The concept of inalienable rights was developed mainly by John Locke in the 17th century as part of his social contract theory. Locke began his reasoning with what he called a “state of nature” in which there is no government and all the earth and its resources are owned in common by all people. In such a theoretical state, if all resources belong to every person equally, there must be some means of obtaining sole ownership of objects. The food that a person eats is used only by himself. If he eats food that belongs to everyone equally, he has robbed every person on the planet by violating their right to that food item. That doesn’t make sense, so there must be a way to obtain rightful sole ownership of objects. A hungry man must be able to rightfully take and eat food, thus having sole use of that food item, or else he would starve.
Locke said that it was in doing work that an object owned in common comes to belong to only one person. The result of a person’s labor belongs to that person. When a person performs work on something and thereby increases its value, he obtains a “property” in that object. (Note that this is a slightly different use of the word “property” than we use today.) Thus, when a man picks apples, for example, he mixes his work (in picking the apples) with the objects and thus obtains a property in those apples. The gathered apples have greater worth than apples on the tree because they are easier to consume. (An apple in the hand is worth two on the tree…or something like that.) He now has a greater right to those particular apples than anyone else because his labor has been invested in them. The apples are then his private property.
Once private ownership of a particular item has been established, the property that a person has in it (the alienable right to it) can be traded or given to someone else. If anyone wants to consume those apples, they should pay the man who gathered them for his labor by giving him something of value in return. Thus a man who owns apples may trade some of them for nuts owned by someone else or for wood to build a house or for various other objects owned by others. However, it would be wrong for someone else to take, use or destroy the apples without having the property rightfully transferred to them by its owner.
This was the beginning stages of Locke’s logic from which he developed his political theory. This same logic, that the result of a person’s labor belongs to the person, can be applied to God.
God, as the Creator, has invested His work in creating people. He thus has a property in us, giving Him the right to do with us as He pleases. It would be wrong for anyone to use or kill a human being because to do so is to usurp the right that God has to His property. Thus what we see as our inalienable right to life is really God’s right to His property. Such rights cannot be transferred or given up by us because the right to each person is actually owned by God.
Some of the rights that God originally had to us have been given to us by Him. Since God actually owns the rights to us, His right to us is alienable from His perspective and He can grant some of those rights to us. For example, by giving us a free will, God has given us the right to choose what we will do with our time and our labor, thus allowing us liberty. God has also given human beings stewardship over the earth and the various plants and animals that inhabit it. There are a number of implications of these rights that God has granted us that I will discuss in the future.
One thing that is important to note is that inalienable rights – as rights that a person naturally has that cannot be given, taken away, or transferred – can only exist if humans are the work of a Creator. There is no logical basis for such rights in any other scenario.
If there is no creator, if nature is all that there is, there can be no right or wrong; there can be no metaphysical entities such as rights. The only thing that evolution could tell us is that might makes right and that the only thing that matters is to get as much as you can and to survive in whatever way is necessary. If humans have come to exist through eons of slow gradual change as evolution would tell us, how could it be that humans obtained inalienable rights and other branches of the evolutionary tree did not?
Often times, people try to answer various moral and ethical questions by appealing to society. Society, they say, can decide to grant rights or make laws for the good of the group. While this may be true, such “rights” created by society are arbitrary and not inalienable. If society can grant us rights, it can take them away just as easily.
Thus, naturalistic causes cannot be a source of inalienable rights. There is no way that truly inalienable rights can exist unless humans are the product of a Creator.
In Part 3 of this series, I discuss some of the implications of inalienable rights in society and government.
Questions for further discussion:
1. Which came first: God’s right to His work or our right to our own work? How might our right to our own labor be related to our creation in God’s image?
2. If God owns a property in what He creates, this would apply to all the things He has made (not just humans). Why is it that we can use the earth and its resources and are not thereby violating inalienable rights of animals and plants?
The Inalienable Rights Series
Part 1: What are Inalienable Rights?
Part 2: The Source of Inalienable Rights
Part 3: Liberty in Society and Government
Part 4: Government by Consent of the Governed
Part 5: Some Common Misconceptions