Religious Freedom II: what are rights?

Thomas Kadmon, ICR,

The first post in this series stated: "Freedom is not a permission granted by the powerful. It is not something given or returned to you when you placate authorities. It is an inalienable right."

An inalienable right is a freedom that cannot be taken away from you. It cannot be made alien to you. You may choose to waive its exercise. You may be in circumstances that thwart its expression. But it still belongs to you, and nobody can take it away. If it were granted by others it could be withheld by them. But since it is not, it cannot be socially withheld. It is a simple point but overlooked; apparently a hard thing to get our Australian brains around. Mention "natural law" (let alone "divine law") in an Australian court and be prepared for a glazed look to come over the judge's face. Citizens have been long habituated to think their rights are what the law allows. If the judiciary or parliament allow more, only then can you have more rights, more freedom. What they don't grant you never had.

To say freedoms are permissions is to make society their source. It is a civilising step up from there to say that rights belong to human nature. This is along the lines of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, the USA's Bill of Rights, and the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the full truth is that rights derive from the Creator. And as previously mentioned, every right entails a concomitant duty. The right is something society should respect about the individual and the duty is something the individual should respect about society.

There is ownership in rights

If I want to use my own lawnmower, I go ahead and use it by right. If I want to use my neighbour's lawnmower, I must seek his permission. There is ownership in rights; they belong to me; unlike permissions, which belong to others. The right means the individual's freedom from coercion by society. It would be immoral, for example, to forcibly block someone's right to free speech and expression. It belongs to him as an individual. Society must step back and respect that right. By 'society', I mean the whole spectrum of collectivities: ranging from any group he is part of, to institutions, to social media, to the national government. The right is a moral principle that sanctions the individual's freedom of thought, speech and action in a social context. We start with the individual - who is the smallest minority of all - when it comes to protecting minorities from majority tyranny. The shape of that tyranny may be censoring, cancelling, bullying or outright physical persecution. If we don't do this much we evince lack of faith in the citizen and disrespect for the dignity of man.

Just the individual?

What about minorities beyond the sole individual? Say, a couple, or a family or an ethnic group? Or a big cross-section of humanity, like women, children, the homeless, asylum seekers, whole nations etc? Since rights are a respect owed by a majority to a minority, in order to elaborate the principle we must build upwards from the smallest unit. Even within a group of a few or (to state the extreme case) two people, it is possible that one person may be the target of censoring or cancellation by the other(s). Therefore a group's legitimate claim of rights depends on its respecting the rights of each and every individual member. It doesn't work to respect the rights of a married couple qua couple, if one spouse is violating the rights of the other. Nor to respect the rights of a family qua family, if any child's right to a safe, protective environment is violated. It is not a straightforward matter to respect national sovereignty if the government concerned disregards the basic rights of its citizens. To paraphrase a similar point made by Gandhi: the test of how civilised we are depends on how we treat the most vulnerable unit of the body politic. The most vulnerable human is the unborn fetus, to whom many would deny any rights whatsoever. If humans are dependent, or feeble, or disabled or lack sound reason, no civilised society can afford to regard their rights as forfeit.

We can now say whether it is just the individual who possesses rights or groups. In a marriage or a family in which each member's rights is respected between themselves - internally, as it were - then that couple or that family or any larger association which is a minority within a wider social context has rights. Such a group is entitled to freedom from external coercion. It should be trusted to the autonomous management of its own affairs. I have written before about the closely allied concept of subsidiarity, whereby wider social levels should not interfere with smaller social groupings which are going about their proper business.

The first blog post said there is freedom from as well as freedom to. This post teaches that rights have to do with freedom from coercion - wider, external social coercion. The other part of the equation is duties, which have to do with freedom to follow the moral law.