What are Rights for? Where do they come from? Including 2nd Amendment

Inspired by a conversation from a pit thread.

I don’t think that our disagreement is about gun rights at all. I think our disagreement is about something much more fundamental, something I hope to get at in this thread, by asking: what are rights for?

In another thread, you said this:

I don’t completely disagree with your statement here, but I think it is adjacent to the root disagreement.

Rights (like rites, money, nation-states, religions, governments, families, ideologies, etc) are human creations, which should be used to make the world a better place. How “better” is judged should absolutely take into account things like people’s physical well being but also their happiness, their freedom to do whatever they want (so long as it isn’t causing harm* to others), etc etc.

*Defining “harm” and is a whole other kettle of worms…

But once you’re done defining the kind of world you want to see, you need to ensure that the rights you support serve the goal of creating that world.

If we break it down, the 2nd amendment is about a couple of things.

  1. Literal gun ownership
  2. Overthrowing a corrupt, tyrannical government
  3. Self Defense

We can debate all day which of these the Founding Fathers meant, but frankly I don’t think it really matters, because obviously none of us actually want to live in the society our Founding Fathers created (for one, none of us believe slavery is a good idea - I hope) and they did forsee this and include an amendment process regardless.

The point is, we need to look at these rights in isolation, and decide if they make society better (again, however nebulously you want to define “better”) and then decide how to implement them.

Saying “free speech/gun rights/slavery/sacrifices to Quetzcoatl are a good idea because we have always done them” is simply not an argument. I can’t even say it’s an INVALID argument because it really isn’t an argument at all. We must make the case that free speech/gun rights/slavery/sacrifices to Quetzcoatl make the world better - again, however we want to define “better”.

So… I agree that self defense is an important and valuable right, and that the world is a better place because of it. We can argue about whether specific acts qualify as “self defense” or not, of course, but I don’t think I need to defend the concept as a whole from anyone here. If I did, I certainly would be willing to.

I also agree that replacing a tyrannical government is a good idea and something people have a right to do.

But now we come to the topic of private unrestricted gun ownership. And I just don’t see how this is a public good. I don’t think self defense requires or implies firearms, and in fact they often escalate what could have been deescalated or handled nonfataly into a killing. And the idea that some guys with AR-15s are gonna stop the modern US Military if it is being controlled by a tyrannical government is just silly.

Now I think specific gun control proposals are out of the scope of this thread, but suffice it to say, I think there are legitimate uses for guns, and people who have those legitimate uses should be able to access the types of weapons they need; law enforcement should know who has what kinds of weapons, and their sale and transfer should be controlled. This is what many European countries do, and their success speaks for itself.

It is possible, of course, to have a coherent position that opposes mine. One would simply need to explain why our society is better for having so many guns in it, despite the human cost.

But “we always had guns” isn’t gonna cut it.

What are rights for? Well, they are a consequence of a set of axiomatic beliefs. Among them are that human life has intrinsic value that derives from the divine. In the US, the states and individuals reserve (in theory) all power and rights not delegated to the national government. So the concept of rights is an ideological tool to enable liberty.

Of course ‘society’ can modify so-called rights. They are after all not universally accepted nor are they mandated from above and are actually a convenient fiction. They’ve been adopted after millennia of struggle and only in a subset of the world.

Now, you may think that changing the charter of the US government is a good thing and you may be right. All you have to do is convince enough others and you can either via the amendment process, the creative interpretation of language process, or the states can hold a new convention and start fresh process. Then there is underlying reality of might makes right and you can force change.

With regards to the 2nd amendment? This is obviously inspired, at least in part, by the recent school shooting. It is tragic. Horrifically so. Governments have been responsible for tragedies, or in the words of Stalin ‘statistics’, that are several orders of magnitude greater. So I am not so quick to dismiss the idea that an armed populace is a hedge against tyranny. I’d agree that irregulars fighting the US military would have challenges but I’d disagree that it’s silly that US military is destined to win. See Vietnam, Afghanistan, Somalia…

You say it’s necessary to prove that an existence of a right makes the world a better place? I’d disagree. That’d imply the presence of the right is justified only if there is a continuous change towards some non-defined metric. I’d say that the absence of the right would make the world worse by concentrating power and that this concentration of power would be eventually captured by the most base and ambitious and used for horrific purpose. At least that’s what most of human history has shown.

This reminds me of another recent-ish thread that has some bearing on your questions @Babale

In which my comment was as follows -

If we’re talking about essential freedoms, are we talking about essential freedoms to operate in a liberal democracy? Because those are quite different than those for a oligarchy, dictatorship, or theocratic state.

Or are we talking about what we feel are the essential rights of human freedoms in a moral or civic sense? Or, in a similar but more specific sense, what if we had a functional world government, what we would require as essential freedoms in order to be a part of such of a body (say like a UN Human rights charter but with teeth)?

Personally, the one I would consider the most critical freedom of what we’ve already discussed is @Oredigger77 's ‘pedal franchise’ - the freedom to leave. Of course, from a rights POV that pre-supposes there’s a place you can go more in line with your needs or POV, and that such a place respects your right of entry.

I think your OP is framed a bit better, but falls afoul of some of the same issues - because what we perceive as our rights or freedoms (not the same) are social and legal constructs specific to the societies we live in.

So continuing with your OP, the focus, fairly, is on 2nd Amendment rights. In general, I take the OG SD column on the POV of the founders to be largely correct, in that having just fought against the (arguably) largest military of their time with personally owned weapons, that they did indeed support personally owned weapons, and simultaneously had a deep distrust of a standing professional military.

I -ALSO- support your statement that even if this is the intent of the founders, that we do not live in the same political state and structure that they did, and we have the right and opportunity to alter our governmental and societal structure to better reflect our own wants and desires.

So, back to the questions of your OP.

What are rights for?

IMHO, rights are the minimal legal protections we have determined to enshrine in our body of laws. Different societies/nations/etc will define those rights differently, but that’s another thread. :slight_smile:

Where do they come from?

In a republic or democracy, ideally they come from the people and those they’ve chosen to govern, and would (equally ideally) continue to reflect the wants and needs of those people. In practice, they often come from those individuals or groups that have the influence and funds to make their voices heard. And that leaves out non-representative governments entirely.

A yet more idealistic interpretation would be that of the Declaration of Independence, wherein we felt that certain rights were intrinsic to the human condition. It’s a beautiful piece of work, but not even adhered to fully in the US, much less other nations and cultures, but it’s definitely something to strive for rather than against.

Including the 2nd Amendment

And now is where we get into the weeds. So the second amendment is a right written to (per point 1) protect the rights of persons involved in the social contract of the US constitution to own firearms, at least according to my personal, and currently held position of a wide (but not complete) body of constitutional scholars including members of the SCOTUS past and present.

It comes from the Bill of Rights, which was the first group of supplements to the early constitution to amplify what was a rather bare-bones agreement of what the government was to be, and it specifically addressed point 2 above, where the other founding fathers felt the Constitution as originally written did not address concerns in which the government should be limited in it’s rights to meddle with the citizens - a valid concern considering their feelings on why the split with England was needed.

So, having answered the questions of the OP, let’s dial down to the question inherent in the latter half.

We have, in the US, both the right to gun ownership, as enshrined in law (and yes, many arguments about the scope of regulation and the like, but @Babale specified specific proposals are out of the scope of the thread) as well as a substantial issue of illegal and harmful use of firearms against the population. I am very carefully trying to stay away from the debate on the degree of comparative harm, as it leads us all down the same tired ruts.

The issue becomes then one of law - not necessarily the best moral answer, or the least harmful one, but the one that governs the social compact. Most of Europe, in building their governing documents, has not chosen to enshrine the right to firearm ownership (and that’s putting it mildly) into said foundational documents. Their documents were written for the time and people they were representing as well, most of which were quite different from the position of the American Founding Fathers.

The FF (sick of typing it, sorry), were flawed in their own ways as well, and thankfully put in a method by which the Constitution could be modified to reflect changes as the country’s needs and desires changed as well. But, and here’s the rub, they chose to make it EXTREMELY difficult to make those changes. Not impossible, but difficult.

So we come to where we are now (pages of my typing later) - a substantial portion of the population, justifiably upset with where we are in terms of ongoing gun violence, wish, as is their right to modify the social contract on which the government is based. Another substantial portion of the population, wishes to maintain or expand the right for a host of social, political and historical reasons (and a bunch of dumb reasons as well, but that’s another thread) and is sufficiently broadly based to prevent any changes via the established mechanisms of law.

So, how do we change this? Well, there are options, but they all have consequences.

  1. Those who wish to change the existing compact educate, plan, organize, and execute political will, until such time as they have a sufficient majority to enact Constitutional change via a new Amendment. The problem is that while this is going on (IMHO, 2+ decades at a minimum and a degree of organization that has been sadly lacking to date), the risks and harm continues, and leaves out concerns that the system is sufficiently stratified to ensure that there never will be sufficient votes to allow it to occur.
  2. Continue to try to elect representatives to our Legislative Body that can and will follow the ‘well-regulated’ interpretation of the 2nd, to manage to mitigate the harm and risks, while maintaining the essential uses laid out in the OP. Of course, this also gets into the murky issues where out existing two party system loves to negate everything the prior party did when it was in power, and leaves out the issues where as currently aligned, the SCOTUS would likely argue against said interpretation. Another multi-decade or generation fix.
  3. Fundamentally call for a new constitutional convention, as has occurred in other nations in which the people have lost faith that the government can or will protect the rights and prosperity of the people they represent. But, quite frankly, I suspect if anything, we’d end up worse than we are now. If the federal government allowed such a thing (extremely unlikely, but hey, for debate purposes) we are once again at the mercy of a body of individuals to write a new Constitution, which is going to reflect the special interests and priorities of those writers, no matter how well (or, sadly, ill) intentioned they are.
  4. Push for better enforcement of the laws we have on the books, or at least, a more even enforcement which applies Federally, rather than on a state-by-state level. This argument is mostly brought up by the pro-gun moderates/quasi-moderates. In that we do indeed have a wide body of laws that should work better than they do to fix these issues. But whether through funding, lack of resources, lack of enforcement, or the competing jurisdictions by county/city/state, never manage to be particularly effective. Which leads us to…
  5. The unspoken one by most social liberals, and most bloodily anticipated by the fringe (?) right, by Civil War, warm or cold. And this one scares me, but sadly seems to be the way we are headed as our society grows ever more polarized. Since individual states seem determined, with full governmental support, to push their own interpretations of freedom and rights to the forefront (such as the religious right to act only upon their own beliefs), we could well end up with States A-G saying, as a not random example, screw the SCOTUS abortion is allowed here but guns are not, and states H-Z saying screw everyone else, everyone can have all the guns they want but never an abortion. With the federal government being too deadlocked to actually intervene one way or another.

So now that I’ve written a tome, I’ll head back to IMHO territory again. From my personal POV, as a part of the moderate group of gun owners (and I’ve had this discussion with @Babale before in other threads) I respect and exercise this right, but do everything in my power to do so with responsibility, which (again IMHO) is the oft-neglected flip side of having rights. I feel that as they stand, there are a large body of common sense measures that could and should be enacted regarding the safe handling, training, storage and accessibility (purchases, transfers and type) as well as consequences for those who break said measures. But do I see a way to implement them? Not at this time.

Both sides of the political spectrum want freedom, although neither side is particularly good at the responsibility aspect. IMHO, the Conservative side is worse, in that it embraces its rights and freedoms without acknowledging the costs or willingness to accept any responsibility at all for the outcomes (biggest example being abortion, but also climate change and a host of others). My best answer, and the one I think scares Conservatives the most, is that given time (see my earlier thoughts about decades/generations) and accepting that there will be ups and downs, the POV of the needs and habits of a firearms heavy society will change, at which point, we can make the changes via option one or two.

It won’t be fast, it won’t be easy, and it will certainly come after much loss of life. But I believe it will, and I also believe it’s part and parcel of Conservative hatred of things like CRT and scientific liberalism in education. Because they believe it will happen as well.

If and when the time comes (and I doubt I’ll live long enough to see it, but…) I will surrender the firearms I own for destruction or the like, while hopefully being reimbursed a fair-market value for them (which is yet ANOTHER thread). I’ll have some regrets, but I won’t be shedding anyone’s blood over it.

An argument can be made that what constitutes a “right” ultimately comes down to personal whim.

Let’s say we believe abortion should not be illegal. O.K. But is that the same as saying a person has a right to receive an abortion? Is it really a right? Is there a difference between “X shouldn’t be illegal” and “X is a right”?

We have tendency to think of rights as inalienable. But if they’re simply a human construct, do they really exist as objective entities?

I’m not saying I necessarily agree with this. I like to think of human rights as being objective and absolute. Patrick Henry and all that stuff. I’m just not sure how realistic it is.

@octopus - you make a few points I find very interesting, for example

This touches on some really interesting points about how we figure out what we consider “better”. But for the purposes of this thread, given your next paragraph, I think we can put that aside for now:

So, here’s what I’m actually interested in:

I completely disagree with this, and it might be due to a semantic word choice. When I say “this right makes the world better”, I don’t mean “the presence of this right is causing the world to improve day by day”. I mean “The fact that we have this right is a net benefit to society”.

Net benefit here can mean different things to different peopele, of course. You can definitely make an argument that guns are a net benefit to society because while they do lead to more deaths, they lead to some other intangible benefit, which you need to describe and show is greater than the cost of those lives.

In fact, you attempt exactly that, right after protesting that such justification is unnecessary:

This is great. This is an assertion about the sort of world that would be created by removing gun rights and an argument that it is worse by measurable metrics.

Now, I happen to completely disagree with you here. Like I said previously, the idea of a bunch of American revolutionaries fighting off the US army to prevent tyranny is ludicrous. If force of arms is going to stop the US from becoming tyrannical, it would be the army on both sides of the conflict.

But that’s honestly beside the point. I can accept you making the argument, ‘gun rights are necessary (despite the carnage they cause) in case we ever need to take up arms against the government’.

Thank you for your thoughtful and well reasoned post, your posts in these threads are always a welcome bastion of rational thought.

I agree with you that a meaningful resolution won’t be reached in the Supreme Court or Congress. It’s a matter of cultural perspectives and the issue will be decided in the minds of our children before being enacted decades from now.

Oh, absolutely. And rights often come into conflict with each other. What one society considers a “man’s rights as head of his household” another society considers to be a gross violation of the individual rights of his women and children. It gets even more complicated when the two societies are the same one, fifty years apart.

Well, one difference is how easy changing whether X is legal or not in the future is. Another difference is that people may be opposed to ANY restriction on spmething they think is a right (even though all rights must be restricted to some extent in a society).

To me the concept of a “right” is useful in the following definition:

A right is an agreed upon set of tenets against which rules, laws, and interactions are checked.

Rights are not universal, nor given by Poseidon, they are 100% derived from the collective (though not necessarily universal) agreement of those who those rights will govern. Rights may be explicitly stated and enshrined, or they may exist as a cultural undercurrent without having been identified directly as a right.

Rights are not special or untouchable- when society changes rights can change. “Because it’s a right” should never be the end of an argument about what the future should look like. It can be an argument about whether a law right now is or is not appropriate.

You’re very welcome, and thank you for putting together a well laid out and written OP that allows us to talk about they whys and wherefores without being bogged down by the same metaphors, comparisons and calls to action (on both sides) that tend to derail these threads (at least so far, :crossed_fingers: ).

One of the issues regarding 2nd Amendment issues is that it always comes to focus in moments of passion - and in such moments, we want something DONE, immediately if not sooner, which is both fair and human, but unlikely in the extreme with our system.

Doesn’t mean we should give up either.

Thomas Jefferson would disagree:

“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.”

And yet he owned slaves, what a terrible example.

I disagree with old TJ about a lot of things, such as whether we should hold people of African descent as slaves. So what?

I addressed this in the OP, if you want to contribute to the thread please at least address the OP rather than quote TJ.

Good for him.

If you believe in Jefferson’s version, that’s great! But it seems to me that that’s just one man’s opinion of what a right is, and it’s just as fallible as any other opinion one might have.

The key part of that statement is “we hold these truths to be self-evident”. It seems, in fact, that Jefferson’s statement falls neatly within the bounds I’m using. At one point in time, a specific group of people decided that a self-evident truth was that the Christian god (or maybe a deist creator) granted “rights” upon people.

Just because Jefferson et al agreed upon that then doesn’t mean that it needs to hold true today, or that it holds true for all people. What about those who individually, or as a society or social group do not believe in a creator? Do they have rights?

For those who don’t believe in a creator or God in the first place, Jefferson’s position is challenging at best.

I mean, the un-interesting answer to this GD question is: “In America, rights come from the declaration of independence/bill of rights/constitution. They are for obeying.”

A more valuable and interesting set of questions to answer, and what I think the OP is actually asking is: “forgetting about America and the origin of our specifically enumerated rights, what is a right in the first place? Who decides what they are? Do they change?”

Yes, exactly. This is what I’m trying to get at in this thread.

Pertinent to the Thomas Jefferson aspect, and – hopefully – to the OP …

I agree with a sentiment that Jefferson once expressed:

Thomas Jefferson believed that a country’s constitution should be rewritten every 19 years.

“Jefferson thought the dead should not rule the living, thus constitutions should expire frequently, but the fact is that the U.S. Constitution quickly became enshrined by the public and is the oldest constitution in the world,” said Zachary Elkins, a professor of political science at Illinois.


When we talk of a ‘living document --’ in this case, one that serves as a framework for our form of government and the virtual wellspring from which many of our rights emanate, it has simply never made sense to me that Jefferson’s wish wasn’t granted.

It’s also incredibly difficult for me to imagine that the founding fathers – launched here (and now) by an advanced alien life form – would believe that the original version, as subsequently modified, was up to the task at hand.

Which necessarily puts everybody’s pet issue on the table.

Just as some think we’re leaning too much on police departments to tackle the litany of societal ills, ISTM that we’re leaning awfully hard on a 233+ year old document.

Now … what a modern-day Constitutional Convention might look like, and who would participate … is for an entirely different thread :wink:

It’s more than just one man’s opinion. It’s one of two main positions you could take regarding rights: that they (or at least some of them) are natural, or that they’re (all) human-made. Jefferson, in taking the former point of view, was following Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke. But it’s certainly possible to believe in natural rights and still disagree about which rights fall into that category.

Sure. But my point is that whether or not there are natural rights is central to the question “where do rights come from?”.

Just because it is Jefferson’s (and others’) position that there are natural rights does not mean that any discussion about rights must take the same position.

“Which rights are natural rights” is not the question posed by the OP, and so pointing out that some historical figures believed that there are natural rights is at best a non-sequitur, and at worst an appeal to authority that the question has already been answered and that there is no discussion to be had on this topic.

A right is something that exists because enough force guarantees it. In nature, which man is part of, might makes right is the only truth. The imposition of the concept of rights wasn’t inevitable.

I disagree. When it comes to something which is possible through the spread of an ideology such as a religion or a set of moral principles appeals to authority are a core feature. It’s impossible for everyone to deduce from first principles based on personal observation a set of moral axioms that will be sufficiently agreed upon in which a society could function.

That doesn’t mean debate shouldn’t be held where positions are logically deduced from axioms but show me a single debate on these forums about the subject of morality or rights where the participants can even agree on the givens.

The concepts that have been called “natural rights” in this thread should be derived logically. They are rights that are due to human beings based on their nature as human beings, and are those which are universal to all human beings. This is related in my mind to the “what if everyone did that” thread. So the first requirement is that anything called a natural right must be something that would apply to every person without conflicting with anyone else’s natural rights.

(Note that this is a broad outline and definitions and details come later.)

This makes it easier to recognize what is not a natural right (see below for an example) than to define what is. But here are a few attempts at that:

The right not to have your life taken away for any reason unless your own actions have deprived you of that right (again, definitions come later).

The right not to have your liberty of movement and action and speech taken away for any reason, unless your own actions have deprived you of one or more of those rights.

The right not to have those things which you have produced (or their by-products) taken away from you, unless your own actions have caused you to lose right of possession of those things.

Another qualification for a natural right is that one cannot possess a natural right at someone else’s expense. So here is an example of something that one often hears of as a right but that is not a natural right, the “right to housing.” This cannot be a natural right because if some people are to be given housing, it has to be at the expense of other people. It is perfectly valid, in this discussion, to say “society should make sure that everyone has a place to live” without making it a natural right. It is then a reflection of the values of the majority of the society that those who can will help pay for those who don’t have and can’t get housing. (This is just an example, and aside from that I don’t want to argue the merits of policy).

What are rights for? They aren’t “for” anything, they exist. What are you for? You exist, that’s enough. If you want to ask, why enumerate them in documents like the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, it is simply to try to protect those rights from encroachment by governments (and possibly quasi-governmental institutions; again, definitions and details). By enumerating them the society gives decision-makers something to measure their policies against, and arbiters to do the same with those policies.

Where does this leave us with currently controversial rights discussions? As far as abortions are concerned, whether there is a natural right for a woman to have an abortion depends on the definition of where life begins (when rights become attached to an organism) and how a fetus is defined. Any non-religious definition, it seems to me, ought to support such a right.

As for the right to bear arms, it seems to me to fall under the rights to liberty and property. But if the society finds that approach can’t be made to work in a large, interconnection public space, the society can, if it sees fit, agree to abrogate that right for the general good of the society. Why is that both possible and necessary? Because human beings are flawed in their recognition of other peoples’ rights, and sometimes a relatively minor right has to be given up to preserve the society and the people in it. It doesn’t mean the right no longer exists, it means that it is being (more or less) voluntarily given up by the members of the society, in equal measure.