Are God and human rights self-evident?


The second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence begins with these immortal and oft quoted words:


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These statements may have been self-evident truths to Jefferson and many of the other founding fathers of this nation in 1776, but in the year 2015 (and for some considerable time before that) a great many people, while still holding that all human beings are of equal value and are possessed of the unalienable rights referred by the Declaration , no longer base that claim on the idea that there even is such a thing as a creator to endow anybody with anything.thomasjefferson_sm

The word “self-evident” in common English usage means something akin to “obvious.”  In the Declaration, Jefferson is making the claim that the existence of a creator is obvious.  He is also making the claim that this creator has intentions for humankind and bestows rights on us so that we might pursue those intentions.  Put another way, he is saying that it is obvious that there is a God/Creator, that this God has created human beings with rights and, by implication, these rights are not to be abridged because they are divinely bestowed. This argument is analogous to the argument for the divine right of kings to which the republicans of Jefferson’s time were so opposed.  Whether ruling by divine right or living as a free citizen by divine right,  Jefferson is saying that his conclusion is obvious.  But is it really?

One need not be an atheist or agnostic to have problems with the “obviousness” of the existence of a creator.  All three of the major Western religious traditions present themselves as “revealed” religions; i.e., dependent on God to reveal him/herself through a prophet or spokesperson of some sort.  They do not make the case that the particular God whom they reveal is in any sense self-evident.

What is obvious, however, is that many people belief in a divine creator and ground their notion of the rights of human beings on that belief.  Belief in a creator is much more self-evident than the existence of that creator and, I suppose, that is what Jefferson assumed when he penned the Declaration.  He no doubt hoped to make the case for the nascent United States an obvious one–a “no brainer,” so to speak.

The philosophical, theological and general intellectual framework of the early 21st Century no longer presupposes the existence of a creator God or any God at all for that matter.  Advances in physics and cosmology have raised all sorts of questions  about the nature of matter, energy, time and space.

The more we learn; the more things become less “self-evident.”  Once obvious observations about nature are demonstrated to be illusory as science delves deeper into the nature of the cosmos.

The Declaration of Independence is surely an important document in the history of our nation and political science in general, but since it grounds its claims on the existence of a creator (whose existence was once obvious but is no longer so), it should not be used as a cornerstone for building individual, social or political ethics.

In this post-modern, pluralistic age, building an ethic on the existence of a creator is to build that ethic on a highly debatable and not self-evident premise.  The two lines quoted above might better be put in something like the following form to avoid the use of a potentially false premise while still advocating for human equality and rights:

We hold these principles to be inviolable: all human beings are of equal value and that this equality entitles them to certain permanent rights among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

While my restatement may lack the historical ring of Jefferson’s famous lines, it avoids the assumption of the existence of God, establishes ethical principles as ideals affirmed by a people and avoids exchanging the divine right of kings for the divine right of a citizens.  In short, it separates church from state, as they should be.


“Entitlement” is not a Bad Word?

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2The word “entitlement”  is much in the news these days.  It is usually coupled with “program” to name a government initiative which bestows a benefit on various segments of the citizenry (and maybe even undocumented individuals).  Often entitlement programs are referred to negatively implying that they are government budget busters that provide the type of support to the indigent that subsidizes sloth at the expense of hard work.

The second meaning given for the word “entitlement” in Oxford Dictionary of the English Language is “right of possession.”  The first meaning has to with getting an actual “title” as in a noble or professional designation.  The second meaning derives from the first in the sense that a person with a specific designation is “entitled” to being not only addressed in a specific way but also to the rights, privileges or duties of a person with that designation.

Entitlements come in various forms.  A land owner is entitled to certain rights by virtue of legal ownership of the property.  A mother is entitled to certain rights vis-a-vis her infant child and the infant  is also entitled to certain rights by virtue of being a living human being.  A bank customer is entitled to reasonable access to his or her money.  A wounded veteran is entitled to our gratitude and even support.  A customer of an insurance company who has paid their premiums in a timely manner is entitled to the protection or compensation for which he or she has paid.  A worker is entitled to his/her agreed upon wage.  This list could go on and on.

What is common to all these entitlements is that an individual or group of individuals is rightly provided with that to which they should be because of their designation and/or behavior:  paying customer, veteran, infant, citizen, worker etc.. In most of these situations there is also an implied contract; i.e., if I am or do something (simply exist in the case of the infant), I am entitled as appropriate.

Social entitlements come in two basic forms: need-based and contribution-based.  Most public (e.g., Social Security) and private (e.g., insurance) entitlement programs are contribution-based; i.e., while they may help to meet a particular need, any benefit or support is funded by those who benefit via things like taxes or private payments.  Those who have paid in are entitled to their benefits.  Contribution-based entitlement accounts for the vast majority of entitlement programs both public and private.

Need-based entitlement programs are those where people benefit irrespective of having made any contribution.  Typically, their lack of contribution is not voluntary but rather the result of some condition of life that makes contribution, at least in terms of funds, impossible.  We generally regard those who receive benefits in this way as entitled by virtue of their designation as “human being.”  Most people in the United States have no problem with this concept in the case of infants and other obviously 100% dependent members of the human family.  These people are in need and unable to assist themselves. Therefore they are entitled to a level of “basic” support.  Most Americans ( and people generally) would not welcome the sight of people starving in the gutter while they themselves dined opulently on prime rib.  Nor would they want to create an economic situation that allowed such an eventuality.

Most would agree with Jefferson, who himself was inspired by John Locke, that we are endowed with the rights of (we are inalienably entitled to)  “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  These hallowed words are not just a declaration of national independence from a colonial overlord but also a declaration of entitlement for every human being wherever she or he may be.

Entitlement and human rights inspired our national foundation.  Entitlement is not a dirty word in this context.  Rather, it names something each one of us possesses by virtue of our humanity.  Each of us is born into this world entitled and not because we have contributed a single thing.  We are entitled because we are needy and dependent first on our mother and close family and although  we may gain some degree of independence and even contributive interdependence, we remain fragile, at risk and vulnerable and never lose the need for others and their support.

That said, I want to be clear on the  point that for a society  not only to grow but also to maintain a healthy level of social cohesion, all who can contribute should contribute.  Certainly a situation in which the members of society only needed and received benefits and no one contributed would be untenable.

This later situation is not the one we have in the United States.  Most entitlement programs are contribution-based and the vast majority of people in the country whether citizens or not contribute or did contribute before receiving benefits.  Further it is not the case that there are large numbers of people saying things like, “If the government is going to pay for my basic needs without me working or doing anything to help myself or my family, I think I will just live in these poor and squalid conditions with one or two little luxuries like a cell phone or pair so sneakers because that is much better than working, earning a decent living, having my own car and going day-to-day without worrying about how to make ends meet.”

Yet, if you listen to many of the pundits on the right, you would think that not only were many people saying just that but that an even larger number were being converted to this way of thinking and that our society was growing into one where more and more people not only wanted but thought that they were entitled to something for nothing.  We are said to be becoming an “entitlement society” and to be failing economically as a result.

Those who make this case argue that we have lost the work ethic we once had and that one of the most effective ways of restoring that ethic is to have less social benefits–need-based or contributive–so that people will be forced to sink or swim–or is that swim or drown.  Apparently, according to these commentators, we are making it just to easy to be a member of the living poor.

Those who advocate this way of thinking have twisted the concept of the “rights of man” [sic] beyond recognition so that in the entitlement society they envision the poor aspire to their condition because it is easier to achieve and the more they aspire to this poverty the more they drag down hard working, independent thinking Americans.  “Just make it harder to be poor while simultaneously remaining alive,” they argue. “Then, they will realize the foolishness of their slothful ways.”

I supposed those who propose this twisted notion are “entitled” to their point of view but in holding it they are doing a grave injustice to the enlightenment ideals that inspire America’s inception: liberty and the pursuit of happiness.