July 30th, 2009

Of Rights and Responsibilities

photo credit: I Travel East

Fewer words in our political vernacular have become as distorted as the word “right”. Today, politicians and ordinary people alike regularly mention a “right to health care”, “right to home ownership”, “right to affordable insurance”, and a litany of other supposed “rights” to which all Americans are somehow entitled. Absent any philosophical reasoning explaining why these things are indeed rights, the superficial references become, through constant repetition, an accepted truism that only the unpatriotic and selfish would dare oppose (or so we are told).

The looseness of our collective definition regarding just what a right is has permeated our society with an entitlement mentality where what one receives is often not what one has earned. To speak of individual rights has become an initiative clouded by common communitarian arguments ingrained into people’s minds.

To better understand the nature of our rights, it is imperative that we are aware of their associated elements. Taken out of context and exalted above anything related, one can see how easy it is to so neuter the word that it can apply to just about anything. But when we frame the discussion in its proper philosophical background, many of the so-called “rights” being promoted lose any moral standing upon which to advance their position.

One of the best contemporary treatises on the nature and implication of individual rights is a book titled The Moral Basis of a Free Society by H. Verlan Andersen. Speaking of the ignorance regarding what one’s rights really are, Andersen says:

One who knows not what his rights are can never know when they are taken and is unable to defend them. He is like a man who believes he owns a piece of ground which his neighbor also claims, but he doesn’t know its boundaries. The neighbor continues to encroach further and further onto land he suspects is his, but since he is never certain where the boundary is, he cannot check the advance. Until he takes a firm position and says: “this far and no further,” there is no line.

So, just what is a right? Despite the abundant confusion, it is rather simple to define. A right is that thing for which a corresponding responsibility naturally exists and is enforced. An example of this is life itself: you have the right to your own life, and I (and everybody else) has the responsibility to respect that right by not causing you harm or death. Your right to defend yourself from a would-be aggressor implies a responsibility to learn how best to fulfill that obligation and pursue the necessary training to become proficient. Your right to property demands that others fulfill their responsibility of refraining from trespassing on or damaging what belongs to you.

The above examples show that the onus of a right’s corresponding responsibilities can be on different people. Speaking of our personal responsibilities, Elder Dallin H. Oaks said:

At a time when most of our public discourse concerns rights, it may seem strange to speak of responsibilities. But a democratic republic needs patriotic citizens who are fulfilling their responsibilities as well as claiming their rights. No society is so secure that it can withstand continued demands for increases in citizen rights without producing corresponding increases in the fulfillment of citizen responsibilities. Responsibilities like honesty, respect for personal and property rights, self-reliance, and willingness to sacrifice for the common good are basic to the governance and preservation of our nation.

Referring to responsibilities as duties, H. Verlan Andersen wrote of what our rights require of others:

By very definition a right cannot exist in one person unless there is a corresponding duty in another. Unless there is someone who can be compelled to do or refrain from doing something to give the right meaning, it has no substance.

The substance of a right consists of the power to compel the wrongdoer to make restitution and the substance of a duty consists of being compelled to perform it. Unless the performance of the duty is enforced, the right is without a remedy and the failure to perform the duty without a penalty. It is the enforcement which brings both into existence and gives them substance.

The above quotes (and the rest of Andersen’s excellent book) demonstrate a symbiotic relationship between rights and responsibilities. By focusing primarily (and often exclusively) on what our rights are, we neglect to take into account the obligations they require in order to truly be qualified as a “right”.

A few examples will illustrate that the many rights of our day are anything but. First, the right to education. The right to be educated requires a corresponding responsibility of someone being a teacher. Since this right would require another person to instruct me as I thought best, this means that if the other individual did not wish to teach me for whatever reason, he would have to be forced to do so in order to satisfy my right to an education. As I cannot enjoy a right which compels another person to do something he may prefer not to, and for which he has no natural obligation, education cannot be classified as a real “right”. Similarly, a right to health care would mean that doctors—after having spent a fortune on their education and having dedicated years of their life to their studies—would somehow be duty-bound to give me the care I desired of them. Just about any other so-called right (insurance, home ownership, food, employment, etc.) breaks down under the same analysis.

Summarizing this collection of fallacious rights, H. Verlan Anderson wrote the following:

Is it not apparent that it is impossible for government to “create” rights in one person or group without destroying the rights of another? When it gives special privileges to one it must deny them to someone else. This result is unavoidable because when government creates a “right” in one person, it must at the same time create a “duty” in someone else. A right is without any substance unless there is someone against whom it can be enforced. But the one against whom it is enforced is saddled with a duty he did not formerly owe. The law compels him to do something or refrain from doing something and punishes him if he refuses. But you cannot compel a person against his will, nor can you punish him, without taking from him either his right to life, his right to liberty or his right to property. Thus the law has destroyed his rights in attempting to create “rights” in someone else.

Truth be told, we have very few rights at all outside the limited set delineated in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, anytime you hear somebody talking about “our right to _____”, you can use the above analysis to determine what the corresponding responsibility/duty is, and thus see if society as a whole can legitimately be compelled to discharge that duty. Not being able to meet that restrictive standard, all other psuedo-rights should be exposed for the deceitful counterfeits that they really are.

40 Responses to “Of Rights and Responsibilities”

  1. rmwarnick
    July 30, 2009 at 11:10 am #

    Without access to health care, many Americans will suffer an early death. The National Institute of Medicine reports that 18,000 Americans die yearly for lack of health insurance.

    You could just as well say they died due to right-wing ideology.

  2. Connor
    July 30, 2009 at 11:16 am #

    It is not the government’s responsibility to prolong life.

    And I have to laugh… the link you share is a glorification of Canada’s health care system. Seriously? [2] [3] [4] [5] (would you like me to continue?)

  3. ben
    July 30, 2009 at 11:16 am #

    You only mention the rights in the Declaration of Independence. Do you not see the rights in the Bill of Rights as actual rights?

    Thanks for another well thought-out article. I’ve never thought of rights in this light before. It’s going to take some noodlin’ through on my part before I can articulate an articulate response.

  4. Connor
    July 30, 2009 at 11:18 am #

    You only mention the rights in the Declaration of Independence. Do you not see the rights in the Bill of Rights as actual rights?

    I think that those listed in the Declaration of Independence encapsulate the ones enumerated in the Bill of Rights. For example, the freedom to associate, assemble, or worship as we please are simply subsets of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    Andersen’s book does an excellent job at dissecting and comparing these three fundamental rights. It’s well worth a read.

  5. Russ
    July 30, 2009 at 11:26 am #


    People don’t die from lack of health insurance. It’s a red herring.

    I can just see the top 5 causes of death now…
    5) Cancer
    4) Stroke
    3) Diabetes
    2) Lack of Health Insurance
    1) Hearth Disease

    Stupid right-wing Necons. How could they not see how deadly lack of health insurance is?

  6. Jesse Harris
    July 30, 2009 at 11:26 am #

    rmwarnick: I’m not aware of a single person who died from a lack of medical insurance. Usually they die from a lack of medical care. The two are not equivalent and never have been. Medical insurance is a primary reason why everything costs so much for the uninsured. Do we then solve the problem by a) reducing the pricing stranglehold and market manipulation of and by insurers or b) creating more insurance and thus more monopolistic practices? Seems like there’s only one logical choice, and it doesn’t involve creating more government programs.

  7. rmwarnick
    July 30, 2009 at 12:03 pm #

    Health insurance is the key factor in many preventable deaths. The American Cancer Society says uninsured patients are 60 percent more likely to die within five years of their diagnosis. Without insurance, the diagnosis is twice as likely to come in the later stages of cancer.

    I’m not here to argue that health insurance is a “right,” but “life” is the first right mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. In the USA, we spend more per capita on our health care sector than any industrialized nation (16 percent of GDP), yet we were ranked 37th by the World Health Organization– well behind the UK and Canada.

    U.S. businesses often find themselves at a competitive disadvantage because of the high and ever-increasing cost of employee health benefits. Individual Americans frequently lose access to insurance due to rescission (getting dropped by the insurance company because you are hurting their bottom line) and become uninsurable due to pre-existing conditions (insurance companies only accept healthy people).

  8. Connor
    July 30, 2009 at 12:13 pm #

    I’m not here to argue that health insurance is a “right,” but “life” is the first right mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.

    A person’s right to his own life in no way justifies government intervention in providing or sustaining that life. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are natural rights, not requiring any government agency or positive law.

    In the USA, we spend more per capita on our health care sector…

    Are you cognizant of the regulatory burdens placed on the system, and the ways in which prices are inflated to compensate for hiring extra staff, going through training, complying with bureaucratic requirements, etc.? Government is a large part of the problem of high health care costs; remove government from the equation, and the prices of health care will plummet.

    Individual Americans frequently lose access to insurance due to rescission (getting dropped by the insurance company because you are hurting their bottom line) and become uninsurable due to pre-existing conditions (insurance companies only accept healthy people).

    Nobody is forcing them to take the company’s insurance. They could get their own policy, and be covered the entire time. Or they could save the money they would normally spend on insurance and pay their own costs. Insurance is not necessary, nor is it a company’s (or the governments’) fault if a person loses his insurance.

    We’re grown ups. We don’t need a nanny state government to take care of us like infants.

  9. Carborendum
    July 30, 2009 at 12:15 pm #

    I saw this interview with John Edwards when he was still running for President. At about 4:58 the interviewer stated a series of issues asking the Senator if it was a “right” or a “privilege”.

    He said they were all rights except gun ownership.

    My immediate response was,”Gee that’s the only one I consider a right. It says so in the Consititution.” But, no. Actually, it isn’t. Here’s my reasoning.

    We are guaranteed the right to BEAR ARMS. We do not have a right to “own” a gun. We only have a right to OWN it if we’ve bought it with our own money (or in the extreme case–made it with our own hands…)

    We have a right to access/opportunity of obtaining something. But EVERYTHING must be earned except for the very basic things that we can do within our own person. Examples:

    Right to Life: This is completely within our own person. This right cannot be taken away without violation of some principle or as payment for the violation of some principle.

    Right to Liberty: This can only be taken as far as we do not interfere or interact with others. Once we interact with others, agreements, concessions, etc. must be made to have a peaceful society.

    Right to Property: When we have a credible claim to some property, it is as inherent a right as the right to life. If we don’t have the credible claim, then what? We’re born with nothing. We will die with nothing. What happens in between as far as property?

    Right to Pursue Happiness: The “pursue” part is so often overlooked. This is the word that separates those who advocate responsibility and those who believe in the entitlement mentality.

    We have every right to TRY to obtain anything we want. But natural laws, the notion of personal responsibility, and the basic principles outlined in the Declaration and Bill of Rights must govern whether we succeed at it.

    Once we begin to believe we have a “right” to anything that is not so fundamental, we begin to tread on the rights of others. And that violates the fundamental rights.

  10. rmwarnick
    July 30, 2009 at 12:25 pm #

    Connor, what you are saying is we all have the “right” to file for bankruptcy if we have an accident or come down with a major illness. There has to be a better way!

  11. Connor
    July 30, 2009 at 12:29 pm #

    Connor, what you are saying is we all have the “right” to file for bankruptcy if we have an accident or come down with a major illness.

    This only affects health care if there is some requirement that doctors/hospitals render their services to anybody. Health care is a good/service which should only be provided to people who can demonstrate an ability to pay for it.

    So bankruptcy wouldn’t really be an issue, since only those people who could afford their needed care (through insurance, savings, assistance from charity, etc.) would be treated.

    Freedom is always a better way, though it doesn’t make as many people feel warm and fuzzy as socialism does.

  12. rachel
    July 30, 2009 at 12:43 pm #

    That’s a very good way to define what is a right and what is not.

    I agree with what you say about the entitlement mentality. I think what confuses the issue of rights in addition to that mentality is the phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” and the disregard for the previous phrase, “endowed by our creator.”

    I wondered where that phrase in the Declaration of Independence originated, so I looked it up. According to internet sources, ‘the famous phrase is based on the writings of English writer John Locke, who expressed that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”‘

    Also, ‘the first article of the Virginia Declaration of Rights adopted unanimously by the Virginia Convention of Delegates on June 12, 1776 and written by George Mason, is:

    That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.’ (That statement could easily be twisted to support some government subsidized handout of material wealth, or some warped law about mandatory inheritance.)

    In LDS teachings we read, “We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life.” Again, that phrase, the free exercise of conscience,” could appear ambiguous.

    Once again, there has to be a moral basis, hence the title of Andersen’s book, and as I believe he is, I am of the opinion that all true rights are anchored in God and his commandments.

  13. Darrel
    July 30, 2009 at 3:14 pm #

    I apologize for the lack of understanding in advance. I am having trouble understanding the establishment of what rights are.

    I am not as well versed with enlightenment writings, and therefore do not know the arguments that were used to discover the basic natural rights used by the American Founding Fathers to write our law. It seems an understanding of this would finalize my understanding on the topic.

    An example of this is life itself: you have the right to your own life, and I (and everybody else) has the responsibility to respect that right by not causing you harm or death.

    If you take away government (placing us in the “state of nature”) AND God, I don’t see a person’s right to life according to the reasoning established in this conversation.

    If I were to take another’s life in such a state of living, there would be no immediate punishment or consequence at all. Without God, I can’t see my responsibility to respect your life, and if there’s no obligation or duty, how can that right exist?

    Now if God enters the picture, the commandment “thou shalt not kill” creates the responsibility which in turn establishes the right. If this is true, then our government’s basis for law rests on certain key religious beliefs (as shown by Rachel), which are not influenced by Man’s counsel, political opinion, or desire.

    Can someone better explain to me how our rights are established without a discussion of God? Does such an explanation exist?

  14. Carborendum
    July 30, 2009 at 9:46 pm #


    You are correct.

    that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights

    –The Declaration.

    Indeed, ANY discussion of morality cannot hold water without a discussion of God. Washington’s Farewell Address declares it:

    Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

    It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. T

    A claim to morality cannot be held inviolate in the absence of a force that is equally inviolate. Eternally true principles cannot be so without an Eternal force behind them.

    Government that changes from day to day cannot be the source of an unchanging morality.

    Individuals with mortal frailties who change from moment-to-moment cannot be the source of eternal principles.

    Only an Eternal, unchanging God can be the true source of any Eternal truths.

    . . . for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.

    Matt. 16: 17

    Anything that can be considered TRUE or MORAL without the presence of God is always subject to change and/or error.

  15. Carborendum
    July 30, 2009 at 9:51 pm #

    Let me focus on a particular line of the Washington quote:

    And let us WITH CAUTION indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, REASON AND EXPERIENCE BOTH FORBID us to expect that national morality can prevail in EXCLUSION of religious principle.

    (emphasis mine).

  16. Connor
    July 30, 2009 at 10:09 pm #

    Can someone better explain to me how our rights are established without a discussion of God? Does such an explanation exist?

    Hobbes and Locke have some great writings on this subject (that of natural rights) from which the Founders gained their insight. Kant tried to explain natural rights through reason alone, whereas the Founders had the (I believe more enlightened) approach that these rights came from our Creator.

    Despite their source, these natural rights are innate in our very humanity. We enjoy them because we exist—not because government has organized and granted them unto us. They antedate and supersede any government.

    So, while a discussion on their source (our Creator) is helpful and insightful, I don’t necessarily think that it is required in order to explain the corresponding responsibilities that are in force.

    For example, pretend that we live in an environment in which there is no government. There is nobody to enforce any laws. If person A murders person B, the sane (reasonable) bystanders in the community will surely understand this action to have been wrong. In the absence of positive (government-created) law, if this action was wrong it implies that some law was broken. If a law was broken, that likewise implies that there existed some responsibility on the part of person A not to commit that murder.

    Natural laws are so termed because they are natural. They exist without government, and are common to our humanity (some might argue that they are natural to our culture, since more primitive cultures might have different codes of conduct). But even in a group of atheists who do not recognize the source of these laws, I believe you would be hard-pressed to find unanimous consent for tolerating murder.

  17. Clumpy
    July 30, 2009 at 10:48 pm #

    Y’know, it’s a good dichotomy, rights vs. responsibilities. Connor’s example had me thinking – it might be better to say that we have a “right to be educated,” rather than a “right to education,” which implies a sort of passivity I don’t think anybody should find admirable.

    Nobody can take your right away to be an educated person, or to own a home or anything else, but expecting them to provide it is another thing altogether.

    I was such an arse in the last thread I participated in that I’ve decided to mellow out for awhile :).

  18. Jason
    July 31, 2009 at 11:03 am #

    A well written timely article and the points made ring so true to me. I have tried to have this discussion with various people before, I really like the way the principles are laid out here.

    However, this discussion invariably leads to the types of issues brought up both in the article and the comments, namely what about [good thing]? Shouldn’t that be a right? I would say that absolutely the answer is NO! That doesn’t mean that [good thing] is not good, or that we shouldn’t find a way for as many people as possible to enjoy the benefits of [good thing], but regardless of how good it is, it doesn’t automatically get raised to the stature of a “right” just because it would be beneficial to all who would enjoy it.

    It is simply a semantic difference between “good things” and “rights”. Rights are few, as they should be. As was pointed out already, I would agree that for the most part I would tend to only use those defined in the Declaration of Independence, though more contemplation *may* reveal one or two others.

    The list of “good things” grows nearly daily, there are many things that can be on this list and that is part of what makes this life interesting, choosing which “good things” to pursue with the time and resources we have.

  19. Jennifer
    July 31, 2009 at 11:32 am #

    I served in the navy many years ago and one of the first things we learned in boot camp was the chain of command. During that lecture we had a discussion about responsibility and authority. We were taught that whoever is responsible for some task, a project, a group of people, etc. holds the authority for making those decisions that arise within that task, project, etc. Authority and responsibility go hand in hand and the system breaks down if you try to assign responsibility WITHOUT authority. This is why passing responsibility on to government (or anyone else for that matter) results in a loss of freedom. If you pass a responsibility to somebody, you also transfer your authority to make decisions to that same body.

  20. Clumpy
    July 31, 2009 at 1:05 pm #

    I do think we are in danger when we “infer” right to property from “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” since my ideas of what may be required to pursue happiness can and will be quite a bit different from anybody else’s. That’s why I support strictly-enumerated rights despite some of the negative consequences.

  21. Carborendum
    July 31, 2009 at 4:01 pm #


    There is no “inference” of property from pursuit of happiness. John Locke’s writings (widely read at the time) and the Virginia Declaration of Rights both declare that the fundamental rights of individuals are:

    Life, Liberty, & Property.

    Although, I particularly like the wording from Virginia.

    When the founders were writing the Declaration, they were mimicking this declaration of rights. But they realized that a good nation of FREE people should not tolerate slavery. At the same time they realized that the Southern states would point to the Declaration (the basis of what our country is about) and say

    See, we were promised to be able to keep our property. Slaves are property. So you can’t take our slaves away.

    So, they wisely pre-empted such discussion with the declaration being changed from “property” to “pursuit of happiness”. I’m not aware of whether Jefferson penned this in his first draft or if it was by others during a later revision.

    So, when people say “property” instead of “pursuit of happiness”, it is because of earlier documents, not the Declaration.

  22. Clumpy
    July 31, 2009 at 10:00 pm #

    My mistake actually, Carborendum. I was referring to Connor’s “rights to assembly” inferrence, etc.

    I’m not much of an “original intent” guy, meaning that I believe the Constitution exists only to upholds particular values and liberties and not as an end in itself. Or at least I’d prioritize such values over extra credit reading from the time.

    At any rate this stuff can be subjective.

  23. Carborendum
    August 1, 2009 at 12:55 am #


    What? I’m just a bit confused here.

    You said:

    I do think we are in danger when we “infer” right to property from “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”

    I then explained why it wasn’t an inference per se–but a reference to source material.

    Then you said:

    I was referring to Connor’s “rights to assembly” inferrence, etc.

    That is to say, you were NOT referring to Life, Liberty . . .

    What am I missing?

  24. Clumpy
    August 1, 2009 at 2:01 am #

    Wait – who are you? Are you my grandson?

    I’m sorry – what I meant to say was that I actually wrote “property” when I meant to refer to the other freedoms Connor mentioned in his comment, freedoms that I of course agree can be inferred from the Constitution.

    But I disagreed that those particular rights were a given from Constitutional language while others were obviously undue government intervention into the private sector. Of course, I guess we have the judicial branch, and the coercion test Connor indirectly proposed (i.e. freedom of assembly involves no undue obligation into another citizen’s freedoms while some other non-“rights” clearly do). That seems as good as any. So as usual I’m thinking aloud without any specific point in mind. Sigh…

    If I start talking gibberish again just let me know :).

  25. Carborendum
    August 1, 2009 at 8:06 pm #

    Oh! Abuelo! Hace muchos anos desde nos conocimos.

  26. Clumpy
    August 2, 2009 at 2:40 pm #

    I wander off, I get confused, I wind up in the middle of nowhere. Keeping me at the computer lets them keep an eye on me.

  27. Carborendum
    August 2, 2009 at 6:40 pm #

    Remember, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

  28. Quincy
    August 2, 2009 at 8:54 pm #

    Can someone better explain to me how our rights are established without a discussion of God? Does such an explanation exist?

    Here is an argument for natural rights that doesn’t rely on God.

    Just like natural physical laws, natural moral laws can be discovered through empirical study. The difference is simply the subject of study. When a scientist seeks physical natural laws, his topic of study is the physical world. Similarly, a political philosopher seeking moral natural laws must focus his efforts on the moral world. This doesn’t mean a study of religion. Unfortunately, many religions have lost sight of man’s innate moral sense by overemphasizing ritual and hierarchy. What I mean by ‘moral world’ is what we commonly refer to as the conscience of man.

    Evidence of this moral sense is clear to the honest observer. In what society has it been acceptable, without some justification, to wantonly kill other humans? In what society has it been acceptable to take property from others without some kind of justification? In what society has it been acceptable to enslave or imprison another without justification?


    Now, when you present this argument, you will invariably hear the objection that many societies in the past have condoned such behavior. But on closer inquiry, you will discover that in every example put forward, the society made some effort to justify the violation of these natural rights.

    For example, a common objection is that if there existed such a moral sense inherent in mankind, then why did it permit the practice of enslaving Africans and Indians? Even the U.S. Constitution turned a blind eye to the issue. Clearly this violated natural rights.

    The answer is that in an effort to justify slavery, society turned to the racial, cultural, and educational differences between the slavers and the enslaved. Society sought to justify what at heart they knew was wrong. If the there had been no moral sense whatever, there would have been no attempt to justify slavery. The question “why do you have the right to enslave those people?” would not have made any sense, and would have required no more justification than “why not?”

    Clearly, the reasons people devise to justify violating the rights of others are usually bogus. Racial, cultural, and educational differences clearly do not justify enslaving another person. Nevertheless, that the justification was bogus does not eliminate the fact that the moral sense inherent in the human mind demanded a justification of some kind.

    This same analysis will apply to the problems of hereditary monarchy, socialism, communism, and any other philosophy that condones the violation of natural rights. The very fact that the philosophy exists is a testament that the right is recognized. Otherwise, there would be no need of a philosophy to justify the violation.

    Thus the philosophy of natural moral law does not necessarily depend upon divine law but on the nature of mankind. Just as the natural physical law depends on the nature of the physical world. Honest study of the nature of mankind and one’s own conscience will reveal natural law.

    Voila, an argument to justify natural rights sans reference to God.

    Now, that said, the religious individual has the advantage because he or she knows by faith what the outcome of such a study of man’s conscience will be. Man’s nature is a rough reflection of God’s nature. God created man in his own image and gave him the power to discern good from evil, so as long as the conscience is not numbed by persistent sin, the honest individual can be led to recognize natural rights. The trouble is clearing away the false efforts to justify violations.

  29. Carborendum
    August 2, 2009 at 10:32 pm #


    Evidence of this moral sense is clear to the honest observer. In what society has it been acceptable, without some justification . . .

    You quite quickly jump to the conlcusion that NO society has ever condoned these “evil” behaviors. You then erroneously jump to the conclusion that because so many agree, it must be so.

    First, let us define the difference between justification and motivation / motive. Motive is anything that emotes or promotes an action. ANY action requires some motive otherwise, why do it? Without motive, it must be an accident or chance, etc. Justification is using other principles of morality to excuse the breaking of the principle in question.

    This can be outlined by our relationship with the Middle East. They certainly have some motives for attacking other cultures. Are they necessarily Justified? This has been debated extensively on this blog.

    Justification requires that there is a moral code in place to begin with. To state that unjustified breaking of a moral code to prove that there is a moral code shows circular logic.

    Second, man’s history is replete with figures of individuals killing for no moral reason. This is not just individual criminals. What do you think imperialism is about? One king wants what another king has. So he takes an army to go kill that king to get it. This was certainly condoned by the populace. Was this not wonton murder? If not, I believe your moral compass may be off.

    Few instances in history ever show the king promoting any justification to the people. He just wanted it. Conquering was a way of life.

    Third, there is no way to make an reasonable argument for morality by majority. If you truly believe in life, liberty, & property (for instance) as fundamental values, then how can you say the majority believed in this when the US was WAY ahead of its time. Look at other nations at the time of the Revolution.

    The fact is that given the right group of people, there is no such thing as a self-evident truth. One must first have morality to judge morality. It is circular until you realize that it begins with God.

    You mention a conscience. The older definition of that word indicates a self-awareness of one’s effect on one’s surroundings. The modern definition of conscience indicates that we also make judgments on those effects.

    If we accept the tabula rasa ideology, then judgment must still be taught. I’m learning from raising lots of kids that it is quite common for children to be born without self-awareness either. This must (and thankfully can) be taught.

    If we believe in spirits, others may still apply the tabula rasa ideas if they believe the spirit was generated at the same time the body was.

    But for LDS, the spirit was pre-existent. Many already have a firm sense of right before they are born. Others have a firm sense of wrong before they are born. Most are in between. No matter which one we are, our life experiences will shape our conscience further.

    All morality begins with teaching us right and wrong to begin with. Who teaches it? God. Anyone else got it from someone who go it from . . . who got it from God.

    Any moral theory must go through a series of cause and effect until you reach a “fundamental” level. That is where you either believe it or you don’t. That is where God comes in. Take God out of it, and you have one man’s opinion over another.

  30. Paul
    August 2, 2009 at 10:47 pm #

    Health Care would be more affordable and competitive if there were a Free Market and the government wasnt involved in the first place. Because the system has been highjacked by a financial cartel that weilds unrighteous dominion and power of government, there are less options and less affordablity. The ounce of prevention is avoided and the Pound of Cure is not offered.

  31. Clumpy
    August 3, 2009 at 2:38 am #

    Are you referring to insurance, Paul? Because private beancounters essentially deciding who lives and who dies is as scary as government holding the reins:


    Insurance hasn’t failed because of its premise (people deciding to pay a premium in order to balance out the highs and lows and hedge against risk), but because of the profit motive being applied to life and death. As Dennis Kucinich says, statistics clearly show that we’re already PAYING for universal coverage- we’re just not getting it.

  32. Elise
    August 3, 2009 at 3:00 pm #

    Long time lurker and big time fan of the blog.

    Just wanted to say that I am thrilled to see you quote H. Verlan Andersen. He was my grandpa.

  33. Quincy
    August 3, 2009 at 8:55 pm #


    You misunderstood most of my argument.

    Concerning your first objection. It is true that sometimes motivation and justification are different. Motivation is responsive to the question ‘why does one WANT to do something?’ Justification is responsive to the question ‘why is it PERMISSIBLE to do something?’ While important in other contexts, this distinction has no bearing on my argument. I am concerned here with justification not motivation. Your claim that justification requires a pre-existing moral code is not entirely objectionable (I would only strike the term “code” since it implies formal written rules). The point of my argument is that there is a pre-existing moral sense in man that illuminates natural law. This pre-existing moral sense is what demands a justification when an individual seeks to violate natural law.

    Your second objection also misses the point. I am not arguing that no one violates natural law. I am arguing that humans have an innate moral sense that informs them of what is right and what is wrong. Citing examples of murder and tyranny do not prove that the moral sense doesn’t exist, it merely shows that individuals are adept at ignoring their moral sense or deceiving themselves as to the rightness of their actions. As to your statement that there are few instances in history where kings justify their wars, that is clearly counter-factual. Even a cursory study of the history of warfare proves otherwise. There is always some justification provided: vindicating national pride, recovering ancient territorial rights, spreading religion, etc. Sometimes the justification is as simple as “the king is the anointed of God, so whatever he wants is just,” but there is some justification.

    Your third argument is also misdirected. I am not arguing that the majority should define morality. I am arguing that within each individual there is a moral sense of natural law. Often this moral sense expresses itself through social customs, political philosophies, and legal systems. These phenomena of social interaction do not define natural law, they attempt to express it. Almost invariably, these efforts to express natural law are tainted by selfishness, fear, thoughtlessness, or arrogance, but again, that doesn’t belie the existence of the moral sense itself.

    Your discussion of the origin of the term “conscience” is interesting, but for clarification, I am using the term “conscience” in its common sense: as a consciousness of right and wrong.

    You also make a pass at LDS theology and claim that Many already have a firm sense of right before they are born. Others have a firm sense of wrong before they are born. Most are in between.
    As I understand it, the LDS position is that “the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil;” Moroni 7: 16
    Perhaps what you meant is that some desire right, some desire wrong, and others haven’t made up their minds yet. That would be consistent with LDS theology, but your original assertion is not.

    Finally, you discuss moral theory. You are correct in stating that a moral theory requires a fundamental grounding. But as I stated at the beginning of my original comment, this argument for natural law rests on empirical observation of the nature of mankind. I am not seeking here to explain where natural law comes from, I am simply pointing out there is clear, irrefutable evidence of it as it expresses itself through the nature of mankind.

  34. Carborendum
    August 4, 2009 at 1:50 am #


    I’m really having a hard time figuring out how you could have construed what I said to mean what you just said. It is almost like you were TRYING to mess up my comments.

    You said: Evidence of this moral sense is clear to the honest observer

    This is what I disagree with.

    We agree on the definitions of motivation vs. justification. Yes, there could be some debate about the word “code” as part of that definition. Point made.

    You state that there is a pre-existing sense of morality in every man because of the Light of Christ. There you go bringing God into it.

    Wasn’t your premise how we can judge right and wrong WITHOUT God?

    You said: Here is an argument for natural rights that doesn’t rely on God.

    Sure sounds like it.

    Here is my point:

    A) For LDS, we believe in the Light of Christ as our guide.
    B) For others who believe in God, they believe in something similar–if nothing more than the written word of their chosen holy scripture.
    C) Atheists believe in tabula rasa. Which essentailly says there is no right and wrong until someone tells you so.

    No matter which way you look at it we in and of ourselves do not have that ability. We either get it from God or someone else tells us what is right & wrong. But if it is some other man, where did he get it from? . . . Trace it back, it was because God told someone.

    Citing examples of murder and tyranny do not prove that the moral sense doesn’t exist…

    This was not my direct point in this regard. Check the context. You specifically asked:

    In what society has it been acceptable . . .? . . . NONE
    (emphasis added)

    I cited examples. Your rebuttal is:

    it merely shows that individuals are adept at ignoring their moral sense or deceiving themselves.

    In today’s world with today’s morality, I’d be more inclined to agree with you.

    But thousands, even just a few hundred years ago, that was the way of life. No one in the applicable societies objected or protested or even complained about it. Do we have any records of Greeks or Macedonians protesting Alexander’s conquest of Persia? No.

    They complained about how he was becoming more Persian than Greek, or they complained about not being treated fairly themselves. . .

    We have no records of ANYONE in these societies saying:

    Hey, wait a minute. Is this a just war? Is our cause honorable? Are we treating our enemies with fairness?

    What? Do you think the entire 1/3 of the globe (or so) was just deceiving themselves? If they had this as part of their moral compass, surely there was some philosopher (there were plenty) that would have written such a comment. But no. NONE.

    Show me some examples of where I am wrong and I’ll recant. But that is simply the way it was. If entire societies that cover so much of the globe can simply ignore their moral compass that MUST agree with consistent moral code, then the only conclusion that can be drawn is that there were that many evil people in the world.

    Do you really believe that?

  35. Darrel
    August 4, 2009 at 9:50 am #


    There are a couple things about your argument that I don’t think are quite understood.

    First, have you ever read the Illiad? The Greek culture at the time glorified killing. The moral code also included a safeguard in honor that prevented fellow countrymen from killing each other. You might say that there is their justification in breaking natural law: that they are not fellow countrymen and therefore can be killed for conquest and glory. But if you really read the words Homer uses, the actual killing was the culture. The men honored in society were those that were best at killing. The moral code was dominance, no second thought to killing those that threatened your “oikos”, or village.

    Second, your main approach is a bit flawed.

    Just like natural physical laws, natural moral laws can be discovered through empirical study.

    This is not entirely true. Empirical study is definitely essential to our discovery of physical laws, but can easily lead us astray as well. If we don’t understand the logical derivations behind what we observe, we can greatly misconstrue what causes it.

    This is what the Scientific Revolution was all about. Previously, Aristotle’s writings were customary beliefs. He used deductive logic to make conclusions about what he observed. Many of his conclusions were able to find truths that have been very important to society today. But, he also was lead on paths that diverged very far from the truth because he depended on deductive reasoning from mere observation without understanding the true causes behind what he observed. The earth being flat is the most common example. This is why science today involves so much math, derivations, and experimentation. The logical proof supports the observation.

    I believe you are correct in that we can observe that people have certain tendencies towards moral behavior, but this merely produces a need for reasoning to support particular behaviors independent from those observations. This is what I meant by an explanation.

    I’ve been trying to read up a little on the sources provided by Connor (mostly that from Thomas Hobbes) to answer this question. Hobbes does provide some convincing arguments, but the most sound reasoning, in my opinion, involves God as the source of morality. Everything else seems like trying to swallow a camel.

    The only way to “irrefutably” show the correct moral standards that should exist must be within the realm of morals, or things regarding the spiritual. These truths come from the Father of our spirits. Once proven with eternal truths, this knowledge can then be applied to our lives in society, not the other way around.

  36. Quincy
    August 4, 2009 at 7:49 pm #

    Carborendum and Darryl,

    I apologize if my comments about LDS theology were distracting. I only mentioned it because, as I stated in my original comment, religious individuals have the advantage of knowing by faith what the outcome of an empirical study of man’s nature will be. For religious individuals, an empirical study would be unnecessary because it would simply demonstrate what they already know to be true: mankind recognizes natural law, i.e., mankind recognizes the difference between good and evil. However, this doesn’t bear on the merits of my original argument.

    Even if someone doesn’t know why mankind has a moral sense or where it comes from, it is still possible for them to observe the moral sense in action and note its existence. In other words, knowledge about the origin of the moral sense is not needed for an honest observer to recognize empirical evidence of its effects. That is why my argument does not require a person to believe in God to understand natural rights.

    Carborendum, in your argument against my position you again return to the presently irrelevant question of where this moral sense comes from: No matter which way you look at it we in and of ourselves do not have that ability. We either get it from God or someone else tells us what is right & wrong.

    This is actually a false dichotomy since these are not the only two logical options. A third reasonable option is to believe that natural law is inherent in mankind’s nature, giving him the ability to see action in terms of right and wrong. But let me reiterate that the source of man’s moral sense is not relevant to my argument. The argument relies on empirical evidence of mankind’s moral sense in action.

    By way of illustration, let’s talk a bit about gravity. Modern science does not know where gravity comes from or why it exists. We can measure gravity and we know that in some way it correlates with mass, but we don’t know what causes it. It is simply an observable phenomenon. Our inability to explain what causes gravity does not mean that gravity does not exist or prevent us from using it; we know it exists because we are able to observe its effects. Similarly, man’s moral sense can be observed without knowing where it comes from or why it works.

    Now, on to the Greeks.

    Let me just note at the outset that man’s moral sense is far more difficult to observe in action when we are talking about national movements. Nations do not have a moral sense, so it comes down to the individuals within the nation itself. And since national action is necessarily group behavior, there are likely going to be many different dynamics obscuring each individual’s moral sense.

    So instead of discussing the Illiad, I will focus on an example from the Greeks that deals with individuals rather than groups. Consider Plato’s “Apology.” In case this is an unfamiliar reference, the “Apology” is Plato’s recollection of the trial of Socrates. Darryl, you argue that the Illiad shows that the Greek moral code was to glorify the warrior for his ability to kill. But consider the villains of Plato’s Apology–Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon. They are not the villains of the story because they are not good warriors and can’t kill well, it is because they falsely accuse Socrates. If the Greek moral code was based on prowess in battle, it would not make sense for Plato to present Anytus and company as villains for falsely accusing Socratese. Consider also the reasons that Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon present to justify executing Socrates: “That man Socrates is a pestilential fellow who corrupts the young.” Apology 23d. If the Greek people had truly lived in a moral world where might was right and where, as you put it Darryl, the men honored in society were those that were best at killing, then neither Plato nor Socrates’ accusers would have bothered to explain why killing Socrates was okay. Remember that even if Plato’s account is not 100% historically accurate (he may have slanted things in favor of his hero), Plato was writing to persuade his readers. It would be nonsensical for him to argue about the need for honesty or condemn an execution based on false evidence if these arguments did not have persuasive power over his readers. In other words, Plato relied on his readers’ innate moral sense to give his arguments persuasive power.

    Finally, Darryl, I want to respond to your comment about the problem of comparing inquiry into natural law with scientific inquiry. Your objection is that empirical study is definitely essential to our discovery of physical laws, but can easily lead us astray as well. If we don’t understand the logical derivations behind what we observe, we can greatly misconstrue what causes it. If I understand you correctly, you are arguing that empirical observation alone is insufficient to provide a useful system of either morals or science, since a failure to draw the appropriate conclusions from the empirical observations will lead us to incorrect general laws. I heartily concur. I don’t believe that simply observing empirical evidence of mankind’s moral sense is enough to guide political action. Just as science has taken many wrong turns throughout its history, political philosophy also has taken many wrong turns. Knowing, however, that mankind has a moral sense to rely on is a reason to hope that just as science is slowly correcting some of its errors. Political philosophy can slowly overcome its errors as well. That is why discussion and debate are important; it permits us to test our political philosophy against this moral sense.

  37. Josh Williams
    August 4, 2009 at 11:01 pm #

    A right is that thing for which a corresponding responsibility naturally exists and is enforced.

    The philosophers Hobbes or Rousseau would be quick to argue that “naturally,” humans have no rights. No right is “naturally” enforced.

    Any specific rights, like money, are only meaningful when a majority of people believe they exist, and more importantly are willing to restrain their behavior to that respect. There is nothing “natural” about this, it is a function merely of the mores of a particular society. And again the only “authority” that ultimately compels another person to honor your rights is their belief in their value. This is the essence of Social Contract.

    So, even the rights to life and liberty are void when only a few care to honor them. This is like trying to spend Pesos at your local Wall-Mart. In this sense the rights stated in the Declaration of Independence are NO different from any other presumed right. For example if most people in Denmark believe that basic health care is a “fundamental” right, then it is……at least in Denmark. The government in Denmark intervenes in this because if they didn’t, then people would be quick to complain that the government policy was violating their rights.

    It is a specialization, not a generality, to claim that the D.of I. rights are more “fundamental” then others.

  38. Connor
    November 11, 2009 at 1:07 pm #

    Here is Rand Paul, Senate candidate in Kentucky (and son of Ron Paul), addressing the question: “Is health care a right?”

    You can probably guess his (well articulated) answer. 🙂

  39. Karli
    January 28, 2010 at 5:37 pm #

    Thank you for this thought provoking article.

  40. Travis Buhler
    March 21, 2010 at 8:17 pm #


    It may surpise you that thousands of Americans die every day (from all sorts of things). We have a right to life. But that right is our own individual responsibility. I wish everybody in this world could get medical treatment at Johns Hopkins, eat at 5 star restaurants, and own a 5,000 sq. ft. home. However, the only way the government can “give” health care (or any other good or service) to anyone is by taking something from someone else. This redistribution of wealth is stealing. It is immoral, unethical, unconstitutional, and just plain evil. Forcing one group of people to pay for another group of people’s health care destroys both the giver and the reciever in the long run and will leave our country in ruins.

    Thanks, Connor, for keeping up the good fight.

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