In these dark times, the truth about political rights and freedoms is so obscure, and falsehood is so well-established, that -- as Pascal said -- unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.
The true beginning and foundation of all rights and freedoms in earthly political life is the primal reality that every man is made in God's image and likeness. In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) gives us the best explanation available of this primal reality.
An image both resembles and expresses. Things in general resemble God in existing, some things also in being alive, and some finally in intellectual discernment. Only creatures with intellect are made to God's image; and such creatures most closely resemble God when they imitate His self-understanding and love; and the glory of heaven brings this to perfection. So mind is the principal constituent of God's image in man, and is found in both male and female human beings. But, a secondary image of God as beginning and end of creation is found only in male man, the beginning and end of woman; and this is why Paul says that the man is the image and glory of God, and the woman the glory of man, for Adam was not from Eve but Eve from Adam, and Adam was not for Eve, but Eve for Adam (1 Cor. 11:7-9). And, concludes Aquinas, the crowning feature of the image of God in man is the image of the uncreated Trinity, which also abides in human beings, manifested as reason, who utters a word in their minds, and in whose wills a love issues.
But, in this fallen world, as Scripture tells us, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image" (Gen. 9:6). So trespasses and aggressions by man against man matter at root because they are trespasses and aggressions against the image of God in man; and so the Lord, in this verse, among others, ordains and authorizes earthly, human government. But due to the imperfections endemic to human justice in a fallen world, all transgressions against the Divine image in man, either by individual men or by social or governmental organizations, are recorded for perfect address and redress by Christ Himself on the day of perfect Judgment.
On Judgment, too, we may find that because of the Providential, created structure of human nature and society, all trespasses and aggressions are not equal. Transgressions against a married man or woman are weighted in somewise greater than those against the unmarried since they impinge upon two joined as one flesh under God; and transgressions against parents are adjudged greater than those against the childless to the degree that they impair domestic government.
So Divine prohibition of trespass against the image of God in man is the foundation of all human rights and liberties in earthly life. And these days, a right is typically understood as a claim to personal protection and freedom; a claim that government is supposed to respect and secure and not threaten. But alas, rights and liberties do not assert and secure and codify themselves. So in His perfect Providence, God so constituted man — in the very deep structure of his feelings — to pursue liberties and rights as grace within His plan allows.
It was John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) of South Carolina, America's greatest statesman and philosopher, who identified and systematically explicated this internal constitution of man. In his Disquisition on Government, Calhoun describes how God made man with an internal constitution or nature that feels more intensely what affects him directly than what affects him indirectly through others, so that the individual feelings, in every person, tend to predominate over the social feelings. By a wondrous Providential irony and twist, this internal constitution of man is the root cause both of tyranny and of resistance to tyranny. Moreover, external, political constitution — as an effort to curb and counteract the natural tendency of government -- manned by fallen, sinful humanity -- to abuse and oppress the governed -- has its source in this internal constitution of man.
Although current parlance is all about individual or group "rights", discourse about rights and liberties originally arose in a social or corporate context. It arose as individual social interests, stemming from whole family units, struggled and competed for governing control over self and others. Examples of such historical interests include the patricians and plebeians of republican Rome, the aristocracy, commons, and Church of Britain, the twelve tribes of Israel, the six tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, the cantons of the Swiss Republic, the States of the original American union, and of the later Southern Confederacy, and the individual members of the Polish Diet. The goal of each interest — apart from any wayward aspirations to domineer over other interests -was to achieve both self-protection and measured freedom for the interest and its constituent members, through the power to veto inimical legislation and to physically and forcibly repel armed aggression. Talk of individual or human rights emerged later and analogically, due to complex historical causes. But whether talk was of whole social interests or of individuals, the driving concern has been to ensure against tyranny, from whatever source.
But governments and domineering interests hold monopolies on neither sin nor error. Rights claims by sinners in a fallen world -- including ivory-tower political philosophers and self-proclaimed champions of the oppressed -- are all-too-often erroneous, baseless, fatuous and destructive of social order. Thus we have seen, in late modern and postmodern times, the corruption of all discourse on rights and freedoms. Meanwhile, infidel modernity rages at the truth that it is Providence - the unfolding of the Sovereign God's plan for man-centered creation -- that determines which men as images of God will earn and achieve and enjoy rights and liberties, and which men will not.
One of the main obstacles to understanding, establishing and maintaining real rights and freedoms today is the false doctrine of abstract "natural" rights. This is the view that extensive rights and freedoms for all human individuals can be simply and easily derived and deduced by abstract reason from human nature. Historically, the most baseless and absurd of all rights claims - abortion, gay, and trans claims, for example - stem from the abstract natural rights tradition and methodology. Such claims, if codified, end by violating real or Divine-image-based rights and by destroying general society.
These real, Divine-image-based rights include both the original Divine-image, baseline rights possessed by all by virtue of their humanity and the image-based virtue rights achieved and codified by skillful self-assertion by some (but not all) participants or groups within a given social order. These latter "virtue" rights are sometimes called evolved or historical rights, but they spring ultimately from the Divine image of the Triune Creator God, Christ the Lord. And so, strictly and properly speaking, there are no natural rights; there are only supernatural rights.
At root, then, the concept or notion of natural rights is a secular chimera, a product of a false "rationalist" methodology. At bottom, it is an ultimately futile attempt to assert the possibility of human dignity and virtue and value apart from God.
So we should beware of invoking the notion of natural rights. It is NOT - contra Rothbard, Rand, and others - the neat and clear and simple and univocal and solid and "self-evident" standard by which to determine actual individual rights and limits on state action that many in modernity - including many "conservatives" - think it is.
In their hyper- or overly-abstract theorizing, Lockean libertarians - when they invoke "natural law and natural rights" - end up obscuring the critical and actual phenomenological connection between actualized moral and intellectual virtue in a person, on the one hand, and that person's qualification for liberty, on the other hand. The abstract natural-rights libertarian thinks everyone ("adults" at least) should and must be given equal and extensive liberty, without regard to the degree of actualized virtue in particular individuals or to their actual fitness or qualification for liberty. The predictable result, socially and politically, is chaos and then despotism.
When theorizing is hyper- or overly-abstract, the "natural rights" that emerge from the theorizing are arbitrary, and typically reflect a favored prejudice of the theorist; although the deluded theorist invariably claims he found them with his "reason" existing somehow "objectively" and apart from tradition and custom "in nature." So you get Nozick's minimal state; or you get Rawls' very different because very extensive "justice as fairness" state. Or you get Locke's "life, liberty, and property" state, or Jefferson's "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" state, or Hobbes' "law and order Leviathan" state, and so on and on.
In contrast, serious and solid discussion about rights centers around the image of God in man, and His grace that alone makes possible the actualized virtue of individuals in the social-political order, as mediated by the evolved customs, traditions, and mores in that order.
But does that mean that individuals without much actualized virtue may rightly be ill or indifferently treated? God forbid — literally! And the reason they shouldn't be is alluded to in Romans 1:20: "For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; SO THAT THEY (i.e., men) ARE WITHOUT EXCUSE."
So humanity is the center and crown of that best of all possible worlds created by God, whose glory and chief responsibility within creation is man, while woman is the glory and chief responsibility within creation for man. And every human, being made in God's image, as Scripture informs us,_should be acknowledged by all and duly respected as such. And contra the consternation and fury of uncomprehending atheist, egalitarian modernity, this acknowledgement and respect of image fully applies in the relation between master and slave, as commanded in Scripture, repeatedly and across both Testaments, Old and New.
In his sermon "The Rights and the Duties of Masters" (1850), the great Southern theologian James Henley Thornwell underscores the reciprocal Christian duties of masters and slaves. He illustrates how the master is both duty-bound and incentivized to acknowledge and respect the Divine image in his slave. So ordered liberty in such natural and hierarchical society is rooted and anchored — not in any incidental, transitory and extraneous impulse of whimsy or raw power or narrow selfishness in any members of the master class -- but in the general society's prudential recognition and judgment that people of lesser moral and intellectual virtue and self-control, laboring in a condition of subordination and servitude, is necessary and salutary both for them and for general society. And contrary to "rationalistic" and sophistical abolitionist canards, the ownership in Christian slavery is not in the person and soul of the slave, but in his labor alone.
And again, as the Romans verse cited above makes clear, due respect for the Divine image in every man is obligatory for ALL men, including unbelievers. And again, the one and only true (Triune) God is clear: ALL transgressions are recorded and ALL transgressors will be held to account. So, in this earthly life, masters and slaves and freemen all have their duties to be respecters of the image both in self and in all others. And so, contra Hugo Grotius and others, real rights cannot be properly understood as existing in nature (creation) apart from the Creator.
And now we come to a most critical discussion.
Proponents of natural rights err most by failing to understand the role of custom and tradition in human life. They fail to grasp how the CREATED causal network that is nature, for humans living in this earthly life, is mediated by CUSTOM and TRADITION.
Now in well-governed polities, phenomena unfamiliar to the bedeviled West in our century, action and thought were rooted in an unreflective order of custom and tradition and existing practice (which contained inherited experience and knowledge), not in the abstract speculative reasoning of the deracinated thinker working (ultimately impossibly) apart from evolving social and political reality. It is abstract speculative reason, mindlessly generating "natural rights", that is arbitrary and ends inevitably in tyranny. Recall "liberte, egalite, and fraternite" and Madame Guillotine. Moreover, any desire to wed Biblical doctrine with natural law and natural rights, WITHOUT THE MEDIATION OF CUSTOM AND TRADITION, is foredoomed to failure by ultimate self-contradiction.
So, to set our criticisms of "natural rights" theorizing in an American context, there is no natural right to life, or to liberty, or to the pursuit of happiness. And government is NOT established to secure those or any other "rights." Sadly, and fatefully, the younger Jefferson, of Declaration fame, was in somewise under the fell influence of French Enlightenment "rationalism", which Lincoln and others would later imbibe, to the tragic detriment of all Americans, South and North, to this day.
On the other hand, government, properly understood, is ordained and established by God, through the internal, created constitution of man, to protect society, from both internal and external enemies. In sound governments, authority or order take clear precedence over all concerns about individual or social liberty. Government precedes constitutionality. The PRESERVATION of the race, as Calhoun puts it, has obvious and natural priority over the PERFECTION of the race, in its moral and intellectual striving, through and towards individual and social liberty.
But today, in what Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) called the Age of Men, political action and thought are wrongly rooted in speculative reasoning and abstract principle, rather than in evolved traditions reflecting the concrete moral and intellectual actualization of participants in the social order. That explains why, for example, America is NOW going socially, morally and politically completely off the rails. The Libertarian Party, for example, boasts of being a party of PRINCIPLE, but this is actually an unwitting confession of utter political infantilism and folly. David Hume (1711-1776) expressly and rightly warned about the political "barbarism" of parties of abstract principle.
But the moral relativists and nihilists among us, often eager to avoid personal accountability for sin, will invariably ask: What is virtue, and who determines what virtue (and vice) is? So we refer them first to the Bible, and then to Aristotle, who said, if you want to know what virtue is, find and study a virtuous man, and his habituation, through moral and political inheritance, in goodness. And no, that great philosopher is not being circular or question-begging when he says that. It only seems so to those who don't recognize the original authority of evolved custom and tradition in human life. And the Christian philosopher, of course, will more deeply frame this inheritance in terms of God's dispensation of common, salvific and sanctifying grace.
Then we dive deeper, down to the metaphysics of morals, and we find that the moral phenomena virtue and vice are on a continuum with one another, and reflect the ontic continuum from Being to Nothingness. Contra the Manicheans, evil is not a positive existent. It is privation, or the absence of being. And every human society that persists does so because it finds effective ways to constrain the vicious who, by their nature, may threaten the harmony and stability and even survival of society. This is of course done by evolved practices or conventions such as prisons or executions or what not. And vice, as Plato and the Bible teach, involves division and lack of actualization and actuality in the soul. So those whose souls are better ordered, by better habituation and other causes, can command themselves from the inside and are therefore in less need of being commanded by government or other authorities from the outside.
Christ, the God-Man, is the perfectly virtuous Man, and is, as Creator and Judge, of course, the absolute moral standard and end of created man. Different societies in this earthly life, and the people within, have different levels of actualization in relation to His perfection. So, dear reader, you may ask, who decides, in concrete political instances, who the virtuous and vicious are? The answer is: society does (mediately from God), by inference, when it puts some folk in prison for reasons X, Y and Z. But human societies, through their governments, are largely left by the Lord, in His wisdom, to govern or misgovern themselves as they see fit. That is why polities, like individuals, are MORTAL.
Nature — including human nature — is FALLEN; something atheist and anarchist libertarians characteristically discount, to the peril of us all. Talk about nature, which is CREATION, that fails to fully acknowledge this fundamental (fallen) reality of the human condition is not merely erroneous; it is inimical to all good society and morals and government.
So, ALL REAL RIGHTS ARE CONCRETE HISTORICAL RIGHTS rooted in the primal fact that man was created in the image of God. These rights are achieved, when they are achieved, not by abstract theorizing and by governmental imposition from outside and above, but by loyal participants in social orders who win these rights by some combination of actualized virtue, skillful self-assertion, and timely, prudential compromise. Real rights are earned or inherited rights, not boons to be gratuitously lavished on persons merely for being human, or on the morally and intellectually weak, i.e., the ignorant, slothful and depraved. True liberty, true rights, are Providential rewards — rewards from God and not from man or government — for actualized moral and intellectual strength or virtue. The word "virtue" comes from the Latin word for man (vir, viri, as in virile).
On the other hand, supposed "universal rights" deduced from supposed "universal attributes" are a chimera. The ultimately impossible task of the hyper-abstract natural-rights theorist may be illustrated by a thought experiment. And when the natural-rights theorist sets out to deduce "universal rights" from "universal attributes", he must be clear and accurate about precisely what those alleged "universal attributes" are.
If he says, for example, that all men have reason (Aristotle: Man is Zoon ratio.) and sets about to derive or extrapolate "universal rights" from the fact, he should — if he is concerned about truth and reality — first acknowledge that, by an original dispensation of the Creator, all men, and all races, do not possess rationality in the same measure. As Aristotle says in the Politics some men have supervisory reason while others possess subordinate, performative reason. This truth is confirmed both by history and by every day, first-hand experience of men. (We may leave aside, for the time being, the problems presented for our theorist by the complicating phenomena of woman as man's created helpmate, and as the weaker vessel.)
Beyond this original unequal dispensation of reason among different men there is, to be reckoned into the increasingly complex and difficult "universal attributes" search, the fundamental fracture and reduction of man's attributes, including reason, by virtue of the Fall. The Fall, by disordering man's nature and faculties, inclined reason (and imagination and memory, etc.) to serve as a slavish instrument of wayward passions. So now reason, thus compromised and besmirched by the Fall, is not the lofty fount of sound judgment still assumed by many. While man was fallible because limited, says Leibniz, before the Fall, actually fallen men are beset, without and until salvation by the Lord, with spiritually dead natures that sin continuously (and therefore without interruption) in thought, word and deed.
And now, when we combine unequal dispensation of powers or faculties by the Creator into different men with the debilitating effects of the Fall, the problem of finding "universal attributes" in man from which to deduce "universal rights" becomes very difficult indeed.
To circumvent these complexities, our theorist, if he professes the Christian religion, may shift to higher ontological ground, away from the particular faculties of man (reason, imagination, etc.), in search of more fundamental and uncomplicated "universal attributes." He may argue, for example, that certain "universal rights" may be deduced from the fact that man was made in God's image. But recall that the Fall fractured the image of God in man, so again, the matter gets complicated. To try and save the situation for our theorist, we may assert the broken image of God in man as a universal attribute of man, but how far does that get us in deducing particular "universal rights"? Also, the knowledge that man is made in the image and likeness of God is revealed knowledge, and not a determination or truth accessible by mere natural or carnal, unregenerate reason. As such, use of the image of God in man as a supposed foundation for natural rights is epistemically out of bounds and fails.
The Christian naturally wishes that all men everywhere would be proper respecters of the image (even the broken image) of God in every man. And surely the Lord, at Judgment, will oblige all to answer for being disrespectful, in thought, word and deed, in this earthly life, to His image in man. But where does that leave us in terms of actual (governmentally) enforceable rights in actual human societies? The answer is: nowhere, because actual historical rights within societies are derived, when they are derived, not by the abstract "closet" cogitations of our theorist, but by the actualized moral and intellectual virtue, the skillful self-assertions and the timely compromises of actual participants in the social order, who think and act out of an evolving order of tradition and custom.
The bottom line: Actual participation in human society immediately acquaints us, regardless of the society, with the primal facts of natural, created inequality and sin nature. Abstract theorizing that selectively ignores or sets aside these primal facts of the human condition is both erroneous and pernicious. So supposed "universal rights" deduced from supposed 'universal attributes" are a chimera. And, as Calhoun pointed out, all attempts to apply and instantiate such imagined "rights" tend — BY METHODOLOGICAL NECESSITY — to the destruction of good morals, good society, and good government.
So God made man social by nature. By His Providence, God has left fallen man free — by and large — to govern or misgovern himself as he sees fit. But MISGOVERNMENT, LIKE SIN IN THE INDIVIDUAL MAN, COMES WITH CONSEQUENCES.
Society, or rather, predominant portions within society, make the authoritative call about what and who is virtuous and what and who is vicious; and analogously, about what is lawful and unlawful. Every such call in the earthly life naturally reflects the actualized (and necessarily imperfect) character and intelligence of the callers. To the extent a society's call about the virtuous and the lawful (and their opposites) is wrong, through honest error and/or corruption of thought, that society suffers thereby (by going too far against the God-created nature of things) — possibly to the point of social death. So earthly societies and nations, like individuals, are ultimately MORTAL. And by social or national death, God selects out nations that do not successfully adapt to changing internal and external conditions or circumstances and THAT DO NOT PRESERVE THE RACIAL ELEMENTS AND INTERNAL ORGANIZATION NECESSARY TO MAINTAIN GOOD ORDER AND SUFFICIENT MORAL AND PHYSICAL STRENGTH RELATIVE TO NEIGHBORING NATIONS. So the wages of sin, for both men and nations, is death.
And note that in this uniquely HISTORICAL AND SOCIAL process of determining what is virtuous and lawful there is no Archimedean point outside the evolving social order — no view from nowhere, as Thomas Nagel put it — from which an abstract natural-rights theorist could operate with his "reason."
The philosopher David Hume rightly said that all political authority is rooted in OPINION (about the Good). But opinion, as the Platonists remind us, is not KNOWLEDGE. But, in fairness to Hume, the opinion the Scotsman is citing is not the shallow and casual and transitory opinion of everyday individuals or groups. Humean opinion approaches the Platonic ideal of knowledge because it flows from a long and deep historical reservoir of inherited experience and knowledge of (the) nature (of things) that manifests itself as evolved custom and tradition and practice.
Through most of history, the calls or determinations about virtue and law made by societies has been rooted in evolved custom and tradition and existing practice that were largely devoid of elements of reflective or speculative reasoning. By such means, human thought and action and political practice has been vouchsafed and held more in line with the actual nature of things. In our modern times, however, false-philosophical consciousness — clouded by sinful passion and rife with mental distortions about the Real — has poisoned the Humean pre-reflective well from which healthier thought and action once sprang. Today, false-philosophical conclusions, assumptions and method pervade political thought and governments around the world. The conservative philosopher De Maistre famously fled to Russia from revolutionist France; hoping in vain to find a nation yet untouched by false, Jacobin philosophy.
Abstract "natural-rights" theorizing is but one species of this false philosophy. Wrong notions about virtue and vice and law now spring continuously from this poisoned well. Perhaps Vico was right: only a collapse of civilization, a great fracturing of societies and nations, and a returning of our cities to forests could save the species by returning man to more pious ways.
One final admonition to those serious about understanding rights and freedoms. The rationalist methodology of the natural rights proponents is fundamentally flawed, and serves a secularist-atheist agenda. Infidel denial of Divine creation and human fallermess and sinfulness are the ever-present working assumptions of that baleful method and agenda. And as I have now shown, from many directions and angles, THERE ARE NO NATURAL RIGHTS; THERE ARE ONLY SUPERNATURAL RIGHTS AND THEN HISTORICAL RIGHTS, ROOTED IN THE SUPERNATURAL.
Winston McCuen is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Furman University, holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Emory University and is a John C. Calhoun scholar. A former Latin teacher, he also holds multiple welding certifications and is a senior certified nuclear metallurgical welding engineer.