rights

“From this concept of the dignity of man—dignity which exists only through our relationship with God—there has grown up recognition of what are called “natural rights.” These are the rights which all men and women are entitled to: rights which belong to them simply because they participate in human dignity. There are other rights in our world: rights conferred by society at large, or by certain political economic and social groups. These latter are man-made rights. But natural rights are rights which originate in the nature of every man—the character and personality given to men by God, the privileges that come from the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Everyone is entitled to possess these rights, no matter how strong or how weak he is, no matter how rich or how poor, not matter how civilized or how savage, no matter how famous or how humble. Precisely what these rights are has never been entirely agreed upon, even among professed Christians. The medieval philosophers of the church debated for centuries on the character and extent of these rights: St. Thomas Aquinas’s description of the rights of nature is one of the more important. Richard Hooker, an English theologian, discussed natural rights and natural laws in the sixteenth century, and his writings greatly influenced subsequent English and American opinion. John Locke, in the seventeenth century, said that there are three primary natural rights, ‘life, liberty, and property.’ In America, Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, made these rights ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ Edmund Burke, perhaps the greatest modern political thinker, when he criticized the confused notions of natural right then popular among the French revolutionaries, went on to say that there are certain true and abiding natural rights, though they cannot always be set down independently and without qualification. Among them, he wrote, men have a right to live by law, for law is made to benefit them. ‘Men have a right to live by that rule; they have a right to do justice, as between their fellows, whether their fellows are in public function or in ordinary occupation. They have right to the fruits of their industry, and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisitions of their parents; to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring; to instruction in life, and to consolation in death.’ But, Burke added, ‘Men have no right to what is not reasonable, and to what is not for their benefit.’”

–Russell Kirk, The American Cause (Chicago, Ill.: Henry Regnery Co., 1957), 30-31; revised edition expertly edited by Gleaves Whitney, ISI Books.

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