The Proper Origin of Rights

This article was submitted by my good friends (and LCC readers) Doug Douma and Lydia Ingram. Though I personally take a “concordist” position that deontological rights are in harmony with Biblical revelation rather than ultimately nonsensical, Doug and Lydia present an interesting case and I know we can have an interesting discussion around this great topic. Many thanks to Doug and Lydia!


image Libertarianism is founded on the belief that individuals have universal rights – specifically rights to life, liberty, and the possession of property. Despite fairly widespread recognition of these rights, their universal defense (that is, an explanation of why these rights apply at all times and in all places) can often be difficult to articulate. Three predominant sub-groups within libertarianism attempt such a defense, each with a unique approach. Consequentialist libertarians focus on utility, deontological libertarians look to nature, and Ayn Rand’s followers turn to what they term ethical egoism. At first glance, each of these seems to offer a reasonable defense of universal rights; but closer inspection reveals their flaws. Conscientious defenders of liberty realize that without a solid defense, protection and preservation of rights cannot be guaranteed. Fortunately, there is a firm defense to be found within the pages of God’s Word. In the Bible, God lays out laws and moral constraints, commanding humans to obey. In so doing, God establishes man’s basic human rights; these rights are based on morality and morality originates in God. Therefore, the origin and only solid defense of rights are found, not in utilitarian economics, nature, or egoism, but in the Word of God.

Consequentialist libertarians would disagree, believing they need only look as far as the utility of rights in order to find a suitable defense of them. They believe that rights of life, liberty, and property ownership should be protected because those rights lead to positive utilities, such as prosperity, efficiency, or happiness. The argument quickly falls apart, however, as soon as one realizes that there is no practical unit of measurement for utility. Neoclassical economists devised a unit called a utile, but this concept should be discarded as nonsense. The utility of rights is ultimately immeasurable because happiness, efficiency, and prosperity are impossible to quantify.  Even if one could measure a single individual’s happiness, prosperity, or efficiency, these things could not be aggregated across all people. The total utility of rights for a society is indeterminable, and therefore, the consequentialist defense must necessarily be discarded, at least insofar as using it as a solid defense of universal rights is concerned.

Deontological libertarianism’s argument is not quite so easily dismissed, though ultimately, it, too, is a flawed defense. Deontological libertarianism claims that rights are based on the moral principle of non-aggression: You leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone; to do otherwise would be immoral. This principle is derived from the concept of self-ownership, meaning that a person ought to be the exclusive controller of his own body and life. Murray Rothbard argued that self-ownership is a natural law because it is what is naturally best for man. In his essay, “Justice and Property Rights,” Rothbard writes:

Since the nature of man is such that each individual must use his mind to learn about himself and the world, to select values, and to choose ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives each man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation.

In Rothbard’s estimation, man’s end goal is “to survive and flourish,” and rights must be preserved and defended as a means to that end. If, however, there is a single case in which ignoring rights helps a man to survive and flourish, then logically, rights cannot be considered universal because they would no longer be applicable at all times and in all places or for all people. The unfortunate truth is that there are plenty of instances in which infringing upon another’s rights can secure one’s own survival. That is precisely how nature operates: survival of the fittest. If stealing or killing advances one’s position, then nature seems to encourage the decision to do so. Nature, then, can be deemed as neither the source of nor a defense of universal rights, as “rights” by nature’s standard are entirely situational. Because that which is situational cannot also be universal, it is necessary to conclude that situational rights are no rights at all.[i]

Ayn Rand’s view is even less helpful in the search for a defense of rights because her argument based on ethical egoism, like deontological libertarianism, actually contradicts the universality of rights. At first glance, Rand’s worship of life as mankind’s highest goal and value seemingly implies that rights are also to be valued. After all, life and happiness are relatively difficult to attain if one doesn’t first have the right to pursue them. However, an ethical egoist does not believe he is morally bound to respect the rights of others if doing so would end his own life or happiness. Thus, to the ethical egoist, rights are not universal, but situational. This is a frightening thought – it is impossible to expect one’s rights to be respected by others if there is no actual reason or motivation for others to do so. Without universal constraints on people’s interpersonal moral decisions, universal rights cannot be effectively defended.

That is where Scripture comes in. Scripture provides the moral constraints necessary to establish the existence of and the defense of universal rights. Three examples of interpersonal moral constraints laid out by God in the Bible are “thou shalt not kill,” “thou shalt not steal,” and “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The first two laws[ii] establish individuals’ rights to life and to the possession of property. The third provides the moral constraint that allows men to expect their rights to be recognized by others. When a man loves his neighbor as he loves himself, he understands that any action that would be detrimental to himself should never be taken against others. No one wants to be harmed, therefore no one should initiate harm on another. The moral constraints against killing, stealing, and so forth, are primary ethical norms. They are, to coin a term, “non-rights.” Man does not have the right to kill or to steal. From these Biblical maxims, one can logically derive the universal rights of life, liberty, and property.

Whenever it is said that one ought or ought not to perform some action, there must be a reason or motivation to abide by such a statement. The motive to restrain oneself from infringing upon the recognized rights of others is simple and entirely self-serving. Simply put, abiding by ethical laws is in alignment with man’s most basic ethical goal: his own best interests. Generally speaking, a man will seek what is best for himself. Perhaps this means seeking utilities such as happiness and prosperity. Perhaps it means “to survive and flourish.” It stands to reason that as man’s creator, God is also aware of that which is best for man. Scripture declares that a right relationship with God should be man’s highest goal. A relationship with his Creator endows a man with fulfillment, wholeness, and happiness. A relationship with God sets man up to survive and flourish eternally. While mankind’s eternal salvation has been secured by the death and resurrection of Christ, man is still responsible for living out his life on earth in a way that is God-pleasing (man does this not to earn salvation, but in response to that which has been done on his behalf). The deepest kind of satisfaction can be attained in both this life and the life to come, but only if one has a right relationship with God. Recognizing and respecting the moral constraints God established is part of that.[iii] If a man is motivated to achieve his goal of happiness and satisfaction, then logically, he should seek to remain in a right relationship with the One who can provide that desired end result, both now and in eternity.

A person whose only goal is his own self-interest in this earthly life could easily believe that rules, ethics, and rights can all be violated for his own sake. Any system, then, that sets a goal solely applicable in this life necessarily excludes acknowledging rights. If man’s goal is “goodness” or “happiness” only in this life, then he need only acknowledge the rights of others when it is in his own best interest, and never otherwise. In that case, rights are no longer universally applicable rules to follow and are therefore no longer rights. If life ends at death, then it makes perfect sense that one should do whatever he can to make himself happy during his lifetime, even if that means causing harm to others. However, Scripture reveals that there is more to life than the years spent on Earth. Life extends into eternity and man does not have to sacrifice his acknowledgement of rights in his earthly life in order to reach his goal of happiness and fulfillment in eternal life. A person whose goal is his own self-interest in this earthly life AND in eternal life will recognize that the means to this end goal involve the recognition and defense of rules, ethics, and rights – not as way of earning eternal life, but as a way of enjoying completeness with the Creator, Savior God.

Scripture, then, acts as revelation to Christians. It reveals man’s universal rights and identifies God as their source. It provides awareness of the possibility of eternal life and of the beauty of a relationship with God. With that knowledge comes a motivation for respecting the rights of others. The origin of and motivation for respecting the rights of mankind combine to form a solid basis for the universal defense of the rights Libertarians hold so dear.

So ultimately, rights are not something that should be defended simply by observing their utility within a society. Nor are rights something that can be defended solely by saying they come from nature, for nature would more often have men violate each other’s rights in an effort to survive. Rights are instead established by God Himself and preserved for posterity in the Bible. Scripture provides the origin of rights and the defense of their universality. Rights do not have to be ignored in certain cases in order to reach the end goal of happiness or fulfillment because life does not end with death, and happiness and fulfillment are found in a right relationship with God. And a right relationship with God is attained through Spirit-inspired faith and obedience to God’s Word. Libertarians who desire to know and discuss the source of their inalienable rights should therefore look not to worldly philosophical arguments, but to the Bible and its author, our author, God the Creator.

[i] Another problem inherent in Rothbard’s view is that it doesn’t give self-ownership to those who by nature can’t “choose ends and means in order to survive and flourish.” Therefore, in his view, a person in a coma has no rights, nor does a fetus, nor an infant. Only the Christian view is consistent, giving all humans rights at all times and in all conditions.

[ii] Not all of the laws in the Bible establish rights, only those that deal with interpersonal action. The law to remember the Sabbath and the law against worshipping idols are personal, not interpersonal. Although breaking these laws may indirectly affect other people, the laws themselves are not direct moral constraints on interpersonal interaction. Therefore, it must be noted that Biblical Law goes beyond interpersonal actions and addresses personal concerns as well. In this sense, libertarian rights are established from only a subset of the laws of God.

[iii] To preemptively address a potential issue, it may be important to note that rights only exist as they apply to relationships among men, as morality only applies to men. Rights don’t constrain God, nor do they constrain nature. To say that man has a right to life means that all other people ought not to kill man; it does not mean that God ought not to kill man nor that an animal or a volcano ought not to kill man.