“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
–Declaration of Independence
There are two possible moral realities in which we live, however only one is sufficient as a necessary antecedent for the liberty ethic. These two moral possibilities are that morality is objective and thus moral questions have definitive answers, even if those answers are not immediately apparent to those who ask them, or that morality is subjective and thus moral questions simply have no definitive answers, so we are left to hash out moral answers as a blind man groping around in an endless darkness, sometimes finding a steady rail, other times a biting rat, without any hope of resolution or enlightenment.
There isn’t a question that our Republic was founded by men and women who believed firmly not only in the liberty ethic itself but also in its necessary philosophical antecedent: a transcendent moral absolute. This isn’t a minor question or simple historical curiosity. The Framers believed the principles of life, liberty, and property were true because they must be true, not because it would be nice if they were true, thus being self-evident of both the “laws of nature” and of “nature’s God“. Without the former, their conclusions would be irrational and, without the latter, meaningless.
The Founders were learned and philosophical men well acquainted not only with the religious tradition of Europe, but also of the less theologically inclined deism which had become more prevalent in the time, as well as atheism, which would eventually also take hold in revolutionary France. The Framers understood that if humanity is but the product of material, chance, and time, then, absent such a necessary antecedent moral absolute, any argument that we enjoy the protection of any moral law that is not also enjoyed by a rat dying in a laboratory or by a rock slowly being pulverized into sand by heat and erosion is merely emotional sophistry.
“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever…”
Unalienable moral rights simply do not exist without a self-evident moral superlative. This is why arguing that something is wrong “because it is wrong” is a circular argument, and, while some will be unconvinced by “something is wrong because God said so“, even critics of this theological assertion cannot convincing argue that, should an absolute God actually exist, such a deity would lack sufficient moral authority to dictate what is “good” and what is “evil“. Even prominent atheist thinkers understand that, absent a supernatural moral absolute, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to objectively know the difference between what is good and what is evil.
This fundamental understanding of the direct causal relationship between a Creator God and the principles of self-evident and unalienable human rights was central to the Founding Father’s vision of the country that would become America. The Founders acutely understood that they couldn’t rationally appeal to any universal rights without a universal truth above the king or his government to base such appeals upon, and the argument is not any easier to argue today than it was those more than two and a half centuries ago. If society or the government is the highest authority in the land, any appeal of individual rights is naturally subordinate.
This principle that rights are derived from a superlative moral authority is necessary to the entire idea of rights preexisting a constitution or a nation state to begin with. The existence of these rights are a priori within American Liberalism, such that rights are assumed simply to exist, contingent only upon an individual being a human being, regardless of whether or not they are granted the rights by their government or even their being aware of their rights. It is, after all, presumed that governments up until the Revolutionary period had operated by keeping their populaces ignorant as to their rights so as to pacify them, because people do not fight for things that they do not even think exist.
“But the thing was displeasing in the sight of Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.'”
–1 Samuel 8:6-7
It was no accident that the spark of awareness of natural rights came only after the Bible was first published in English translations widely available to the public, and the father of Liberalism noticed a particularly powerful fact of the Christian religion: Kings were not in Genesis, and, far from being part of His divine plan, represented a rejection of God’s plan. The English Bible, in fact, represents the first major refutation against the entire concept of the “divine right of kings“. In the primordial state of man, man is free of governmental chains, bearing no moral responsibility to anyone but himself and to his Creator.
From no test tube, no scale, no thermometer, no matter how well calibrated they may be, can one measure, test, or manufacture the rights of life, liberty, and property. Either they exist as part of the philosophical universe outside the purview of scientific examination, like philosophical ideas, or they do not. If they do not, then it is futile to try to defend them, and we should abandon ourselves to the chains of tyranny hierarchies that are so common in the natural world if not to perpetual chaos, anarchy, or war. If, however, order and liberties can be said to exist, then we must, therefor, assume that they exist inviolate and necessary.
We must assume this, not simply because it must be so, but because, if we believe in rights at all, they cannot exist in any other way.
Liberty is For The Win!