Our rights were granted from God, but we should think of them as more of a stewardship than of ownership. As in Christ’s parable, we have been given the responsibility to make use of these talents, or individual rights, while we are here on the earth, and He will expect a reckoning of our stewardship when he returns. They are individual rights. Although more responsible, the man with 5 talents was not held accountable for the actions of the man with 1 talent. Nor was he given the right to take that talent from the slothful servant and put it to better use (only the master had the authority to make that transfer). Wisdom did not change the individual rights each were given while the master was away.
Because we are stewards and not owners, we do not have the ability to give up our rights. We may work together, as those with talents may have found it advantageous to invest together, but we cannot take rights from another or entirely give up our rights.
This is just as true with the right to life as it is with the other rights. We do not have a right to intentionally take our own lives, nor to give anyone else the power to do so:
“But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license: though man in that state have an uncontroulable 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, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours. Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another” (John Locke, Of Civil Government, Book II, Chapter 2, Section 6).
This is a description of the individual right to life and some of the responsibilities it carries with it. Since I was a child I could never understand the reasoning behind laws that prohibit suicide–if the person was dead, how could they be punished? This section instantly made sense of that paradox to my mind. The intent of the laws was not to punish, but to recognize a limit to our right to life. Our right is to discharge the responsibilities that we have and to make the decisions allowed by our liberty during the time that we have been allotted by our Creator.
Recognizing this fact, it becomes clear that, if we do not possess a right to suicide (although we have the ability), we cannot grant others that permission. And if our rights are individual, then no one else could possibly have the authority to grant that permission for us. Were this principle widely understood, it would turn right-to-die and euthanasia debates onto their heads. In all of my readings about ethics and end-of-life issues, no one has EVER brought up this original point: that we do not have a right to take our own life because it does not belong to us. Nor would the anti-religious, sanitized schools of our day allow such a statement.
I cannot emphasize the importance of this first point enough. It is the basis for our individual right to life. It was not granted by the government, or any other body, so the authority to end life cannot be transferred.
Our debates are confused in the United States because we are, as a people, straddling ideologies. People attempt to reconcile collectivist policies with individual rights. It cannot be done. We either have an individual right to life, or we do not. One of the primary errors is confusing mercy with justice.
Natural justice relates to each person’s individual rights to life, liberty, and property. These rights indicate what we are free to do, but do not suggest that others are required to give us anything or do anything for us. If they wish to do something for us, or have mercy on us, that is their choice, rather than their obligation. (This should not be confused with the obligation of all citizens to uphold and protect the rights of others.)
There has been a trend among advocates of socialized healthcare to refer to healthcare as a right. When healthcare refers to the skilled service provided by another person, this can never be a right, because this skill and the choice to apply that skill belong to another person, in addition to the goods that are often necessary to provide that care. This would be like claiming a right to the food in someone else’s cupboard. A closer comparison might be forcing someone else to grow food for you, because you are ignorant in gardening. Or claiming a right to have someone else dig a well so you can have water, because you do not know how to dig a well. Food and water are obvious necessities of life, even more than healthcare, yet our need for these things does not give us a right to the skills and services of others.
Although we have a right to life, this does not mean that we have a right for others to provide all of the necessities of life, with the exception of parent-child relationships (which will not be addressed in detail at this time). Any expectations that we may have of other people beyond these natural rights are contractual. As stated before in general, these contracts are also never justified in violating our natural rights as individuals, because we do not have the power to grant anyone that authority over ourselves. Since we are not able to grant that as individuals, no collection of individuals can grant that authority on our behalf.
When we join into society and its respective government, we assume mutual responsibility in protecting the rights of others, with the expectation that our rights will be better preserved from violations from within and without. If our rights were not better preserved, we would have no reason to join that society.
In order to maintain the laws of a society, some powers must be granted to its government. In a society that values individual rights, the proper role of government is to equally protect individual rights, but not to provide equal outcomes. Each individual is then free and responsible to pursue the necessities of life and those things that they believe will lead to happiness. However, when we permit and even demand that the government provide those necessities of life (and those things we desire for happiness), we are removing both freedom and responsibility.
Responsibility is necessary for freedom. A juvenile (meaning a person under legal age for adulthood) does not have as much freedom as an adult because he is generally viewed as not capable of taking on the same responsibilities as an adult. When a government is given the responsibility for providing for its citizens, it must also be given the freedom (or liberty to make decisions) that is necessary to fulfill that responsibility. While a parent that provides all of the necessities of life for a child may demand much from the child, while also setting strict limits on the wants of the child, a government that is providing these necessities for its citizens may also require much, while limiting the choices and wants of those citizens. Again, the power to decide and to act (liberty) is required to fulfill any responsibility.
When parents are in charge of providing food, they are also able to make advanced decisions about how many mouths they will feed (e.g., how many children they will have). This is a historical ability, although the methods of affecting family-size have changed throughout the ages, ranging from abstinence to infanticide (we won’t pretend that all methods have respected the right to life).
When a government is in charge of providing food, it must also be able to make decisions about resources, including limiting the population. While many modern governments encourage a limited population through “awareness campaigns,” other governments have been noted for more extreme measures, including infanticide and involuntary euthanasia (again, we won’t pretend that everyone respects life). As more modern governments (such as China) have demonstrated a continued problem, the disregard for life that accompanies government attempts to provide for all the necessities of life are not new, as demonstrated by the events following this quote, which was given on the passage of an “act to remedy the plight of the people”:
“The national government measures up in no other way than by protecting the German people, and particularly its millions of working people, from unnamed suffering.” (Adolf Hitler, Speech given on 3/23/1933)
While different governments make different decisions, all of the atrocities of Nazi Germany were excused under this same premise: saving the people from suffering. This is not the proper role of government. It is not a just power of government. It does not allow for an end result that government can achieve without violating all three natural rights (life, liberty, and property).
Those who believe that a government can: provide for the necessities of life, leave decision-making to individuals, and keep such programs indefinitely viable, have apparently missed the international discussions about scarcity. Although I do not believe that the earth has a defined and nearing limit to the number of people it can sustain, it is important for others to be aware that governments not only believe this, but they are planning and acting accordingly. Few, if any, are recommending that we just wait until we reach a limit before doing something. All actions will be taken before anyone would be able to starve because the earth has “reached its limit.”
Whether food, healthcare, or anything else, the result of giving up our responsibilities to the government has been rationing, scarcity, and decreased liberty.
How can the government limit what and how much we eat or drink? Because it is responsible for healthcare. It is responsible for providing the food. It is responsible for the potential negative effects of our personal daily decisions. We would become a drain on society if we were to use scarce government-provided resources due to the consequences of our personal unwise choices.
At the collective level of decision-making, we cannot rely on family relationships and feelings to preserve our lives. We cannot expect the broader society to consider our lives worth prolonging simply because they want our company a little longer. While it is not uncommon for aging parents to fear becoming a burden to their adult children, there are more people to burden in a collective system. A decision to maintain and preserve life becomes a matter of doing the most good, rather than concern for the individual.
“Has it been found that bodies of men act with more rectitude or greater disinterestedness than individuals? The contrary of this has been inferred by all accurate observers of the conduct of mankind; and the inference is founded upon obvious reasons. Regard to reputation has a less active influence, when the infamy of a bad action is to be divided among a number than when it is to fall singly upon one. A spirit of faction, which is apt to mingle its poison in the deliberations of all bodies of men, will often hurry the persons of whom they are composed into improprieties and excesses, for which they would blush in a private capacity.” (Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers #15)
As the regard for personal reputation is weakened in collective action, so is the regard for individual rights and human life. When the government is responsible for providing the necessities of life, we must abdicate what we have no right to give–our right to life. This abdication of our right to life creates a growing disregard for human life. Life becomes a matter of resources and resources are a matter of economics. Eventually, life becomes about national or international economics–in other words, we put a pricetag on life.
One example is health care laws. One might think it is the responsibility of a government to provide for life-saving treatment for those who cannot afford to pay for it. From the instant this happens, the government now provides that right and it is no longer inherent in the individual. As soon as the government is expected to provide for these rights, the cost of providing these rights (and not solely the protection of these rights) rests with all of the people in a society. When everyone is paying for the healthcare of an individual, that individual receives new responsibilities as well. Those responsibilities include taking steps to ensure proper health practices that reduce the burden of cost on others in the society.
When individuals, apparently wired to think of themselves as autonomous creatures, determine to make choices that negatively impact their health and increase the need for healthcare, the government must step in to prevent the costs of healthcare from getting so exorbitant that healthier people would suffer or die due to the unconcerned. This means the government has a right to determine what care a person should receive, how and where a person should live, what a person should eat, and all other factors that impact a person’s health. This also means that the government can withdraw the right it gave for life (or other rights) in order to provide for a greater number of people. This is where government decides to let some suffer and die, rather than receive treatment, to kill some (those considered a burden to society), and to monitor and regulate the creation of life. The right to life is no longer vested in the individual, but in the government.
Some might argue that unhealthy people are a burden on free market insurance programs, and so they are. However, when a person joins an insurance program this is part of the risk that is assumed: that some people will be healthier than others. In fact, the insurance companies are counting on it in order to stay afloat financially, let alone to make a profit. As long as the right to join an insurance company still remains with the individual, as well as the right for the insurance company to reject unhealthy people who would collapse the system, the right to life remains with the individual.
The conclusion is obvious. If we wish to protect an individual right to life, we must reject a collective approach that would attempt to provide the outcomes we desire, especially with regard to the necessities of life. There is no fundamental damage to our individual rights when citizens, who are secure in their rights, provide the often necessary mercy to others. However, the effect on our rights is fatal when we attempt to force each other to have mercy through government-mandated programs. In the latter, we are forcibly ejected from our ability to make decisions regarding our own lives, with that power, of necessity, deferring to the government tasked with the responsibility of preserving life for everyone.