Matt D’Antuono is a physics teacher in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and seven children. He holds bachelor’s degrees in physics and philosophy, a master’s degree in special education, and is working on a master’s degree in philosophy at Holy Apostles in Cromwell, Connecticut. He returned to the Catholic Church in 2008. He is the author of A Fool’s Errand: A Brief, Informal Introduction to Philosophy for Young Catholics and The Wiseguy and the Fool. On YouTube you can find him at DonecRequiescat and his family at MisterD418.
“I have the right to believe whatever I want.” “I have the right to live.” “I have the right to make choices about my body.” “I have the right to an education.” “I have the right to be free.” “I have the right to walk where I want.” “I have the right to speak my mind.”
Do we have those rights? If so, why? What is the basis of our rights?
Most often, I hear people appeal to the government or constitution. “We have rights because they are granted to us by the ruling authorities,” they say.
It is true that the government is the source of our civil rights, but if the government were the only source of rights, then there could be no such thing as a government that does not recognize rights. A young woman in a country that does not grant the right of education to women cannot claim that her country is denying her right to an education; if the government does not grant that right, she does not have it. It would make no sense to argue for change on the basis of rights that are being denied; she can only claim that she wants to have a right that she does not have. If constitutions are the only basis of human rights, then there is no such thing as a corrupt constitution, no government that denies people their human rights.
So, when someone claims to have a right, the question is “Why?” If our rights are, in fact, inalienable, as the Declaration of Independence claims, then there is only one basis to which we can appeal: the nature of the human person. In particular, the social nature of the human creates the standard of right relationship we ought to have to one another, and thus our rights, what we can demand from others based on the duties we owe to one another because of the very essence of what and who we are.
For example, “Man by nature desires to know,” claimed Aristotle, and the full weight of experience is on his side. Our intellectual nature reveals to us our duty to refine our mind to be as excellent as it can be and to direct our intellect to the truth. As social beings, we do this together. We have a duty to learn and teach each other, and thus we have the right to an education. As a corollary, it is not true that I have the right to believe whatever I want; that would contradict the nature of my mind, the good of which is Truth.
Our intrinsic rights as well as the standard of right behavior and morality are not based on some arbitrarily dictated set of rules but instead flow directly from our very nature as human persons. This nature is not something that we create but is created, not something we make but are given. If we are endowed with inalienable rights by our Creator, those rights are not an add-on; they are a necessary consequence of the nature endowed to us. We are endowed with rights because we are endowed with a nature, and the two are inseparable.
Therefore, in order to have a proper understanding of our rights, we must have a proper understanding of our nature. In order to understand marriage rights, we must understand the natures of marriage and family and the role this institution plays in society. In order to understand reproductive rights, we must understand the nature of reproduction and the purpose of the body’s relevant organs. In order to understand our right to liberty, we must understand what it means to be a free being and the purpose of that freedom. In order to understand our right to pursue happiness, we must understand the nature of true human happiness and man’s summum bonum. In order to understand our rights of self-expression, we must understand the nature and purpose of communication among free individuals who are made to live in community.
If anyone, then, seeks to escape the demands of human nature by denying that natures exist (as more than one philosopher has done), then he must also deny any claim to intrinsic rights. Either we have natures from which we have rights, or we have no natures and no claim to intrinsic rights. Rights are either built into the very structure of reality through the essence of man, or rights are only a fiction of human organizations.
When we turn our attention to our nature, God’s nature, and our relationship with Him, there is nothing that intrinsically binds God to us. All the right is on his side, and all of the duty on ours. We owe God everything because every fiber of our being comes from Him and is made for Him. If God bestows any favors on us, they are completely gratuitous. Whatever God gives to us He gives of his totally free, totally ineffable will. That God is not worshipped with our whole selves is a more egregious violation of rights than any injustice among humans.