Monday, August 20, 2007

I Know My Rights

Do you?

[This was originally posted at my tech blog, before I split off political and philosophical rants here and left the stuff I actually know anything about over there. I'm posting this here now because in thinking about the Global War on Terror and its impact on civil liberty, I wanted to get back to basics. I now see several flaws in my reasoning and perspective, and will address those in an upcoming post. ]

I've been thinking lately about human rights. You know, the kind for which men died at Normandy, at Lexington, and Golgotha.

That kind which stem not from the lifestyle to which you are accustomed, not from your power to secure them, nor from government largesse, but those which you have by virtue of your existence.

Warning: I have made no effort to keep the following suitable for the small-minded in general nor for Hate Crimes Commissioners in particular. Others may read freely on...

...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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed....

Those familiar words are the milk on which young American minds are weaned away from innocence and into the stark world of defiant individualism. They tell us that there are universal truths, and that these truths are laid manifestly before the eyes of anyone who looks upon the human condition.

Government, it is revealed, exists to keep men from violating each other's rights.

But what are these rights? The Declaration decries violations sufficient to motivate revolt, and the Constitution, as amended, gives some more examples that are explicitly protected. But the writers of those documents seemed to deny steadfastly the urge to make a complete list. I believe they were wise in that denial, which has compelled each generation thereafter to lay claim to those which were not enumerated and by so doing to revalidate those which were.

Rather than attempt an exhaustive list myself, I will attempt only those which are axiomatic. That is, which rights are the truly fundamental ones, without which the people are enslaved to tyrants?

It seems to me that the Declaration's "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are categories of rights, rather than particular rights themselves. These categories are merely for convenience. The rights reinforce each other, each standing in the stead of the others when the wall of their protection is breeched. All people everywhere, unless they yield them by due process or temporary emergency, have the right to:

Life ...
  • to stay alive
  • to eat and drink
  • to breath air, and see the sky
  • to parental supply of food, shelter, and love
  • to practice their beliefs
  • to choose their own medical treatment
  • to mate and procreate
  • to raise children
  • to privacy
Liberty ...
  • to travel
  • to use weapons
  • to participate in government
  • to due process
  • to equal treatment under the law
  • to speak and write, and to disseminate the results
and the Pursuit of Happiness
  • to choose and direct their education, vocation, and avocations
  • to own and use property
  • to take risks
  • to assemble
People have the right to stay alive, from the moment of conception to the moment they cease to function. Minor children have a right to nurture from their parents, or in absence of parents, from the nearest adult. Parents have a corresponding right to direct their children's upbringing and instruction in the ways of the world.

Clean, breathable air is everyone's right. So is dirtying it with smoke and other pollutants, to a certain extent. I'm not smart enough to say how to balance those.

Assembly can be a powerful tool in the constant battle against overbearing government. Without Assembly, Speech loses much of its salinity and Belief may as well be lost. I still place Assembly under Pursuit of Happiness, because it is not just political, but social and recreational as well.

The right to privacy is the essence of a limited government, for if government can inspect us to any degree it desires then we are in its power to that same degree. We are only as free as we are private.

Similarly, the right to travel is as fundamental as the others. If we are not free to go, then we are not free. Without a right to travel, we can't Assemble, and we can't Pursue Happiness.

I'll conclude with one observation which I hope will serve to illustrate fully the point of the interdependence of the rights. The freedoms of Speech and Press are one side of a coin that has as its opposite face the right to own and use weapons. They are the Pen to its Sword; if government removes one, it will surely pay with the other.

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KnightErrant said...

"Your freedom to fling your hand ends at the tip of my nose." ~ unknown source

This quote may answer your question of how to balance your right to clean air versus my right to pollute it. My right to pollute ends at the tip of your nose. When you become the unwilling recipient of my waste my rights have supplanted yours.

Loren Heal said...

But clean air is a matter of degree. Do I need to wear a Hazmat suit when I leave the house, lest I shed a few skin cells in your air? What of perfume and cologne? The foul smell of my diesel Jetta? At some point your right to clean air overrides my right to use the air, but placing that line is not as simple as the one between my knuckles and your proboscis.

The same question applies to playing music in public. Do you want a world in which no music is allowed so that no one is offended and no eardrums harmed? Yet the music I play clearly affects your eardrums, so by the fist-nose standard, I have no right to play it at even the softest volume if anyone complains.

But perhaps that is the standard, that if anyone complains then I am violating their right to unvibrated air. That doesn't fit my idea of justice, but I guess the hypothetical complainer would have to bear the consequences of being vibration-intolerant.

Anonymous said...

I have begun reading your blog more often of late, and find it very well done, with well-reasoned and defended posts. I felt a need to respond to your original post, even though it's a few days old...

It was a very thoughtful and well-reasoned post, by the way, so thank you. I especially like the argument you make for "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" being, not expressly specific rights, but rather categories of rights.

often, whenever i hear anyone, in any medium, speak of their "rights", i have an almost involuntary reaction of distaste, for (it seems to me) those most often screaming about their "rights" have done little to no thinking of their rights, where they come from, the progression and evolution of those rights. You, on the other hand, have; it shows in your writing and reasoning.

I would like to offer, not a counter argument, but rather a slightly different take on one of your final points. Instead of speaking of where one's rights begin or end, would it not be more useful to speak about one's responsibilities? Instead of worrying and thinking about where to draw a line between your rights and mine, would it not be more useful to speak about one's responsibilities to one's neighbors, friends, family, city, state, nation, etc?

To follow your and knight errant's specific example of clean air, i would suggest not focusing on where your right to use the air ends, and knight's right not to be "the unwilling recipient of [your] waste". Focus, rather, on using the air responsibly, so that others may use it as well. Take your lawn-waste to an approved dumping site, instead of burning the leaves in your backyard; play your music as loud as is appropriate, but not to the point where your neighbors call the cops; buy a motorcycle, if thats what you want, but don't go tearing through the neighborhood late at night because it's fun to let loose on your hog.

I guess your earlier mention of the Golden Rule is a shorthand way of making my argument, as is another phrase i appreciate: be subject to one another...

again, thanks for a well written, well reasoned post.

history guy (from

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