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Do Unalienable Rights Truly Exist?

March 30, 2010

The concepts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as unalienable rights are given to us by our Creator according to the Declaration of Independence. I absolutely understand the logic behind that statement, especially considering the purpose of that Declaration. Our founding fathers were declaring their intent to rebel against England and King George. The statement that human beings have inherent rights given by a higher power, which supersedes the rights given by human authority, was logical. It was necessary to imbue the rebellion with “Godly” authority – the revolutionaries were acting with righteousness, because King George and England were attempting to thwart the intention of the Creator. The founding fathers were literally creating legitimacy for their actions by claiming they had rights given them by a higher authority than the human authority at the time.

But, the real question I struggled with has been, did I agree with the founding fathers? Were the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness actually unalienable, or rather, as I had already claimed, were they actually granted by society?

The right to life is the most basic of natural human rights, if such a thing can be said to exist. It is the primal function of a human’s nature. A human being is motivated by self-interest, and the majority of human activities are focused on the preservation and continuation of human life. How much of human culture is based on simple things like eating? How much of human culture focuses on the attraction of a sexual partner and mating? Even in our “evolved” society, the drive for self-preservation is the greatest motivator for human behavior.

The right to life can be argued to be unalienable, in that it is intrinsic to the essence of human existence. We exist because we are alive. We define our existence by our experiences, and we define experiences by events that happen in our lifetime – Descartes said “I think, therefore I am.”

And yet, the right to life can be taken away by society as a punishment for breaking the laws of society. Even now our society punishes law-breaking individuals by penalizing them with death – literally the death penalty. We were founded as an independent national entity on the premise that life is a right given by a Creator, and untouchable by human authority, and yet our own human authority penalizes life.

If our nation was actually founded as a Christian nation, as conservative Christians claim today, then the Bible itself would deny that as a basic human right. In the Old Testament God frequently punished people with death, and the Mosaic laws frequently have death as the penalty for a multitude of actions. One notable instance in the Old Testament involves Achan, who stole from a city which God had commanded to be destroyed in its entirety. God’s punishment for this sin was to tell the Israelites to stone Achan and his entire family to death, thus removing the sin. If the right to life is granted to us by the Creator, and that Creator is the Biblical God, then God himself denied that right. And He could have the authority to do that, being the higher authority, but it diminished that right as an inherent human right, especially since the legal code of the Bible demands death as a punishment.

So, life can be inalienable, in that it is inherent to human existence, but it is not inalienable in that it can also be taken away as a punishment for breaking the laws established by society.

Now, if we consider the right to liberty as a basic human right, then the burden of history truly comes together to debate this right. It can be philosophically argued that liberty is the desire of humanity, and that this inherent human right is ‘written on the hearts of men’. That desire could be argued as having fueled the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and most of the progression of civil rights in this country alone.

And yet, logic dictates that this right, defined as unalienable by our founding fathers and a main reason for the declaration of independence, is not inalienable at all. Our own national history proves that this is a right given by society, rather than a right that exists naturally in men. Our history is tarnished with the enslavement of an entire race of people, and it took a civil war for those humans to be liberated from slavery. The very founding fathers, who wrote about liberty as an inherent human right, included in their numbers slave-owners.

So, the contradiction remains. Men declared the right to liberty as an inherent human right, granted by a higher authority, while at the same time denying liberty to the human beings they had authority over.

I would like to point out that at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, society did not define slaves as human. Today, society does define African-Americans as human beings. The inherent ‘human-ness’ of African-Americans has not changed, but the way society sees them has. One definition grants them the right to liberty, and one removes that right. I believe this contradiction firmly defends my position that liberty is not truly inalienable, but is actually a right granted by society.

Can rights be truly inalienable when they are given and taken away based on the laws of society? I say no.

The right to the pursuit of happiness has been defined as the right to own property. This is by far the weakest of “human” rights, since even the concept of property is a human-created one. Basic logic denies this as an inalienable right. Humans have the desire to better themselves, but even the desire for ownership is a cultural construct, and does not apply to all humans everywhere. Possession is a selfish concept. It requires that something is given to, or taken by an individual, and the act of possessing it takes it away from another individual. Especially since the very act of possessing something requires scarcity, it cannot be defined as an inherent human right.

I argue that liberty and the right to the pursuit of happiness are not unalienable rights, as the founding fathers claimed, but are logically rights bestowed by society. I will concede that the right to life is unalienable, but still subject to the whims of society. Our Declaration of Independence defines these rights as unalienable, but logic and our own national history repudiate that claim.

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