america is dividedAmerica is divided, with a line that is drawn between two ideological camps. Each of these two camps perceives America radically different from the other. On the one side, there are those who see America built upon certain unchanging principles that are connected to God. That is, these people believe man to be created and endowed with certain inalienable rights. From the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness come other rights that are meant to preserve these rights. For example, the right to bear arms is a tertiary right that is instrumental in preserving one’s right to life and liberty. Moreover, one’s right to the free exercise of religion is instrumental in the preserving one’s pursuit of the good and virtuous life. In other words, it is necessary for one’s pursuit of happiness. It should be noted that these types of rights do not exist because they have been posited. Instead, they have been posited because they exist.

Ultimately, these rights are dependent on the existence of God. If God does not exist, then, of course, there is no God to endow man with inalienable rights. However, if there are in fact natural rights, then there is a God who endowed man with them. For how can an inanimate thing called “Nature” endow anyone with anything? If there is a God, then there is a need to recognize that where there are God-given rights, there are also God-given duties. One of these duties is for governments to preserve these rights, and citizens must volunteer themselves to be part of this effort. This requires the possibility of laying down one’s life for those whose rights he defends.

These natural/God-given rights are unchanging, and they apply to all humans, even if the government under which they live denies this fact. This means that American slaves had the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness even though the United States government denied that they possessed these rights. It was upon this premise that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rested his conclusion that “America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” The argument is that if God created all men as equals, as the Declaration of Independence claims, and the black man is human, then the black man is equal. This fact does not change with opinions or governments. The moral treatment of humans is judged by the unchanging principles of natural law. The Declaration’s acknowledgement of the equality of all men can very well be used to justify the American Civil War and the civil rights demands of the 1960s, which rectified, at least in part, the violations of the natural rights of African-Americans.

It is from this understanding of American rights and principles that conservative moral positions emerge. The pro-life position is simply the same argument that Dr. King used. If God endowed all humans with the right to life and if the unborn are humans, then the unborn have a right to life. The claim that the government should not be used to force others to pretend that homosexuality is natural also comes from the notion that rights are endowed by God. Same-sex marriage is a violation of natural law, of God’s law, and thus governments are not obligated under natural law to enforce the acceptance of it. Moreover, traditional family advocates argue that the government should not indoctrinate their children into the moral acceptance of the homosexual life-style.

On the other hand, there are those Americans who deny at least one of these two propositions: That there is a God who endowed man with such rights; and that this God should have anything to do with governance. Instead of man being endowed with rights, this group of Americans argue that certain rights are created by man through an unspoken social contract. It is from the social contract theory that positive law emerges. Positive law states that rights and duties are created by recognized governments that have the ability to enforce the laws they legislate. Unlike natural rights, which exist independently of governments, positive rights exist solely because governments create and enforce them. Thus according to positive law, murder is wrong because the government makes it illegal. This is in contrast to the natural law theory, which states that murder is made illegal because it is a violation of one’s natural right to life. With positive law, until the government “posits” a right, there is no right.

When the positive account of laws and rights is applied, the results are quite different from those of natural law. For instance, according to positive law theory, African-Americans did not have rights prior to written laws granting them those rights. This is in contrast to the natural law that states that the black race possessed rights that were violated. In the abortion debate, even for those who believe that the unborn are part of the human species—the crowd that argues that “I am personally opposed to abortion, but I cannot impose my views on others”—there is no positive law that is currently enforceable to “create” for them the right to life. The difference is plain to see. According to the natural law, every human has the right to life, whereas, according to the positive law some humans have this right while others may not.

With positive law, rights change with governments. Moreover, positive implies that law rights are relative. What one has a right to do in one geopolitical situation one may not have the right to do in another geopolitical situation. Applying the positive law again to pre-Civil War America, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ended at the Mason-Dixon line for African-Americans. Applying it to the current abortion debate, the right to life has its own Mason-Dixon line: That is, depending on various countries’ current laws, the unborns’ rights may exist or not depending on where they are located. There are those who demand that the laws should be changed to allow women to terminate their pregnancy up to the point of (and in some cases even after) the child’s birth. According to positive law theory, the rights of the unborn wax and wane with ever-changing laws. If positive law is true, then one’s right to life depends on the arbitrary conditions of age and geography.

Many citizens make use of rights talk in order to argue their moral positions. For example, Hillary Clinton argued that abortion is “one of the most basic of human rights.” It is important to note that when arguing for this right Clinton did not make the claim that women have a natural right to abortion. This claim would entail that God has endowed women with the inalienable right to abort their babies. Instead, she sanitizes the claim of any religious reference by substituting the word “basic” for the word “natural.”

While the above substitution is subtle in form, it nonetheless is drastic in substance. First, “basic” rights, which are divorced from natural law, are arbitrary and lack any objective grounding. This means that the only reason one has to observe a basic right is out of fear of government reprisal. Where there is no government enforcement, there is no force behind the stated “right.” There literally is no objective reason, apart from the written law, to say that these rights “ought” to be upheld. In other words, they lack moral force.

Second, non-natural rights (as stated above) change with governments, time periods, and locations. If Mrs. Clinton is arguing that abortion is a natural right when she uses the word “basic,” then she is saying that this is part of God’s created order. However, for political reasons, she wisely sanitizes her rights talk of any theological claim. Yet, in doing so Clinton also cuts off the branch upon any robust theory of rights can stand. That is, if rights are not grounded in the unchanging nature of God, then they are grounded in the fickle minds of man.

If rights are grounded in man alone, then over time and place rights will come and go. This means that just as the government of the American Union “gave” (according to positive law) African-Americans their rights, another more powerful group may come and take these rights away. This could happen to all of the “free world.” Yet, if there is an objective moral reason to fight to defend these rights from tyrannical governments, then these rights are not merely the creation of governments; that is, these rights exist prior to any earthly government.

Furthermore, where there are natural rights, there are also correlating natural duties to defend these rights. This is why, according to the American Founding Fathers, governments are “instituted among men.” All Americans, for instance, have a moral duty to fight against the violation of African-American rights. On the other hand, where there is no natural right, there is no natural obligation. The basic right to an abortion is a foundation-less right. God did not endow women with the right to abortions; therefore, there is no moral duty to defend this basic right.

While America on the surface seems to be divided merely over current moral issues, we are really a nation divided over the first principles of what grounds our government. Are we a nation that fights to preserve the rights with which God has endowed us? Or, are we a nation that votes on what rights to confer upon ourselves? If we affirm the former, then we can expect a stable government that will endeavor to protect the unchanging rights we naturally possess. If we affirm the latter, then we can expect our government to “be changed for light and transient causes” to fit the arbitrary whims that hover above foundation-less rights.

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19 replies to this post
  1. Shannon,

    No. That isn’t quite right.

    Natural rights were conceived as NECESSARY rights governments must respect in order for humans to flourish.

    A benevolent God would not create a world where flourishing was impossible, only a world where we must observe certain rules in order to flourish. But God did not give us the rules to obey, we discovered them by trial and error. If we fail to observe those rules that we have discovered, then we will not flourish.

    A right must be possible, and it must be enforceable or it cannot exist. Natural rights are enforceable by uprising or revolution, and natural rights were enumerated to construct a moral license given to the population by the church to demand from their governments, and prohibitions placed upon the Spanish in particular for their abuses in the new world.

    All rights are reducible to property rights, where property includes mind, body, kin, physical property, common property and norms we have sacrificed to create. All rights then are limited to prohibitions upon others – rights are positive statements of negative prohibitions: things we must NOT do to others, and others must not do unto us. Rights are stated positively so the injured can lay claim against violators. Duties (prohibitions) are stated negatively as prohibitive laws. But whether positively or negatively stated, all rights and duties that are necessary for human flourishing (cooperation produces flourishing through the division of knowledge and labor) can be, and have been expressed as property rights.

    We have constructed positive demands upon one another using commands (legislative law) not natural law (property rights) – no positive duty can exist, only negative restrictions. This is because while we can all refrain from something we cannot all supply something – that is impossible. We cannot grant someone the right to that which individuals do not have to supply him. We can only state a preference that under conditions of possibility that we will exercise that preference.

    So just as legislative commands masquerade as necessary law, positive rights masquerade as necessary rights.

    The charter for human rights consists of all but (I think) three statements of property rights: prohibitions on government violations of individual’s natural rights. The last three ‘positive rights’ were added to mollify the communists at the time so that they would sign the charter. But positive rights are impossible. They are merely ambitions that all governments should strive for.

    The difference between the american right and left is the difference between the absolute nuclear, and nuclear families, and the responsibility for self-sustaining life (prohibition on parasitism) and the traditional and pre-traditional families where parasitism is encouraged both inside the family and across families as a means of insurance.

    The uncomfortable truth is that that difference is between the moral traditions of the productive eugenic nuclear family, and the dysgenic parasitic moral impulses of other forms of family – the majority being now the dramatically parasitic single parent family.

    Curt Doolittle
    The Propertarian Institute
    Lviv Ukraine

    • Your statement:

      All rights are reducible to property rights, where property includes mind, body, kin, physical property, common property and norms we have sacrificed to create.

      in a negative way, reminds me of a statement by Martin Luther King Jr.:

      I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

      By first reducing all rights to property rights while expanding property rights to rights of the human person seems to put things on par with people as if there was never a clash between the two. That isn’t what King observed and thus why he opposed one against the other as one belonged to the concerns of a thing-orient society and the other to a person-oriented society.

      Signed, Just Another Curt (that is for this thread)

  2. This is at the very center of what I was up to in Uncovering the Constitution’s Moral Design (my 2007 book with Missouri Press). I also argued against the notion that our Constitutional order instantiated modernist natural law. Rather, our Constitutional order presupposes (as it’s ontological ground) classical (Aristotelian-Thomistic) natural law. In Uncovering, I argue that the Constitution rejects both classical or Austinian positivism as well as as the much more sophisticated positivisms of Kelsen and Hart. I also argue (in conjunction with Rob Koons–appropriating an argument of his and adding my own) that positivism is incoherent (much as I argue that conventional accounts of the just are self-referentially incoherent). My only quibble with this article has to do with the relation of natural rights and natural duties. I think it’s the other way around (so did Madison and, for that matter, Anscombe)–inalienable natural rights are protective spheres around natural duties; they include a permission to do that which is morally necessary or obligatory as well as impose a prohibition upon others such that they cannot interfere with my right to do that which I morally must do. Madison captures this logic in his “Memorial and Remonstrance.” Speaking of the sacred rights of conscience and, in particular, the right to worship God according to conscience, he says that what is here a inalienable right vis-a-vis other men is such because it is first a duty towards God–an inalienable duty to worship according to the dictates of conscience (and I think he means something a lot like conscientia rather than our contemporary conception of some enshrined, individual preference). The idea of a right of conscience in religious worship is of course older than Madison, older than America, older than modernity, older than the Reformation or Roger Williams. The first articulation of the idea occurs in Christian Patristics–and is stated expressly and clearly in Tertullian (Ad Scapula).

  3. Metaphysics >> Ethics >> Politics.
    The US, indeed the entire modern-age West, is ill equipped to handle a discussion on principles, because the basic beliefs have seldom been articulated. Not are they understood. So we argue and war over what are, in essence, trivialities.

  4. Hi Curt,

    I normally do not reply to posts about my own work. I thought I would give it a shot in this case. It seems to me that you have a problem with my definition of natural rights. If I am correct, you believe that natural rights were “conceived.” If this is the case, you have a constructivist view of rights. This means that rights do not exist independently of societal norms. If this is true, then there are no such things as “NATURAL RIGHTS.” Now I may grant that I may have misunderstood where you think I am wrong. However, you are correct that man will flourish inasmuch as he follows the natural law. I do not see any disagreement there. I also agree with you on how we discover natural laws, by trial and error. I would also use reason as a source of justification. I also see no disagreement in that rights entail duties to not infringe on others’ rights. That is, they include prohibitions. Yet, these details are not necessary for my argument. My argument is simple. It merely states that there is a divide over what people mean by the word “rights.” If you disagree with me, then you would need to show that there is no disagreement over what is meant by the word “rights.” However, by you trying to correct my definition of natural rights, you further my argument that there is disagreement by what is meant by the word “right.” Furthermore, I argue that natural law is unchanging, whereas positive law changes often. Do you disagree with that? My definition of natural law is certainly in line with Aristotle, Aquinas, Robert George, Francis Beckwith, and as many other natural lawyers that I can think of. I have written other articles about the matter that include my citations to these thinkers. I would say that if you disagree, you should take it up with these scholars. But, I do want to thank you for reading and taking time to interact with my work.


    Shannon Holzer Ph.D.

    • For myself personally, I thank you for responding to Curt. Your statements are very clear to me, and I do appreciate your article and this response.

  5. This article is, in general, fundamentally flawed. Firstly, whether Natural Law exists in a State of Nature or not is irrelavent, because their is no common enforcer of said law. In fact, it is extremely anti-conservative to suggest that mortals can live a prosperous, lawful life outside of government. That is rank folly if ever. “Man in general, if reduced to himself, is too wicked to be free.” – Joseph de Mastre, Altar and Throne conservative. The majority of people do not kill, not because of abstract Natural Law, but rather because of fear of government reprisal. I am not suggesting that Natural Law does not exist, it does, but it is unenforceable without government. In fact, this is why so-called international law is such folly: it is largely unenforceable. Natural Law is certainly applicable to nation-states as it is to citizens within a specific nation-state. However, it does not matter, because there is neither a common enforcer, nor judiciary for that matter, like there are in the nation-state. Indeed, the current international arena is the closest thing to a genuine State of Nature that we will ever probably experience.

    Edmund Burke, our conservative father, stated that “Natural Right is human custom conforming to Divine Intent.” So, yes, we all posses Natural Rights, but the particulars are quite different for different people. You sort of said this yourself: “For example, the right to bear arms is a tertiary right that is instrumental in preserving one’s right to life and liberty.” One does not have a Natural Right to posses a firearm, if not for anything else, because the necessary infrastructure to produce firearms can never suffiecently exist in a G-dless State of Nature in the first place. We have a Natural Right to life, and the government uses positive/civil law to protect this Natural Right: The Second Amendent. This is a right in the Anglo-American tradition, but I cannot say that this same right exists for a Russian, German, etc. Their rights arrive from “human custom” first and for most. As such, philosophically, abortion is not an American right, because it was never recognized as such prior to that murderous year of 1973, and it egregiously violates “Divine Intent.” The idea that the 14th Amendment protects a “right” to an abortion runs contrary to the history of that amendment:

    “The fact that a majority of the States reflecting, after all, the majority sentiment in those States, have had restrictions on abortions for at least a century is a strong indication, it seems to me, that the asserted right to an abortion is not “so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental,” Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 105 (1934). Even today, when society’s views on abortion are changing, the very existence of the debate is evidence that the “right” to an abortion is not so universally accepted as the appellant would have us believe.” – Justice William Rehnquist, Roe v. Wade

    “For instance, according to positive law theory, African-Americans did not have rights prior to written laws granting them those rights. This is in contrast to the natural law that states that the black race possessed rights that were violated.”

    I have a particular problem with this erroneous and unhistorical statement. Firstly, there was largely no such thing as an African-American pre-Civil War. Most blacks in pre-Civil War were slaves, and not African-Americans, Americans, citizens, or anything of the such. This is not to say that blacks could “never” become citizens, which is a reason why Dred Scott was so wrong: There was no textual evidence behind Taney’s opinion. Some blacks were indeed citizens even at the Republic’s conception. Justice McLean correctly stated that five out of the original thirteen states allowed blacks to vote. Now, as for your particular claim that blacks possessed rights prior to the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, that is blatanly false with regards to positive/civil rights:

    “Did the Constitution of the United States deprive them or their descendants of citizenship?

    That Constitution was ordained and established by the people of the United States, through the action, in each State, or those persons who were qualified by its laws to act thereon in behalf of themselves and all other citizens of that State. In some of the States, as we have seen, colored persons were among those qualified by law to act on this subject. These colored persons were not only included in the body of “the people of the United States” by whom the Constitution was ordained and established, but, in at least five of the States, they had the power to act, and doubtless did act, by their suffrages, upon the question of its adoption. It would be strange if we were to find in that instrument anything which deprived of their citizenship any part of the people of the United States who were among those by whom it was established.

    I can find nothing in the Constitution which, proprio vigore, deprives of their citizenship any class of persons who were citizens of the United States at the time of its adoption, or who should be native-born citizens of any State after its adoption, nor any power enabling Congress to disfranchise persons born on the soil of any State, and entitled to citizenship of such State by its Constitution and laws. And my opinion is that, under the Constitution of the United States, every free person born on the soil of a State, who is a citizen of that State by force of its Constitution or laws, is also a citizen of the United States.

    I will proceed to state the grounds of that opinion.

    The first section of the second article of the Constitution uses the language, “a natural-born citizen.” It thus assumes that citizenship may be acquired by birth. Undoubtedly, this language of the Constitution was used in reference to that principle of public law, well understood in this country at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, which referred citizenship to the place of birth. At the Declaration of Independence, and ever since, the received general doctrine has been in conformity with the common law that free persons born within either of the colonies were subjects of the King that by the Declaration of Independence, and the consequent acquisition of sovereignty by the several States, all such persons ceased to be subjects, and became citizens of the several States, except so far as some of them were disfranchised by the legislative power of the States, or availed themselves, seasonably, of the right to adhere to the British Crown in the civil contest, [p577] and thus to continue British subjects. McIlvain v. Coxe’s Lessee, 4 Cranch 209; Inglis v. Sailors’ Snug Harbor, 3 Peters, p. 99; Shanks v. Dupont, ibid., p. 242.” – Mr. Justice McLEAN dissenting, Scott v. Sandford.

    Now, if this black slave possessed “rights” as you claim then how is it possible for it to even be reduced to slavery in the first place? Secondly, a citizen and a free person are not synomamous. A German may be a free person, but that does not entitle him to the Rights and Privilages of the United States Constitution. Herein lies the problem with your entire analysis of “rights” and blacks back then.

    You do not fully explain what you mean: “African-Americans did not have rights prior to written laws granting them those rights.” Which rights are you talking about? Are you talking about Natural Rights or Positive Rights? Blacks certainly did possess Natural Rights from birth. However, they did not possess any positive rights whatsoever, at least the slaves. President Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party gave blacks their civil/positive rights via the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. These positive rights, which certainly comes from Natural Rights, were later enforced even more with other positive civil rights laws, especially from President Grant. Black slaves did not possess a right to citizenship, in any sense of the word “right,” prior to the 14th Amendment. That is, black slaves were never citiizens until the 14th Amendment. Otherwise, why create the right, a constitutional right at that, if it already existed? Black slaves did possess Natural Rights, but the American Constitution only applies to U.S. citizens. The American Constitution did not protect a black slave’s positive/civil right to free speech, because they were not even citizens. President Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party changed that. Now, this is not to absolutely say that blacks only possess rights today, in the concrete, because of the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments. But if we look at the history of rights for freed blacks, then we must come to the conclusion that their Constitutional/positive rights started with the 14th Amendment only. However, again what is a right in the first place: “Natural Right is human custom conforming to Divine Intent.” – Edmund Burke. Blacks do possess a Natural Right to Life, Liberty and Property, but the particulars of those Natural Rights will be grounded in the “human custom” of American tradition, which of course must conform “to Divine Intent” in the final analysis.

    This article erroneously divorces Natural from Positive Rights, but the former informs the latter in reality. Both are necessary; both, by themselves are in the extreme, which is not conservative at all:

    “The pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes: and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false. The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned. The rights of men in governments are their advantages; and these are often in balances between differences of good; in compromises sometimes between good and evil, and sometimes between evil and evil. Political reason is a computing principle; adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, morally and not metaphysically, or mathematically, true moral denominations.” – Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France.

    • Two points that I feel compelled to make here:

      First, Mr. Peterson is correct on the basic point that there are profound tensions between the particular Natural Right model asserted by Dr. Holzer here and traditional conservatism as articulated by Burke. What Dr. Holzer is really articulating here is more a theocentrically-oriented version of classical liberalism. From a traditional conservative perspective, the Natural Right model asserted by Dr. Holzer is generally believed to slide inevitably into the sort of liberalism we have today. (The problem is that there is no consensus on precisely what rights come from God and what rights don’t, and, as a practical matter, our understandings of rights do in fact vary over time and place.) At any rate, readers should be aware that what Dr. Holzer identifies here as “conservatism” is not universally recognized as such by conservative political theorists.

      Second, so that there is no confusion, Burke did NOT say “Natural Right is human custom conforming to Divine intent,” as Mr. Peterson’s comment may imply. This is an interpretation of Burke by Russell Kirk, not a Burke quote. While I generally like Kirk’s understanding of Burke, this one is, in my view, a bit of a stretch.

  6. Shannon,

    Thanks for the reply. I have a sort of job to do, and it is both easier and more educational to criticize those with whom we have small differences, than those whose ideas require vast effort to differentiate and render comparable. This means it is often more illustrative to criticize one’s allies on tertiary points than it is to make long wholesale arguments against direct opponents. So my apologies. But the end is that we must provide conservatives with the means to argue their ancient group evolutionary strategy in ratio-empirical terms, rather than the metaphorical and intuitionistic terms that they are stuck with – and which no conservative thinker has been able to use to elevate conservatism out of the subject of oft justifiable ridicule.

    My objection was three fold – although obscured by my often-criticized philosophical density:

    First, your article positions the choice between divinely ordained, and rationally chosen social contract. However, that I know of, there are three justificationary positions: divinely ordained (magical, authoritative and conservative), logically necessary for voluntary, peaceful, cooperation(scientific, voluntary and libertarian), and socially contractual(preferential, communal and equalitarian-socialist). (Jefferson was certainly not a Deist. Anything but.)

    Second, that if we look at the data, the demographic correlations show that the origins of these different justifications reflect family structures, and family structures reflect agrarian social models (even crops), and that these persist even when immigrants migrate from the old world to the new. (See Emmanuel Todd).

    Third, that the consistent thread throughout history, from the Stoics to the present, through various magian, rational and empirical expressions, does not position natural rights as equivalent to Moses’ tablets (albeit the ten commandments are translatable into an early list of property rights), but instead, that the there is an optimum natural order of things – a ‘divine order’ that we must adhere to as a defense against our hubris, and the hubris of those in power in particular if we are to flourish (cooperate peacefully) and govern beneficially. It so happens that we can capture these rules as property rights: life liberty and property. Or conversely: ‘impose no involuntary costs upon others’.

    So whether we justify that optimum order as god’s will, justify it as rationally or empirically utilitarian, or abandon the prohibition on hubris with positive law (legislative commands), is largely a product of our heritage – a reproductive bias that suits our evolutionary strategy, and which quite possibly exists as a bias in our genes. And while there appears to be little chance of persuading others to change the justification they use for their arguing in favor of their preferences, the entire planet has adopted the language of science as the universal language of truthful speech. And if indeed the only difference between the allegorical and ratio-scientific arguments is the means of justification, then it is in our interests to argue using the universal language of truthful speech, and maintain metaphors for the pedagogy of our offspring for whom such language is inaccessible.

    As such the debate is between the deist(ancient), scientific(modern), and 20th century (postmodern) strategy, and the deist and the scientific both retain the prohibition on hubris, while the postmodern (leftist) abandons it.

    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to use your post as an example. I hope you appreciate my good intentions.

    Curt Doolittle
    The Propertarian Institute
    Lviv Ukraine

  7. I’d like to reply to a couple critiques of my work from Michael Peterson lengthy essay. Out of the gate Mr. Peterson states that my “article is, in general, fundamentally flawed.” To show that an argument is somehow fundamentally flawed one must show that the terms are unclear, the argument is invalid, or that the premises are false. I clearly define my terms, I use the valid argument form of modus ponens, and my premises are true. Mr. Peterson then starts to critique on an argument that I did not seem to make. He implies that I am arguing that “mortals can live a prosperous, lawful life outside of government.” I made no such claim in my article. He does accept that natural law does exist, but misses my point that it is the natural law that grounds morally just written laws. He also suggests that natural law is unenforceable apart from governments. The law of gravity is a natural law that needs no government to enforce it. The natural moral law, on the other hand, does need enforcement. The founders, whether they be deists or Christians, grounded the Natural Moral Law in God. If God is the originator of the Natural Moral Law, then He is the ultimate enforcer of that law. If God does not exist, then there is neither grounding for NML nor the ultimate enforcement of it. For the most part, I believe that Mr. Peterson misunderstood my argument. The argument is to show that there are differing definitions of the word “rights.” This seems to be completely missed by Mr. Peterson.

    Mr. Peterson does quibble with my use of the term African Americans, which he believes to be erroneous history, since “there was largely no such thing as an African-American pre-Civil War. Most blacks in pre-Civil War were slaves, and not African-Americans, Americans, citizens, or anything of the such.” I like this quibble. I like it because my editor chose the term African American, I did not write that in the original manuscript. I almost always use the term “black” because I have a white African American friend. He is from Africa, and he became an American. I also have a friend who is a black Frenchman. He hates to be called African American. So I grant Mr. Peterson his quibble. My claim at that point in the argument is not that they were citizens, but that they were humans with rights that were being violated by the government. My claim was that according to Natural law governments protect Natural Rights, they do not grant them. If Mr. Peterson denies this, he is suggesting that the black slaves did not have the right to life until a white government gave it to them.

    Ultimately, most of what Mr. Peterson wrote has very little to do with my argument. This is very discouraging since my argument, if properly understood, stands merely to illuminate how differing views of rights might affect certain debates concerning social justice.

  8. It seems to me that this post rather oversimplifies both the divide in this country as well as its participants. We need to realize that the recognition of inalienable human rights derived from who God created us to be comes rather late in Christian dominated Western Civilization. And the expression discussed here was not written by a Christian, it was written by Thomas Jefferson who was, at best a deist. We should also note that our government, which was supposedly founded by people whose first concern was God, was really more interested in using religion as a cover for land and wealth acquisition along with White Supremacy and did not immediately recognize our rights in version 1.0 of the Constitution. In addition, our Constitution was written in response to a rebellion. But the rebellion that it was concerned with was not the American Revolution, but it was Shays Rebellion. The concern of those who wrote the Constitution was to establish a stronger federal government so as to better suppress dissent and the populism of the time.

    There is also a rather oversimplification of Natural Law and all one has to do to show that is to pose the question: Is Homosexuality against Natural Law? Here, you will get two opposing sides saying yes. And they will both say yes because each sees a different version of this law. So to speak of natural law as being universally apparent to all is naive. In addition, there are those who don’t believe in God who see many of the rights which those in natural law see as being inalienable human rights that owed to us regardless of government’s recognition of those rights.

    Finally, there is the rub. The rub can be seen in the conjunction of recognizing the freedom of religion and having divided the nation into two groups of people where one group is God-believing natural law people vs those who believe in positive law. Here, society is shared by both groups. However, if one group is privileged over the other in determining the laws and mores of society, you start to not only infringe on democracy, you have the religion of one group suppressing the religion of the other. There is also the oversimplification of government here in that it seems to be, by necessity, this alien force over society. Certainly, it is all to often that in reality. But it doesn’t have to be when people effectively demand an ever growing participatory political system. In that case when government represents its people, then the will of the government is more in line with the will of the people. Thus rights are no longer something a third party bestows on or takes away from us. Rather, rights is what we recognize as being entitled to each of us.

    Signed, Just Another Curt

  9. Curt Day’s response “It seems to me that this post rather oversimplifies both the divide in this country as well as its participants.” is an accusation to which he then falls into by attempting to muddle the clear distinction made by author Shannon Holzer. A quick review of basic theonomy would correct “Just Another Curt”‘s assertion that the appreciation of the existence of certain Creator-endowed rights suddenly appeared in Jefferson’s mind …a mind not really grounded in biblical truth…as the term “Diest” is understood in today’s definition.

    The concept of nullification was recorded in scripture when the Hebrew midwives refused to obey Pharaoh’s Law that all male Hebrew babies were to be murdered at birth BEFORE the Ten Commandments. To what “law” were the Hebrew people practicing?

    The moral relativism that has allowed men to believe God’s existence is a matter of personal choice has fostered the acceptance of irrational ideas as though they were rational. This digression of rational thought has diminished the concept of Creator-endowed rights into one of positivist law which degenerates further as democracy allows opinion to trump that which is fixed objective truth.

    We are on the cusp of total cultural melt-down as radical equality – of which de Tocqueville warned in “Democracy in America” wherein those who practice zero self-government are more equal than those that do practice self-government. With the anarchy of democracy warning: “Yeah, either we get treated better than those that practice self-government – i.e. observe the fixed Laws of God — or we’ll burn down your neighborhood.” And those without an appreciation of Creator-endowed rights, feel sorry for, and egg on the anarchists. Positive Rights become a quicksand to the American Founding.

    This is the divide the author is marking.

    • ncoppock,
      I don’t see how you have countered my note. I wrote that Holzer’s article oversimplified both the issues and the participants in the following ways:

      1. basic inalienable rights was a concept developed rather late in Christianity’s Western Civilization and when it is expressed, it comes from one who is not a Christian. Citing what the midwives did when Pharaoh ordered the execution of male, Hebrew babies certainly doesn’t contradict what I wrote. And the reference to theonomy doesn’t challenge what I wrote either. Only references to specific historical characters who well preceded Jefferson would. And again, citing the Biblical truth of the issue is not what is being stated. Rather, the point was that in terms of Christianity, what Jefferson wrote came late in the history of Christianity’s Western Civilization as well as that didn’t even come from a Christian.

      2. what I said about natural law was not addressed in your note. Please note thought that what constitutes natural law is not universally accepted. And to act otherwise is to seek a privileged position in society.

      3. I don’t see how you addressed the rub. The rub being the privilege some Christians assume to have in determining what should be law for all in a society where there is a freedom of religion. Blindness to one’s faults is one of the reasons we are entering a post-Christian era. And please tell me who was being treated better back then? We need to remember that de Tocqueville was a racist. I don’t mean to say that he was a malicious man when regarding people of different races. But he did assume the superiority of his own group and that prevented him from examining the criteria he was using.

      Just another Curt for this thread.

      • Curt,

        There is no intent on my part to be contentious. Your personal animus to Christians is not really relevant to the reality of God’s existence. Which is the point of the author’s essay on the divide between Positivist’s – which I believe you are defending – correct me if I am wrong – and those who hold to Creator-endowed rights. In the Natural Law/Creator-endowed understanding, Christianity is not a requirement, merely the recognition of a Sovereign God capable of creating and installing order to that creation.

        My point in the nullification of Pharaoh’s Law by the Hebrew midwives even before the written 10 Commandments was to point out that Jefferson was only restating the reality of God’s Law – the self-evident truth that all men are equal before the Law and God and that all men were endowed with Life, Liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Certainly Creator-endowed self-interest alerted the Hebrew midwives that obedience to Pharaoh’s Law would be self-destructive.

        Which is the point of Mr. Holzer’s article – the SOURCE of our rights is extremely important. Regardless of whether it is a Pharaoh as god on earth or the fickle voice of public opinion the reality will devolve into LOSS of Creator-endowed rights.

        Again, to knee-jerk dismiss this reality due to your personal animus to the Christian faith is irrelevant. This understanding is rooted in the existence of a Sovereign God capable of creating and then instilling order upon that creation. Appreciation of this reality is separate from the condition of needing atonement, but of course points to the need for that atonement.

        I hope this helps clarify my previous comment and also makes Mr. Holzer’s observation of a great divide in our nation in regards to understanding and then protecting the rights of ALL men. Yours included, as well as my own. In Creator-endowed rights ALL men are covered and protected. However, in the Positivist’s version, Creator endowed rights – having a conscience shaped by God – devolve into being outlawed. I know because I experienced the lunacy of being destroyed in character and in financial stability simply for having a conscience that told me that teaching a young man NOT to listen to his conscience was NOT in HIS best interest….and I dared to raise my hand to question that “education”. Such is happening all across the nation as pop culture determines our “rights”. The depravity of man kicks in and good is now evil and evil is good. The result is a bonfire of humanity. My student is now serving a 75 year prison sentence and I am a thought criminal…rather than the kind of teacher you would WANT teaching in the local public school. Welcome to the American Gulag and the reason the middle class is shrinking as people of conscience are either purged from employment or give up in disgust.

        Without protection of CREATOR-endowed rights…you, me, and your neighbor have got jack… as Vaclav Havel noted: “The Declaration of Independence states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.” It’s a paradox.

        • ncoppock,
          First, being a Christian I have no animus with Christianity. I did state the obvious, that the concept of basic inalienable rights was developed rather late in the history of Christianity’s western civilization, but saying that is not anti-Christian.

          Second, remember that Jefferson didn’t believe in a God who intervened in history, his view of the rights listed was due more to rationalism than revelation. And his list of rights only applied to White males, not all people. His selectivity regarding who had those rights was not due to any kind of revelation–special or natural.

          Third, natural law is being used to argue for privilege, not rights. That is because natural law is given by the Christian God, it is only Christians who can correctly interpret natural law. And thus Christians should be vying for a privileged position of rulership in society. And my animus is against Christians seeking such privilege. For Christians to seek such a privileged position for themselves is inconsistent with following Jesus in His first coming and in what He commanded us to do. We are told not to be like the Gentiles and ‘overlord’ it over others

          Not overlording it over others doesn’t mean that we acquiesce to immorality regardless of what it is. What it does mean is that there are certain immoral practices we allow for in society while others we don’t. Check Jesus’ and Paul’s views of society when it comes to disciplining those in the Church.

          Thus, the division of natural law vs positive law in the article above is oversimplified and manipulative and is being used to justify Christians seeking a privileged position in society.

          • Curt,

            Thanks for the reply and clarifications.

            I wonder though, exactly how Creator-endowed rights oppress anyone.

            Also, I am curious if your position is that man can “bestow” two specific rights, to which God fixed as anathema: child sacrifice (abortion) and homosexual behavior.

            My understanding of Christ’s message was that He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; but to fulfill. [Matthew 15:17]

            The Positivist’s position is that man can bestow ‘rights’ by fiat or public consensus. The philosophical end of that thinking is the oppression of EVERYONE’s Creator-endowed rights…..even unbelievers. ALL men – even if they suffer in a North Korean prison camp – are endowed by God with CERTAIN (ie fixed, non-negotiable, inalienable) rights.

            In fact, if we correctly appreciated the significance of CREATOR-endowed rights, Islam would be immediately understood to be a destructive cult, not a religion.

            And Creator-endowed rights have nothing to do with local laws to monitor man’s vices, nature, or sin. Appreciation of the significance of Creator-endowed rights is how we can know – without being a constitutional scholar or lawyer – that a law is UNLAWFUL and therefore the ability to impeach the official and nullify the ruling, law, or regulation.

            So much cultural chaos could be eliminated…dare I say…in ‘the twinkling of an eye’ [i Corinthians 15:52] were we to appreciate the peace and stability for ALL men – the stranger and alien included – in the rock solid foundation of the protection of our CREATOR-endowed rights. The chaos IS rooted in the oppression of everyone’s Creator-endowed rights…which is what God promised would happen were man to think he can live in opposition to His fixed laws and precepts without consequence. That chaos is a giant bonfire of humanity.[Malachi 1:7-9]

            The divide is very sharp indeed…that you are unable to see it may be your own spiritual blindness.

            I hope this helps you see the distinction between the Positivist and Creator-endowed rights and the peace and stability Creator-endowed rights afford to ALL men.

  10. ncoppock,
    It’s not the rights themselves that is the issue here, it is who is qualified to determine those rights. At this point, to restrict rights to those bestowed by the creator is to say that only the followers of a certain religion can determine those rights and this gives them a privileged position in society. My point is that Christians need to share society with nonChristians as equals.

  11. Curt,

    I believe I made clear that under CREATOR-endowed rights, ALL men are protected. That’s due to the sovereign nature of God. To continue to make your claim “that only the followers of a certain religion can determine those rights and this gives them a privileged position in society.” IS the Positivist understanding of rights. Your thinking is not grounded in the continuity of the Old Testament….the law and the prophets.

    Your focus on Christianity is moot and irrelevant in appreciation of God Sovereign. Your unique and therefore flawed interpretation of the Christian faith IS rooted in the Positivist’s understanding of rights. Your error is that you think yourself capable of “giving” to others a right not granted by the Creator Sovereign God. Are you proposing yourself to be superior to God? Or, are you proposing yourself capable of atoning for the sins of all mankind? This is the very question posed to Christ because men refused to see Him as GOD, in spite of the lame walking, the blind seeing, and the dead being raised from the grave. Jesus never condoned sin. “Go and sin no more.” [John 8:11] He WILL return and JUDGE…and that judgment will be in accordance with God’s Law through which our specific, listed, and documented Creator-endowed rights are ensured.

    Your thinking is the error of the Positivist’s understanding of rights. They believe mere man can bestow rights. The ‘right’ to an education, the ‘right’ to not be hungry, the ‘right’ to not be offended, all of these are man bestowed right to live in opposition to the fixed rules of God and experience zero consequences. Such thinking is not grounded in rational thought because it is the abrogation of the fixed rules of a Sovereign God. Which is why implementation of Positivist’s rights result in oppression of EVERYONE”S Creator-endowed rights. This is why Lot was a man whose conscience tormented him everyday as he tried to do live and pursue happiness in Sodom. Sodom operated under the Positivist’s understanding of rights. Man errs and oppresses others …EVERYONE… when he believes he can determine rights .. God heard the cries of the people of Sodom as their Creator-endowed rights were being violated and oppressed and sent angels to see if those cries were justified.

    Because God is Sovereign, man simply acknowledges that ALL men are endowed with certain, specific, non-negotiable, inalienable rights. In living our lives, engaging with others it is adherence to Christ’s command that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength so that we may also love (protect the Creator-endowed rights) of our neighbor.

    Does that mean anyone can lord it over the other? Of course not. To do so is to sin against God.

    Back in the 90’s I noticed the Christian fish symbol with added feet appearing on the trunks of cars- ie. Christians who believed in evolution, In fact they were Christians who forgot to believe in God. [Good apologetics nukes evolution.] Such thinking is nothing less than gnostic error. I fear you are falling into that category. I encourage you reflect upon the Sovereign nature of God. I highly recommend Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God: Their Meaning in the Christian Life.

    I hope this helps.

    • ncoppock,
      It isn’t the recipients of the creator-enowed rights that is the issue here, it is the interpreters of those rights. If we based these rights on ‘creator-endowed’ rights, then those who either do not believe in the creator, believe in a different creator, or believe in a different set of rights than those who officially determine those rights do not have an equal share in society. Meanwhile, those who are regarded as the official interpreter of those rights have a privileged position in society because they alone determine what rights exist.

      Your last response more than supports the above paragraph. And btw, we are not arguing the essentials of Christianity so that you can judge my view of Christianity as a whole. Rather, we are debating Christianity’s role in society.

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