Yes, Rights Are Always Absolute

Responding to Russell Moore

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In a video about religious liberty released by The Gospel Coalition, Russell Moore stated that, “Every right that we have in society is never absolute.”

For those interested in the Founding Father’s view of rights as “inalienable,” Moore’s words are cause for great concern.

Moore leads the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is known as the chief ethicist of the SBC, and a leading voice on legal and political topics.

Jacob Brunton has already given an insightful response to Moore’s statements. Read it here. Also, I interviewed Jacob to discuss the topic in detail. You can watch the interview here.

What do you make of Russell Moore’s statement?

Are rights absolute, or not?

I believe they are absolute. In what follows, I’ll discuss one kind of objection people raise to rights being “absolute.”

A common objection is this:

Rights cannot be absolute because you do not have the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, and, as the saying goes, “Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.”

To clear up this question, we need to specify what is meant by “absolute” in this context.

It could be that when Russell Moore said, “Every right that we have in society is never absolute,” he meant simply the above common points. It could be that what he meant was you do not have a right to punch people or to shout “fire” in a crowd.

But those were not the examples Moore spoke about.

In fact, Moore seemed in the video to accept the idea that in most cases people have an obligation to fight in a war if their country drafts them.

Moore’s conception of rights is not merely that your “freedom of action” is limited, so you are not entitled to punch others or endanger them.

His conception of rights seems to be one in which rights are whatever the government decides they are, based on how the government chooses to arbitrate between the competing interests of multiple groups of people, ultimately deciding based on what the government considers to be its own interest.

Don’t believe me? Watch the video or read the transcript.

On such a view, if a government decides a war is necessary, it is entitled to draft you. Aside from some exceptions Moore would like to carve out for “conscientious objectors,” you have no right to say “no.”

When Moore says “rights are never absolute” he seems at odds with the Founding Fathers.

Take the earlier examples:

  • We have an inalienable (or absolute) right not to be punched in the nose.
  • We do have an absolute right to swing our fist in situations when it doesn’t threaten anyone.
  • We have absolutely no right to initiate force against other people.

What about the free speech example?

Not being entitled to shout “fire” may appear to be a limit on a person’s right of free speech, but it isn’t.

The right to free speech assumes we are including only the kinds of speech that do not amount to advocating initiation of force or threatening force against others. No one has the right to use speech in that way.

We have an absolute right to use speech in ways that don’t violate the rights of others. We absolutely have no right to use speech in a way that advocates initiating force or threatens force.

Shouting “fire” in a crowd is one way of using speech to create a situation that is directly threatening to people’s lives. It amounts to either initiation of force or threat of it.

Moreover, as Steve Rozema points out, “Yelling fire in a crowded theater also violates the contract of service you have with the theater. It is within property violation as you have contracted with the theater upon purchase to use their facilities according to their own rules.”

Yes, our individual rights are absolute (inalienable).

But they are rights to specific things and not other things. We can’t take a right we do possess and frame it as if it were a carte blanche to do something categorically different.

If this were all someone meant in saying rights are not “absolute,” then I would agree with the intention behind the statement. But the wording is dangerously wrong.

Individual rights are in fact absolute, when they are carefully defined.

On this topic Russell Moore has contributed only fog — or worse. His viewpoint is incompatible with rights being “inalienable” or in his own words “absolute.”

I agree with Jacob Brunton’s assessment that either Russell Moore does not understand the Declaration of Independence, or he does not agree with it.