Franke: ‘Natural Rights’ Founded on a ‘Natural Law’

February 8, 2023

By Mark Franke

“[All men] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” The Declaration of Independence

The above snippet is from the most well-known and beloved paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. School children are taught it . . . well, used to be taught it at least. Even if most adults cannot quote any other phrases from the Declaration, this one should ring the metaphysical memory bell.

I find it ironic if not amusing that Thomas Jefferson, a deist or agnostic or probably even an atheist, would appeal to the Creator to support his case against tyranny. Recall that Jefferson decided the Gospels needed editing so he ruled out the sentences he found objectionable in his own Bible. Forget divine inspiration; God was at a disadvantage when competing with Jefferson’s ego.

But I am too hard on old Tom as my Jeffersonian wife keeps telling me. I do stand in awe of his intellect, even if I find it misapplied in his frequent flights of fantasy about a utopian agrarian republic. There is no doubt he was an excellent writer as the Declaration attests. He did have an inspiring way with words.

It is another implication in Jefferson’s language that I find fundamental to a true understanding of these unalienable, God-granted rights.

How, or why, do we have these rights?

Even Jefferson did not claim that we deserve them autonomously. They are “endowed.” They come to us from outside as a gift by a power above and beyond us.

If these rights are endowed then there must be some transcendental source for them. If they are bestowed as natural to the entire human race, it is absolutely essential that they have a basis in something objective, universal and intelligible. These are the adjectives invoked by philosophers to describe natural law.

Natural law is that which defines us as more than autonomous individuals living in what Enlightenment thinkers called a state of nature. Recall Thomas Hobbes’ pithy comment about how life in a state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Unfortunately Hobbes proceeded to enthrone absolutist government as the ultimate arbiter and protector of natural rights. I never quite understood while reading Hobbes how he, an atheist, could point to absolutism when it was based on the theory of the divine right of kings. Do you find it as ironic as I that two anti-religionists such as Jefferson and Hobbes can’t but help appealing to God, no doubt reluctantly but there it is.

The logic of rooting natural rights in natural law seems simple and clear to me. The next step in this progression seems even more so, self-evident to steal from Jefferson. How can natural law exist unless there is a lawgiver? And who meets the threefold requirements of objective, universal and intelligible? Only God.

Jefferson’s appeal to natural rights was not overtly based on the popular notion back then that these were the rights of Englishmen. Most probably believed that as evidenced by the writings of the time. They certainly found it useful in justifying their protests and ultimate rebellion. Although true in a political sense, the rights of Englishmen still needed a point of origin.

The English Bill of Rights of 1689 was the foundation for the Glorious Revolution, settling the crown on William and Mary but only with their assent to protecting the enumerated rights of their subjects. It is instructive that God is mentioned five times in this legislation even without the poignancy of Jefferson’s memorable phrasing. Still He is there, assumed to be the highest power of all.

So the question remains: Can there be natural rights without natural law emanating from a supreme lawgiver?

The pop philosophy of our postmodern age is based on the denial of any transcendent reality. If that proposition is to be taken as true, then what is the source of reality other than one’s own illusions or delusions? Maybe Hobbes was right, as frightening as that sounds. If Dr. Who could bring him forward as a time traveler, Hobbes could claim he told us so with some justification. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

A friend who never ceases to amaze me in his eloquence sums it up this way: “Tell me a time when the entire reality which lies outside the psychic self is denied, when the substance and the foundation of identity is on the vagaries of psychic instabilities.”

I call this a figment of one’s imagination but then I can’t articulate ideas like my friend can. Or like King Solomon could. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2 ESV)

Let me suggest a word to describe this postmodern mindset: conceit. The Oxford English Dictionary defines conceit as “excessive pride in oneself.”

Yes, the appropriate word is conceit.

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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