Thursday, September 25, 2008

Inalienable(?) Human Rights

There are many injustices occurring in our world that need desparately to be fixed.  From poor working conditions to genocide, from torture to sexism—we, as humans, must enact change for the better.  There is no question about that.

But why do we need to act?

The concept of human rights is interesting to me.  Exactly what rights people have and where those rights come from are notoriously difficult things to nail down.  The Declaration of Independence asserts that people have the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  That's a good starting point, but there are many more rights to add to that list (but what to add may be trickier than you think).

But even if it is possible to agree on what rights we all have, we are still left with the question of where those rights come from.  The easy, Christian answer is that they come from God.  We are created in God's image and, thus, we are endowed with dignity and worth.

But what happens if the God that gives us rights is latent?  Does an uncertain God undermine our claim to God-given dignity?  Since we can't quite put our finger on God, are human rights just out of our grasp as well?

Is there some other place where we can look for human rights?  Or is there something altogether different that we should be looking for?


  1. Perhaps we can look inside the human heart and find the source of what is right and good (as tainted as it may be). Another question to seek an answer for might be something like, "From whom would it be appropriate to seek after such an inquiry?" In other words, in light of God's "apparent latency (as there are many who are absolutely positive about his existence and nature)", who is it that believes they have the sole right to determine what is right and good and what might this person's motivation be for supposing they are the determinant factor for suggesting so? Are any of us truly worthy to be called upon as such an authority or should we capitulate to such a graniose and ridiculous idea and learn to look to the other as being equal to ourselves? I would also rather set my trust upon a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, good, just and pesonal (for could God really be less than what a rudimenary definition may suggest) even though I may not be able to nail him down within any particular religious traditon or within my own lacking experience. Could we really look to another human being to offer a sufficient definition as to what inalienable rights constitute and to whom they may be placed upon? I put my faith in the God of Jesus, as latent as he may be to me because there is one thing I am confient of; I would be the first one to question my own motivation, if ever granted the opportunity, for such an incredible undertaking. Again the latent God "as I understand him" wins the day! I have no other to turn to.

  2. Even the rights Jefferson claimed as inalienable are in fact alienable. For uncontested, basic policy reasons, we take these rights away from criminals who violate the rights of others. It seems that if one can argue that the rights of an individual are expendable, when dispensing with them is in the interest in protecting the rights of others, all such rights may be on weak footing.

  3. As a father to my children, I am preparing them for their full entrance and participation into the world, and part of this process includes my protecting them early on from rights that they will soon enter into more fully in their maturing lives. Unfortunatley, yet needfully, I must remove certain rights from them as they have misused them in ways that are harmful to both them and others around them. I do this as a gesture of love and protection for all involved, in hopes of teaching them further and then they demonstrating that they can be more responsible as I have an eye toward slowly, but surely, reinstating these rights which, no doubt, are theirs. And so, I wonder as to what the motivations are of those who may view others as expendable, rather than redeemable, and just what is it that qualifies those who have the authority to delineate the nature and constitution of the rights themselves, and to whom they are given.

  4. D: That's actually something that intrigues me. Why is it that we proclaim these rights as inalienable (and fundamentally natural), but we routinely take them away from people? It seems that under our justice system, the state is the primary (sole?) guarantor of rights. Since the state has the ability to grant rights, it also reserves the ability to revoke those rights when the corresponding duties aren't fulfilled. So why do we even pretend to call them "inalienable"?

  5. Chris: Your last comment immediately made me think of virtue ethics (which is what I had in mind when posing the last few question in my blog post). I don't remember how much exposure you've had to MacIntyre or virtue ethics (my exposure is admittedly limited), but I find them very thought provoking.

    The idea is that instead of basing our ethics on rules (which almost inevitably fail to be universally applicable), we should be concerned with learning how to be virtuous. Ethical living is a learned behavior that must start off with the basics but is something we can grow in and become increasingly better at.

    Just as with music theory, where we are taught specific rules in the beginning, as we become better at our "practice" we learn that those rules don't always apply. There are certain things we are taught when we are young that guide us in the right direction, but they turn out not to be the whole truth. That's the nature of learning and growing. And that sounds like what you are doing with your children....

    It just made me think of that....

  6. I think what I so appreciate about virtue ethics has much to do with what Jesus really stood for in the biblical text. If we would only approach him in a personal way as persons needing direction toward what is good and true, and in the end best for everyone, I believe that we would become less absorbed with what we think is "factually" true in an apparent objective way, and more in tune with what God has to reveal to each of us as unique persons possessing unique needs in terms of God reshaping us more into his good likeness. I believe that rules can be good pointers to that which is good and true, but I also believe that there are plenty of other ways that God reveals himself and what he is about in the world. If only we had, as a univeral body of humans, eyes to see and ears to hear. Heck, if I only had better eyes and ears to see and hear with myself.

  7. Chris: I have to say that I very much agree. There is something about virtue ethics that I am really drawn to. For me, the rules and restrictions that I grew up with never really seemed to make sense in terms of Jesus' teaching. The idea of learning to be more virtuous as an organic learning process—guided by experience and interaction with God—really resonates with me.

  8. Matt, as a theologian of God's latency, how do you think some of our discussion on inalienable rights jives in correspondance with varying positions people take in terms of how they view one another while they hold different things to be true yet with the same level of certitude? Either individuals, or groups for that matter, in a general way, hold to beliefs very specifically or they hold to them with a tentativness realizing there is inherent risk as to their accuracy because of their acknowledgment of the limitations tied to being human. Which do you think is the better position to hold to? How affected do you think you are by your own baggaged predispositions? More succintly stated, "No matter what side of the divide we stand, do you think anyone possesses the authority to place limits on another, and if so, what might the basis ought to be in doing so?" In a manner of speaking, this is more of a rhetorical line of questioning. Any thoughts to add, though?

  9. Chris: I'll try to answer your questions as succinctly as possible. Although I wish it weren't the case, everything I think and consider is colored by my predispositions. Because of that, I'm sure you can guess that I prefer a "tentative" (as you call it) adherence to one's beliefs over an unbending, absolute adherence.

    However, I feel the need to clarify a little. I'm not sure that being aware of human limitation necessarily means my beliefs have to be "tentative." I think it is possible for me to come to thoughtful conclusions and to believe things with a great deal of conviction. What I think is necessary, though, is that my beliefs be tempered by humility and respect for competing ideas.

    However, at this point in my life, my own thoughts do tend to be "tentative." I'm not sure that I've come to any conclusions yet. But just because I haven't done that does not mean that others can't.

    How that translates into authority and placing limits on others, though, is way more than I am prepared to answer at the moment. I think I'd need some time (read: when I'm not swamped with reading) to ponder that one....

  10. No problem, Matt. You take your time. I know that you have an awful lot going on and, frankly, I've been pleasantly surprised that you have really had much in the way of time to go back and forth the way we have over the last few days. And, your clarified meaning of tentativeness is just what I meant by the term. Michael Polanyi tells us that each one of us holds to beliefs with conviction with the idea that everyone else should too, but with the idea that we must remain open toward possible future revisions of our beliefs due to the nature of our humanness with it's limitations, amongst other things. On another matter, when it comes to human rights and who should author what these might be, I think that I am having to learn that my own ideas on the subject are becoming somewhat of an authority (as they are related to my own concept of what God would want those to be), simply because from where I am coming suggests strongly that everyone's ultimate good is kept in mind. This is by no means an end to this kind of subject, but a beginning: hopefully a good beginning.


Let me know what you think....