30 November 2009

Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 13

(Note: This is Part 13 in the series started here. The previous installment is here. In each post, I comment on one of the fourteen points made by Dennis Prager in his article, “If There Is No God.”)

Dennis Prager’s Point #13:

Without God, there are no inalienable human rights. Evolution confers no rights. Molecules confer no rights. Energy has no moral concerns. That is why America's Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we are endowed "by our Creator" with certain inalienable rights. Rights depend upon a moral source, a rights giver. [Note 1.]

Here we see the lethality of a morality based in religion. This is why religious conservatives are unable to defend liberty against the “liberals” who are openly driving us headlong into collective slavery and death.

Mr. Prager is correct that rights derive from a moral source; rights are moral principles. (Ayn Rand defined rights with her usual clarity: “A ‘right’ is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.”[Note 2.]) To place the source of rights outside of nature is to deny that men have natural rights. It is an admission by the religious that they believe individual rights do not exist in the real world; if the source of rights were natural, the religious would not need to reach into the supernatural realm to find it. Thus, in aiming to defend rights against those that deny them, the religious concede all fundamental premises to their enemies.

Contrary to Mr. Prager’s claim, there is no “rights giver,” natural or supernatural. Rights are not gifts bestowed by governments or gods. The very idea of a giver contradicts the inalienable nature of rights; a God that giveth rights may also taketh them away.[Note 3.]

Claims unmoored from reality are free to drift according to any whim. Some religious people assert that God gives us individual rights; others assert that God denies us individual rights. We have Dennis Prager on the one hand and the Taliban on the other. One is clearly civilized and one barbaric, but both parties stand on the same murky ground: faith. This is not to equate the two; Dennis Prager, who claims to stand for rights, happens to be on the correct side of the argument. But to be on the correct side for the wrong reason is at best unreliable, and at worst, weakens the case of those that have gotten it right. For actual defenders of individual rights (like me), the presence of Republicans and religious conservatives who combat the left by championing God-given rights is appalling. The old saying comes to mind: With friends like these, who needs enemies?

The best possible way for me to articulate a defense of individual rights based on the facts of reality is to insert, verbatim, the text of Ayn Rand’s essay, “Man’s Rights,” which is referenced in Note 2. Since the essay is available for free on the internet, I’ll assume anyone interested in such a defense will pause here to read it. Nothing else is needed.

Beyond Ayn Rand’s essay, I can add no content that is not mere repetition (and an impoverished repetition at that). However, since the intent of this series is to provide guideposts for the honest thinker who currently holds religious premises, I’ve added something that may be helpful. Figure 1 shows a sort of map that I constructed, representing a logical hierarchy. This chart is a recreation of my own work that I did years ago for my own satisfaction in validating individual rights.

Here is some background: Humans are capable of creating abstractions from direct observations, and beyond this, may create abstractions from abstractions. Such concept formation can continue to higher and higher levels with no particular limit. But in order to validate these abstractions, one must be able to work - that is to say, think - one’s way back to the bottom of the hierarchy, to fundamental axioms and direct observations. A break in the chain indicates an error; an ungrounded premise indicates an invalid argument (even if the conclusion is incidentally correct).

Without such a path from concepts to a foundation, abstractions are necessarily floating. Even for concepts like liberty, honesty, and justice, for instance, that are of such obvious value that they seem self-evident - indeed, especially for such concepts - it is necessary to be grounded in reality. Ultimately, it is a tragedy that America’s Founders expressly regarded such truths as a man’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of his own happiness to be self-evident. These values are truths, but they are not self-evident. The Founders identified individual rights . . . but left the concept floating.

Figure 1. Logical hierarchy for individual rights.

Figure 1 is not a proof, nor is it a substitute for thinking; each proposition and branch requires careful thought on its own. I purposely retained a pencil-on-paper format to emphasize its informality. Its purpose is to provide a rough guide tracing individual rights from high level abstractions (at the top of the page) to axioms (at the bottom). “The source of man’s rights,” wrote Ayn Rand, “is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A - and Man is Man.” She formulated the unbroken connection between individual rights and metaphysical axioms.

I cannot vouch for the complete suitability of this type of map in representing logical structures. It strikes me as reasonable, and it appeals to my own personal organizing habits. (I am a circuit designer and firmware developer, so my professional success requires good hierarchical thinking.) I tried to retain all the major steps in the sequence, though there is always a trade-off between the level of detail and the encapsulation of particulars.[Note 4.] I am fairly certain that if I kept fiddling with the chart, I would find ways to improve it. My purpose is not to create an airtight graphical representation, but to illustrate the basic guideposts for the main point - that individual rights derive from the facts of reality.

(Note: The final installment in the series is here.)


1. Dennis Prager, “If There Is No God,” http://townhall.com/columnists/DennisPrager/2008/08/19/if_there_is_no_god.

2. Ayn Rand, “Man’s Rights,” from The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet, Penguin Group, New York, orig. 1964, p.110. This essay, which the Ayn Rand Center makes available for free here, is the most complete and concise articulation of reality-based individual rights I have ever seen.

3. The Founders were precise in their use of the term “inalienable,” meaning that rights could not be taken away, not even by God. They were students of John Locke and advocates of the political theory of natural rights. That being said, the Founders were not moral philosophers; they were political theorists who adopted, by default, the conventional moral theory that was available at the time. (For an excellent treatment of this material, I recommend Craig Biddle’s lecture, “Moral Rights and Metaphysical Law,” which will hopefully be made available soon at the Ayn Rand Bookstore.) The Founders acheivements are nonetheless remarkable. In the context of their time, it is impossible to expect them to completely throw off the vestigial superstitions that had so thoroughly infested moral thinking for centuries. One cannot blame Adams, Jefferson, and Madison for not being Ayn Rand.

4. To pick just one example, I’ll point out the step labeled “Pursuit of values must be chosen by organisms with free will,” which followed from humans having free will. One might object here that just because a person has free will, it does not follow that he must use it. Indeed, as I was constructing the chart, I had penciled in an intermediate step of “Pursuit of values may be chosen,” but it degenerated trivially into the “must be chosen” branch and an “is not chosen” branch that fed back into non-free-willed organisms. This intermediate step might be of interest to an anthropologist or primatologist tracing the development of a species that evolves from non-free-willed to free-willed, but it adds an unnecessary and distracting complication to this study. My purpose is to demonstrate that humans have individual rights, and Homo sapiens has unambiguously evolved to the point in which he must use his mind in order to survive.


madmax said...

This was an especially excellent entry and I love your diagram. While I was reading it I noticed how important free will is for the existence and protection of rights. If you don't believe in free will, you can never defend individual rights. Then I thought about today's Left which is totally dominated by determinism. Of course they are marching down the path of tyranny given their total rejection of free will and volition.

Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks, madmax! You're right about free will. Without free will, there is no morality. (You can't be right or wrong about something beyond your control.) And without morality, there are no rights. (Rights are moral principles.)

I'm glad you made that comment about your noticing the importance of free will because it illustrates one of the things that I find valuable about writing things down, drawing pictures, making diagrams, etc. - not just in philosophical matters but for lots of things I do. When I set things down like that, I can often see dependencies or relationships that I would not otherwise have noticed. Or, something that would have remained fuzzy or half-grasped will become crystal clear.