Lex, Rex

Defining Rights

Wednesday, February 13, 2019 • Gary Fox • Rights
What exactly are "rights" and how are we to identify them?

In 2015, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo famously said, "Rights do not come from God". Well, where then do they come from if not from God? In fact, if not from God how can there even be such a thing as "rights" in the first place? If you think about it, taking God out of the equation really messes the whole idea up and leaves it very hollow and ultimately meaningless. That is not to say atheists can't or don't operate as if rights are real, but they're doing so for no reason beyond personal tastes and social idealism.

In our last installment we confirmed the Bible makes it clear that we do in fact have rights and those rights come from God. The question for this edition of Illume is how are we to know what is and is not a right? For example, is free healthcare a right? Is so called gay marriage a right? Is owning an AR15 tactical rifle a right? We ought to be able to answer these questions with clarity. We ought also to be able to answer this one as well: How do we know for sure? If we believe healthcare is a right, what are we basing that belief on? Who told us it is a right? And conversely, if we do not believe free healthcare is a right, how are we so certain?

How do we sort these things out?

The first place to start, of course, is the Bible. The Bible is God's Word and has everything society needs to know regarding ethics, freedom, rights and responsibilities. The Bible specifically lists out a number of rights, making our task of classifying these things much easier. Take for example:

The right to disobey unjust laws
The right to self defense
The right to own weapons
The right to think and speak freely
The right to not be murdered
The right to a just trial
The right to remain silent while investigated or on trial
The right to own personal property
The right to not be forced into slavery
The right to not be defrauded
The right to not be raped

I'm sure there are other rights detailed in the Scripture and there are other Scriptures which define the rights listed above. I want you to notice how these rights pertain to human dignity, freedom and individual autonomy. And also notice what the Bible does not mention as rights, that is perhaps as noteworthy as what it does mention. Take for example free healthcare. The Bible says nothing about people having the right to free healthcare and so that alone is good reason to question such an idea right off the bat. The only way for any of us to discover the Will of God for society is to study the Scriptures. But with that said, there are other congruent, common grace, philosophical ways of thinking and reasoning about rights as well...not in substitution for what is declared in the Bible..but in complement to it.

It is easier to think about rights in terms of what you can force others to do for your personal benefit rather than to think of them in terms of what you'd like to be able to do or have done for yourself.

I simply cannot stress how important that principle is. If you can't say you believe it a moral obligation to force someone to do or not do something, then that ought to be a major clue that you don't have the right to it. Rights are worth dying over. Rights are worth killing over. If whatever it is that you desire does not rise to either level of seriousness then it's likely not a "right". Of course, being willing to die or kill over something does not automatically make it a right, but being unwilling to do either indicates it probably isn't.

For example, let's think about the right to have sex with someone you want to have sex with. Mentioning sex always gets people's attention, so let's bring up sex. Is sex a "need"? I suppose one could argue that most people do need to have sex, God created us sexual beings, after all. So, sure, sex could be thought of as a need, or at least as a potential need (depending on the constitution and disposition of any particular individual). Do adults have the right to have sex or would the government need to license adults or to somehow make it legal for for consenting adults to have sex together? Well, since consenting adults have been given the right to control their own bodies and while they will answer to God one day for how they treat their bodies (and the bodies of others), they should only answer to God for it. In other words, no special license is needed for an adult to have sex. Nothing in the New Testament would suggest civil authority includes regulating the sexual habits of consenting adults...so no civil permission is needed for adults to have sex with each other. But what if someone wants to have sex with a particular person yet that person does not consent to having sex? Ahhh…now you see where this line of thought is going. Just because someone wants something…even desperately wants it and perhaps in some way "needs" it…does not mean they have the right to demand it (or take it!) from someone else. One's right to have sex with someone they want to have sex with ends exactly where someone's right to not have sex with someone begins. People do have the right to pursue their desires AND people have the right to say no to personal conduct they do not want to involve themselves in.

Our rights end where the rights of others begin.

Take speech as another example. I have the right to speak, my neighbor has the right to not be slandered. If I violate his right to not be slandered, then my right to speech is immediately halted and I should be punished for it.

In the same way we can look at the question regarding a right to healthcare. Certainly, we all want and need healthcare, but in order to receive it someone must provide it for us. Someone must labor for it. And someone must pay for the labor, technologies and medicines in order for us to benefit from it. Someone being forced to perform labor is a slave, period. Someone forced to pay for the goods and services of another is also now a slave. Your right to healthcare ends when someone must potentially become a slave to you in order for you to receive it. No one can morally force another into their service. There is simply no way that any ethical person can conclude that healthcare is a right when such a position could potentially require slavery and theft!

"No one can morally force another into their service."

Rights are the stuff which makes a person free. Rights define what humans are free to do and not do. Rights establish full personhood. Rights allow people the opportunity to reflect the image of God before all of creation. Man may and often will take advantage of that opportunity and use it for selfish reasons, but any act of obedience must be done freely and rights provide the framework for people to be free. Rights are not necessarily about ensuring things that make us happy or healthy or wealthy or comfortable…just free. This freedom is limited, remember that. People have the right to be their own person, to own their personal property and to protect both his person and his property (and to willingly assist others in protecting theirs). But, our rights are relinquished, and our freedoms end when we presume to take actions which violate the rights of others.

"Rights allow people the opportunity to reflect the image of God before all of creation."

Understanding that rights are what God gives every human in order for society to safeguard individual freedom (and thereby affording humanity the opportunity to display aspects of God's nature and character) will provide anyone with a functioning head and moral heart the appropriate framework to determine what is and is not a "right".


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