The Flotsam and Jetsam of Rights

Like equality, the West developed our concept of rights as a means of safeguarding people from their government and from one another. Rights are held in particularly high regard in America, where each and every individual’s rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were enumerated as the basis for our Declaration of Independence. And for a time, the concept was quite useful towards its purpose: directing government towards securing those rights for its citizens.

But also like equality, the concept of rights has become corrupted. American-style rights have ceased to be an effective tool we use to govern wisely and have instead become an idol we’ve compelled ourselves to serve. Rather than guarding us from abuse of authority, rights are often used as the weapons by which we are abused. Whether it’s a mother’s “right” to murder her child, a pervert’s “right” to be honored for his perversion, a sluggard’s “right” to largess from the public treasury, a thug’s “right” to riot undisturbed, or even a child’s “right” to destroy his own genitals, our rights have become the tools by which our civilization is torn down.

The problem is that over the centuries, we’ve come to understand rights in a bizarrely hyper-individualistic way. By that, I mean we conceive of rights as being so autonomous that they are essentially self-generated. We may (or may not) pay lip service to a creator who gave them, but for all intents and purposes, every individual’s rights currently exist abstracted away from anything that might humanize them: morality, appropriate relationships, and even human nature itself. The kinds of rights we think of today aren’t simply for individuals, we think they come from individuals no matter how alienated from one-another they are.

Now, that’s certainly not what our Declaration of Independence intended. It indeed specifies that these rights belong to each individual, but it ties that reality to an act of the Creator and His ordinances. But there is a key question which the Declaration of Independence doesn’t even attempt to answer: How does the Creator endow us with inalienable rights?

Two and a half centuries ago, overlooking that question didn’t pose an immediate problem because the inertia of Christendom was still at work. Most Americans implicitly understood the Creator to the the Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Most accepted the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and understood them within a Biblical context. And whether the statesmen involved were personally Christian or not, most allowed these understandings to define and limit the scope of rights.

Unfortunately, this is no longer the case, and we are reaping the consequences. Now, it falls to us to answer the question the Founders overlooked. Rights may be for individuals, but they do not come from individuals, nor are they even possessed exclusively  by individuals–at least not in a social vacuum.

The paradox of human nature is that we are social individuals. You cannot understand humanity without understanding both aspects of that nature. Libertarians and other hyper-individualists err because they can only see the individual. Collectivists err because they can only see the group. Both of these are myopic, for they fail to see the entire picture. Accordingly, both of these points of view have twisted the concept of rights away from anything that might help us.

Part of the resulting problem is that there are two senses in which we normally use the word “rights.” One is in the sense of a specific liberty–for example, the American right to freedom of expression. This right pertains to the liberty to speak what’s on your mind without society punishing you or otherwise interfering with what you have to say–regardless of whether they like it. As their name would imply, libertarians prefer the liberty kind of right. Meanwhile, critics will generally object to the recklessness of promoting liberty without corresponding responsibilities.

The other way we use the word “rights” is in reference to entitlements–something that one person is owed by another. When people speak of a supposed right to housing or healthcare, for example, they are asserting that everyone is owed such things by virtue of being a living human being. If anyone is lacking them, then it falls on everyone else to supply it. As you might suspect from that necessity of a collective solution, these are the kinds of rights collectivists prefer. Their critics, of course, are quick to point out that such entitlements amount to the enslavement of those on whom the burden of provision ultimately falls.

The temptation is to think that these two understandings of rights are diametrically opposed. That is, after all, how libertarians and collectivists treat them. And at a glance, it does seem like liberties put us at one another’s mercy while entitlements rob us of our freedoms. But the two only seem irreconcilable because both libertarians and collectivists are myopic. Neither really sees how God establishes human rights.

The reality they both miss is that rights are neither enfleshed in individuals nor in society as a whole, but specifically in the family. That is where the paradox of human nature is resolved and liberties & entitlements are reconciled. That is where individual persons share the same flesh and blood in a natural, organic, and God-ordained way. The family is where we have liberty naturally conjoined with responsibility and entitlement without slavery. It is precisely through the appointment of parents that God has endowed individuals with rights in both senses of the word.

I’ve written before about the relationship between entitlement, responsibility, and authority. Any legitimate authority is established for a purpose–for the sake of a responsibility towards another. And that responsibility means that this other is entitled to a specific kind of treatment from said authority. Going the other direction, any true entitlement means that somebody else has a responsibility to provide it for you. But if they have this responsibility, then they must also have sufficient authority to carry it out.

If you try to have any one of these without the other two, it will be poisonous instead of beneficial. Authority without responsibility is merely abuse. Responsibility without authority is slavery. Entitlement without responsibility is a dead letter. All of this should sound very familiar to Westerners. We talk a good game about our history of rights & liberty, but abuse, slavery, and missing entitlements are becoming an ever-more accurate summary of our situation. And it’s all because of the way we’ve tried to supplant the family with the individual on one hand and the state on the other.

But the integration of authority, responsibility, and entitlement is where genuine rights come from.

As I’ve written about before, all earthly authority has its roots in the 4th Commandment: God’s appointment of parents for the sake of their children. Our precious children are entitled to our care, for God designed them to be unable to care for themselves. He gave parents this sacred responsibility, so inevitably, God has also given parents the requisite authority. Accordingly, we rightly expect children to obey their parents as God commands.

This is where we first find genuine liberties. When we speak of a liberty, we’re really talking about a kind of authority. Liberty means that God has authorized a person to use his best judgment towards specific purposes. Parents have been given such authority for the sake of their children. They get to choose how to raise, provide for, and discipline their own kids. They are authorized to claim property for their household. They are authorized to protect their children and also themselves so that their children will not be orphaned.

From beginning to end, this task requires a great deal of agency on the part of parents. There is not a single right way to raise children. There is not a single right way to manage a household. Because of God’s appointment, parents must have the liberty to choose as best as they are able because that is why God has appointed them. These are the kinds of rights that parents are endowed with.

Infants, in contrast to parents, have no liberties. They do, however, still have rights. They just exclusively take the form of entitlements. They have a right to life, to food, to protection, and so forth. But infants have no liberties because God has not given them any authority. Infants don’t even have a use for such an authority. In terms of agency, even lifting their head or rolling over is something they have to work up to.

This is not, however, a static state of affairs. As children grow, they are given liberties by their parents. Just as God authorized the parents, so also, parents authorize their children. For example, they come to possess simple forms of property–perhaps toys they can play with as they see fit, a room they can decorate as they see fit, or a bike they can ride where they see fit.

But it’s not only as they see fit; it’s also as the parents who authorized them see fit. Parents set the boundaries within which their children’s liberties can be exercised, just as God set boundaries for the parents. But while these liberties start small, good parents ensure that they grow to match their child’s growing capability and agency. And whether the parents are good or not, every child eventually becomes responsible for himself one way or another. Naturally, authority (and therefore liberty) come along for the ride.

And, of course, most children eventually grow up to become parents themselves. They are likewise appointed by God to have authority over their own household, and the cycle of rights begins again.

That is what true rights ultimately are: not some static and autonomous endowment, but an ongoing cycle of authority transforming into entitlement transforming into authority again using God-ordained family responsibilities as a medium. Meanwhile, legal rights are civilization’s attempt to recognize and organize this cycle in a messy world. We will never do this perfectly, of course, but we must at least aim at the right target.

But we haven’t.

The problem with rights in the modern West is that our various ideologies have attempted to freeze that cycle at one point or another for the sake of political expediency. Collectivists freeze rights at the stage of entitlement–infantilizing citizens in a state of permanent dependence on daddy government. But hyper-individualists are no better, for they freeze rights in a wholly abstract adulthood bereft of natural responsibilities. Today, they even going so far as to apply the adult manifestation of rights to children, who are “authorized” to change their names, go on puberty blockers, and even murder their own children behind their parents’ backs. Neither of these versions of rights are even sane, let alone practical.

Having true, inviolable, God-given personal liberties requires God-ordained relationships that involve entitlement, responsibility, and authority. Family is the fundamental way in which God has provided that. So-called individual rights abstracted away from this kind of ordinance are just squabbling people yelling “it’s my life and I’ll do what I want” as they fight each other; and collectivism is just a series of usurpers claiming to be everyone’s parent in an attempt to possess authority without responsibility.

If the West is to be saved from its own cultural diseases, our only option is to repent and return to God. And when it comes to our governments and their recognition of rights–entitlements and liberties alike–returning to God means returning to the 4th Commandment and His ordination of family.

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9 Responses to The Flotsam and Jetsam of Rights

  1. Chris says:

    “But there is a key question which the Declaration of Independence doesn’t even attempt to answer: How does the Creator endow us with inalienable rights?”

    He doesn’t.

    Man does not have a God-given right to life: The just and right wages of sin is death. Eternal life is the free gift of God, not a right.

    Liberty? Man is in bondage to sin and cannot free himself. “I believe that I cannot, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him…”

    To claim that God has endowed man with a natural and unalienable right to pursue his own happiness is cosmically absurd. Why waste even a millisecond attempting to define “happiness” when this claim is merely man inserting his own words into God’s mouth?

    God does not recognize Man’s freedom of religion, but violently condemns men for merely exercising their “right” to worshiping the gods of their own choosing.

    Does God recognize man’s God-given right to lie and blaspheme? We are reliably informed that the First Amendment covers many instances of the later, and all instances of the former.

    The problem with rights in the modern West is that we have taken concepts that are applicable to civil government and elevated them to the moral and spiritual sphere.

    Conservative Christians ask, “If we deny equal civil rights to homosexuals, rebel political activists, international capitalists, transexuals, immigrants, Jews, women, and blacks… what, in principle, is to stop government from denying us our civil rights?”

    What good is a government that does not deny equal civil rights to open evildoers?

    What good is a government that does not deny equal civil rights to foreigners?

    What good is a government that does not deny equal civil rights to women?

    Demanding that government make no distinction between good and evil, foreign and national, man and woman has not and will not ensure that government respects our civil rights. On the contrary, it ensures it will not.

    • Matt says:

      Chris, you’re conflating rights *coram deo* and rights *coram mundo*. You’re entirely correct that we have no rights before God. But God still gives man “rights” before other men through his establishment of authority, responsibility, and entitlement among them–all of which are with respect to other men.

      And so long as we understand rights in terms that trifold establishment, then none of the dilemmas you propose are actually dilemmas. The evildoer is denied life, liberty, and so forth by the authority of the just ruler whom God appointed over him–and because what he did was evil, his actions were not within his own authority. The foreigner is second to the native because of the specific purpose of the authority of the just ruler whom God appointed over the nation the foreigner is occupying. Likewise, women’s authority is generally delegated from the men God has put in charge of their households.

      Equality, of course, is nowhere to be seen there–and in most respects, it shouldn’t be (https://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=696). Nevertheless, there remain legitimate authorities and entitlements which may be appropriately referred to as rights.

      • Chris says:

        Hi Matt,

        “you’re conflating rights *coram deo* and rights *coram mundo*.”

        Sure. But I think that is beside the point…

        “But God still gives man “rights” before other men through…”

        Where? God establishes what *IS* right (and what is wrong) with regard to how patriarchs and others should treat each other, lesser men, women, and so on. But the Bible does not contain a bill of rights, least of all suggest that God has endowed individual Men (e.g., women, if not aliens as well, if not also children) with various “[negative] unalienable rights with respect to other Men, which each particular national government is divinely obligated to respect.” On the contrary, Romans 12-13 and Luther’s table of duties describe government patriarchs as agents of divine vengeance, which is nearly the exact opposite of rights-oriented government.

        “Nevertheless, there remain legitimate authorities and entitlements which may be appropriately referred to as rights.”

        Yes, certainly. But not as “unalienable, God-given rights.” The most we can say is that some of the civil rights invented by human philosophers are consistent with what God has ordained to *BE* right, and sometimes serve the ends of godly government. However many are *not* consistent, and are frequently destructive towards these ends:

        Such as the civil right to pray to Mary and the saints, or Judeo-Allah, or whatever other idols seem right in one’s own eyes. Or likewise the civil right to a trial by jury with defensive council and the sacred right to not testify against yourself—regardless of how many metric tons of marketing material your employer has printed to advertise that it uses surgical techniques to mutilate children into the opposite sex, or murder fetuses, or smash the patriarchy.

        All around us the wicked appeal to their unalienable, God-given rights… slamming attempts at conservative, rights-oriented government into a brick wall. Revenge-oriented government, rooted directly in the plain language of God’s Word, does not suffer from this problem.

        • Matt says:

          Where does God establish rights before other men? As I explained in the original post, everywhere he establishes authority. So the 4th Commandment would be the primary example. It is God-given and inalienable. It also establishes certain liberties for parents and entitlements for children because we ought not dare to usurp, abuse, or violate the authority God has given to another.

          And again, once rights are properly rooted in authority/responsibility/entitlement that has been established in God’s law, they can’t be misused the way you describe without first uprooting them.

  2. Chris says:

    “So the 4th Commandment would be the primary example. It is God-given and inalienable.”

    No. The 4th Commandment nukes the entire Anglo-Western concept of rights. ‘Honor your father and mother’ reflects a right of government, not a right of the governed.

    The Declaration of Independence stands the 4th Commandment on its head by claiming that government only exists to secure ‘our rights’ and that the legitimate powers of government derive from the consent (!) of the governed. Do fathers derive their authority from the consent of their sons? Does a father lose his authority over his wife when she withdraws her consent?

    The Declaration of Independence isn’t rooted in the God-given and unalienable rights of government, but rather in human individualism and the (understandable) human desire to limit government’s rights—which are in truth limited by little more than God’s command to terrorize bad conduct and avenge God’s wrath on wrongdoers.

    “And again, once rights are properly rooted in authority/responsibility/entitlement that has been established in God’s law, they can’t be misused the way you describe without first uprooting them.”

    They were uprooted in 1776. Considering 100% conservative Christian America accepts rights per a face-value reading of the Declaration of Independence, the dilemmas will remain with us for some time…

    • Matt says:

      Listen to your own words for a moment:

      “‘Honor your father and mother’ reflects a right of government, not a right of the governed.”

      Who is the government referred to by the 4th commandment–the one you admit rights are granted to? Parents–a large majority of the citizens of every tribe and nation that’s ever existed. So even by your own accounting, a large majority of the citizens of every tribe and nation that’s ever existed have been granted rights by God through the 4th Commandment.

      And if you take that to the easiest and most natural conclusion possible, you’ll notice that even everyone who was never a parent was at some point a child. And children have rights in the sense of entitlements because of their parents’ God-given responsibilities.

      So literally everyone has received some manner of God-given rights by means of the 4th Commandment.

      And if you go further, you find that the authority of state government is delegated from God-given paternal authority–in other words, from the governed.

      Yes, it’s all twisted by a postmodern hyper-individualism that was nascent even in modernism. But then, that was the point of the blog post.

  3. Chris says:

    > So literally everyone has received some manner of God-given rights by means of the 4th Commandment.

    Specifically, the right to be honored by their children. This has nothing to do with the ‘rights’ of the governed before their governments. Indeed, the meaning of the 4th Commandment commands parents to not “despise or anger […] authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.” So again, the 4th Commandment clearly concerns the rights of the government, not of the governed.

    > And children have rights in the sense of entitlements because of their parents’ God-given responsibilities.

    True American governments abhors the notion that it has the responsibility to love its citizens and provide them with discipline, food, clothing, shelter, etc., let alone that its citizens are “entitled” to these things. We (wisely) reject the State as a father-figure.

    > And if you go further, you find that the authority of state government is delegated from God-given paternal authority–in other words, from the governed.

    This ‘delegation’ you refer to is involuntary and divinely ordained. The government no more requires the consent of citizens (parents or otherwise) than fathers require the consent of their sons.

    This is very different from when fathers delegate authority to their wives, or when state officials delegate authority to their agents, or when American Posterity delegate their governing authority to a federal state, or when God delegates authority to fathers and governments.

    The reason why Angl0-Saxon sensibilities about ‘self-evident, unalienable rights’ and ‘limited government’ and the ‘consent of the governed’ have no basis in Scripture is because the authority of God the Father, human fathers, and human governments are all intrinsically linked together, and it is no coincidence that the deconstruction of one has lead to the deconstruction of the others.

  4. Matthew Etzell says:

    Here is a blog post from Dissident Mama which may shed some light on the discussion between Matt and Chris.

    http://www.dissidentmama.net/nullification-made-simple/

  5. Matt says:

    Thanks for the link, Matthew; it was a good piece.

    Chris, what your analysis consistently overlooks is that parents ARE government. One God-ordained government cannot rightly walk all over another for any reason or for no reason at all. That includes federal and state government walking all over household government.

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