An analogy I often use to demonstrate the term “rhetoric” is to say “ice cubes are cool, therefore ice cubes are awesome”. What is going on here is the alteration of an idea based on the abstracting of an original idea. Certainly ice cubes can be awesome, and the appreciation of ice cubes being cool makes them awesome (subjectively speaking), but the coolness alone does not make the ice cube awesome. Yet this change in an idea often goes unnoticed when the word attempts to describe a more complex framework. In short, we may find ourselves applying rhetoric without even realizing it. The word we are actually searching for may be more limited in scope and definition but be supported by reality. Let us start with an analogy.
Consider a log. A log is great for building houses and its roundness contributes to that as well as to the fact that logs may be a good tool for moving very heavy objects, such as statues. From logs then, we might acquire the idea of the wheel and of circles. But can you imagine if all bricks and structures today were designed in terms of circles, as used in log cabins? A circle works for logs and maintains the structural integrity of the log, but it is unreasonable to be stacking metal rods together in the fashion of old log cabins.
In modern times, we have something analogous, called “rights”. I want you to note that the concept of “right” is an entirely Western idea, stemming from Western culture. If it is a cultural idea alone, then it cannot be a universal idea. However, we do find similarities of the concepts of “rights” in other parts of the world, but they are not labeled as “rights” – at least, not until they reach the U.S.. These ideas, then, while they may now constitute the concept of “right” have their origin in something more concrete.
But first, we must ask, what is a “right”?
Rights – Definition and Origins
I think you will agree that a “right”, in its simplest definition, is something we believe we should have. This “right” may be things such as the right to life, the right to privacy, the right to speak freely, etcetera.
Let us consider this concept on its own, initially irrespectively of the possible independence of the origins of the ideas that constitute it. That is, let us assume that a “right” is a real truth and not merely a collection of ideas.
Why do we believe that we should have the things and freedoms that are bestowed upon us by “rights”? Is it on the basis of entitlement? From where does this entitlement come? Entitlement must have a source – that is, someone who respects, upholds, and can defend the entitlement it grants – otherwise the entitlement is not an entitlement, it is merely a demand with some accompanying hogwash (as if somehow legalistic rhetoric could change its essence).
The fact that rights are often associated with freedoms or phrased as such gives us a clue as to the origin of the word “right” and its source. This word is traced back in the history of the United States to the Founding Fathers who believed that “Nature’s God” gave them certain freedoms and “rights”. Therefore, at least in the words of the Founding Fathers, it would appear that if rights were some kind of entitlement, it would derive directly from God. However, it is notable that, amongst all things, God – any kind of God on the books – never seems to grant such rights, such as the liberty to say anything one desires. More often than not, there is some limitation on things that can be said. Thus, it cannot be that God would entitle us to such a liberty as the “right to free expression” in all of its broadness and ambiguity. I would like to return to this point, but before I do, it is necessary to consider the other possible sources of the entitlement.
The entitlement, called a “right”, is in many cases considered to be derived from the government. While the government, at least in the United States, often labels itself merely as the protector of such “rights”, it nevertheless acts as the granter in many cases. For example, the right to copy (“copyright”) is a right invented and enforced by the government and does not exist in the records of any ancient civilization (so far as I know). If it did exist in ancient civilizations, we could say it was a notion felt even then. But the contrary seems to be true, as people seem more inclined to share ideas even if not inclined to share the tangible works. Regardless of how people feel about it, if rights derive their source from the government, then rights can be changed. Furthermore, no one can claim they have a right that is not protected by the government. What is most notable about government rights is that there is very little in terms of front line protection aside from fear, from enforcement. That is, people only respect a government-derived “right” if they are afraid of the consequences of not respecting it. Since many people are not afraid of such consequences (because they do not believe they will be caught), government-enforced “rights” offer little protection in many scenarios.
Another potential source of rights is culture itself. This might come in the form of being allowed to practice tradition at the protection of the majority. But as the majority changes with every generation, old customs disappear and are replaced, changing the so-called “rights” granted by society.
Incidentally, a great many rights are felt by a majority of the people of the world as a whole, even if they are disregarded for the sake of convenience. For instance, the right to the privacy of one’s body and to dress in the way one deems appropriate. This might be disregarded by individuals and parties that are not considering it with respect to themselves.
Since there is some commonality felt in the various types of “rights” or entitlements we have, these specific “rights” may derive themselves from the same origin, and I intend to discuss this origin next. Other “rights” whose origins are based on the government or society are shifting entitlements, and while not necessarily undeserving of attention, they should not be associated with rights of the same origin as the term “right” would otherwise suggest.
Found in Love
There is considerable overlap in the expectations of many rights and the consequences of “love” (more precisely, charity and kindness, not some emotional feelings). I believe that many rights (if not all fundamental, key rights) find their origin in the expectations of love. If a party is loving towards the person with rights, then such rights are fulfilled, whether or not they have some basis of entitlement.
In transitioning our mentality of the human entitlement from right to love, we encounter a shift in mentality that places the burden upon the party that responds to the rights of the individual. In transitioning our mentality from love to the right, the shift takes the burden off of the party (who must uphold the right) and places it on a pedestal, only making it the burden of the individual to uphold. One is forced to demand their rights, which may or may not be respected by the party that responds. Thus, it is better that we expect love than to demand rights.
However, the requirement of love (charity and kindness) must also have its origins. This requirement of love has a theological source and an anthropological significance. The theological source begins by saying God commands love, and if he doesn’t, then there is no requirement to be loving (and consequently, no “right” to receive it). There is far more to say on this subject, such as why God would command love, the origins of it, its definition, and what it means for man, etcetera, but that is a topic for another article. The anthropological significance is one outlined by C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity, and can be summarized as such: mankind is a machine that runs correctly because of love. This point can be argued and debated, but since it is theoretical (and never applied to the entirety of humanity), it can’t be debunked by any empirical evidence.
If love (charity and kindness) is, in fact, a source of “rights”, then it is restricted in its applicable range. Its absolute bounds are not restricted to the selfish domain (that is, a person only needs to be as loving as they want to be), but in a reasonable sense that takes into consideration the requirement of reciprocity. That is, a person needs to love the person who they expect to love them.
It might be simpler to say, “respect the wishes of the other person”, but this does not constitute the nature of love (of charity and kindness), which establishes its own true bounds. The boundaries are not established by a mutual subjective agreement. That is, it is not in the interest of love to “Treat others how they want to be treated”. For example, it is not in the interests of love to kill someone because they want to be killed and would kill you if you so requested it. Furthermore, considering the words “Treat others how you want to be treated” cannot be taken out of context and made applicable in all general scenarios, because it implies such nonsense as the converse of “Treat others how they want to be treated”: killing people because you want to be killed.
Nevertheless, this notion of respecting the wishes of others carries over into the modern idea of “right”. My assumption is that this is derived from the expectation of courtesy for one’s views, however disagreeable they may be, in combination with other demands, possibly correct or possibly purely selfish in origin.
I would like to discuss a few rights in particular and address what I think their origins would be. However, at that point, this article would appear very bias and my reasoning might inevitably become mixed with pure speculation. Therefore, I will leave analysis of specific “rights” for another time.
Most importantly, I think it would be good to recognize that rights are more of an expectation of certain consequences of love (charity and kindness). Specific details and expectations may be discussed some other time as they deserve more detailed analyses. Modern concepts of rights are the children of the complexity and derive themselves from the abstracting of the expectations of love (charity and kindness) in a manner analogous to logs in construction. In both cases (right and logs), it is still workable (as reality has shown), but it is never as good as it could be. Hence, if we want our societal mess to be resolved, “right” is not the right idea.