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Political Philosophy

Where Do Rights Come From?

The Answer Is Either God or…

Photo by Anthony Garand on Unsplash

Most of us take it for granted that all people have intrinsic, inalienable rights; liberties that no one can take away from us. But when you think about it, why do we have rights? How do we know we have them? And why can no one take them away from us?

We could just say that rights are part of our social contract, the agreement between citizens and the government that makes society. The government agrees to give us rights and we agree to give the government the loyalty, money, and power necessary to uphold society.

The problem with this starting point is that it doesn’t confirm that rights are intrinsic or inalienable. They are granted by a government to the citizens of a society, therefore the citizens don’t inherently possess them. Also, other societies could be structured differently and those citizens wouldn’t have rights.

And what if the government decides it needs to violate some rights in order to uphold society? It would have broken its promise of guaranteeing rights, but maybe it would be for a good reason. In this situation, rights could be alienable.

So maybe rights only make sense when they come from God. Humans, as God’s creation, would intrinsically have rights if He endowed us with them. And they certainly couldn’t be taken away or else whoever is doing the taking would be violating the will of God.

But for those of us who are atheist or agnostic, this answer isn’t very appealing. No worries though, I think I’ve found another; the Common Good.

On the chart of the development of philosophical ideas, the Common Good can be thought of as something below rights and below the social contract. It is more fundamental than either. Essentially, it is what it sounds like, the most good for the most people; a very utilitarian concept.

The problem usually associated with utilitarianism is that it can seemingly justify violating rights for the “common good.” The example above about the social contract demonstrates this. Looking at the famous Trolly Problem, this is evident as well: if you choose to sacrifice 1 person to save 5, you have done the right thing, according to utilitarianism, but you have also violated someone’s right to life.

However, these examples are on a micro-scale. When we consider the maco-scale, we can see that utilitarianism and the Common Good actually guarantee rights.

Of course, no one really knows what the Common Good is in its whole. It’s like Plato’s Form of the Good. In fact, we could probably say either one works in place of the other. But either way, they both require rights because rights are the few things humans have discovered about the Good or the Common Good that, if not guaranteed, can only produce more harm for more people.

Putting that more simply, violating rights is inexcusable to utilitarianism because what good it could produce can never outweigh the bad it will produce.

Humans intrinsically have rights because we’ve discovered that they must exist for the Common Good to work, and they are inalienable because to take them away would go against the Common Good.

So there we go, the answer to where do rights come from is either the Common Good or God. Or maybe they’re the same thing… Tune in next time to find out!

More on similar topics:

…The only way for “rational” action to be taken is to violently eliminate all dissenting opinions, in the pursuit of a perfect world…

…In a world where every single conscious being believes in a fact, does it matter at all whether or not that fact is in alignment with reality?…

…How far do you think people’s freedom to make their own decisions goes?…



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Tyler Piteo-Tarpy

Essayist, poet, screenwriter, and comer upper of weird ideas. My main focus will be on politics and philosophy but when I get bored, I’ll write something else.