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The Declaration Philosophy - Part II: The nature of rights

By Linda A. Prussen-Razzano
web posted June 30, 2003

Read the first part of Linda's series here.

Having established that a just society must respect the inherent and immutable quality of unalienable rights, the task now lies in defining the nature and purpose of rights. Quite simply, rights are liberties in thought, action, and speech that secure individual freedom and provide the necessary substructure upon which a just society and government can be built.

In the case of America, our forefathers chose a representative republic. In other cases, a parliamentary system or group of councils may suffice. Whatever the mode of governance and the laws a society will enact to maintain harmony, the government and its laws must respect a person's liberties in thought, action, and speech (i.e. Rights) necessary to promote individual freedom in their lives, their respective society, and their government, without infringing on the rights of others.

Although the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution are typically referred to as the "Bill of Rights," as noted before, the Amendments do not confer rights upon us; they enumerate the Rights we already possess by virtue of our humanity. This is made evident by Amendment IX, which specifically denotes that "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." Amendment IX and Amendment X also recognize that additional liberties in thought, action, and speech (i.e., Rights) were retained by the people, not the government or the State.

Some forces arguing against the inherent nature of Rights point to Amendments XIII (abolition of slavery), XIV (conferring citizenship and equal protection under the law), XV (voting), XIX (allowing voting for women), XXIV (disallowing polls taxes to vote), and XXVI (voting must be allowed for all individuals over 18 years of age). They claim that these Amendments conferred upon certain classes of people liberty from bondage and the Right to vote.

On the contrary, these Rights were already theirs. In forming a new country, the structure of government had not solidified; however, their Right to participate in it was enumerated in Amendments IX and X. The abolition of slavery and subsequent Amendments on voting were necessary to eliminate all prejudiced norms that prohibited individuals from enjoying Rights they already possessed, but were not allowed to exercise. These Rights were theirs all along; only the unjust constructs of the State prevented them from being properly acknowledged.

Ironically, those who argue against the inherent nature of Rights fail to acknowledge that such a position would leave them helpless to eliminate such prejudiced norms. If Rights were truly granted by the State, then they would not have just cause to argue for the elimination of these norms, because slaves would not have an inherent Right to liberty, women and the poor would not have an inherent Right to participate in Government, etc. Those who believe in inherent Rights embrace the philosophy that all human beings are equal by virtue of their humanity. Those who believe in the State Construct theory believe that human beings are not inherently equal; society makes it so.

Rights should not be confused with privileges, necessities, responsibilities, or other constructs of Society. For example, one does not have a "right" to drive a car. It is a privilege conveyed by the State and subject to innumerable regulations. Food, clothing, and shelter are necessary for human survival; however, one does not have a "right" to these things. One has the Right to act in a lawful manner to obtain them, and the responsibility to provide them to those in their care. One does not have the "right" to medical care. It is a service, like thousands of other services offered in a free society. One does not have the "right" to happiness. One has the Right to pursue happiness; it is by no means guaranteed.

In fact, the greatest threats to our Rights come from those who do not understand the origin of Rights, the nature of Rights, or wish to confer upon privileges, necessities, and other constructs of Society the status of "Rights."

Linda Prussen-Razzano is frequent contributor to Enter Stage Right and a number of other online magazines.

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