Rights and why they matter

I have found descriptions of this blog and myself on the Internet where I am labelled a defender of gay rights. That is only superficially true. I am no less a defender of gay rights than I am a defender of straight rights. It is the same fight.

That said, here is a piece I’ve written specifically for those likely to vote Yes on 1 on the upcoming ballot in Maine.

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I want you to really consider the concept of rights. They are far more important than any personal beliefs one may hold insofar as government is concerned. You violate one individual’s rights and you’ve violated the rights of all people.

James Madison espoused a separation of church and state in much the same manner as Thomas Jefferson. He is recorded as expressing these views in these Congressional minutes,

Mr. Madison said, he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience.

And we can go one step further into Madison’s mind with more recordings from the same session,

Mr. Madison thought, if the word national was inserted before religion, it would satisfy the minds of honorable gentlemen. He believed that the people feared one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combine together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform. He thought if the word national was introduced, it would point the amendment directly to the object it was intended to prevent.

It’s hard to see how a reasonable person could misinterpret this. Madison obviously rejected the notion that religious beliefs should be codified into law, thus establishing them as the moral directives of other individuals. That is, religious beliefs should not be made law because that essentially makes government an enforcer of religion – and that is far from its role. Good government doesn’t dictate morality.

Moving beyond Madison, a discussion of the concept of rights needs to happen. What is a right? A succinct definition is hard to formulate, but I think a good idea can be created. Something which does not infringe upon another’s rights should be a right. This alone isn’t much of a definition because it assumes the existence of rights, the very thing we want to define. But within a certain context it does give a good approximation of what a right should be; we already have established rights (free speech, religious beliefs, protest, etc), so assuming we agree on many of those, we can ask ourselves, does X infringe upon these? If the answer is “no”, then there’s a good chance that X is a right.

But more is needed. I think it is eminently appropriate to include safety and security as one defining piece of rights. Does X cause bodily harm to me or others? Does it cause me undue financial hardships? Does it put me at risk of life or health? If the answer is “no”, we again have another good indicator that X is a right.

I hope it hasn’t escaped anyone that the previous two paragraphs are speaking of natural rights. These are rights which extend to all peoples, not merely Americans or Europeans or Russians or any one particular group. They are effectually based upon the idea that rights are to be based upon humanity and the human condition (which may extend to other animals, but I digress).

So why are rights so important? I think it should be obvious. If a society (or the world as a whole) goes about imposing restrictions upon minorities or the meek, then the statement that some people are not equal to others is being made. This seems like nothing less than a superiority complex manifested.

Yet restrictions go beyond this statement of superiority. They implicitly say any group can be superior to another. The reasoning behind the superiority isn’t important (whether from religious doctrine or philosophical notions). What matters is that (usually unknowingly) there are people who do not accept the idea that rights are universal. They can’t. They believe that the very concept of rights can be ignored if it runs counter to some other line of thought. Does Religion X say public prayer is immoral? If so and if Religion X’s followers are a majority, they can stampede the rights of those who wish to publicly pray. This can only be because the teachings of Religion X are being claimed to be superior to the rights of others. And this can only be true if rights are not universal and if we agree that morality trumps individual rights. I, for one, disagree.

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