to have those rights in their fullness, and even the most cursory glance at the social situation in America today tells us that there are many groups of people, ethnically and geographically, which are not experiencing the full rights in the way that other groups are experiencing. Rights necessarily involve enforcement and upholding, and all governments should be constantly trying to make sure their societies are places where those rights can flourish for everyone.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The statement that societies have established rights of man only under their laws only is absolutely sound.  Atticus Finch, the attorney of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, underscores this truth by stating that only in the legal courtroom of the United States does every man and woman have equal rights under the law.

Otherwise, people are, indeed, unequal despite American government's efforts to Leave No Child Behind, establish political correctness, Affirmative Action, hiring quotas, extra points for minorities entering law schools, etc. etc.

literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would have to say that everyone is born with the same rights. The problem comes when others, white males (historically), exert power over others. Therefore, anyone who sees weakness in another can, and typically will, try to control them.

This being said, this still happens today. People look for weaknesses in others in order to maintain power over them. Simplistically, when one is told over and over again that they are powerless or secondary to another they will tend to learn to accept it or completely give in.


kateew | Student

Thank you everyone. I appreciate everyone's feedback. You all gave me a lot to think about.

jillyfish | Student

I suggest a good line of reasoning for your Professor would be The Geneva Convention.

These documents were written by modern states to define acceptable behaviour during wartime. War is a terrible thing, but the legal pronouncements in The G.C. force civilised countries to respect human rightsduring wartime. There is no question that The G.C. is a human construct which attempts to preserve human rights.

Then compare this to God's attitude to war...

39 “See now that I myself am he! 
There is no god besides me. 
I put to death and I bring to life, 
I have wounded and I will heal, 
and no one can deliver out of my hand. 
40 I lift my hand to heaven and solemnly swear: 
As surely as I live forever, 
41 when I sharpen my flashing sword 
and my hand grasps it in judgment, 
I will take vengeance on my adversaries 
and repay those who hate me. 
42 I will make my arrows drunk with blood, 
while my sword devours flesh: 
the blood of the slain and the captives, 
the heads of the enemy leaders.” (Deuteronomy 32)

Here God orders Samuel to commit genocide against the Amalekites...

Samuel 15:3 Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

Ask your Professor, if he and his family were Amalekites, would he prefer the army of Israel to follow the Geneva Convention, or God?

frizzyperm | Student

There are no natural rights. Mankind has elevated itself out of the wild, natural world over 10,000s of years. 50,000 years ago, your ancestors had no rights. They lived like animals, in small groups, and struggled against a hostile environment. Slowly, civilisation developed and people constructed social concepts that were more and more sophisticated.

But, according to your professor, God 'gave' us some rights that exists outside of human experience and are somehow divine. I confess that I barely understand this concept and it seems an absurd claim to me. Which God? The Christian one? The Christian God condones the most abject human abuse, namely slavery...

“However, you may purchase male and female slaves from among the nations around you. 45 You may also purchase the children of temporary residents who live among you, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, 46 passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat them as slaves, but you must never treat your fellow Israelites this way. - Leviticus 25:44-46

When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished.  If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. (Exodus 21:20-21)

To say 'Liberty for all' is God's gift is a ludicrous claim. God expressly supports the slave trade.