James R. Rogers has a very helpful post over at First Things, Rights You Can’t Give Away | First Things, where he describes the philosophical distinctions between “unalienable” and “alienable” rights. He says that John Locke’s “god-talk” is a necessary component to understanding the true definition of inalienable:
Secondly, while the god-talk in the philosophy of John Locke (the philosopher who most directly influenced this part of the Declaration), is often taken to be superfluous to his philosophical argument, in reality it’s not. Locke argues that life is an inalienable right precisely because God owns us and, therefore, we do not own ourselves. For Locke, human self-ownership would entail that all rights are alienable rights. Divine “ownership” of the human person is a necessary predicate for rights to be inalienable in his view. There are no inalienable rights without a Creator who endows those rights.
To be sure, this raises as many questions as it answers. What is the relationship between the Declaration’s affirmations of inalienable rights and the positive law of the U.S. Constitution, both historically and today? What is the nature of the “Creator” affirmed in the Declaration and what is the minimal set of attributes this Creator must have in order to endow humanity with inalienable rights? What does it mean if the majority of U.S. citizens at some point no longer affirm any deity consistent with the documents upon which their governments are, or were, based? Can a self-standing philosophy of “human dignity” substitute for the role that God plays in the theory of the Declaration, or does the edifice of “inalienable” rights necessarily collapse when humans, rather than God, “own” themselves?
© 2012, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.