An inversion of natural rights

An inversion of natural rights

I was recently teaching a group of students some of the concepts included in the Declaration of Independence. As we talked about natural rights, I read to them Thomas Jefferson’s soaring language affirming that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.” While we talked about each individual’s God-given right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” it occurred to me that not only is our society no longer protecting these rights, we are actively promoting the opposite of each.

Take, for instance, our right to life. Today, we see this claim attacked both at the beginning and end of life. A basic right to life is threatened at its origin by the ongoing federal protection for abortion, and at its conclusion by the increasing pressure on lawmakers to legalize euthanasia or doctor-assisted suicide.

As to liberty, our society today actively promotes and protects its exact opposite – license. While liberty has an ultimate end or “telos” in mind, license is aimed instead at the immediate enjoyment of temporary pleasures. While the pursuit of true liberty (or the freedom to do “as one ought”) requires virtue, the practice of license corrupts the individual making him more animal than human.

Finally, the “pursuit of happiness” envisioned by our founders was based upon the idea that we all have a natural right to freely choose what is morally good. In this belief, the founders echoed the Greek philosopher Aristotle who argued individuals fulfill their proper function when they pursue moral goodness. Today, our society often inhibits the pursuit of moral goodness by establishing protections for invented rights that often lead to moral depravity.

The responsibility for this inversion of the traditional understanding of our natural rights can be rightly laid at the feet of every American. As the 18th century thinker Joseph de Maistre said, societies “get the government they deserve.” Today, ours is a society largely enamored with the material world and with the imagined rights and fleeting enjoyments it offers. We will only succeed in reestablishing the firm foundation of our society by giving priority to those natural rights granted to all of us by God.

Kevin Ritter, Washington County Commissioner


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