What is a ‘right’?


Two recent events got me thinking about our “rights” as citizens. The first involved an email I received from my daughter’s school regarding the compassionate efforts of one of her classmates to engage in a clean water campaign for developing countries. It was referenced as, “Clean Water is a Right.”

Although I understood the heart that drove this young girl to put her empathy into action, I began to ponder, what exactly is a “right?” Then, less than two weeks ago, I heard Georgia Congressman, John Lewis, adamantly declare twice that, “Healthcare is a right!”

Now, while I thought the first incident could have simply been a matter of semantics on the part of an elementary-aged child, the case of Congressman Lewis really had me questioning if we as citizens really understand what it means to have a right.

And this concern is of no small consequences, because citizens will argue, fight, and die over what they consider to be their rights. Rights are the foundation upon which the laws of our nation are built. They set the context for how people are to interact with one another. But what exactly is a “right”?

When their rights were usurped by the tyrannical actions of the King of Great Britain, the 13 colonies felt it was their right to become a free and independent nation. They were entitled to such a right by “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” Thus, they pledged to each other their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor, declaring: “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.”

They also made it clear their new government’s role would be to secure the rights of the people — who had the right to alter or abolish the government if it failed to fulfill its consented role.

Along with these declared rights, a constitution of the United States was amended to highlight “The Bill of Rights.” These first 10 amendments also note rights like, freedom of religion, speech, press, and peaceful assembly (#1), freedom to bear arms (#2), freedom from unreasonable search and seizures (#4), and equal treatment under the law (#6).

There are several critical characteristics that suggest what “rights” are. First and foremost, rights are “unalienable,” “endowed by [our] Creator,” and given to “all men.”

In other words, rights are not defined, or given by states or governments; therefore, they cannot be taken away by them. Nor are these rights only afforded to certain classes of people, but rights are inclusive of all — regardless of race, gender, or socio-economic background.

Second, you will notice from the Bill of Rights that the characteristic of rights is that they seem to identify the freedom to engage in behaviors that directly impact “life, liberty, and … happiness” while setting constraints on government that would suppress these freedoms.

Finally, rights by definition are not products or services one must receive no matter how vital they are to our lives. For many of us, we don’t consider food, computers, or even cell phones rights, even though they may be vital to our lives. We value such things and are willing to work and acquire them, but they are not rights.

Many of us do not want to look to the government to provide these things because we recognize that once we do grant this power, they will control what we have and what we can do.

Still, one may ask, what about those who truly are less fortunate, and those nations that are so impoverished that they are denied these products? This is where thousands of charities, and millions of individuals, who, like my daughter’s friend, come up with innovative and sustaining ideas to help them create lasting solutions — rather than making them government dependents, putting their rights at risk.

When rights are understood within the context of citizens having freedoms given by the Creator to pursue their own dreams, search for their own possibilities, and take responsibility for their actions, the role government plays is constrained and then directed towards protecting our rights.

And while it may seem compassionate, empathetic, and gracious to declare that things like water and healthcare are rights, truly, they are not, for if these were “rights,” the government would then be able to define, regulate, and ultimately control how they are disseminated throughout our society.

Granting such control would be the poison pill to move us from being a nation who’s citizens are among the freest on earth to one that is oppressive to its own citizens.

Rights are precious gifts that ought to be protected, because in them, we have the ability to achieve great things — including helping those who are less fortunate. I would much rather the government protect our rights than try to manipulate our lifestyles.

I am far more trusting of the general populace of our nation to express compassionate hearts and implement life-changing ideas than I am of government entities that focus on partisan politics, try to preserve their power rather than serving citizens, and all too often waste our tax dollars.

While I think many people recognize the corruption and vices that exist within the federal government’s bureaucracy, is it not ironic, if not illogical, to advocate that citizens relinquish their freedoms by allowing this same body to redefine and regulate our rights for the sake of societal fairness?

[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company here in Fayette County and lives in Fayetteville with her husband and their five children.]