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.