Mommy, where do rights come from?


Some of us have them. Some of us don’t. Americans have gotten used to having lots of rights, and we get mighty pissed if we think someone is trying to take them away. Other people in far-away countries don’t have so many rights; others have more than we.

But where do they come from? Do “rights” just float around in the air like viruses, waiting for you to saunter by so they can sneak up your nose?

I say that they don’t exist. Nope. They don’t exist. If we humans weren’t busily breathing, eating, sleeping, farting, talking and posting on Twitter 24/7/365, there would be no rights at all. Rights cannot exist without us.

Is this is a “chicken or egg” kind of question? I don’t think so, because both a chicken and an egg can be considered living creatures, whereas “rights” are an amorphous concept, and because of the very nature of a concept, a concept cannot exist without a thinking being to ponder it.

Rights came into being when humans started thinking coherent thoughts, when one of the first hominids to walk upright on two legs, Ug, discovered that Ig got really mad when Ug tried to take away Ig’s mammoth steak. Ig conked Ug on the head with his club and said, “MINE!” Ah…property rights were born. Obviously, things were a lot simpler then; if Ig was bigger than Ug, Ug had better keep his hands off Ig’s things.

If, on the other hand, Ug is the big guy and Ig is the 97 pound weakling, Ug can simply snatch Ig’s mammoth steak and that means Ig’s going hungry tonight. That brings us to our next step.

Perhaps Ug and Ig were part of a tribe of hominid individuals. Over time, someone, a shaman perhaps, or the strongest hunter, maybe, fell into the role of leadership. Members of the tribe followed this leader on the hunt, because he knew where the mammoths were and he knew how to kill them. One day, the leader saw Ug snatch Ig’s mammoth steak, and hey, Ig may be a little guy, but he makes damned good spear points. If the leader wants Ig to keep on making his awesome spear points, Ig needs to be nourished in order to keep cranking out those sharpies so the tribe’s hunters can bring food back to feed the females and the children.

So the leader sits down on the nearest rock and thinks about it. Finally, he comes to the conclusion that Ig is important to the well-being of the other members of the tribe. If Ig gets no food, Ig could die. That would be bad for the tribe. So, the leader decides that he needs to exert his influence over the tribe and tell them what to not to do:  do not steal Ig’s food. In other words, this leader has just decided that there needs to be a law. Law # 1:  Nobody takes Ig’s food because Ig needs it – for the good of the tribe.

Voila! Ig now has a right. He has a right to a share of food, and Ug has been prohibited from stealing it from him just because he can. That right was born out of necessity: if Ig starves to death, others in the tribe could also starve to death because there’d be no more spearpoints.

Over the centuries, of course, these concepts grew more and more sophisticated as civilization became more sophisticated. Along with the increased sophistication, came new laws governing heretofore unknown concepts. Money. The concept of accepting coins in exchange for a bag of grain. The concept of exchanging coins for the labor of another. All sorts of laws grew out of the increasing sophistication of society, and along with the laws, there came rights. The law says that if you promise to pay a man 3 gold coins to build you a house, when that house is done, you hand over the 3 coins. The man you hired now has, thanks to the laws, a right to be paid for his work.

And because the people generally all agreed to be bound by those laws, they benefited from the rights that came with them. The same holds true today. We have come, over the centuries, to accept that certain rights are, as the smart guys who wrote the Declaration of Independence put it, “inalienable.” In other words, there were certain rights that the Founders embraced as part of a civilized society, those of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

However, simply because the Founders decreed it so, did not mean that all people actually had those rights. Take the slaves brought over from Africa, for instance. They had no rights, according to our Founders; they were bought and sold like chattel. Some radicals believed that Africans were people too, and deserved the same rights as white people, and we know what happened then. We fought the Civil War, and as a result, black people began to share in those “inalienable rights” to which they had no access before the Civil War.

Rights, independent of human thought and reason, do not simply exist. Rights must be codified and granted by some form of authority, whether it’s the leader of that tribe of ancient hominids or King Henry VIII or today’s Congress – who are still struggling with the concept that gay people have those inalienable rights too. That is also not to say that rights do not change and evolve; they do. As our civilization changes and evolves, so do our laws and from that evolution of laws, comes new rights.

I hope that humanity continues to forge ahead on the path of equality. But I’m somewhat cynical; I don’t have a very good opinion of my fellow human beings these days. Watching bigoted lunatics like Rep. Peter King – today’s Joe McCarthy – demand that Muslims be “put to the question” of whether or not they are deserving of our American rights turns my stomach and makes me fear for our future, as does watching the potential Republican candidates for President striving to out-hate and out-crazy and out-Tea-Party each other by spewing forth anti-Muslim, anti-gay hateful rhetoric in ever more inflammatory terms.

This post came about because it was important to me that someone in particular understand what I’ve been trying to say with the last 1,000 words. I hope he reads it.

~ Kate


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Mark on April 1, 2011 at 2:31 am


    Since my 140 characters weren’t enough to get my point across without inviting criticism I hope I can better articulate it here…

    I think you have much more clearly laid out your point then you back and forth with Matt, but I think it is still somewhat of a semantic point or even possibly a “chicken or egg” point.

    My thinking is that we fight for the change in laws in order to defend rights that we believe already belong to an individual. We call the the things that go on in China “Human Rights” violations because we believe that though the laws of that country may not be broken, the people of that country still have unalienable rights as members of the human race. We push for same sex marriage because of the underlying rights that should not be denied to those people that have committed to one another in the same way opposite sex couples have.

    In my opinion, these rights exist with or without laws. We need laws in order to protect the rights that we do have lest they be violated. In fact every law that has ever come about has spawned from this beginning idea. If not for this concept, then what grounds do we begin from for any set of laws. With this world view then, any law could be passed that Ug must give all his food to Ig and family or that Muslims must pay twice the tax rate of the any other citizen. With your model, no rights have been violated, rather they have simply been reduced. Subtle but huge difference.

    Anyway, perhaps it is more semantic difference between us, but I believe that as a human there are certain things that should never be taken from me – among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I would seek to support laws that protect my rights and overturn laws that violate them. Furthermore I do see human rights violations around the world because I believe those unfortunate enough to be born into circumstances where atrocities happen do not lose these unalienable rights because of circumstance, rather those rights are violated by governments treating them as less than human. This is where we should stand up and call out the problem and demand that those rights are honored and protected.


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