Wednesday, May 18, 2011


by Edd Doerr

Where do our rights come from? One very common answer would be to point to the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, which reads, in part: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights..."

Let's look at this in context. When the Declaration was written in 1776 we were well into a war with the greatest empire on the planet. Perhaps a third of our population supported independence. Nearly as many were Loyalists and at least a third were indifferent. The deck was stacked against us. We did not know that the British would make as many mistakes as they did or that French aid would be crucial. As the country from which we were seeking independence supported the widespread "divine right of kings" notion, it made good public relations or propaganda sense to speak of the divine origin of our rights.

But if rights came from a deity, why was this asserted only in 1776 and why did it apply only to white males? Why did African Americans have to wait until 1865 for slavery to be be abolished and another century to pass before the civil rights movement succeded in advancing rights? And why did it take until the early 20th century for women to get the right to vote? And why are women still only 17% of our national legislature? And why are most of the world's people still without much in the way of rights?

Should we blame God? Hardly. What we need to do is recognize that rights exist because We the People conceive them, spell them out, define them, fight to acheive them, and create the machinery to defend them. And we have keep on refining them ( as the Supreme Court did in 1973 in Roe v Wade with regard to women's rights of conscience) and defending them -- forever.

We cannot rest. We cannot throw in the towel.


Gary Berg-Cross said...

Some people worried that Darwin's theory of evolution did away with human rights and replaced it with some notion of fitness.

John Dewey took that issue on several times arguing that ethics is not really a Platonic search for some transcendental or divine ideals of‗Good‘ or‗Just,‘ but a messay pragmatic evaluation of norms, values, and behaviors in terms of their functionality in terms of social progress. He wrote that:
"norms and ideals… arose out of certain situations, in response to the demands of those situations; and that once in existence they operated with a less or greater meed of success (to be determined by study of the concrete case)." (Dewey Dewey, John. "The Evolutionary Method as Applied to Morality 1902, 23)

rwahrens said...

The most important aspect of the Constitution is contained in the preamble, where it says, "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

The bold words indicate the most radical idea of the age - that the rights of people come not from a god, but from themselves!! It is that idea that rocked the world back on its heels. It is a defining moment and value of the humanist and Enlightenment movements, and explains why the theists would love to see it fail.

Don Wharton said...

I think Edd nailed it with this sentence, "What we need to do is recognize that rights exist because We the People conceive them, spell them out, define them, fight to acheive them, and create the machinery to defend them."

I also think that the Darwinian process can be used to find good (or better) emulations of the ethical good. The question is what is the set of norms and ethical values which would make our society more fit in the world ecosystem. The primary quality that works is to create win/win outcomes that motivates the widest inclusion of energy, talent and wisdom in achieving the shared good for humanity. This can be a bit hard to measure.