Where do our rights come from?

Newt_gingrich In the wake of Republican defeat in the 2008 election, conservatives started casting about for a new standard-bearer. One name which then resurfaced was that of Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives. A conservative firebrand during his Congressional days, Gingrich had reinvented himself as a pragmatic innovator, pushing high-tech solutions for our continuing dependence on fossil fuels. However, as we’ve seen from his subsequent output, he's still the same old culture warrior in other ways. Here he is in a 2006 interview, discussing his then-recent book The Creator’s Gifts: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: “[I]n the minds of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the people who wrote that document, they literally meant that your rights come from God, that you then loan them to the government, which is why the Declaration of Independence begins ‘We the people…’. And therefore if we drive God out of the public square we drive out the source of our own rights and our own source of power.”

Of course, it's the Constitution, not the Declaration, which begins “We the people…”; but anyone, even a history Ph. D., can misspeak in an interview. The important point is this conception of the “creator's gifts” and their significance. Alan Keyes, whom Barack Obama defeated in their 2004 Senate contest, strongly endorsed the same idea during his own presidential run. What should we make of the idea that our rights “come from God”?

This idea of rights given by God is the conceptual flip side of duties imposed by God: any right possessed by A is ipso facto a duty imposed on B not to violate that right. This latter idea has traditionally provoked the question of whether morality should, or even can, be identified with divine command. The paradox of this account of morality, first discussed 2500 years ago in Plato's Euthyphro, is brought out by this question: Is something the right thing to do because God orders it, or does God order it because it's the right thing to do? The second answer simply abandons the divine command theory, but the first answer isn't any better. It requires us to say why something we know to be wrong – say, torturing the innocent – would not thereby be made right if God happened to demand it. One natural answer is that God, being ideally good, wouldn't actually do that; but now we are explaining morality in terms of God's ideally good nature, and not in terms of divine command after all.

This doesn't mean that divine commands can’t be an authoritative guide to morality, but it should make us look again at the idea of rights which are bestowed by divine fiat. This is especially true in the context of the Declaration of Independence and its aims. In its first sentence, the authors claim the right of a people to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,” but then acknowledge their obligation to declare their reasons for so doing. Much of the subsequent text is a list of charges against the King of England, particular cases in which he has abridged their rights. However, these abridgements could not count as just reasons for rebellion if, as monarchists claimed, those rights depended on or had been bestowed by the king himself. The second sentence of the Declaration is therefore concerned to reject this idea.

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, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. The chosen wording of this point is exactly as we should expect, given its context and purpose. We have rights not because of some external agent who has given them to us, but by nature. Human beings are essentially entitled to their rights, simply in being human beings at all. Nothing further is required.

The Founders’ religious beliefs ranged from relatively orthodox Christianity to typical 18th-century deism. Although many rejected the idea of divine revelation or intervention, they lacked an evolutionary account of human origins and thus naturally assumed that a deity of some sort had created humanity. What we are by nature, then, is ultimately due to the actions of that which they sometimes called “Nature’s God.” Their concern, however, was not with the properties of that creator – about which they of course disagreed – but instead with the human result of that creation.

Blake_ancient_of_days That result was a race of beings to whom nothing need be given for them to be naturally free. True, the word “endowed,” in its original meaning, referred specifically to a literal gift (like a “dowry”). However, its figurative use, in which it refers to qualities which one has by nature, was well established by 1776; the Oxford English Dictionary lists references going back to the 1400s. It’s a good choice – forceful, eloquent, and yet doctrinally non-committal between deism and traditional theism, all while preserving the essential point on which the undersigned are in complete agreement.

Gingrich and Keyes miss this point entirely. On their account, the Founders were accepting the original idea that our rights are bestowed on us by an external agent, and simply changing that agent from king to deity, thereby trumping man with God (and of course you need this if your conclusion is that “if we drive God out of the public square we drive out the source of our own rights and our own source of power”). But that can’t be right. For one thing, concerned as they were with avoiding the sectarian violence still raging in Europe at the time, the Founders would hardly hold such a metaphysically contentious idea to be “self-evident.” Indeed, on the Founders’ view that idea is barely coherent. It assumes without argument that making us human and bestowing rights upon us are conceptually separable things, as if it were possible for us to be fully human, but without the right to liberty until it was subsequently bestowed upon us by a wave of His mighty hand.

This is exactly what the Declaration denies. To be human just is to have the rights in question. They depend on nothing external to us, natural or supernatural. That's what the point's “self-evidence” is meant to emphasize: that having rights is (metaphysically) necessary for being human. We're all human, so self-evidently we all have rights, and equal rights at that. However, it also means that no argument for that conceptual claim will be forthcoming. The Declaration is not a philosophical treatise, but a political manifesto. It doesn't say that the authors couldn't give an argument for that claim, but it does indicate the kind of argument that it would be if they did give one.

That argument would not be an appeal to Scripture. Not only were the Founders divided on the issue of divine revelation in the first place, but such an appeal, again, could only be the very opposite of self-evident. As revelation, Scripture is meant to be informative. Although Paul does wax philosophical in his letters, in general the Bible is no more a treatise than is the Declaration. It is an account of what purport to be contingent matters of fact: God did this, the Israelites did that, Jesus of Nazareth did other things still. Any rigorous argument the Founders would give for the conceptual interdependence of humanity and human rights would be concerned not with particular historical events, even supernatural ones, but instead with (as Immanuel Kant would say at about the same time, in a somewhat different context) “necessity and universality,” the marks of the a priori.

Universality is the characteristic Enlightenment obsession, as clearly manifested in our nation's founding documents. One can only imagine how the Founders would respond to Gingrich's and Keyes's attempts to claim these documents and their ideas as reinforcing the narrow sectarianism they strove above all to avoid. Though signed by and agreed to by Christians, the Declaration is not a specifically Christian document. It is, rather, the cultural inheritance of all Americans.

When I first wrote this piece, I had to wrap up my discussion of the Euthyphro dilemma pretty quickly. I have more space here, so let me say a bit more about it now, even if it’s just nitpicking and qualification (i.e. the good part’s over). Clearly the defender of the divine command theory must choose the first horn of the dilemma: that something is the right thing to do because God orders it, not the other way around. (Actually Euthyphro discusses “holiness,” not morality, but the difference has traditionally been taken not to matter, as the same issue arises in each case.) As I mentioned, this looks funny, as it is hard to understand how something could be made right or wrong simply by our being informed, even by God, that it is so. It seems that as a theory of morality, the “command” part of “divine command” still isn’t doing any work.

Even if morality cannot simply be identified with divine command, though (and in fact the divine command theorist has a few more things he can try here), those who believe that it is morally obligatory to follow God’s commands are not thereby required to give that belief up. However, nowadays the issue of identifying morality with divine command tends to come up only when the context is one of whether morality has anything to do with God at all, where both sides assume that the latter claim requires the former. Naturalists are willing to go along with this, as they believe that Euthyphro provides an easy refutation, suggesting that the religious are 2500 years behind the times; while believers in what they like to call “transcendent reality,” taking their very faith to depend on it, hold onto divine command like grim death (even going so far, as we have seen, to attribute a closely related idea to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson). The resulting shouting match is rarely enlightening, often featuring such facile slogans as “His universe, His rules” or some such.

Again, though, it seems that things cannot be so simple. Even if divine authority cannot be constitutive of morality, surely the (conceptual) possibility remains that, due to his ideally good and/or omniscient nature, God can be a perfectly good source of knowledge about moral truths, and that he has in fact revealed them to us in this or that set of holy writings. That is, even if creation need not entail the relevant sense of moral authority, any omniscient agent surely possesses epistemic authority about moral matters. However, to show the application of that idea of course requires further argument; and this we are unlikely to see from the likes of Gingrich and Keyes.