These are the natural human rights that Thomas Jefferson thought most worthy of mention in the the document that justified our rebellion against the tyranny of the British government of King George III in 1776. They were well understood and well appreciated by the people of the 13 colonies that formed the core of the United States of America. How is it that they are so poorly understood and appreciated today? There are many reasons, too many to catalog in a single post. I would like to focus here on their meaning and significance.
Let's start with a summary, including a hierarchy of importance:
- The right to life. No person or government, can deliberately take the life of an innocent person. This is the most fundamental right. All other rights depend upon respecting this right. Hence, it is of first importance.
- The right to liberty. No person or government can deliberately take away the right to individual liberty of an innocent person. This right ranks second in importance because it depends on the first right.
- The right to pursue happiness. This, too, is an individual right. It is a right that gives important meaning to the right to liberty, yet is subordinate to it.
Although the Declaration of Independence does not explicitly mention the right to self defense, this, too, is a fundamental human right. Indeed, without this right, one's life or liberty can be taken away by a person or persons intent on killing or enslaving one. In effect, someone who determines to kill or to enslave another is not morally innocent in the sense meant by the first three fundamental rights. Nevertheless, if it is possible to stop someone from carrying out such a plan without killing them, the less destructive option is preferred.
There are some very rare cases, such as in some ectopic pregnancies, where the life of the mother is threatened. The embryo attaches in her body outside of the uterus. See the Wikipedia article for serious complications, especially those that are life threatening. In such a case, one may elect to remove the site, itself, without the direct intention of killing the fetus, in order to save the life of the mother. (This moral calculus is termed the principle of double effect. For further details, see related topics at The National Catholic Bioethics Center.) This case, of course, was unknown to the nation's founders because such surgical techniques had not yet been developed.
Another complexity arises in the case of so-called stand-your-ground law. In effect, what is involved is the right to defend one's life and one's rightful domain against attack, using, if necessary for that defense, deadly force. The so-called Ruby Ridge case shows how serious this can be when the aggressor is a government agency. By contrast, the Whisky Rebellion was resolved peacefully by our comparatively level-headed first President, George Washington.
In our post-modern era, these fundamental rights have sometimes been turned upside down, even in so-called democratic societies. Examples include...
- Coercing a doctor, nurse or other medical professional to participate in an abortion against their will. In effect, this entails forcing someone to participate in the violation of the right to life of an innocent human being.
- Coercing a doctor, nurse or other medical professional to participate in a so-called sex-change operation. In effect this entails forcing someone to participate in an attack on the health of an otherwise innocent human being.
- Coercing a photographer, cake-maker, minister to participate in the celebration of a same-sex, polygamous or other unnatural marriage ceremony against their will. In effect, this makes one or more persons the slave(s) of another, albeit temporarily.
These three cases, and others, are, in effect, violations of the right to liberty. Liberty entails the right to follow one's own conscience. These cases are a demonstration of the importance of the hierarchical ordering of the three fundamental rights. One does not have the right to pursue happiness when this involves the violation of another's right to liberty and, in particular, freedom of conscience. Similarly, even if taking someone else's life (except in the case of self-defense, etc.) might make a person "happy", this twisted "pursuit of happiness" does not trump the rights of life and liberty. Similarly, if someone's conscience is twisted by some form of destructive religious belief (such as is the case of violent radical Islamists, etc.) that person does not have the right to take the life of another who does not share that faith. Again, the importance of the moral hierarchy is manifest.
Please note, finally, that the pursuit of happiness is recognized as a right, but there is no right, as such, to be happy. Furthermore, the rights to life and to liberty do not entail demands on governments, communities or individuals to ensure or to prolong the lives or liberties of individuals who have chosen to engage in (in particular) self-destructive behavior or who are actively dying by natural causes. Hospital emergency departments may be required by law to tend to the injuries of people who have been found attempting suicide and brought to the hospital, but the original saving intervention is a matter of charity, not a fundamental right.
Indeed, the inversion of the hierarchy of rights is an example of the tinkering of postmodern ideas of progress, designed (apparently) to make people "happy". The inevitable result, however, is the violation of actual human rights and a serious reduction of human happiness and comity. This state of affairs is the inevitable result of a loss of the sense of natural law that animated our nation's founders. Ancillary rights recognized in the Bill of Rights have progressively eroded, and our society is in danger of establishing a rule of law that is utterly incompatible with either happiness or comity. Our misguided efforts to produce a heaven on earth will most likely produce the exact opposite.