Thursday, September 30, 2010

We Hold These Truths…

President Obama’s recent faux pas did not get much coverage in the media (At least as far as I know.) Actually, it didn’t even get too much coverage on right wing talk radio or Fox News either. In case you have not heard it, he left out some pivotal words in his speech before the Hispanic Caucus, when he attempted to quote from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed […] with certain inalienable rights: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Now I am not here to make hay about the President’s omission of the key words “by their Creator”. I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that it was just an innocent mental blip, or perhaps it was the speechwriter’s fault and the President was just following the teleprompter. I will not even attempt to draw any conclusions about his motives or what the omission might reveal.

What I find most revealing is that so few people noticed, and I don’t think it is because the President has apologists in the media who continue to cover for him. I think the omission is more reflective of a zeitgeist which takes the idea of human rights for granted but no longer thinks through why we have such rights and why they are “inalienable”.

Let’s take a closer look at the Declaration.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…
Jefferson called this truth “self-evident” in the sense that it was beyond dispute, that no reasonable person could disagree. But actually, if we take that phrase in isolation, these truths are not self-evident. Anyone with even the slightest powers of observation will tell you that we are not equal. Just look at people’s physical build or strength or intellect or talent:  equality is not the first thing that comes to mind. So what were Jefferson and company talking about?  Were they referring to human worth in general or human dignity? Perhaps, but exactly what is human dignity? Dignity according to whom? Why do humans have more dignity than animals?  Or do they? 

Well, let’s read the rest of the sentence:

… that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights: that among these are the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Here, the founding fathers give at least one sense in which all men are equal, that they all have “certain inalienable rights”. The term “human rights” has probably been in vogue since the seventies, but the concept has been around for much longer. Most people seem to agree that human rights are a good thing, but exactly what are they, and how is it that they are “inalienable”?

The Declaration says that human rights include the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” The question is, what are these “rights” based on?  Who or what confers them if not our “Creator”? This is the question I usually ask atheists, whether in person or in the blogosphere, but I have never gotten a satisfactory answer. In previous posts, the debate has centered around the basis for morality, and the atheists usually come back with some nonsense about how mutually agreeable moral behavior has evolved over time because it is what helps the species survive.

I call it nonsense, but let’s grant that premise for the sake of argument. What about human rights? If, like morality, human rights are part of a mutually agreed upon code of behavior, how can these rights be inalienable? What if everybody does not agree? For example, what gives us the right to tell other nations that their human rights record is dismal?  Why should we be so outraged when human rights are not respected?

If the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not conferred to us by our Creator, then by whom or by what is it conferred? By majority rule? If so, then these rights are not inalienable at all. What if the majority decides by mutual agreement that it is okay to oppress or kill off members of a minority or ethnic group they don’t like? What happens if the majority, or at least the government--whether duly elected or not--decides it is okay to kill off the elderly, the infirm or the unborn? Hasn't this already happened to a certain extent? What will keep it from happening further, and why shouldn't it as long as the majority agrees?  What if the majority agrees that it is okay or expedient to enslave or slaughter whole classes of people because they believe it is in their best interests?

The right to life is apparently not inalienable, nor is the right to liberty or the pursuit of happiness. If the government or majority rule is what gives us these rights, then the government or majority rule can take them away.  Only the Creator can endow us with inalienable rights, and this truth is self-evident indeed.


JD Curtis said...

Youre darn skippy I noticed this. How could such an omission be anything but intentional?

BTW, did you see what they did to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address? Link

The Maryland Crustacean said...

Thanks for the link, JD. Perhaps all of these omissions are intentional. Nothing surprises me anymore. If they are intentional, they are also politically stupid.

JD Curtis said...

Twice in five weeks anyone?

feeno said...

Merry Christmas Krusty to you and yours. See you there one day.


The Maryland Crustacean said...

Same to you, feeno. I have been incommunicado lately, as it has been almost three months since me last post. I am telling myself I will start posting again in 2011, but that sounds too much like a New Years Resolution.