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America’ s principle- God-endowed right, not unbounded freedom

Today I read an article by Tom Delay, former Congressman and Majority leader of the U.S. House of Representative. In it he says that “Now is the perfect time for us to engage in the great, fundamental debate on whether we return to the values of the Constitution and whether we once again adhere to the spirit of the Declaration SmallLogoLTLof Independence that God gave us our freedoms.”

It’s heartening to see someone who was a leader in the GOP who is at least trying address the true nature of the crisis our nation faces.  But what he says is also a good example of the deeply troubling confusion that bedevils any effort to rebuild conservative statesmanship in the current Republican Party.  Mr. Delay says we should return to the Declaration.  But then he speaks of God-given freedoms (“God gave us our freedoms”), when the Declaration actually says that people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

Apparently, Mr. Delay sees no difference between a God-endowed right and a simple gift of freedom.  In this respect he tacitly places himself in a tradition that includes others, leading lights among the Democrats- Woodrow Wilson, FDR and now Barack Obama. ( I talked about Obama’s perversion of the Declaration’s logic in an article last year, Obama’s inauguration speech morphs liberty into tyranny.) This confusion of meaning, pays lip-service to God as the source of our freedom. But it does so in a way that purposely omits the Declaration’s logic as to our obligation to respect God’s authority in the use we make of our freedom.

The Declaration’s logic in this context, turns on the meaning of two terms: ‘endow’ and ‘unalienable’.  As to the first, let’s say that a successful alumnus gives his alma mater $3,000,000 dollars to endow a Chair in the Physics Department. Unless otherwise specified in the terms of the endowment, the University is free to fund the teaching and research of an outstanding astrophysicist, a specialist in quantum mechanics or an outstanding teacher charged with developing an exemplary introductory program suitable for all undergraduates (not just those intending to specialize in the field.)  But it is not authorized to set up a chair in the History Department. The endowment is conditional.

God’s endowment of our rights is also conditional. That’s why, when it comes to freedom, the Declaration uses the term “liberty” and lists it among our “unalienable rights”.  The word “unalienable” has to do with the terms or conditions of the endowment.  John Locke, the English philosopher whose work informed the Declaration’s logic, had this in mind when he wrote about this about our human nature:

But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself , or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. 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; they are his property,…(Second Treatise, Chapter II)

God’s endowment of unalienable rights is, in this respect, like the lands, duties, privileges and prerogatives attached to certain titles of nobility.  They cannot be alienated because they are held in trust from the one who bestows the title.  They cannot be taken by any other, or given up to another in violation of the terms and conditions set by the ruler who created and bestowed the title.

In using the term “unalienable” in this way, the Declaration clarifies the meaning of human equality, i.e., that all those who bear the title of humanity are equally obliged to respect the terms of the will of the Creator, the one who made them human, each and every one.  As Locke’s above quoted words suggest, because the source of right is equal obligation, that obligation limits and constrains the freedom involved in the exercise of right.  The unalienable right of liberty therefore excludes every exercise of freedom that contravenes it.

With this in mind, let’s think about the Declaration’s use of the term liberty to refer to freedom as an unalienable right.  It’s a self-evident fact that human beings are free to do good or evil, right or wrong. Freedom is, in this respect, the opportunity to choose to do one or the other. When a wrongdoer makes the choice to do wrong, he exercise his freedom (i.e., carries it into action) to do wrong.  On the other hand, when someone does right, he exercises his freedom to do right.

In a dispute between the two, in which each claims to have been injured by the other, once the facts are established, we will find that the one who has chosen to do wrong is in the wrong; and that the one who chose to exercise his freedom (i.e., carry it into action) to do right, had the right act as he did.  But who will be the beneficiary of this finding depends not only on the facts, but on the standard we apply to distinguish right from wrong as we consider them.

When the Declaration speaks of unalienable rights endowed by our Creator, it makes the will of the Creator the standard of right.  Right action is action that conforms to the Creator’s endowment (i.e., the terms or conditions on which the endowment is made.)  By using the term “unalienable” the Declaration confirms and clarifies this conditionality.  The term refers to something that cannot be taken away from, or given up by the possessor; something intrinsic to his way of being (his nature).  Thus, only actions consistent with the integrity of human nature (that neither give nor take away any of its intrinsic qualities) fall within the purview of unalienable right.

When we speak of “human rights” our usage confirms this meaning.  Certain actions and activities are required In order to preserve and respect humanity, i.e., the special qualities that make us human.  The Creator instills these special qualities as he defines (forms and therefore sets the boundaries and limitations that determine) what it means to be human (as distinguished, say, from being an ant, an eagle, a stone or a whiff of dust.) This authority with respect to our nature is, in fact, what it means to be our Creator.

But to maintain our human form of life requires that the substance of our being (the stuff we’re made of) be informed by those boundaries and limitations. This information produces our physical form, the body, and arranges its activities. Some of these bodily activities appear to determined by a program. (One way in which this program manifests itself involves our DNA.)  Others appear to call for a decision from us, a choice to act or not, in this way or that.

In like fashion, we are conscious of certain feelings (pain, pleasure, appetite, aversion) to which we must respond in some way. They are in turn, responsive to our choice, but only to a certain degree.  To the degree that they are responsive, we become responsible for the actions that result from them.

This sphere of conscious responsibility is what distinguishes human activity from the activities of what appear to us to be inanimate objects.  The distinct nature of this special consciousness appears more particularly, however, in comparison with living things, from plants to primates, in all of which we can discern analogies to our own conscious actions.

But we also discern more or less stark divergences. These divergences suggest the presence in us of a degree or kind of freedom-from-the-bonds-of-material-nature, which points us toward a being beyond ourselves, a being that reflects upon us (like the sun reflecting upon the surface of a mirror) in the way we reflect upon the special nature, of other things, including of course, other living things.

This unique freedom allows us to stand, as it were, apart from nature in order to consider its activities as if they were our own; in order therefore to imagine ourselves involved in them, as Einstein imagined himself engaged in the activity of light.  This has implications as to the limits and potential of our scientific knowledge.  But it has special implications for our consciousness of one another. For it gives rise to the special work, again involving our imagination, which is required for us to reflect upon one another just as we reflect upon other objects we encounter.

When we look at those other objects, we see some that are similar to use in this way or that.  But when we look upon one another, we see someone who is, on the whole, similar to us.  Therefore when we imagine ourselves in their position, we infer in them what we inescapably experience in ourselves, which is our consciousness of  being beyond what we appear to be; beyond the hand, the arm, the outward shape and form of our body. Reflecting upon this being beyond ourselves, in whom we nonetheless recognize ourselves, we awaken to a form of consciousness that not only encompasses the world of objects, but ourselves as objects in the world.

On account of this self-consciousness, we experience ourselves as a being who observes, who thinks, who judges. Sometimes our judgment has no effect on what we outwardly perceive.  But sometimes it leads to actions and activities that change the world around us, in ways that reflect purposes and aims that had no concrete being in the world until we made it so.

To imagine this attribute in another as we experience it in ourselves makes an enormous difference. It means realizing that if the other one is like us, then certain actions he takes are consciously intended to do good or harm.  If the other one is like us, than he is responsible for those intentional actions, as we are responsible for the similar actions we undertake.

So when we are injured by some such action of his, our reaction assumes that he feels the sense of responsibility we would feel in his place.  In the same way, when we injure him by some intentional act, our sense of responsibility leads us to understand the special sense of injury we would feel in his position, which is therefore projected back upon us for judgment.

This literally gives rise to a moment of truth. For, in that moment of judgment we are, like King David, made to see ourselves with the eyes of the person we have offended. But we do so in light of a standard of justice that is inseparable from our nature; an inclination to do right prescribed in (programmed into) the very substance from which we are made (written on our hearts, the Bible says) in light of which we feel toward ourselves the outrage we would feel against the other if he were in our position (i.e., if he had injured us).

All this is the activity of conscience. If we act with knowledge of this standard, which is to say conscientiously, we will understand the wrong that we have done and act accordingly.  Even if we do not, however, others are free to act upon the standard, thus enforcing upon us the justice we would enforce upon others had they done what we have done.

The standard of right is usually confirmed by our first impulse to action.  (Hence Talleyrand’s infamous maxim: “Never trust your first impulses. It’s always good.”)   When it is still unscathed this impulses usually arises from good conscience. It reflects the inclination of nature as intended by our Creator. Freedom employed according to the knowledge it imparts is the unalienable right the Declaration of Independence refers to as our liberty. 

This obviously not synonymous with freedom in general, because it constitutes an exercise of freedom distinctively our own. It is therefore constrained by the special property of our nature that reflects the being greater than ourselves, whose vision of our humanity is shared, by way of good conscience, with us.  Our natural openness to this greater than human vision is what obliges us to see and acknowledge it when our abuse of freedom corresponds to something less than the exceptional condition intended for us by our Creator.

As a fact of our nature, freedom has, from the beginning, often proven itself to be a temptation to evil, not a simply innocuous or beneficial gift.  Those who carelessly discard the distinction between freedom and unalienable right allow (or encourage?) us to forget that this sad fact of human natural history depends on human choice.

Do Americans like Mr. Delay sincerely want America to regain “the blessings of liberty”? Then they need to stop speaking as if the Declaration’s doctrine of God endowed unalienable right has anything to do with affirming the licentious abuse of freedom,  however politically useful that may seem in this libertine era.

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