Unalienable Rights

On the issues of gay rights, abortion rights, or womens rights I think that Ron Paul captures the truth with his repeated assertion that there is only one kind of rights – individual rights. These are the rights that were called unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence. When individual rights are properly protected many of the issues related to gay rights, womens rights, or minority rights fall away so that the central issues can be approached from their proper perspective.

For example, if individual rights are fairly enforced we do not need hate-crimes legislation because hate crimes are, first and foremost, crimes against individuals which should be dealt with in a manner to protect and defend the rights of those individuals. No amount of legislation will make a racist like a minority against which they hold a prejudice. If individual rights are properly enforced that will serve as a deterrent against racially inspired crimes as any hate-crimes law (this is not to imply that it will stop the crimes completely, but an admission that hate-crimes laws won’t either).

On issues such as abortion we can stop asking about whether a woman has “a right to control her own body” and focus the discussion on defining where individual rights begin – in other words, if the pre-born infant is an individual then the woman cannot blithely infringe upon the rights of that individual, but appropriate decisions can be made when the well-being of the mother and the well-being of the child are at odds.

The more I think about this the more I am convinced that it is difficult to  help people understand individual rights when we have ceded responsibility to the government to ensure that nobody is hungry, sick, uneducated, or poor and we have allowed the government to own everything although it generously allows us to keep part of the money we earn through our economic contributions.

About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.
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7 Responses to Unalienable Rights

  1. Good post! You bring up really good points. As a Libertarian, I tend to agree with what you’re saying but I have some thoughts:

    First, I take issue with the term inalienable rights because inalienable rights in an indefensible position to hold I think. The rights most commonly attributed as inalienable, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, are alienated from people all the time. E.g., if I commit a crime my rights are alienated from me. Once in prison, my liberty has been alienated. And if I’m sentenced to death, my right to life has been alienated. Or, if I’m gay and desire to get married, my right to pursuit of happiness has been alienated. (On a side note: I’ve always wanted a gay rights group, or anyone really, to make a shirt that has the Declaration of Independence with an footnote next to the inalienable rights that says, “Certain terms and restrictions apply: homosexuals can’t get married….)

    You also say, “we can stop asking about whether a woman has ‘a right to control her own body’.” But isn’t that part of individual rights? That being said, I think you make a good point about centering the debate about when the fetus can be defined as an individual. This of course is a very philosophical question and consequently is difficult, if not impossible to answer. But you also assume that every individual required ethical obligation from others. So in the case of the fetus – if it is considered an individual than it is wrong to kill it as that is an infringement of its rights. But there are those who would argue that being an individual does not necessarily entail such ethical obligation. Rather, ethical obligations only come after designating an individual as a person. This in itself is difficult to define as some might say a person is an individual who is able to make choices while another would say a person is an individual who can be party to ethical obligations.

    I am unaware of where you actually stand on abortion, but it seems that you allude to that fact that if a fetus were to be considered an individual than it would be wrong to kill that individual. However, while everyone will agree that killing another individual is wrong, such a statement is always followed by exceptions. It is justifiable to kill criminals that have committed certain crimes, it’s ok to kill in war (isn’t ironic that pro-lifers tend to be pro war?), and it is ok to kill in self-defense. And some would say it’s ok to kill in the sense of euthanasia. So my question I’d like to ask is why an abortion should not be an exception? When does the individual rights of the mother outweigh those of the fetus and visa versa?

    You end with: “The more I think about this the more I am convinced that it is difficult to help people understand individual rights when we have ceded responsibility to the government to ensure that nobody is hungry, sick, uneducated, or poor and we have allowed the government to own everything although it generously allows us to keep part of the money we earn through our economic contributions.”

    I think part of the problem is not necessarily the government’s fault but peoples as well. For example, take the gay-rights debate. The debate of whether one chooses to be gay is beside the point and dilutes the discussion. Rather, the question should be, “Why does the sexual actions of another person matter to me, why should I pass laws to limit them when they do not harm another?’ In actuality, it’s none of my business of what another person does with their personal life so long as it doesn’t harm me. I think the standard description of this goes, “your rights stop when they infringe on mine.” With gay-rights concerning marriage and adoption, the push to limit these individual rights does not result from the welfare state but from personal beliefs of other people. This in my mind is a cardinal example of why the government was set up in a republican from to dilute and place checks of the majority as the tyranny of the majority can be much worse than the tyranny of one despot.

    Also, this question just came to mind as food for thought. If our rights include, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, does that entail an obligation on the part individual and/or the government to advance those rights? I ask because hunger, sickness, lack of education, poverty, etc all seem to run counter to these rights. I am not sure how I stand on this yet (as I just thought of it) but I think this question is a good one to have when thinking about the welfare state and the obligation and purpose of government as a whole.

  2. David says:


    You bring up some good questions. As for the use of the term “unalienable rights” I had no intention of arguing whether these rights were, in fact, unalienable. I was using the term used in the Declaration of Independence to indicate that the unalienable rights spoken of were individual rights, rather than the rights of groups or classifications of people.

    When I say that we can stop asking whether a woman has the right to control her own body I meant to imply that the protection of individual rights would imply that the answer to that question is an unequivocal “Yes.” It exposes the real question in the debate which is whether the unborn child is an individual whose rights must also be considered. As you say, the answer to this question is not so easily decided and there is certainly not a universally accepted answer. If unborn children are entitled to individual rights then the choice to abort is a matter of those individual rights as well as the individual rights of the woman involved. I had hoped to be clear that this counterbalancing of rights was also not a simple question. Sometimes the rights of the mother would outweigh the rights of the child and other times they would not.

    I won’t attempt to engage in the gay marriage topic here – I will post a more complete thought on that subject tomorrow.

    Your last question is one where I suspect that I disagree with most people. If I have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that should imply that the government is responsible to protect me from having my life or liberty taken from me. The government should not stand in the way of my pursuit of happiness (so long as my pursuit does not infringe on the individual rights of others). On the questions of hunger, sickness, lack of education, and poverty I would contend that my being hungry is not an infringement upon my right unless someone has taken my food from me. The fact that I become sick does not mean my rights have been denied unless someone willfully made me sick. The fact that I have no education is less a problem than if someone denies me the opportunity for education, but even then, how far does it go? Can I sue a university that will not grant me entrance to a PhD program or was my right to pursue education satisfied by the fact that I had already obtained a masters degree? Nor is poverty a question of rights unless my property has been taken from me.

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  4. My issue of unalienable rights was not so much a critique of your post but an opportunity to express an intellectual pet peeve. Mostly because we talk a lot about then but never think about them enough to see the hypocrisy I think it can present.

    I agree with your abortions comments, at least for all practical purposes. It’s always bothered me that pro-lifers discuss the fetus and pro-choicers discuss the mother. And no issue can go any where if your talking about two different things.

    In regards to the role of government, I tend to agree with your argument in general. In terms of rights being infringed or respected I definitely think you are right.

    Where I begin to disagree if only because I think the question becomes more cloudy is in terms of government obligations. The pre-amble to the Constitution discusses the establishment of justice and it is by justice that I think government has some role in the things such as education, health care, etc.

    How I came to this position was in reading David Hume’s Principles of Morals. I might add here as well that Hume most certainly had an influence on the Founding Father’s thinking including James Madison. Anyways, Hume discusses justice as the distribution of scarce resources – as if resources were not scarce, if there was enough for everyone, justice as an overall concept would not be necessary or makes sense. From this, I see such things as healthcare and education as a scarce resources and in order to establish justice must be acknowledged by a government.

    On the specifics of this, i.e. how it should be carried out, etc, I have not yet come to conclusion of. But I think it’s worth a thought or two in the overall scheme of a just government.

  5. David says:

    I’ll have to read Principles of Morals – it sounds interesting. I do wonder at your characterization of education as a scarce resource. It seems to me that a resource such as knowledge, which increases as it is shared/distributed, can hardly be considered scarce.

  6. It’s a pretty good read and not long – the book I have is only 166 pages.

    My view of education as a scarce resource comes mostly from a formal education viewpoint up to college. That is to say not everyone has an opportunity to enjoy such education, for whatever reason. I wouldn’t say education in general is a scarce resource, at least in America where almost all people can read and have access to the internet in some sense. This sort of informal education is great because it has certainly diminished the scarcity of information and I think leveled the playing field in a sense between the traditional center of knowledge (Big cities and big universities) and those locales that traditional was not connected to these centers.

  7. David says:

    That makes more sense that you could see formal higher education as being a scarce resource. Of course, once you have internet access and things like the MIT OpenCourseWare Initiative the scarcity of it starts to diminish.

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