BILL OF RIGHTSA campaign-trail pronouncement that “everyone has a right to a job” or a “right to a home”—like alleging that we all have the revolutionary banner rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—sounds inspiring and reassuring if you’re looking for or worrying about losing one.

As a claim, either one would sound very compelling too, if it were a “God-given” or “inalienable” right, bestowed by a “creator”, like those “natural” (or is it “supernatural”?) “Rights of Man” claimed by the U.S. Founding Fathers, lots of 1789 revolutionary French Jacobins and most past and present presidential candidates. Upfront appeal notwithstanding, there are some problems with this metaphysical or theological approach to rights—any rights, including and perhaps especially the rights of workers (and home hunters/owners).

God-Given Rights for Atheists and Zeusians?

In the first place, what happens to workers who are atheists, disciples of Zeus or worshippers of some other god not identical with “God”, as understood by the Founding Fathers and in the Oath of Allegiance? How can they claim a right when they disavow its presumptive and formally recognized divine basis? That would entail some very tricky doublethink at best, and hypocrisy at worst.

An employer or government that denied the existence of such an allegedly God-given right (and therefore denied claims to it) could be challenged by an atheist or Zeusian only if the right were already enshrined in law, on whatever basis, religious or not. It’s harder to demand a right whose existence depends on something else you don’t believe exists. (But it’s not impossible, since you can demand its recognition from those who believe in its presumed  supernatural basis and its necessity.)

In the second place, a theological, God-mandated set of rights can easily foster smug complacency, since, after all, a right of yours doesn’t have to be defended by argument or force if God is on your side and has decreed that right.

If that right is under attack or suppressed, then on the premises embraced by the God-given rights thinkers, those who would deny a God-given right would also have to face the wrath of God, in the next world, if not this one. So, anyone who believes in a divine decree mandating human rights is likely to also believe two more propositions: 1. No further argument, other persuasion or inducements to acknowledge and respect the right are necessary to objectively secure and defend the right in a God-fearing society; 2.No sane person would oppose the will of God.

Result: More complacency than if the rights had a more vulnerable basis necessitating a more vigilant stance and proactive defense of them, e.g., a “social contract” approach, in which the only rights that exist are negotiated and enforced by the “will of the people” and the muskets they can muster, if needed. As history has shown, among the chief enemies of human rights is human complacency and inattention.

In the third place, making the existence of rights contingent on the existence of (the word of) God does blur the line between church and state and between a democracy and a theocracy. Imagine being told that you have a right to work, to free speech, to vote, to assembly, to due process, etc., but only because the Quran, the Bible, Buddhist scripture or Hindu Vedas say so. That’s problematic.

Hero-Given Rights for All?

Some more secular this-worldly, state-and-religion-separating approaches to recognizing, establishing, defending and enforcing rights—including worker and home-owner rights—are no less precarious: For example, one attractive alternative to the dogmatic and theocratic God-based natural rights approach is what might be called the “legacy and sacrifice” approach—we have rights only because generations of soldiers, saints, statesmen and ordinary citizens fought and often died for them, sacrificing themselves so that we could enjoy those rights as their legacy created for and bestowed upon us.

What’s appealing about this is the absence of any apparent and controversial metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, mysticism or debate about the facts.  Instead, rights exist as gifts from heroes—heroes whose sacrifices we must honor by honoring the gifts. They fought and died for the rights we enjoy—or so they imagined and got us to believe; so if we are to be neither foolish nor ungrateful, we must claim, preserve and respect those legacy rights.

Viewed from this heroic, yet quintessentially human perspective, the rights for which they fought exist for us only because they fought and sacrificed for them. In honoring that sacrifice, we preserve our rights—and vice versa. Alas, there is a snag: This kind of argument, some version of which was used by the ultra-conservative Edmund Burke in critiquing the French Revolution, can easily be construed as very reactionary, rigid and wrong. For example, if the heroic legacy and sacrifice interpretation is accepted, the right to own slaves should be enshrined in law, since, after all, countless thousands of Confederate soldiers laid down their lives in defense of their belief in that right.

If it is countered that the problem with the Confederate States was that fighting for or believing in that “right” was not “right”, we have to go back to square-one, forced to review each historical instance of heroic rights battles one at a time, in order to determine which rights fought for are right (and therefore “real” rights). That amounts to nearly disregarding the heroic legacy and sacrifice altogether, since such sacrifices would no longer be sufficient to assure claims for the right fought for.

However, it could still be argued that such historical heroics are necessary, even if not sufficient, to support rights claims—which would then rule out any God-given rights claims, unless the battles were under the banner of a Holy Crusade or its equivalent.

Rights as Negotiated Contract Items

No matter how you feel about labor unions, they effectively interpret and establish rights in a practical, no-nonsense way: They negotiate for rights, human cheek to human jowl—and in doing so reinforce the impression that there is nothing metaphysical or other-worldly about rights: The rights you have are the ones you successfully negotiate. It’s that simple—rights are defined, interpreted, argued and enforced through contracts that are variations on the “social contract theory” that Rousseau propounded. For a labor union negotiator who truly knows what he is doing, “You have a right to ….” means, “You have a contract that says you have a right to….”

On this model, if any claim or promise of a “right to work”, “right to a job” or “right to a home” is going to be taken seriously, it will have to be taken as a contractual claim, to be proposed, defended and refined through direct negotiations. The superiority of this contract-based approach is that it encourages, indeed, demands individual vigilance and proactive involvement in defining and securing rights, in the spirit of a spirited town hall meeting or a Senate debate.

On the other hand, the main limitation of this approach, and a key reason it is not widely promulgated from pulpits and in political platforms, is that it implies that, to the extent that re-negotiation is a defining characteristic of all contracts (unless there is an “in perpetuity” clause, which is unlikely to be enforceable, given that the signatories all eventually die), rights can come and go,  and be nullified, as the result of renegotiations. That makes everybody uneasy—it’s too contingent, too unpredictable, too relative, too mundane, too uncomfortable.

The Lazy and Cunning Man’s Approach to Rights

For the average person, that is altogether cerebrally, practically and spiritually too challenging, inasmuch as such a precarious and pragmatic method of claiming and enforcing rights requires negotiating skill, tenacity of purpose, vigilance (especially whenever a call or time for renegotiation looms), knowledge, wisdom (in framing rights claims), focus, a readiness to compromise, cunning, life-long learning (as information, technology, etc., change and evolve), a grasp of stakes/risks and opportunities, and substantial intelligence.

Worse, if these formidable qualities are indeed possessed by the negotiators on both sides, the contract-based rights are likely to involve very protracted and contentious negotiations, with paralysis a not uncommon outcome. Think Congress, as a prime example.

So, given the strenuous efforts required to negotiate rights and the struggles to retain them,  it’s no wonder that the God-given-right explanation and defense of rights has always been popular with politicians.

Instead of having to debate, deeply analyze, rationalize and otherwise vigorously defend or figure out what they personally think about a right to X or a right to Y—and risk facing the wrath of voters who disagree and the crafty rebuttals of competitors, presidents and presidential candidates can simply declare what they think God really thinks and wants (e.g., “Gott mit uns!”—‘God is with us!”), with no way to be proven wrong…

…except for being struck by lightning while not on a golf course.

Image: “THE BILL OF RIGHTS” from Wikipedia



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