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Do Inalienable Rights Exist? Part 1

The most prominent feature of political thought since the Enlightenment (both in the academic theories and in the public’s common sense) is surely the language of inalienable rights.

In fact, the emergence of inalienable political rights marks a break from more ancient times and is the distinctive feature of modern politics. Every mainstream political view in the United States accepts both the existence of individual rights and that an essential role of the state lies in safeguarding these rights.

What these rights are (e.g., whether employment or health care is a right) often is a subject on which persons of different political persuasions differ. And while some political theories maintain that the sole purpose of government is to safeguard individual rights (libertarianism, for example), other political theories maintain that the state has other aims in addition to safeguarding rights.

As an example of the latter case, traditional conservatism holds that the government ought to maintain public order, in addition to protecting individual rights.

As Americans, we cherish our rights. However, those who are skeptical about the other products of modernity (Enlightenment rationalism, modern pedagogy, and so on) might begin to wonder if there is something amiss within the philosophy of individual rights.

Is it plausible that the doctrine of individual rights managed to escape the flaws which characterize the modern project as a whole?

This seems improbable on its face. The doctrine of rights is not tangential to the modern project, it is its political expression.

Could it be that while Enlightenment’s epistemology is fundamentally flawed and its metaphysics leaves no place for God (though this realization only came gradually), the Enlightenment political philosophy stands unscathed by these errors?

It is possible; however, given that political theory shares much common ground with metaphysical and epistemological thinkers, we have no initial reason for any confidence.

Christians should be particularly skeptical. In the West, Christians largely had control of political institutions since the fourth century and through the Middle Ages. The doctrine of individual rights emerged not as Christian political power increased, but as more and more countries were given over to the secular governments.

These general historical observations seem to indicate that individual rights are a secular, and not a Christian, concept.

While it would perhaps be comfortable to believe that, while a belief in inalienable rights is perhaps not a distinctively Christian concept, it is consistent with Christianity, or — at the very least — that it does not contradict Christianity.

To take this road, there must be no political philosophy inherent to Christian theology that is incompatible with the doctrine of inalienable rights. In order to make this argument, one must have a concept of what the political implications arise out of Christian theology. This will be the subject of a further post.

Further, the Christian wishing to retain a belief in inalienable rights must not only establish that these are permissible for a Christian to believe in, but he must come up with a positive argument for the existence of these rights.

Proving the existence of these rights is infamously difficult, and most take the existence of natural rights without any sort of evidence.

The implications of the question of rights are quite broad. Perhaps all political discourse in the United States is predicated on the existence of natural rights. What if this is incorrect? What if another, more plausible approach exists?

In the next post, we will consider the classical, Aristotelian alternative.

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