Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Inalienable Rights

Several recent conversations have gotten me thinking: Do Americans really believe in “inalienable rights”?

That phrase, of course, is familiar to most Americans from the Declaration of Independence. A friend of mine – who is, ironically enough, an atheist – recently noted that the wording of the Declaration of Independence substantiates the argument that the USA is a nation founded on what he called “Christian principles.”

As a way to begin, here’s the famous passage in question:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men…
What, exactly, is Thomas Jefferson saying here? Have you ever paused to think about it? Here’s my analysis (and you’ll note that I interpret “men” as referring to humankind): For Jefferson, there are at least two self-evident truths that can be ascertained. First, all people are born equal. Race and national origin, gender and social status, have no bearing on a person’s inherent human worth. Second, the “Creator” of the world has bestowed upon human beings three “inalienable rights” – namely, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

By Jefferson’s account, governments are created in order to protect these self-evident truths, these basic human rights. Thus, the government’s job is to ensure that these rights are not taken away, trampled on, or ignored.

The phrase about how humans are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” is the one I want to focus on here. Many (like the friend I mentioned above) use this phrase to argue that we are a nation founded “under God,” based on basic Christian principles. “Under God” may be a phrase inserted into our Pledge of Allegiance only in 1953, but the Declaration of Independence itself includes similar language, referencing the basic human rights that have been endowed on humanity by the Creator of the universe and for which the government is charged in protecting.

That Jefferson’s language is Deist in nature, and not Christian, is not my focus here. In fact, I’m not even attempting to argue that religion in general didn’t play a role in the founding of America, because it most clearly did. Instead, I want to look more deeply at that phrase about the “Creator” and the “inalienable rights” and take it out to its ultimate conclusion.

For Jefferson, and thus for anyone who agrees with Jefferson’s belief (which most Americans say they do), God has given certain basic rights to humanity. These are God’s gifts to us. We didn’t invent them and no human being has bestowed them upon us. They are ours by virtue of being human creatures created by God. As another good friend of mine pointed out, the very thrust of Jefferson’s argument here was that the “Rights of Man” are not bestowed by the British Monarchy or anyone else. Basic human rights are the domain of God, not of kings and emperors, presidents and parliamentarians. This, of course, is the whole theme of the 18th century revolutionary period in America.

So, according to Jefferson, and agreed upon by countless Americans for the last 225 years, God has given us certain “inalienable” rights. That word – “inalienable” – is familiar to most people simply because of its prominent place in the Declaration of Independence. What does it actually mean? According to not transferable or capable of being repudiated. According to Merriam-Webster: incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred.

In other words, an “inalienable right” is a right that cannot be taken away by any human being because human beings didn’t invent or bestow the right in the first place. What human beings didn’t give, human beings can’t give away. More pointedly, and more in line with Jefferson’s wording: what God gave, human beings can’t give away.

I think most Americans would agree, and agree profoundly, with that analysis. What I want to do now, however, is take that analysis out to its logical conclusion – a conclusion I have a feeling will be met with some resistance.

Jefferson tells us that among our God-given “inalienable” rights is the right to life. The very phrase “right to life” is a familiar one – it’s most often used in discussions about abortion. All humans have a right to life, given by God and affirmed in one of our most treasured American documents, and thus abortion is not only sinful, it’s also un-American. Without going into a lot of detail about an issue that is anything but simple, many of my readers may be surprised to find that I generally agree with this sentiment. While I consider myself pro-choice for a variety of reasons that are far too numerous to go into here, I also consider myself profoundly anti-abortion. For me, “pro-choice” is a political and social stance, while “anti-abortion” is a moral and ethical and religious stance.

But the phrase “right to life” also has other implications. I’m specifically thinking of capital punishment. I’ve often argued that one can’t be pro-life and pro-death penalty without being hypocritical, just as one can’t be pro-abortion and anti-death penalty without being hypocritical. I consider myself anti-abortion and anti-death penalty. I believe in the right to life and in affirming life, and that belief is consistent across my various political opinions.

Here’s the crux: if we agree with Jefferson that human beings have basic inalienable rights – rights, which by their very divinely-given nature, cannot be taken away by human beings – and if we agree that one of these rights is the right to life, then how can we affirm capital punishment without being inconsistent with what we claim to believe?

The primary argument against this is the one that is most obvious: capital punishment is a totally different ball of wax. Capital punishment isn’t “murder.” Capital punishment is justice meted out against those who have committed violent acts against other human beings. As the Christian Old Testament affirms, murder is a terrible sin, but “killing” in war or as punishment for sin is not the same as “murder.”

By the standards of this argument, one might say that capital punishment doesn’t equate to taking away a person’s inalienable right to life. Instead, the criminal in question voluntarily gave that right up when he or she chose to commit murder. This is an extremely common argument in discussions about capital punishment – capital punishment isn’t murder, nor is it unethical, because the right to life was already surrendered by the perpetrator in the very act of committing their crime.

You may already see where I’m going here. If not, recall the discussion above about the meaning of the phrase “inalienable rights.” An “inalienable right” is a human right which, by its very definition, cannot be taken away, transferred, or surrendered. It is “inalienable.” It is bestowed by a power greater than any human being or human institution. What human beings did not give, human beings cannot give away. What God gave, human beings cannot take away and cannot surrender. If a right can be either taken away by others or surrendered by an individual through an act of violence, then it is not, by definition, an “inalienable” right.

For that reason, I am arguing that capital punishment is inconsistent with American principles, as outlined by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Most Americans say they believe in those principles – those inalienable rights – yet most Americans also support capital punishment.

And so we return to the question that opened this discussion: Do Americans really believe in “inalienable rights”? Or is that just something that sounds good on paper, sounds good in a political debate, and sounds pretty to our imaginations, but which we don’t really believe in practice?

If you genuinely believe in the “inalienable rights” that Thomas Jefferson asserted in the Declaration of Independence, and you understand what the word “inalienable” actually means, then I don’t see how you can support capital punishment – regardless of what your personal religious beliefs happen to be.

If the right to life is “inalienable,” and if that belief is a deeply American one which our government is charged with protecting, then capital punishment can only be deeply un-American.


Anonymous said...

"Well, all your esses look like effs!"

Stan Freberg is gonna sue me if I keep this up on all your blog posts. Which is ironic when you consider the Sale of Manhattan sketch.

"Yeah, Dick? We use it anymore we'll have to pay a royalty? We'll knock it off."

The Don said...

The flaw in your thought is that the right to life is an "unalienable" right. It is a right that cannot be surrendered, sold or transferred to someone else.
"Inalienable rights" are those rights that can only be transferred with the consent of the person possessing those rights.

The Declaration of Independence talks about "unalienable rights."

Scott said...

Thanks for the comment Don. In my dictionary (which, by the way, is simply, "inalienable" and "unalienable" are the same word. "Unalienable" is the 18th century version. "Inalienable" is the modern version. There is no distinction there.

In either case, if you are correct in parsing the difference between the words, it would seem that my argument still holds.

Anonymous said...

I think you are absolutely right. I think the argument about why many Americans can talk about inalienable rights (which are part of a broad commitment to individualism and to the individual being sovereign over their own destiny) but then endorse things like the death penalty (and, as you hint, make confusions between moral/ethical decisions on the one hand and a desire to implement such ethical decisions in the public sphere for everyone on the other) is explained by this article:

In summary, it suggests Americans do not value individual rights in general, so much as the right of the individual to freely join a group. This creates a high degree of social conformity within American culture, despite its ostensible commitment to individualism.

This illuminated for me why many Americans justify the death penalty using the "you've surrendered your rights" argument - i.e. you've broken the rules of the group, so you don't get the protection of the group rules any more. It also explains why many people sing the praises of the country and its freedoms but then tell someone who objects to an element of nationalism or particular policy "if you don't like it leave" - ostensibly over-riding the very freedoms they've just been celebrating! I do indeed believe this was a far cry from the universal, non-negotiable rights that the Enlightenment imagined. Once you start over-riding the absoluteness of rights, you are back to conditional allegiance of monarchies, or dictatorships.

Scott said...

Thanks so much for the comments, anonymous. Very apt to the discussion and I couldn't agree with you more. I haven't read the article you referenced yet, but I'll give it a look.