F.03 – Liberty and Rights

Liberty is the state of being free from control or oppressive restrictions imposed on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views.  In philosophy and religion, it is connected with free will and is the related concept of freedom.   Freedom is having the ability to act without constraint.  

Freedom is a natural instinct in conscious living creatures.  It can be observed in nature with a deer trapped in a fence or a fish fighting to break free from a fishing line.  Individuals and animals are reluctant to give up aspects of freedom without trust.

Human rights are moral principles or norms that prescribe certain standards of human behavior and are regularly protected in national and international law. Many of these rights are considered fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being.  Sounds simple, but is it? 

What are the human rights that people have and under what authority are they granted?  Are they universal or are they fundamentally a Western creation?  Under what fields of study (for example: philosophy, law, political science, sociology, history, religion, economics) can people learn about them?  How are they ensured and enforced?  Why are they routinely violated with impunity today?  The answers to these questions are far from settled.

The Conflict – Positive Rights vs Negative Rights

British political theorist Isaiah Berlin classified rights as “negative rights” and “positive rights”.  Under his definition, humans are born with negative rights (life, liberty, property), which should not be violated by other humans.   Positive rights are those rights that are granted by society to its members.  Positive rights may include education, healthcare, food assistance, etc..    

Negative and positive rights frequently conflict because carrying out the duties conferred by positive rights often entails infringing upon negative rights.  For example, the positive right to social welfare confers a duty upon the government to provide services.  Carrying out these duties entails increasing state expenditures, which would likely require raising taxes. Increasing taxes would infringe upon citizens’ negative right to ensure their money or property isn’t taken away from them.

America was founded based on the principles of Englishman John Locke (1632-1704).  He was a political advisor for the English Throne.  Locke wrote “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” in which he expressed the belief that people have the following unalienable rights endowed by nature (negative rights): 

  • a right to property, since we have a corresponding duty not to steal
  • a right to life, since we have a duty not to kill
  • a right to liberty, since we have a duty not to oppress   

The English Declaration of Rights was a predecessor of the American Bill of Rights.   It was produced by the English Parliament, following the 1688 Glorious Revolution and defined the wrongs committed by the exiled James II, the rights of English citizens, and the obligation of their monarch.  On 13 February 1689, it was presented to James’ daughter, Mary, and her husband, and, William of Orange, when they were jointly offered the throne. The Declaration itself was a tactical compromise between Whig and Tories; it established grievances, without agreeing their cause, or solution.

The Bill of Rights comprises the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. These were proposed following the often bitter 1787–88 debate over the ratification of the Constitution, and they were written to address the objections raised by Anti-Federalists.  These amendments to the Constitution add specific guarantees of personal freedoms and rights, clear limitations on the government’s power in judicial and other proceedings, and explicit declarations that all powers not specifically granted to the US Congress by the Constitution are reserved for the states or the people.  The concepts codified in these amendments are built upon those found in earlier documents, especially the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), as well as the Northwest Ordinance (1787), the English Bill of Rights (1689) and the Magna Carta (1215).  Thus, America was founded solely on negative rights.

A Major Shift in Direction

The 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights evidenced a major global shift in interpretation and understanding of the concept of human rights.   The United Nations generated it with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt after Franklin D. Roosevelt died in 1945.  Its admirable goal was to solve world hunger and improve worldwide standards of living. 

The negative rights defined in the first 10 amendments of U.S. Constitution, provided the starting point for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.     In addition to negative rights, the declaration added many positive rights, including:

  • Seeking asylum in other countries
  • Men and women, without limitation, have the right to marry
  • Free choice of employment and protection against unemployment
  • Everyone has a right to social security
  • Standard of living (food, clothing, housing, medical care etc.)
  • An education shall be free
  • To participate in cultural life

Over time, the UN Declaration of Human Rights evolved into the current version entitled Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Although not legally binding, the contents of the UDHR have been expanded and incorporated into subsequent international treaties, regional human rights instruments, and national constitutions and legal codes.  There is no question that the United Nation’s involvement with human rights has impacted the world; it is debatable whether this impact has been positive or negative.

As Christopher Roberts’ book explains, the United Nations initiated a contentious and confused period that continues today. 

  • It changed the collective consciousness about human rights in the United States and throughout the world. 
  • It made people feel entitled, shifting the burden for their success and happiness to governments.
  • It diluted the authority of the U.S. Constitution.
  • It encouraged uncontrolled immigration.
  • It greatly increased the size and scope of government and made it more susceptible to greed and corruption.
  • It removed motivation for citizens to grow and become productive members of society.
  • It encouraged a culture of crime and lack of respect for authority, when people have an unrealistic understanding of their rights.

Where Are We Today?

Humans are naturally compassionate and seek the highest possible standard of living for everyone.  The obstacles to achieving this vision are obvious, the primary one being greed and evil in corrupt governments throughout the world.   And while establishing positive objectives is an admirable goal, it does not constitute a new set of RIGHTS.   Goals yes, but definitely not rights!  This concept only results in confusion about rights and responsibilities.  To have a “right” is to have a “justice claim,” which implies “duties” on the part of others. 

The world, and especially America, is now upside down.  America’s collective consciousness and culture has bought into this concept of a modern utopia, one in which Americans expect all the luxuries of life while being protected from any of its difficulties. Because they view it as their right, they feel absolved from the responsibilities of working for it.  They want rights for themselves, but not for others.  They feel justified in committing illegal behavior because of the difficulties they endured.   But it is not feasible for the government to give them everything they want.  This mentality is harmful for individuals and unhealthy for the community.  This confusion about rights and responsibilities is at the core of our political divide and is the cause of our constant fighting.

Thankfully, at least some people and places are trying to restore the proper balance between rights and responsibilities.      

Learning Circle Discussion

Problem Statement

Negative rights are considered unalienable rights endowed by nature.  Positive rights are societal benefits granted by government.  Government needs taxes and support from the people in order to be able to offer these benefits.   Government must violate some people’s negative rights in order to fulfill other people’s positive rights.  To what extent is this beneficial and supported or harmful and forced upon people?

Group Discussion

• How should America deal with the confusion about positive rights?
• What negative rights should Americans give up for other people’s positive rights?
• What positive rights are you willing to give up for a better America?
• Would America be better off or worse off, if we honored the Constitution and focused our priority on negative rights?
• How should America support the people who are truly needy?
• How should America deal with people who are able but unwilling to work? 
• Should America try to meet the objectives of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)?
• Is the UDHR properly named, and how should it be promoted and enforced?
• What are the dangers associated with continuing in our current direction?
• Should America be more like Europe, or should America go it alone?