Rights, Responsibilities, and Morality

Do rights alone keep society free?

Rights, Responsibilities, and Morality

As I’ve studied the Constitution and the principles of freedom over the better part of a decade now, I often wondered why there were so many references from the founders concerning the need of the people to be moral and virtuous. As a religious person, I could correlate these quotes with my belief that God will help prosper good people, but from a non-religious standpoint, it did not make sense to me. It was only over the last year or so that it really began to click. Now that I’ve seen it, it seems so obvious. Let’s take a look at it together.

Inalienable Rights

Inalienable rights (called ‘unalienable rights’ in the declaration of independence) are certain abilities and privileges that every single human being is created with. These ideas come largely from a philosophy known as natural law, which argues that in nature, sovereign creatures have these rights. Every human, being a sovereign creature, then has similar rights. Well, what are these rights?

The Declaration of Independence touches on some of them. We have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; but are these all of our rights? Not even close. The actual amount of inalienable rights that exist is innumerable and it would be impossible to make an exhaustive list. John Adams, who helped write the Declaration of Independence, once remarked that he wanted to show 'that there are certain eternal principles.' [1]. ‘Unalienable rights’ was the name given to these principles when they were put into words in the Declaration of Independence, but these 'eternal principles' existed in nature long before they were written down in the 1700s, and will exist as long as there are sentient beings who act.

The United States Constitution grants citizens what are called ‘Vested Rights’, which is the legal framework for protecting their inalienable rights which exist independently of earthly governments. For example, everyone has the inalienable right to self-defense (tied closely with the inalienable right of life.) The vested rights that protect that inalienable right include the second amendment, making it legal for citizens to defend themselves. It also included the right to a trial by your peers, so that if you are wrongly accused of a crime, and your life hangs in the balance, you are given every opportunity to have it saved instead of being hung by an angry mob.

There is a trap that our society falls into when it comes to inalienable rights. It is a trap that even I fell into for a while, and it left me confused about several political subjects and discussions. It appeared that there was no obvious answer. What is this trap? We often assume that we have the right to perform certain actions without any restrictions whatsoever. This is not the case and it never was.

Inalienable Responsibilities

The word freedom gets thrown around a lot, but it has a simple meaning. Freedom is the ability to practice your inalienable rights without unnatural restriction. Notice I say without unnatural restrictions, not without restrictions altogether. Every single inalienable right comes with responsibilities that are inseparably connected with the right. To be a nerd and quote Spider-Man, “With great power [or rights] comes great responsibility.” For example, you have the innate right to protect yourself from others who may try to harm you, but your responsibility is to consider life sacred and never intentionally harm someone else. Another example would be your rights to think what you want, say what you think, and write what you say. The corresponding responsibilities are that you must not lie and you must not encourage others to violate the rights of anyone else.

Take a look at the following table. It has a list of ten unalienable rights, their corresponding vested rights given by the US Constitution, and the corresponding responsibility. [2]

Look at the third column. What would happen if nobody fulfilled those responsibilities? Would your innate rights be more secure or less secure in a society that didn’t fulfill these responsibilities?

The inseparable connection between our rights and our responsibilities seem so obvious when one stops to think about it, yet somehow it was a giant missing puzzle piece in my understanding for more than a decade. We will go into why that may be the case for many other people besides just me, but first, let’s talk about organizations that do understand this connection and quite literally preach it from the pulpit. One religious leader put it this way:

If we are not able to build into ourselves and our families the brakes of self-restraint and self-discipline, we are apt, unwittingly, to create tyranny in our government or anarchy in our citizenry. If we push onto the government the management not only of our economy, but also the management of our morals, the civil servants of the future will be neither civil nor servants. [3]

Another said “A decision is made not in terms of rights but in terms of obligations and responsibilities. [We know] that as [we rise] to meet responsibilities, rights will take care of themselves.”[4] A retired Utah Supreme Court judge and ecclesiastical leader explained it like this:

We praise [our ancestors for] what [their] unselfishness and sacrifice have done for us, but that is not enough. We should also assure that these same qualities are guiding principles for each of us as we have opportunities to sacrifice for our nations, our families...This is especially important in societies that have exalted personal interest and individual rights to the point where these values seem to erase the principles of individual responsibility and sacrifice. [5]

Do you see a political party or philosophy in the modern world that embodies these principles? In the United States, there is no clear cut line between political parties that uphold freedom and those that do not. It is a common feeling for citizens to feel as though they are choosing the lesser evil. In their own divisive ways, every party tends to focus on personal interest ‘to the point where these values seem to erase the principles of individual responsibility and sacrifice,’ as well as enable the government to micromanage ‘not only our economy, but also...our morals.’ The reason no good political options exist is that ‘politics is downstream from culture.’ [6] Our culture is sick, it does not understand freedom, responsibility, nor morality. Are we really surprised then that our political leaders, who are chosen from within our culture, make irresponsible and immoral decisions that are incongruous with freedom?

Are there other organizations that have kept the concept of inalienable responsibilities at the forefront of our citizenry’s minds? So far, the only person I’ve found that even approached these principles without being directly affiliated with any specific religion is Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist and professor. In an interview with Dr. Oz, he broke down the relationship between responsibility and rights as such:

"The actual reason you have rights is so that you can discharge your responsibilities...Part of the purpose of your rights in some sense is so that you can be given an autonomous space that's protected in which you can manifest what's necessary about you in the world that's a contribution to it. So I have to leave a space for you so that you can make your contribution for yourself. So that you can take care of yourself, so that you can shoulder responsibility for your family and so that you can serve the community the best way that you can. And I don’t want to set up a society that will interfere with that...The responsibility element is more important than the rights element."[7]

What about other organizations? I have not found any. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. The organizations that would ideally teach about responsibility and accountability are preaching a whole different tune.

Morality’s Role in a Responsible Society

The government of the United States was so radically unique from other governments of the time because it was set up with very limited powers and was designed to encourage the freedom of its citizens as much as possible. Even to this day, its founding document continues to be distinct from many other governments in that regard. However, to maintain that freedom, the people had to be responsible and to encourage them to be responsible, it was necessary that they have both a good intellectual and a good moral education. As John Adams explained: “The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people.” [8]

There is a direct correlation between a people’s ability to practice freedom and their morality. This isn’t a metaphysical philosophy, this is reasonable and objective cause and effect that can be highlighted throughout history. Let’s take the right to procreation as an example and examine the associated responsibility of being honest.

What does dishonesty in procreation look like? It could look like someone lying about a disease they have, trying to take advantage of someone else, or not accepting responsibility for the consequences of their actions. So how does a government combat that dishonesty with legal means? Well, in court, the individual parties can try and prove or disprove malicious intent and sue the other party for all they are worth. This, of course, leads to all sorts of heartache and legal headaches. In recent years this dishonesty led to the #MeToo movement, which was not without its own flaws and abuses. Recently, figures in the dating world began to demand ‘consent videos’ before having sex, to try and prevent being taken advantage of. [9] Does that sound like an increase or decrease in the freedom of the participants?

The example in the previous paragraph doesn’t even consider new laws that might be implemented to try and ‘fix’ the problems caused by irresponsible behavior. Can you think of any sort of laws that would prevent the problem of dishonesty in sex? What would the effect on the freedom of the average citizen be if such laws were passed? Some things simply can’t be regulated by law without infringing on the freedoms of the innocent citizen. As a result, these quandaries would be considered unenforceable by a free government. Said societal ills can only be fixed by living up to the inalienable responsibilities of each right, which can only happen if the culture embraces moral standards.

Take another look at those responsibilities. Do not steal. Do not murder. Do not lie. Aren’t these common religious morals? They fit almost perfectly with the 10 commandments in Judeo-Chrisitan beliefs. Those same morals are shared in almost every religious institution in the world, including non-Judeo-Christian ones. Is it any wonder, then, that religion is widely considered the source of a society’s moral structure? John Adams explained this concept to the Massachusetts militia in 1798, saying “We have no Government [powerful enough to contend] with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or galantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." [10]

No free system of government, even one with safeguards to protect against abuse such as ours has, can be maintained if the majority of the people murder, steal, lie, or cheat. It is impossible. A free society will crumple in on itself if morality is not practiced by the majority. Power will be consolidated in a small group of people in order to stop the suffering, chaos, and unrest. Once they have all the power, free society is no more. Of course, this group will undoubtedly be just as immoral as the rest of the society they emerged from, so don’t expect any actual justice, fairness, or equality under its rule.

The Decline of Morality

When I was an undergrad student at a community college, I had the opportunity to take classes in a variety of subjects. From economics and business law to global politics and psychology, I noticed a trend in what we were taught. The classes went way out of their way to show how there is no right and wrong. To do this, they taught using ethics instead of morality, because, they argued, morality is subjective. Stealing wasn’t wrong, it was ‘unethical.’ But whether it was unethical or not depended on why someone was stealing. If it was to feed their starving grandmother, then it was less unethical or perhaps even justified. Not only did ethics continue to be subjective in the way it was portrayed, but eventually the point was made that whether something was unethical depended entirely on the eye of the beholder.

To an extent, I understand this. The problem with this approach is that it disregards the inalienable rights of the ‘participants’ in the situation. Instead of arguing whether it is unethical to steal to feed a starving soul, let’s get rid of the gray area and focus on an inalienable rights perspective. From a rights (and moral) perspective, stealing is wrong. Taking something from someone else when it by right belongs to them is wrong, even if you are starving. That said, religious morals often focus on charity, mercy, and forgiveness. One might have mercy on a hungry thief, forgiving them (by not pursuing legal action) and possibly even going out of their way to help--it is their inalienable right, after all, to choose what they want to do with their property--but that does not magically make the theft of that property moral.

In addition to taking a nebulous approach to teaching morality, many of the classes also focused on a nihilistic approach to life. One class in particular, a natural disasters class, focused on all the ways humanity was doomed. It was simultaneously the most interesting class I attended and also the most depressing. Nuclear war, global warming, volcanic eruption, sun flares, asteroids, limited resources, disease-- the class (correctly) noted that life on earth was fragile and could end at any moment. Whenever I or other students offered helpful suggestions on a given topic and how it can be solved, the professor’s answers always focused on the negatives of whatever solution was proposed. As a result, the endgame of the class was for the students to leave thinking that they were all doomed one way or another. While that class was the most memorable, the idea that the world was doomed and nothing we do matters was common in every classroom. It isn’t a far psychological leap to go from ‘we are all doomed’ to ‘nothing I do matters’ and from there to ‘the consequences of my actions do not matter.’ [11]

Take a look at this study which shows the effects that a "relative morality" approach to life has on its students. This article is from 2011 and was published in the New York Times. The study in question took place during the summer of 2008. A distinguished Notre Dame sociologist led a research team in conducting in-depth interviews with 230 young adults across America.

“It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues” the author states. “The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas, and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers… you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.” The article continues:

When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.

“Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,” Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”...

Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”

Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism. Again, this doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. But, Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading. In this way, the study says more about adult America than youthful America.

After referring to numerous authors and writers who have delved deeply into this phenomenon, the author finishes by stating:

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart. [12]

Are we really surprised, then, that we’ve seen an increase in both heinous crimes and government intervention? Are we really surprised when a student, who has fallen into the nihilistic trap set out for him by society itself, decides to shoot up a school? Of course, that’s not just the university’s failure, is it? It’s not even just society’s failure. Where is right and wrong best learned? In the home. It is our failure, as individuals and families.

What can be done?

Start with yourself. If you want to preserve freedom, you need to begin by changing any of your own behavior that is incongruous with the responsibility of your inalienable rights. If you are a parent, teach your children how to do the same and encourage them to do so. Ask yourself this self-reflective question that a prominent religious figure once asked: “Do we really believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, and virtuous? On this test may hinge the survival of our society, our constitutional government, and our eternal salvation.” [13] Only you can answer for yourself whether you do believe in those principles, but what you can’t choose is how the failure to live those principles will negatively affect both society and our government. While you can’t force other people to be responsible, you can control yourself.

Is it necessary that people be religious in order to preserve freedom? This is a question that even the founders of the United States discussed. One thing we can say for sure is that it is necessary for people to be moral, and historically most people inherit their understanding of morality from religion. It is hotly debated whether the majority of the founding fathers were actually religious or not, but that is a topic for a different essay. What you should know is that the founders unquestionably saw the benefit of religion in a society, even those founders that did not believe any one religion to be correct. So it is time to reflect deeply and ask ‘Does my understanding of morality fit with the inalienable rights that every human being has?’ The next question should be ‘Am I doing anything that doesn’t agree with the principles of inalienable rights and their corresponding responsibilities?’ Then make the changes you need to reconcile yourself with those ideas.

Build up your understanding. You cannot defend freedom if you do not understand it, nor can you stand for liberty if you do not know how it works. You cannot protect the rights of the individual if you do not know what they are. Being ignorant of the principles of freedom makes you weak and easy to manipulate, blown any which way by the winds of society’s whims. We need to set aside time and be intentional in our study of freedom, where it comes from, and how it is secured. We should study it as individuals, and we should study it as families, and we should encourage others to study it as well. It will make it harder for each of us to be manipulated by ideas, philosophies, or organizations that have goals incongruous with those of a free society if we have studied what keeps a society free.

Trying to learn it all by yourself would be a nightmare. It also wouldn’t do much good if a single person were to understand freedom perfectly but no one around him did. Free Speech Haven was created first and foremost as a place where people can come to learn and discuss the principles of freedom. We have resources on this website to help you get started in your personal study, and you are always welcome to join our online discussions and share what you have learned.

Play the long game. Maintaining a free society requires that you play the long game. It requires that you use persuasion and that you don’t always see immediate results. Sometimes, it requires that you do not get your way on things because doing so would trample over someone else’s inalienable rights. For example, I find the recreational use of drugs reprehensible, a terrible habit that dumbs down the mind, creates addiction and can steal away the potential of the user if not their life. That said, I do not think the government should be able to tell someone of age not to use them, assuming their usage does not endanger anyone else. I will engage in civil conversation, I will empower churches, youth shelters, rehab centers, and others to fight addictions, I will teach my children why using drugs is not good for them. I will do everything I can to stop the drug endemic EXCEPT make it illegal. This approach is a hell of a lot harder than using the government’s monopoly on force to fulfill my wishes, but it is the only approach that does not stifle freedom. And as Thomas Paine wrote: “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” [14] In other words, what goes around comes around, especially with oppressive laws.

Use the Constitution. Once you’re on the road to self-mastery, then comes the next part: Holding government accountable to the Constitution. “The Constitution is a series of booby traps designed to catch anyone who would abuse their power.” [15]. The Constitution was designed to keep our government in check so that the inalienable rights of its citizens would not be infringed upon. We must not only stop electing representatives who do not follow the Constitution, but we must also elect those who will and hold them to it. The only way this can happen is if our culture embraces its importance. Which brings us to our final point.

Contend without being contentious. If politics is downstream from culture, then the culture is what really needs to change. How do we change culture? Through the marketplace of ideas. It may sound simple, but I’m no dummy. I know how vile of an experience it can be to share ideas with other people, especially as our society becomes increasingly prone to censorship, anti-free speech, slander, and bullying. I empathize greatly with those among you who do not care for contention, who see politics as a subject that breeds only anger and resentment. I get it. Unfortunately, we desperately need the voices of good people who understand freedom to help others understand. We cannot avoid public discourse if we wish to remain free.

We can, however, learn to contend without being contentious. We can ensure that when we do get involved, if there is contention, we are not the ones bringing it to the table. It’s important to remember that if one is trying to bully another person until their viewpoint is silenced, they are not a friend of freedom. We must rise above that anti-free-speech attitude and be better.

I also take comfort in a quote from a religious leader from my own particular faith. He states: “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior… The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior. … That is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel.” [16] While he was speaking specifically about the teachings of Jesus, I believe similarly that if a person is taught about inalienable rights and responsibilities, and the role that morality plays in allowing them the freedom to exercise those rights, they will change their behaviors accordingly. Am I too optimistic? Perhaps, but I haven’t given up yet, and neither should you. As Everett Hale reportedly stated once, “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And what I can do, I ought to do. And what I ought to do, by the grace of God, I shall do.” [17]

Sources

  • John Adams by David McCullough, HBO Adaptation. The HBO adaptation puts this quote in. While John Adams never said exactly these words in McCullough’s biography of him, there are scores of actual quotes, journal entries and more that suggest it was Adam’s sincere belief that certain eternal principles existed.
  • Krauser, Shane. What Is Freedom? Is It for You? (25 Ideas That Will Change the Way You See America!). American Academy for Constitutional Education, 2015. (The third column was added by me.)
  • Maxwell, N. A. (1974). Eternalism vs. Secularism. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1974/10/eternalism-vs-secularism?lang=eng
  • Nelson, R. M. (1989). Woman-Of Infinite Worth. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1989/10/woman-of-infinite-worth?lang=eng
  • Oaks, D. H. (1997). Following the Pioneers. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1997/10/following-the-pioneers?lang=eng
  • Shane Krauser: Most Important Battle in the World https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfcdecHEJcE
  • "LIFE IS SUFFERING" (but you have the power to transcend it) - Jordan Peterson Motivation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qXGxbEGOkE
  • McCullough, D. G. (2008). John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
  • Hawken, L. (2018, November 30). Women are being asked to record 'consent videos' before sex by men who are afraid they'll be accused of rape or assault. Retrieved August 04, 2020, https://www.thesun.co.uk/fabulous/7867376/women-consent-videos-before-sex-recorded-accused-rape-assault/
  • Founders Online: From John Adams to Massachusetts Militia, 11 October 1798. (n.d.). Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-3102
  • JP Links to relevant videos
    • STOP CHASING HAPPINESS! (pursue meaning instead) - Jordan Peterson Motivation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYT-dD1vN_A&t=5s
    • Jordan Peterson - Why There is No Excuse For Nihilism https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCYxSenyjQg
    • RESPONSIBILITY - Powerful Motivational Video | Jordan Peterson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDDCnMgPnlY&t=138s
    • Jordan Peterson: high school shootings like Parkland, Florida's https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HKFiH4jhnw
  • Brooks, D. (2011, September 13). If It Feels Right ... Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/13/opinion/if-it-feels-right.html
  • David B. Haight. Ethics and Honesty. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1987/10/ethics-and-honesty?lang=eng
  • Thomas Paine, A Dissertation on the First Principles of Government (1795)
  • Shane Krauser: Webinar: American Constitution - Divinely Inspired & Relevant Today (Shane Krauser) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNy0pjxDq7Q
  • Boyd K. Packer. Little Children. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1986/10/little-children?lang=eng
  • https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/8183.Edward_Everett_Hale
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    Sarcastic Sloth (Shane Frampton)
    Sarcastic Sloth (Shane Frampton)
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    Sarcastic Sloth (Shane Frampton)

    I'm a writer for passion, enjoyment and occasionally profit. My goal is to write material that will be beneficial in the form of inspiring laughter or deep thought.

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