The Origins & Differences Of Rights & Morals

The phrase "I have rights" has been rightly and wrongly proclaimed for nearly two-and-a-half centuries. Whether rightly invoking their rights, say, in a situation where they are illegally searched by law enforcement, or wrongly invoking them, say, in a situation where a private institution censors their speech, citizens of the United States and of European countries fall back on their rights in times of distress because they recognize that Western civilization mainly revolves around the concept.

Lately I've been doing a lot of thinking about rights and what their relation is, exactly, to morality. There's also the question of where rights even come from, and whether or not rights are "fixed" universal things.

Numerous attempts of course have been made to lay out what rights are in detail. The United Nations most notably made the attempt in 1948 with its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But despite the document being noble in its aims and intent, with at least 23 ethnic cleansings and genocides having happened under the UN's watch since that year, and with its "peacekeeping" forces being notorious for raping the displaced women and children they're supposed to protect, and with Saudi Arabia sitting on its Human Rights Council, it's hard to view the organization as still somehow being credible and, by extension, is further hard to see why their Declaration of Human Rights is worth more than the paper it's printed on. Without moral legitimacy and a willingness to enforce the rules it makes, a UN statement on rights simply hasn't done very much good.

But the more famous document which lays out "the rights of man" is beyond a doubt the American Declaration of Independence. Authored by Thomas Jefferson and reviewed by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in 1776, the Declaration of Independence not only set out to make the case against a tyrannical monarchy, but additionally set out to give the people of a new nation a new way of seeing themselves and their fellow man that had never before been articulated.

Yet, to the surprise of those who know of my love for all things Enlightenment and who read my recent defense of Thomas Jefferson, I actually think that parts of the Declaration of Independence are... well, rather sloppy.

One example of how I think some places in the Declaration get sloppy is the statement toward the beginning: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." I think this statement is sloppy for two reasons:

  1. It actually isn't self-evident that people are born with rights. It's self-evident that we're born naked. It's self-evident that we're born with extreme light-sensitivity. But it isn't self-evident that we are born with rights. And the reason that it isn't self-evident that we are born with rights, in my opinion, is because it isn't actually true. Which is to say that neither nature nor "nature's god" gives rights to us. Rather, the existence of rights had to be discovered through philosophical, legal, and pragmatic reasoning, and the actual attainment of rights normally doesn't come without a lot of blood, sweat, and tears; if rights were self-evident at birth, then the concept of rights would have come about much sooner in history than it did, and would be far less contested by the time the 18th century rolled around.

  2. "Rights come from god" is a piss-poor explanation even if you believe in god very firmly, and here's why: What your "unalienable rights" are, according to divine origin-theory, can change according to the ruling power's idea of which god exists and what that god wants. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, "rights come from god" would hardly be of consolation to women, religious minorities, or gays and lesbians. Likewise, if we were to travel back in time to Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690s, "rights come from god" would be of no comfort to a small boy accused of being satan's spy because he sneezed. "Rights come from god" would also be a useless statement, because even people who believe in the same god and in the same holy book continuously argue back-and-forth about "correct interpretations". Therefore, to base the rights of an entire society— especially a multicultural, multi-faith society— off of the prevailing view of god and "god's will" would be a colossally bad idea.

To be clear, I do think the Declaration of Independence— like the Declaration of Human Rights— is a document noble in its aim and intent. In fact I would go even further, and say that it's been much more effective in actually securing a group of people's rights than the UN Declaration ever has. But instead of saying we are self-evidently "endowed by a creator" from birth with rights, I submit that it would be better to say that rights come from civilization.

Now at this point you might ask "Which civilization?" After all, there have been plenty of civilizations— from the Zulus to the Aztecs— who had a less-than-stellar track record on rights (and again, see the above Saudi Arabia/Salem examples). But here I am only referring to "civilization" in the general sense, with the full knowledge that some civilizations have no concern about rights. And I do this because saying that civilization is what gives us rights isn't the same as saying that all civilizations choose to do so. The only case I wish to make is that because living in a civilization is the only way a person can have a hope of their rights being respected and secured, it isn't really evident that rights exist anywhere else but civilization. Therefore it wouldn't be unreasonable to conclude that rights come from civilization. 

Additionally, saying that rights come from civilization is not the same as saying morality comes from civilization. Morality is an evolved system, the objectivity of which is rooted in human wellbeing (a good case for this is made in Sam Harris' book The Moral Landscape, and if you haven't read it I highly recommend that you do). As a result, civilization is born out of mankind's innate sense of objective morality, and thus the rights a civilization provides are the "grandchildren" of objective morality. This description is important because even though grandparent and grandchild have many similarities they also have differences. While morality is objective, rights are a bit more subjective but are, we'll say, "objective-esque". Some rights are mere echoes of moral truths while other rights are more about services a government provides its citizenry.

Very often we think of concepts as either solidly objective or solidly subjective, but when it comes to rights there's a very squishy sort of middle. There are certain rights, for instance, that are generally understood to be foundational. The right to free expression for instance, or the right to be safe in your person and property. These are considered foundational and more toward the objective side of the spectrum because you cannot have other rights without first having them. You can't have a right to an elderly pension if you don't have a right to be safe in your person and home. You can't have a right to demand accountability of government if you don't even have a right to speak freely. But other rights are not so foundational (which isn't to say they aren't important). For instance, some societies have rights to education and healthcare while others do not. While I definitely think that healthcare and education should be rights, the truth is that these rights are more toward the subjective side of the spectrum because there are modern functioning free societies that don't recognize either as rights.

Now, very frequently what are actually morals get spoken of as "rights", and there's nothing really wrong with this, but it can be confusing when someone (like me) asks the question about what the difference between the two is. The "right to life" is a perfect example (as are a lot of what we call "human rights"), because "You shouldn't get murdered" is not an idea that has to be a product of philosophical, legal, or pragmatic reasoning and debate. It's just a conclusion of common goodness. The right to life, therefore, is not so much a "right" as it is an evolved objective moral value from which actual rights can spring through the medium of living in a civilization.

My thoughts on what rights are and where they originate, it must be noted, are at complete odds with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy which states: "Rights structure the form of governments, the content of laws, and the shape of morality as it is currently perceived." But I hope I have made a good short case for the opposite conclusion: that the shape of morality informs the structuring of government and government, in turn, derives certain foundational and subjective rights from its moral father.


Again, to recognize that civilization— in the general sense— creates certain rights and echoes moral truths as "rights", is not to say that all civilizations choose to do so. But what's interesting about civilizations that don't give rights to their people, is that they have a tendency not to last very long (typically not more than a century). This, again, goes back to human wellbeing being the objective basis for morality. When those in charge of societies refuse to acknowledge certain qualities to life that have been responsible for the thriving of human beings for millennia, human nature hits back. It should not be a surprise then, that any civilization which enjoys any amount of longevity can be observed recognizing, to varying degrees, said qualities to life.

In a democracy, this of course puts the consideration and preservation of rights in the hands of each citizen. More than the "basic civic duties" that are typically emphasized, like voting and talking to one's representative, recognizing the civilizational origin of rights would cause us to realize we have an even greater role to take in how our society runs. Because at the point of "awakening" to where rights really come from, we will know that neither god nor nature (outside ourselves) is responsible for the safekeeping of them, their safekeeping depends solely on us.

What exactly our "greater role", as Americans, looks like, I cannot fully say. But to quote Paul Loebe from his book Soul Of A Citizen, "In the personal realm most Americans are thoughtful, caring, and generous. We try to do our best by family and friends. At times we'll even stop to help another driver stranded by a roadside breakdown, or give some spare change to a stranger. But too often a wall separates each of us from the world outside, and from others who've likewise taken refuge in their own private sanctuaries— what we might call the gated community of the heart. We've all but forgotten that public participation is the very soul of democratic citizenship, and that it can profoundly enrich our lives."

To conclude, then, civilization is the foundation for all of our joys by being the father of our rights; and yet civilization is also simultaneously the vehicle through which we should shape our own characters, as long as the civilization in question is based upon the morality which centers human wellbeing.