Why God-Given Obligations Trump Man-Made Rights

This is a line of thought I have been stewing over for quite some time. Every now and then, I mull it over and refine it, doing some research where I can.

Do rights exist? There are two broad categories of rights to consider.

1 – Civil Rights (rights that allow us to engage in some activity in any given society, dictated by the legal code)

2 – Universal Rights (rights that we have to engage in some activity regardless of what anybody else decrees or believes)

Civil rights obviously exist, for a civil right is merely a construct to express an ability to engage in some act legally within one’s society. There are many occasions throughout contemporary history where individuals in a given state have fought through some means for civil rights, that is, the ability to engage in a practice without facing legal penalty. When civil rights are discussed at least in the United States where the term is seemingly used the most, people often think of Martin Luther King trying to end Jim Crow laws in the South, or if you want to really scrape the barrel, the push for same sex marriage. What is often not talked about is that the campaign to change pretty much any law is a quest for civil rights, whether it be legalizing the marijuana industry in Colorado or giving the green light to fracking in New York state.

You see, a civil right carries very little if any moral claim with it. It is at base just a legal status that exists only so long as the ruling body recognizes it to exist. It is therefor lunacy to say that African Americans in the 1940s for example, had no civil rights. Of course they did! They were different set of civil rights as compared to white people, but that difference denotes no moral judgment, it is just a difference. What they wanted was to change their civil rights, to expand them and allow African Americans to legally do more things than they could previously.

the famous Rosa Parks incident inspired a boycott against
buses in Montgomery, Alabama, eventually aiding in the expansion
of black civil rights on public transport

So to say you have a civil right is just to say you can legally engage in an activity. It’s not to say you should or shouldn’t be able to, just that you can.

But the real sticking point is the concept of ‘universal rights’, and I use that term because it seems to cover the varying, temporally relevant guises that this concept has taken on over the years. More on that in a second.

Many articles place the beginning of the concept of ‘universal rights’ in the Magna Carta of 1215, in which King John of England was forced to constitutionally limit his own powers as it applied to the aristocracy due to several reasons (being excommunicated, losing huge amounts of territory, racking up massive debts). While there is some sense of universality in the text in that it supposedly put the king under his own law, you really do have to squint between the lines to get any notion of ‘rights’ out of it. The document is an aristocratic power grab, not a declaration of rights.

No, it seems to me we have to go a little further forward in time to actually grab the real root of this concept, all the way to  the ‘Enlightenment’ in fact (surprise surprise).

John Locke, English philosopher

Ideas about rights were floating around during the early stages of the 1600s no doubt, and even managed to worm their way into law at times, but to draw the strings together, we need to look at English philosopher John Locke. He wrote the following in the 1680s, in his workTwo Treatises on Civil Government

“man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of Nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power not only to preserve his property—that is, his life, liberty, and estate against the injuries and attempts of other men, but to judge of and punish the breaches of that law in others, as he is persuaded the offence deserves, even with death itself, in crimes where the heinousness of the fact, in his opinion, requires it.”

This is something quite revolutionary. The concept essentially is that the reason we ought not be violated in some way is due to these things called ‘rights’. To have a right is a property. Inanimate objects for example, are things just like us, but they do not have such a property. They don’t have ‘rights’. Rights are not something you can find in the human body, they are of course not located anywhere. They are metaphysical properties that entitle us to some type of universal treatment.

This idea has of course evolved over time, as most modernist concepts tend to do. ‘Natural Rights’ and sometimes ‘God-given Rights’ are often used early terms to describe these universal rights, peculiar to the time period when the theological fad of deism was at its apex, and western man was looking for some way to find morals outside of special revelation. This very much relates to Natural Law Theory, the ethical concept that moral laws can be found in nature itself. Eventually, God was removed from the picture and deemed unnecessary, and we ended up with what we have today; ‘Human Rights’. Henry David Thoreau (a philosopher of the 1800s) was actually the first person to coin the term, but it has found its popularity relatively recently, with the dawn of human rights organizations and more importantly the United Nations.

Nope. Definitely not finding this ‘rights’ concept anywhere
in theology

Alas, as popular as notions of rights have become, I am compelled to posit that to talk of rights is to put the proverbial cart before the horse. Allow me to illustrate this using logic.

Suppose we have two people: Murderer Mac, and Victim Vance.

According to a doctrine of rights, the relationship between the two in a hypothetical murder situation is:

1) Victim Vance has the property of a right not to be murdered.

2) Murderer Mac ought not murder Victim Vance because of this property that Victim Vance has.

Now, I do not find this relationship between the two to be theologically supported. It just seems to get the whole moral process backwards, even if we say that Victim Vance’s property of a right not to be murdered is God-given in some extra-biblical way.

Now, according to what I will call the doctrine of obligation, the relationship between the two in a hypothetical murder situation is:

1) Murderer Mac has the property of being obligated not to murder anyone.

2) Murderer Mac ought not murder Victim Vance because of this property that Murderer Mac has.

See the difference? The second doctrine is much more in line with the core concept of the Moral Law as dictated by the Supreme God. It also leaves far less room for godless interpretation. It is hard to say that Murderer Mac is universally obligated not to do something without addressing the source of obligation. Obligated by who, and with what authority? Rights are this kind of vague concepts that people can shrug in response to queries of the property’s genesis. 

This is certainly not to say that human beings don’t have value. We do have value, and dignity, regardless of station. This is God-given. But value and dignity are not rights, and they are distinct from obligations even if they go some way to providing good reason for obligation.

Understanding that this is a highly metaphysical subject, I realize that some may disagree with me on this point, but I find the concept of rights to be a modernist construction that aims to skirt around the truth and provide cover for various avenues of liberalism, all under the pretext of protecting people’s ‘rights’, things which are so ambiguous that we can apparently discover new universal rights every decade or two. As we have disjointed our responsibilities to one another from God’s law and obligation, we have opened the door to all kind of crazy interpretations of this moral relationship, some more insane than others (e.g – the right to not be offended) 

animals have rights? prepare to have your meal ruined

A reactionary, in teasing out the subject, should view the moral relationship between us all in the traditional way, as a series of obligations, and not rights. Rights in the universal sense are mere fiction, and a useful vehicle for modernism in many of its forms.

To defend my Lord and His principles in the political sphere as a reactionary is not a right. It is an obligation.
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4 thoughts on “Why God-Given Obligations Trump Man-Made Rights

  1. As to the latter murderer-victim example I admit I don't see the difference. It seems to me that “A has a property of being obliged not to kill anyone” just means “A is obliged not to kill B” and that just means “B has right not to be killed” and all this follows from “you shall not kill” commandment. An atheist may have trouble with that but how could a theist not to see by whose authority is this obligation imposed upon us?

    I don't think the concept of rights is completely out of place. As far as I know late Scholasticism came up with such a concept. It is rooted in Natural Law Theory and that's why it differs from Locke's notion of rights. The idea behind it was that for man to fulfill his natural purpose which is God ultimately he needs not to be interfered with to certain extent. Therefore, he has right not to be killed, robbed etc. Something along this line. I am not an expert but I like this reasoning. In this classical NLT new rights can't be conjured up out of thin air as you rightly point out about contemporary Locke-based version of it. I think this is the important difference.

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  2. The difference is which figure the moral issue hinges upon. A notion of rights hinges the conflict on the victim, whereas a doctrine of obligations hinges the conflict on the perpetrator.

    I would enjoy some dates sources preceding Locke that discuss 'rights' in a universal way, as I am not aware of any, though it is not my field of study.

    An important note, the Lockeian does not assert that these rights are conjured up and begin to exist, but that they have always existed and this generation is just the first to realize it! I'm not sure which notion is more contemptible, the idea that rights just pop into existence or that the modernist is intellectually superior to his ancestors!

    Thank you for reading. It is good to see the Czech Republic has some reactionaries.

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  3. Thanks for answer. I think the moral issue hinges upon the relationship. The character of relationship determines rights and obligations of all parties of the relationship. From this point of view right and obligation are two sides of the same coin. So it wasn't clear to me why you consider obligations superior to rights.

    E. Feser in The Last Superstition says that Aquinas did not have a concept of individual rights but later scholastics did. Unfortunately he does not mention their names. I guess he probably means those of Salamanca school.

    I expressed myself poorly regarding “conjuring up” of rights. I meant that some of the modern rights are not based in reality (like “rights” of homosexuals to marry etc.) as scholastics understood it.

    I put your blog on my reading list. I am not convinced reactionary (I don't know enough about it yet) but I think there is a lot of truth in what Christian reactionaries say.

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