The 4th of July: The Enlightenment gives birth to a new nation

· Logos/Ethos

July 3, 2019

The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence begins with the most consequential single sentence in American history and perhaps in all the world’s democracies.

 (begin ITAL) 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; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (end ITAL)

Thomas Jefferson’s grand statement captures the essence of the revolution of ideas which swept through the West in the 18th Century, the Enlightenment, which gave birth to freedom of thought, human rights, equality before the law, the abolition of slavery, freedom of religion, and modern democracy itself. It is fitting that the world’s oldest continuing democracy sets aside one day each year to honor these ideas as the soul of our national creed.

If space permitted, we could explore the meanings and implications of each of the sentence’s major concepts: truth, equality, rights, life, liberty, and happiness. We might even want to explore the legitimacy of Jefferson’s assumption that his claims are “self-evident” truths, immediately knowable to all rational people everywhere. That may be an overstatement borne out of enthusiasm. Nevertheless, let’s give our attention today to one idea, rights.

What are we declaring when we say we have human or natural rights? What’s the evidence for the claim? Rights are not material; we can neither see them nor touch them. We can observe all the other natural qualities of a human being, but we cannot see his or her rights. How do we know they are there? Isn’t this a problem if we expect other cultures around the world to buy into our core democratic beliefs.

The answer is yes; it is a bit of a problem.

Rights don’t exist in a material sense. They are an invention of rational minds. They are a product of human imagination, much as laws are. We create them to facilitate what we call “the social contract”, that complex system of agreements that allows human beings to flourish and live good lives. By claiming we have natural rights and by creating a system of laws, man is better able to pursue happiness. Rights are not materially real; they are a belief, and like all beliefs, they are products of the mind and we act on them as if they are true. And even if we are wrong, that humans do not have natural rights, good for us for holding the belief. What would this planet look like if we did not believe human rights exist?

At the risk of causing a furor, I’d like to make another claim in order to understand further what rights actually are. I only ask that the reader remain calm and hear me out before screaming and running out the door: animal rights do not exist. Advocates for animal rights are doing exactly what moral people ought to be doing regarding the welfare of animals, but they are using the wrong term.

Since rights are actually the product of thought and imagination and take the form of a claim, they require two elements that animals do not possess, intellect and language. (The scientific research being done with certain primates deserves our closest attention and may cause us to reconsider this for a very limited segment of the animal kingdom.) Without the ability to formulate complex thoughts and express them in language, animals cannot claim rights.

This, of course, does not mean that human beings are free to mistreat or slaughter animals without justification. We ought to treat animals well, not because they possess rights, but because it is beneath human dignity to do so. Because, by nature, humans possess intellects and a moral capacity, it is our obligation to treat animals well. So, animal rights activists, keep on doing your good and necessary work; but I suggest you change your group name to something that puts the onus where it rightfully belongs, on human moral responsibility.

Because Jefferson (and other Enlightenment thinkers) declared that human rights are unalienable and we who call ourselves American citizens have assented to this claim, we are acknowledging that those rights cannot be taken away or forfeited; that is, they cannot be alienated from our person. Even though our rights exist only as a belief and are not a material reality, we hold that they are inherent in our nature as humans and therefore cannot be removed. All human beings have the right to life (including those of us whose anti-social behavior is abhorrent), the freedom to think, speak, and act in any manner that does not threaten or harm the well-being of others, and the right to pursue happiness.

This final term, happiness, is complex enough to deserve its own column, but suffice to say it doesn’t mean what many people think it does, that is, its modern use as joy and contentment. We do not possess the right to joy and contentment. How could that possibly be provided for, even in the most ideal of societies? Jefferson’s “happiness” reflects the classical ideal of happiness (“eudaimonia” – the good ­­human life), one in which we freely pursue those activities that are most particularly human, primarily intellectual and moral activities. But that’s a discussion for another day.

We are most fortunate, as a nation, to have come into being at precisely the most auspicious time in human history, the Enlightenment. As a consequence, all of our beliefs and institutions are predicated on the notion that we are free, not by decree from a government, but by our very nature, and we possess all the rights necessary to flourish and create a good life for ourselves and our nation. 

Happy 4th of July.