When we say there is a foundation of liberty, we mean that there is an unquestioned source for our rights. Our rights are ours by birth, simply because we are human beings. This is in agreement with the early Christian church, which clearly taught that we are all God’s children and therefore equal in dignity and certain rights.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.-Galatians 3:28
This was also Jefferson’s position, though he was hardly an orthodox Christian. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Jefferson wrote, meaning he did not have to prove them through any philosophical gymnastics. They were true and that’s that. He further said that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” The rights come from their Creator, he said, though Jefferson’s idea of God was more of an impersonal force of nature. Among these rights, Jefferson said, are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The right to life is rather basic, since corpses have no need of rights. Jefferson is talking about living human beings, who have the right to stay alive. What do people need to stay alive? At the minimum, they need clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and decent food to eat. They further need protection from temperature extremes (clothing and shelter) and safety from violence and to whatever extent possible, disease. Because we are living human beings, we have the right to stay alive first of all.
Jefferson said we have the right to liberty. Liberty is a popular and over-used word. It simply means freedom, of course. Freedom from oppression and domination and freedom to move about and carry on life activities according to our free will. We want to make choices and we want those choices to not be thwarted. We realize that there are limits on this. If I will to dominate or enslave you that is illegitimate because you have the same rights I have. Freedom and rights have no meaning outside human interaction. A hermit in a cave in Papua New Guinea is totally free because none of his choices can interfere with anyone else’s rights. There is no one else. Except for this extreme example, our freedom will always be tempered by other people’s freedom and the principle is that all humans have the right to liberty until it infringes on someone else’s liberty.
We have the right to pursue happiness, Jefferson said. The founders, with their classical educations, never disconnected happiness from virtue. How could a person be happy without virtue? These included things like honesty, courage, perseverance, moderation, wisdom and justice. Without these, a human being is defective, not whole, and incapable of true happiness. “Virtue” sounds almost quaint to modern ears, but we might want to give that concept another look.
“Without virtue there can be no liberty.”-Benjamin Rush
“The diminution of public virtue is usually attended with that of public happiness, and the public liberty will not long survive the total extinction of morals.”-Samuel Adams
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”-Benjamin Franklin
Other declarations of liberty and human rights have been made, such as the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (“Men are born and remain free and equal in rights”) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…)
We can argue about the source of human rights until the long-lost cows come home, but I suggest that the source of these rights is not the important thing. Whether from the Creator, or from Reason or because we all insist that it is true-the fact is we do all insist that it is true that we are born equal in rights. Just because we quickly depart from that in real life and act as if some are more equal than others does not make it untrue.
We humans from deep in our soul want to: 1) stay alive 2) be free to follow our choices Most of us have a well-developed concept of fairness and so we admit that other people want the same things we want. We live in a complex, interdependent society and have many details to work out as we go along!
But to deny others what we claim for ourselves is the definition of hypocrisy.
- Human beings have the right to stay alive.
- Human beings have the right to follow their choices.
- Human beings can exercise their rights unless they interfere with someone elses’ rights.
- Any conflicts arising can and must be settled without resort to violence.
Take a course at Yale online for free-Moral Foundations of Politics