Friday, April 27, 2012

Rights are not absolute

A continuing debate with a couple of readers about absolute rights grew out of posts on gun rights.  The readers all say in no uncertain terms all rights are absolute.  This reply may be deeper than most would like to read, but there are some very basic reasons why rights are not absolute.

Let’s first define the meaning of absolute and a right.  Absolute means that something is always the same under all conditions.  A right is an action that can be taken by someone.  So an absolute right is something that you can do under all circumstances.

Anytime there is a social contract, which could be as simple as two people living together, a family or a community, rights are limited and not absolute.  The only way people can live together is to give up at least the full measure of some rights and others all together.  Even those rights that we retained under the United States social contract, the Constitution, can have limitations placed on them to help build a safe and secure environment.

The original Constitution had no guarantee of rights.  What the Constitution did, was established a frame work for electing a government that would write a set of laws.  With some limitations on what laws the federal government could establish, it was left to the elected officials with support of the people to write laws.  If there was a compelling reason, the elected officials supported by the people, could limit the actions that people took for the common good.

Not that the authors of the Constitution and those that supported it in the various states at the time, didn’t think that rights were important.  Many supported the Constitution with a condition.  They wanted amendments added to guarantee individual rights.  After all they had just tossed out the foreign occupation by a tyrannical government (a government not elected by a free and open election).  But, they also wanted both security and a working frame work that they could depend on for their personal and professional lives.  The forerunner of the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was a disaster.  The unrestraint rights that the individual states had under that charter worked against all the other states.  Without the ability to limit the rights of individuals, institutions and states for the common good, the union was nearly torn apart.

Even some libertarians (which generally describe the political beliefs of those that I am addressing this response) believe that rights can be curtailed and are not absolute.  Morris and Linda Tannehill, in the book The Market for Liberty, write, "Rights are not inalienable.”  Their theory is that an individual gives up their right if force is used against another that causes detriment.  This is the point from above and the formation of a social contract.  The only difference between libertarians in this case and federalist at the time of the Constitution was who would require the individual that committed a crime to be punished.

Communities are in near continuous debate on the limits of individual rights.  If we are to find the balance between freedom and the protection of others, the debate must be robust and flourish.  But, to assume that individual rights are absolute and can’t be restricted based on a compelling reason to prevent harm to another living in the community is false.