Some thoughts on rights, humanity, and what it means to be a person

On another forum I read, a conversation has arisen about whether or not people have “rights,” and what it means to have “rights.” Like many Americans, I believe that people do, simply as a consequence of being people, have certain inalienable rights; and among these are the right to life, liberty, self-determinism, and to believe and express as they desire so long as they do not infringe on these same rights in others. I believe these rights are immutable; that they are a consequence of being a person, and are not granted by the state or by any other entity or power; and that a state or other entity can take them away, but not grant them.

But do I believe these things simply because I’m an American, and I’ve been brainwashed into believing them? Well, no.

There’s no question that a person’s social, political, and moral ideas and values are socially informed, and that people can and do absorb many of those ideas from the society around them.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I believe what I do because I’ve been “brainwashed’ to believe them, however. There are many cultural and social values held by a great many Americans which are just as firmly inculcated into people here which I reject; evidence suggests that cultural brainwashing doesn’t work too well on me. 🙂

More to the point, a person who holds ideas about rights simply because he has been told that “rights are good” probably is unlikely to think too deeply about the implications of those rights; a person who is simply repeating American cultural ideas about innate human rights is unlikely to, for example, see the contradiction between those values and the idea that it is OK to tell gays and lesbians that they cannot marry.

In fact, I think these ideas have often been enshrined in America more as vague theories than as matters of political and social reality. Even the very people who first articulated these ideas as a framework for American society did not really believe them, or at least did not follow their own arguments through to their logical conclusions; Thomas Jefferson, who believed that “all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” kept slaves.

When you do sincerely hold to these beliefs, and you do follow them through to their logical conclusion, which I do, you end up in territory that diverges radically from the reality of American society, and makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I’ll get to that in a minute, but for right now, suffice to say that these ideas are held by Americans only in an abstract theoretical way, rather than as a matter of real truth.

I do believe that a great many Americans do simply parrot back what their civics teacher told them about “rights” without thinking through what that means or what the implications of those beliefs are. I don’t think I’m one of them, and let me tell you why… Continue reading