Relative Rights

Famously, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence states:

 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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;

These are beautiful words, and the ideas they express run deep in our national ethos—even if we have struggled to live up to them at times.

One thing I have come to believe over time that I don’t hear people talk about very often is how our unalienable rights themselves are not, or should not be, considered equal: their importance is relative to one another.

Stated mathematically:

Life > Liberty > the Pursuit of Happiness

What I mean by that is that my right to pursue happiness should not infringe upon your liberty, and my right to liberty should not infringe upon your life. Stated positively, people need to have life before they can have liberty, and they need to have liberty before they are free to pursue happiness.

Great Evils

I think that slavery and abortion stand as two of the great evils in American history, and I think these two issues share striking similarities:

  • In both cases, the suffering of the victims was allowed on the basis that they were considered to be somewhat-less-than-human. This thinking was furthered by the use of dehumanizing terms like slave and fetus.
  • In both cases, the victims were treated as the property of others, without rights of their own.
  • In both cases, an evil practice was justified because of its economic benefit. Slavery was the backbone of Southern economy, considered by many to be a necessary evil. “What would happen to our economy without slave labor?” they cried. Similarly, proponents of abortion often describe it as a necessary evil, sometimes the only option for impoverished mothers. “What would happen to our economy if we had to support all of these unwanted babies?” they cry.
  • And in both cases, good but misguided people made the mistake of refusing to condemn the unacceptable behavior of others. Slavery continued for as long as it did because too many people who would never consider owning a slave themselves refused to take that “right” away from others. Think about the typical Pro-Choice bumper stickers and protest signs you see and translate them to the slavery issue: “Opposed to slavery? Don’t buy one!” It seems ludicrous to us today, but until we as a culture can realize that with abortion—as with slavery—humans are being denied basic human rights, such flawed thinking will continue.

These two issues are also similar in the way the relate to the issue of the relative importance of our inalienable rights which I set forth above:

  • In the case of slavery, one group’s right to pursue happiness through a certain type of agricultural lifestyle supported by slave labor was used to strip the liberty of another group. If inalienable rights are weighted correctly, the right to freedom would come first, and liberty would not be removed from someone to enable someone else’s pursuit of happiness.
  • In the case of abortion, one group’s right to freedom over control of their bodies is used to strip the life of another group. If inalienable rights are weighted correctly, the right to live would come first, and life would not be taken away from an infant because of someone else’s liberty.

When the words of the Declaration of Independence quoted above were penned, a profound and beautiful truth was set forth with implications that even the authors didn’t fully grasp or live out. May we strive for a society where all people are guaranteed their Creator-endowed inalienable rights: Life first, then Liberty, and then the Pursuit of Happiness.