I was recently asked by someone on Facebook: “”What are your thoughts on natural rights unrelated to the concept of god?” (Sometimes I have some of the most interesting and thought provoking conversations on Facebook…sometimes)
My thoughts, as I responded, are thus:
Whether or not there is a god (after having majored in both History and Religious Studies in college I have come to conclude that the probability of there being such a being, given the utter lack of evidence and its lack of involvement in human affairs, is very low[read here to understand why]) is irrelevant to the concept of natural rights because people differ in their opinions as to its existence and how to best worship it. Therefore, when discussing natural rights it is always best to leave god/s out of the equation. Natural rights exist because life exists. It is really that simple. With that said, I consider there to be two types of rights: natural rights and societal rights.
Natural rights refer to those things that living beings require in order to be living: clean water, clean air, food that is safe and nutritious, land on which to live and grow said food, shelter, clothing to protect them from the elements, protection from exploitation and abuse, and access to medical care. These things are natural rights because without them people will die; be it from hunger or exposure or disease, they will die. Thus these rights are non-negotiable. People *need* them. Period. Beyond these rights we enter the realm of what I refer to as societal rights.
Societal rights are those things that exist within the context of a given society, they are “rights” in the sense that they are agreed upon liberties between members of said society and tend to change, typically in positive progression, as societies grow and change and become more advanced. These rights are things that, while not necessarily needed for one to survive, are needed for one to thrive. A thriving populous is essential for any society if that society wishes to remain strong and successful, and if it wants to progress and improve. These things include, but are not limited to: living wages for labor, the ability to vote for government, education, and access to certain modern conveniences (transportation, electricity). Societal rights, unlike natural rights, are negotiable because they are not static; they have varied across our history and they vary according to needs of the respective societies in which people live. This is why we have had and continue to have so many forms of governments; how groups of people choose to be governed changes as their concept of what they need in order to thrive changes.
How to best negotiate social rights without infringing upon natural ones has been a challenge for humanity from the moment we moved from egalitarian, nomadic tribes to stationary cities built on arbitrary hierarchy. The reconciliation of these two types of rights is the goal of the Social Contract. In an advanced society, such as the US, such a reconciliation is possible; however, we first need to be willing to protect and fulfill the natural rights of everyone in society before we can hope to reach an agreement on societal rights. As long as we are bickering about whether or not access to food and health care are rights then we cannot successfully progress as a society. Until we acknowledge and accept the innateness of natural rights so as to ensure the survival of our people we will be unable to negotiate the rights that will enable them to thrive.