The Incompatibility Of Natural Rights And Relativism (Part I)

By: David S. Petolicchio

Among the many debates which frequently occur in conservative circles, perhaps the most neglected has to do with the nature of rights. To begin with, rights do not, and fundamentally cannot, come from man. If they did, natural rights would ebb and flow with the whims of society, ever subject to changing morality. In the same way, rights cannot originate from government as governments are comprised of human beings and, as such, are prone to the exact same shortcomings.
Where do natural rights (or human rights) come from? The most substantive argument would be that of supernatural origination: the theory that all things in existence are bestowed value by a creator. Often, secular theory suggests that natural rights are inherent, but generally flounder when the subject is explored to any degree of depth and consistency. Ultimately, the religious and nonreligious can concur on the point of inherent rights, but the unchanging nature of natural rights as well as their origin, is a point of contention that will plague the secularist for perpetuity.
Religiosity endeavors to solve this metaphysical dilemma by concluding that natural human rights (and morality) must dwell in the realms of absolutes for the sake of stability and consistency and are arbitrated and dispersed by the hand of God. Thus, moral codes and the laws of morality (as found in the Bible) were born. John Locke, the noted philosopher credited for his great influence on the founding of the American experiment, wrote in his Two Treatises of Government:
“… The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business…”
In this quote, Locke is establishing the foundation for natural rights by pointing to natural laws in the world as established by a Creator. Judeo-Christian philosophy would, of course, suggest that the God of the Bible is the sole arbiter of truth and value, otherwise relativism would negate every principle proposed within its text.
Such principles are not, however, exclusively bound to Christendom. Indeed, such a premise can be shared by the non-religious alike, as long as they stabilize their presuppositions around the moral codes and values from fundamental Judeo-Christian philosophies. Outside of these core fundamentals, the principles of mankind being equal and being worthy of liberty is truly erroneous. Without the presupposition that mankind was created and was granted inherent value by a Creator, the entire notion of individual liberty collapses into a heap of relativist anarchy. One must either concede uncertainty regarding the origin of natural rights and their stability, or accept the principle that force outside of the natural world is responsible for imparting worth upon humanity.
These key points established, it can be argued that no governmental system or social system will sustain itself while pursuing the phantom of relativism. Relativism is a fundamental rejection of absolute truths and summarily is in conflict with the presupposition of natural rights, as natural rights must be absolute and unchanging principles. All systems of any worth or stability are inevitably tied to absolutes, such a fact cannot be overstated. Rights, as a notion, must be inextricably tied to absolutes, to suggest otherwise is to argue from a position of absolutism, further establishing the original point. All theories must argue from a position of absolutes, for a theory to be debated at all, it must be of the argument that it is, indeed, right or wrong. Thomas Sowell has a humorous quote that illustrates this point with great precision, “An e-mail from a reader says that liberals like to take the moral high ground, even though their own moral relativism means that there is no moral high ground.” Sowell is making the point that morality cannot be based upon relativism as morality is a system of absolutes, a system of right and wrong. To argue against such a system is still to argue that said system (absolutism) is wrong and that relativism is correct. How can a system of laws be established if right and wrong are viewed as entirely subjective terms? Relativism regarding human value is a poison to governing philosophies as the value of man is a nebulous a tumultuous consideration. At one time, man may be considered equal in fundamental value and in the next, he may be observed as wholly incapable of self-government and is destined only to servitude. Why then must humanity pursue the charade of relativism when, in reality, no human being operates under such a principle? Arguably, such a reason is found in the principle of human depravity, the inherent inclination of humanity to pursue immorality ultimately concluding in his own demise.
Nations are not immune to such fallibility, as countless historic accounts will verify most aptly. The American experiment was, and is, an experiment into the individuality of human nature and the eternal pursuit of balancing liberty with governance. One may be able to argue the duration of success regarding this experiment, but it is undeniable that the principles of the American founding led to one of the most free and vivacious nations in the history of the world.
It is also an important aside to address an oft presumed falsehood: the rights of Americans come from, and are exclusive to, the Federal Constitution. This premise only exists due to the failure of the modern education system. To suggest such a thing is to be entirely ignorant of what natural rights are, or the moral role of government in human systems. Governments were instituted among men for the sake of maintaining peace and order, to reject violence and oppression at the hands of neighbors and to establish laws that would allow equal representation for all human participants, and ultimately, to defend and enhance individual liberty. An excellent summation of this premise can be found in the venerable Declaration of Independence which 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…”
 While countless governments have failed, and continue to fail at this basic mission, the moral role of government is unchanging.  Governments are temporal and will rise and fall like the waves of the sea, but the fundamental rights of man are immovable.
The rights of man come from God (if you’re religious) or are inherent (if you’re agnostic or atheistic), there is no other sustainable alternative. If natural rights cannot come from man or the governments of man, they must then come from the essence of being human, or from the God (or intelligent beings) that made humanity.
Rights must be grounded in absolutes for the sake of stability and consistency in a “free society”.


David S. Petolicchio is the executive director of the Constitutional Organization Of Liberty (COOL)



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