In this post, I’ll finish this series by addressing some common misconceptions about inalienable rights. If anyone has further questions, feel free to post them in the comments below. My husband and I are planning to write a book on this topic and welcome any input.
Inalienable vs. Unalienable Rights
I’ve been surprised at the number of posts online that attempt to distinguish between inalienable and unalienable rights. There is no difference. The word inalienable and the word unalienable mean exactly the same thing.
Historically speaking, the idea of a single correct spelling of a word is quite a new phenomenon. Today, English is standardized so that each word has a correct usage and spelling. However, the English language has a long and complicated history, and the process of standardizing words took a long time. Prior to the widespread use of dictionaries, there were often multiple spellings of words that could be considered correct, and people often used the one they preferred.
The prefixes in- and un- both mean “not.” Both indicate the opposite of the root word they are attached to. For instance, we say in-capable and un-attractive, meaning “not capable” and “not attractive,” respectively. There are even some cases where these two prefixes can be used interchangeably (such as inarguable and unarguable) or instances where derivations of the same word use different prefixes (such as uncivil and incivility). Thus unalienable and inalienable mean the same thing: “not able to be alienated.”
Even dictionary.com realizes that these two words have the same meaning. It gives the definition of inalienable as “not alienable; not transferable to another or capable of being repudiated: inalienable rights.” Its definition for unalienable is simply “inalienable.” Both words have the same meaning. This is a case where either prefix may be used. Jefferson used unalienable in the Declaration of Independence so there is historical significance to that spelling. I prefer the term inalienable because it is generally accepted as the more correct spelling.
Alienation of Rights vs. Infringement of Rights
Some people say that government (or some other entity) is taking away our inalienable rights. This is common usage, but is technically incorrect and leads to confusion about the nature of inalienable rights. Since inalienable rights cannot be given up, taken away, or transferred for any reason, it is impossible for government or anyone else to take away a person’s inalienable rights. They will always have their inalienable rights. However, those inalienable rights may not be properly recognized and may be infringed upon. Alienable rights – which cannot be taken away, but may be voluntarily given up or transferred to another person – can also be infringed upon. Violation of rights is referred to in the Declaration of Independence as “abuses and usurpations.”
An infringement or violation of a person’s rights occurs when an entity disregards those rights and acts in violation of them. For example, if someone steals my car (to which I have an alienable right), they have not removed my right to my car. I am still the rightful owner. Until I voluntarily sell or give the car to someone else or abandon it, the car is rightfully mine. If someone steals it, they have infringed upon my right to use my car. They are treating the car as if they had a right to it that they do not have, and they have prevented me from using my car in the way I choose. They have not, however, taken away my right to my car. Only I can do that.
In the case of inalienable rights, I cannot even give up those rights if I wished to. Thus, if someone were to murder me, they would not have removed my right to life, but simply violated it. Similarly, if government were to say that I will be sold as a slave, they would not have thereby taken away my right to liberty, but infringed upon it. My rights to life and liberty will always be mine and cannot be taken away. Infringement of rights is morally wrong. Thus, a just government will always recognize and protect the rights of the people. If government tries to infringe upon the rights of the people, it does not deny the people their rights, it merely violates them and makes itself an invalid government (at least for that action).
This distinction, of having rights violated rather than removed, is important. Inalienable rights cannot be given up or transferred under any circumstances, and alienable rights can only be given up or transferred by the person holding them. If government (or any other entity) can really take away or transfer our rights (whether alienable or inalienable) to another, then they are not really “rights” after all. They are nothing more than privileges, and we hold them only at the whim of government.
Rights vs. Privileges
Many people confuse rights with privileges. Privileges are those specific things which a person does not have an inherent right to do, but is allowed to do. A privilege is granted by permission from an authority and can be restricted or revoked by that same authority. A privilege is usually given to a select group. If a mother gives her child permission to watch television, that is a privilege. No child has a right to watch TV. It is something that may be granted to a child and can be revoked by the parent at any time.
Rights, on the other hand, cannot be taken away from the person who holds them. An inalienable right is something that a person inherently has by virtue of being human. Inalienable rights are thus universal (all people have them) and permanent (cannot be given up or taken away). Alienable rights are not universal, but unlike privileges, they cannot be revoked by another. They can only be voluntarily given up by the one who holds them. While privileges require permission, a person does not need anyone’s permission to exercise his rights.
Of course, people have the inalienable right to liberty, which means they have a right to freely choose their actions within the scope of their rights. They have the right to choose to do anything they have a right or privilege to do, without coercion. Remember, however, that the right to liberty is different than an individual liberty. Individual liberties are possible things that a person can do and each one is an alienable right, meaning that it can be voluntarily given up. When no law has made an action illegal and the action does not infringe upon anyone’s rights, the action falls within the realm of possible free choices that can be made under the right to liberty. However, when a law is made within a representative government that limits an action (and as long as that law does not violate anyone’s inalienable rights), that action has been freely given up by the person (through his representatives) and is no longer something that he has a right to freely choose to do. When an action is limited in this way and government grants permission for some people to engage in that action, it becomes a privilege.
So, for example, the choice to drive a car on public roads (which is an alienable right) has been freely given up by the citizens of the United States through laws made by their representatives. Government then grants the privilege of driving on public roads to select individuals (those who have a driver’s license) under certain circumstances (when there is car insurance on the vehicle and traffic rules are obeyed).
In summary, an inalienable right, since it cannot be given up or transferred for any reason, can never be rightfully limited by government or made a privilege. Alienable rights may be given up or transferred by the one who holds them, but cannot be removed by any other entity.
That wraps up the inalienable rights series. However, that is certainly not the last I will write on the subject. Stay tuned for a number of posts on the applications of these concepts to various issues. In coming weeks, I will be covering the inalienable rights perspective on abortion, marriage, prostitution, illegal drugs, Supreme Court cases, current events, and many others.
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