Matt D’Antuono writes on human rights, asking about the source of our intuition that we possess rights as human beings:
“I have the right to believe whatever I want.” “I have the right to live.” “I have the right to make choices about my body.” “I have the right to an education.” “I have the right to be free.” “I have the right to walk where I want.” “I have the right to speak my mind.”
Do we have those rights? If so, why? What is the basis of our rights?
Most often, I hear people appeal to the government or constitution. “We have rights because they are granted to us by the ruling authorities,” they say.
It is true that the government is the source of our civil rights, but if the government were the only source of rights, then there could be no such thing as a government that does not recognize rights. A young woman in a country that does not grant the right of education to women cannot claim that her country is denying her right to an education; if the government does not grant that right, she does not have it. It would make no sense to argue for change on the basis of rights that are being denied; she can only claim that she wants to have a right that she does not have. If constitutions are the only basis of human rights, then there is no such thing as a corrupt constitution, no government that denies people their human rights.
So, when someone claims to have a right, the question is “Why?” If our rights are, in fact, inalienable, as the Declaration of Independence claims, then there is only one basis to which we can appeal: the nature of the human person. In particular, the social nature of the human creates the standard of right relationship we ought to have to one another, and thus our rights, what we can demand from others based on the duties we owe to one another because of the very essence of what and who we are.
For example, “Man by nature desires to know,” claimed Aristotle, and the full weight of experience is on his side. Our intellectual nature reveals to us our duty to refine our mind to be as excellent as it can be and to direct our intellect to the truth. As social beings, we do this together. We have a duty to learn and teach each other, and thus we have the right to an education. As a corollary, it is not true that I have the right to believe whatever I want; that would contradict the nature of my mind…
Evergreen: “…if the government were the only source of rights, then there could be no such thing as a government that does not recognize rights…”