Where do rights come from?

In a post entitled “Can Atheism Be Justified?” Donald Sensing writes:

If atheists are true to their own creed, they must admit that the entire concept of human rights crumbles to dust according to that same creed. Dawkins, Wilson et. al. have no “right” to denounce religion, they just have the ability or power to do so. If persons are not “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” (in the words of a famous Enlightenment rationalist), then “rights” is nothing but a flatus vocis. The concept of rights then really means nothing but “who wins.” So by their lights, atheists are able to speak out (in America, anyway, not in Saudi Arabia) and attempt to persuade others only because the rest of us let them.

According to Sensing, the only way rights can exist is if they are bestowed by a superior being. This is the same sort of argument as the idea that morality can only be dictated by God, but with an interesting twist. We’re not talking here about right vs. wrong, we’re talking about having rights (i.e. being legitimately entitled to something) as opposed to merely having your way because you have the power to impose your own will on others. Sensing thinks that with this argument, he has backed atheists into a corner: either they must admit the existence of “transcendence” (as in the supernatural), or they must admit that they have no right to criticize religion, or to disbelieve in God, or to do virtually anything.

Can anyone refute this argument without an appeal to transcendence? I think not. The reason America’s religious people don’t denounce their creeds… is that we (Jews and Christians, anyway) really do believe there is a God who is not only a God of mercy and compassion but also of moral law and judgement.

So, regarding rationality for any system of beliefs, how does atheism have a superior claim, except in the minds of its adherents? Any “rational” system of law or morals that atheists may devise may be rebutted by an equally rational system that countermands it.

As for me, I affirm the rights of atheists to be the same rights as mine because, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time. The hand of force may destroy but cannot disjoin them.”

As usual, we will be applying the principle that truth is consistent with itself. We do not need to appeal to any transcendent principle to test whether Sensing’s argument is valid, we just need to check it for self-consistency. We’ll start by asking “What gives God the right to dictate what rights men will and will not have?”

According to Sensing, one cannot have rights unless they are bestowed by a superior being. Let’s assume for the moment that God exists. By definition, God is supposed to be the ultimate Being, and therefore God cannot possess any rights, since there is no superior being to bestow them upon Him. God has no right to tell us what we should or should not do, He merely has what Sensing calls “the ability or power to do so.”

Thus, God might allegedly have the ability to condemn us for things He regards as “sin,” but it is not possible that He could have the right to do so. God’s judgements are necessarily unjust, because He has no right to make them, and is merely imposing them because He’s the biggest bully in the cosmos. By Sensing’s definition of “rights,” God is rather a reprehensible person.

Of course, you could rebut this argument by saying, “Wait a minute! You’re proceeding on the basis of a false assumption. God does have the right to dictate morals and bestow rights upon men. It’s inherent in His divine nature that He has the right to rule over us.” That’s a reasonable objection, but it’s based on admitting that it’s false to assume that rights must bestowed by a superior being. In other words, in order to claim that God possesses certain inherent rights by virtue of His nature alone, you must admit the principle that it’s possible for rights to be inherent in a person’s nature, without needing to be bestowed by some superior being.

If this is true, then Sensing’s assumption that men cannot have inherent human rights is a false assumption. You do not need to appeal to the transcendent as the only possible source for rights if those rights are inherent in the persons themselves.

Sensing is partially correct about the connection between rights and abilities, however. People are only able to exercise those rights which are recognized and respected by others. Gays, for example, have an inherent right to marry, but in 3/5ths of the United States they are being denied their rights by the Christian majority. Being entitled to a certain right is not the same as actually possessing it.

That’s a subtle distinction, but think of it in terms of someone stealing your car. In one sense, the car is still your possession (i.e. you are still the rightful owner), but in another sense it is no longer in your possession (since someone stole it and you can’t find it or use it now). In the same way, the rights we are entitled to can be stolen from us, just like the right to marry was stolen from gays by Christians in California and elsewhere.

Someone might ask, “Where do these rights come from, then, or where do they exist?” They are inherent in our nature as a social, intelligent species. Imagine, for a moment, that we were not social, that each human lived as a solitary, uncooperative agent, living from day-to-day, finding food, avoiding enemies, keeping warm and dry and so on. No home, because the housing industry requires cooperation. No clothes, because the clothing industry requires cooperation. No groceries, no farm goods, no job, no doctor, no retirement plan.

We’d be animals, in the most negative sense of the word. Our lives are better, vastly better, because of our ability to cooperate as a society that benefits its participants. A harmonious and beneficial society, however, requires its members to observe certain limits, or face the loss of the benefits. Those limits are not arbitrary: when individuals work together as a group, some behaviors have beneficial consequences, and some have harmful consequences. We don’t get to arbitrarily choose which behaviors are going to produce which results; the behaviors themselves dictate whether or not the consequences will benefit or harm the members as a whole.

This is where “rights” come from. Human rights are simply a way of recognizing and respecting the limits that we must submit to in order to obtain the maximum benefit from our participation in society. If we violate those limits, we incur a cost that society as a whole will have to pay. When we oppress minorities (like gays for instance), we think we’re only making them suffer, but in fact we are causing ourselves deep and lasting harm.

Atheists do have a right to criticize the shallow, superstitious, and bigoted things that believers say, because a self-correcting society is a healthy society. When we’re misled, when we’re wrong, when we’re suffering from self-inflicted handicaps and illnesses, it’s beneficial to diagnose and address the source of our maladies. In order to be self-correcting and self-healing, however, we need the right to free speech. It may be unpleasant at times, but we need to respect the right people have to speak their minds, a right that is inherent in how a healthy society works.

We don’t need God to tell us what our rights are, which is just as well, since He does not show up to dictate any, even if He had the right to do so. (Not to mention the fact that the Bible portrays Him as recognizing such “rights” as the right to own slaves, to beat them, and to sell your daughter into sexual slavery!) We’re much better off letting reality dictate what our rights are, and not letting ourselves be enslaved by a bunch of people who believe they have the right to persecute gays just because some sock-puppet deity doesn’t approve of their existence!

So in answer to the title question: yes, atheism can be justified without appealing to any transcendent (and strangely unobservable) superior being. And (unlike God) our rights come from reality itself, and not from the self-serving imaginations of men.

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Posted in Unapologetics. 11 Comments »

11 Responses to “Where do rights come from?”

  1. mike Says:

    Are you saying that rights are immutable concepts which are inescapable consequences of nature, and are just waiting for us to discover? I would disagree and say that the rights we construct for ourselves are just a part of the morals we construct for ourselves as societies. I don’t believe that *the* moral code exists as an inescapable consequence of reality. Morals are relative in the sense that we construct our own morals. But they can be absolute in a sense that they can be constructed according to a set of agreed-upon principles (say, the harm or good resulting from an action). Same way with rights.

    I think these distinctions are a big source of the confusion between atheists and theists regarding morals. Theists see what you’ve written above and think you believe that morals are some intrinsic property of the universe, and wonder how that’s not a form of transcendence.

    I think we have evolved social tendencies, which are part of our nature without necessarily being moral or immoral. When we observe the effects of our actions, we can come to consensus about whether an action is moral. But the morality of an action is purely constructed by us.

  2. Janus Says:

    I like to think that we have negative rights – there are few actions I ought to do to prevent the actions of another: the most basic negative right is that I ought to stop an intruder from destroying my property or injuring me or my family.

    As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

  3. Deacon Duncan Says:


    I think what I’m saying is somewhere between the two alternatives you propose. I’m not saying that there is a predefined “Bill of Rights” encoded somewhere in the fabric of reality, but on the other hand, I don’t think we can just arbitrarily decide that, say, priests have the right to assault altar boys. We can and do evolve our own sense of what rights we have, just like we can evolve standards for sanitation and building codes and what-not. But we can’t just arbitrarily choose which rights are going to good ones for us to have, just like we can’t arbitrarily decide that pasta makes a sound choice of building materials. As in biological evolution, there’s a feedback loop between the choices we make and the results those choices produce in the real world. If we choose to exploit that feedback, and seek the optimal rights and morals appropriate to reality, then we can arrive at a sound, reality-based system of rights and morality that are more than just someone’s arbitrary choice.

  4. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Remember, “rights” is a social construct: the notion of “rights” makes no sense in the context of the individual alone. It is only as we interact with each other that “my rights” and “your rights” become significant. Thus, our rights are ultimately defined by the consequences of our interactions.

  5. Chigliakus Says:

    What I got from this wasn’t that “rights are immutable concepts which are inescapable consequences of nature” but more that they’re inescapable consequences of society, or at least necessary for society to function.

  6. Chigliakus Says:

    Guess I should hit reload after reading the article and before posting a comment, you already had an answer from the man himself.

  7. Nemo Says:

    I love it when Christians try to tell me what I, as an atheist, logically must believe, without any reference to what I actually do believe.

  8. jim Says:

    Rights aren’t handed down from above, neither are they arbitrary. They evolve through human interaction, and are codified through laws and precepts. But it’s true that a lot of non-theists are tempted to invest certain ‘rights’ with deotological status, so they can claim an indisputable authority for what they want. When they do that, they’re playing the theists’ game.

    I’d like to see Mike’s and Duncan’s positions (which really aren’t far apart, if at all), used and refined on the atheist side of the debate; so far, the major players don’t really seem to have a handle on the subject. At least, they don’t bring it across very clearly, in the debates I’ve seen thus far.

  9. Paul Murray Says:

    I have thought for a long time that the idea of a “Right” – a *thing* that you somehow *have* – is not a very good one. Particularly since a “right to liberty” is supposed to be both “inalienable” (whatever *that* means) and something that can be revoked the moment you (for instance) steal someone’s car.

    I prefer an older idea: that certain actions are *wrong*.

    Coupled with my personal meta-ethic – an act is wrong if a disinterested third party, knowing that you did it, would reasonably *fear* you for having done it.

    Of course, it’s murky – not all people fear the same things, and some people’s fears are foolish. Which is what we would expect: ethics tends to be murky at the best of times, so my theory is a good match for the way things actually are.

    (ps: much of liberalism might be expressed as a repudiation of the idea that an act being *disgusting* – as opposed to fearsome – makes it wrong.)

  10. John Morales Says:

    Paul Murray,

    I prefer an older idea: that certain actions are *wrong*.

    The reverse Golden Rule: “Do not do unto others that which you would not have them do unto you.”

  11. John Morales Says:

    Whoops, forgot to link.