Rights Come From God

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.
~U.S. Declaration of Independence

Why did Thomas Jefferson write this? No matter what you believe, or whether you’re a citizen of the U.S. or not, let’s be critical. Do these rights come from God? … Did the U.S. founding fathers actually believe this? How can such a thing be known? In what sense are these rights unalienable? Human beings have failed to recognize these rights for millennia and many still don’t recognize these rights. Unless people enforce these rights, it’s like they don’t exist. Certainly God doesn’t enforce these rights. (Couldn’t He, if He wanted to?) I don’t believe that any of this is self-evident and I don’t think it was self-evident for the founding fathers either. I think there’s a lot of political philosophy underlying it that, for practical reasons, could not be included in the official Declaration.

I don’t think rights come from God at all. I think they were a relatively new and ingenious invention of man, and hold currency only because groups of people have the will and power to enforce them. So why did Thomas Jefferson write that we are endowed by a Creator with inalienable rights? To win over support from all the religious people?

(I wrote this in a rush, may edit later!)

No, our rights are derived from the overwhelming desire by most people (other than tyrants and anarchists) for good order. So they being simple, are easily deduced. But they are equal for all and inalienable (unless one chooses to surrender one’s own rights by violating the rights of others). BTW, the D o I was a proclamation, it did not establish a legal framework.

I think Jefferson was being necessarily expedient. He even changed “property” to the “pursuit of happiness” because of the issue of human property. But I do think its fair to say that if God created the universe, that act (eventually) endowed us with those rights which we with our sentience could deduce (and did fairly early in the many versions there are of the Golden Rule). Jefferson was a deist after all.

I don’t think the author or signers of The Constitution took the the endowments of God lightly. It would seem that their thinking was probably in concert with the wording of that document.

As to the percentage of those believers concerning their religious slants, I couldn’t say. It wouldn’t rub me the wrong way to to think they were all in concordance with the basic layout of The Constitution.

The God I believe in would see the statement: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” as being agreeable for His sensient Creations.

The body of the original instituters of The Constitution may have been great studiers of The Bible which may have made them feel they had the religious license to infuse what they believed God might want for the republic that was recognizing Him at the forefront of this new nation.

I believe the US will succeed with God being known as the moral representative head.


Thanks for the reply.

What are you saying “no” to? Of the two of us, I think I am the only one who actually agrees with your statement above. You think these rights are derived from God (as you go on to say, see below), not merely from people.

No, I don’t think it’s fair at all. How does anyone infer, much less deduce, a connection between the possible creation of the universe and inalienable human rights? Divine inspiration is all I can come up with…and I don’t think Thomas Jefferson claimed to be a prophet of God. Our founding fathers were largely intelligent and reasonable people…what logic is behind this statement that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights? How did He know God endowed them?

I also take issue with the unalienable part, but I’ll focus on that later.


The statement we are looking at comes from the Declaration of Independence not the Constitution. I’m guessing that’s what you mean to write anyway.

How do you know what God would see and what God thinks?

If you don’t convince yourself that human rights are so necessarily then you are acknowledging they are not. And that is what discomfits most folks. It’s not those who disagree with them about which rights are inalienable so much as those [like me] who suggest no rights are inalienable [in the absense of God] that troubles them the most. God becomes the ontological rim and the teleological hub on the wheel of life for them. That way they can be more than just endless [and clearly expendable] existential spokes.

They will do anything to avoid admitting that perhaps human existence really is essentially meaningless and absurd. Thus God [like ideology—the secular rendition of God] is really just the mother of all psychological defense mechanisms.

Not that this can ever be more than just my own opinion, of course.

Rights theory provides an important compliment to divine right. The history gets a little confusing, because the English Monarchy formally abandoned Divine Right theory as a consequence of the Glorious Revolution (1688-1689). However, Divine Right theory did hold a lot of sway on the Continent. This is important because, as the name suggests, the House of Hanover held territory in Germany. Not just that, but within Germany they were absolute monarchs ruling by Divine Right. While George III was more anglicized than his father and grandfather (even speaking English as his first language), he was still influenced by Continental theories in a way that would be somewhat alien to a “proper” Englishman. More pragmatically, Divine Right also played an important role in British politics of the time because of how the Hanoverian dynasty began and (as with so many things in history) an usual right-left agreement. The Whigs used Divine Right to back the Hanoverians over other, Catholic, claimants to the British throne. This created an odd situation where the usually more conservative Tories were arguing against the very conservative position of Divine Right Monarchy. Once the Whigs got the Hanoverians on the throne, the normally loyalist Tories went back to backing the monarchy more-or-less. This is, of course, an oversimplification and doesn’t even get into the whole Jacobite Uprising which has important implications but . . .

What is important is that the rights that the colonists were using as a trump against the crown had to derive their authority from the same source as the crown. That is, rights had to be divinely endowed just as the crown was otherwise the justification for colonial independence becomes very problematic.


I did not know all of that, thanks for the input.

So you’re saying the only way the colonists could compete with the divine authority of the crown was to posit divinely endowed rights, because at the time people considered divine authority the most legitimate kind in matters of the state.

What I want to know is if the founding fathers ever defended the divine aspect of rights.

I stand corrected. It was a tough, hot day and my mind was turned around a bit.

It is a belief I have, probably like you may believe otherwise.

It is just how rights were conceived. Rights theory as a counter to divine right goes back to before the Magna Carta (but it plays a very big role in that rather foundational document).

I’m sorry, what do you mean it is just how they were conceived?

I know this really isn’t what the topic is about, so take it or leave it.


That’s exactly what I am talking about. Starting at the 4 minute 20 second mark.

The founding fathers were philosophically minded and usually had very good well-thought reasons for their ideas and principles. So what was their justification for believing God endowed us with rights?

See: Locke, Hutcheson, Charter of Liberties, Magna Carta, Thomas Paine. TP is particularly important in this discussion, because he rejected Locke’s Contractarianism and went back to documents like the Charter of Liberties and the Magna Carta to assert that inalienable rights are prior to any society.

Hi Fuse,

I think Jefferson meant what he wrote.

He said he believed God exists based upon the argument from design. He believed that the perfection of God was also proved by the argument from design.

He believed a perfect God would be perfectly rational and this has consequences for understanding the world.

For example, he denied the existence of miricales. A perfectly rational God would create the world perfectly so that there would be no need for later intervention.

God “endowed” us with unalienble rights by creating us as the type of beings who have unalienable rights. Reason recognizes that beings of that kind have unalienable rights. Since God is perfectly rational, God recognizes us as having unalienable rights. Furthermore, to the extent we are rational, we recognize each other as having unalienable rights. To the extent we are rational, our possession of those rigths is self-evident (follows from reason).

What do I mean by all of this? Remember, Jefferson is roughly a contemporary of Kant. Kant identifies what it is that makes us the bearer of unaliebnable rights. We are bearers of unalienable rights because we are autonomous rational agents. Autonomous rational agents, to the extent they are rational, recognize all rational agents as being the bearers of unalienable rights. They are applying the golden rule: treating others as thye would want to be treated.

We come to recognize these rigths through application of the categorical imperative, which is a sophisticated version of the golden rule.

Like Kant, Jefferson would have regarded the golden rule as central to reason. He said Jesus was the wisest man who ever lived. He praised Jesus’ ethical insight. Jesus says the Golden Rule is the whole of the prophets and the law. In other words, the golden rule is the fundamental principle of rational morality. Apparently, Jefferson, like Kant, concluded from the Golden Rule that equality of fundamental rights follows from reason alone with “reason” being reflection upon the implcations of the golden rule.

Returning to religion, like Kant, Jefferson belived we learn about God and God’s law by reason rather than by miraculous prophesy. Mature religion derives from reason rather than superstition.

Once we accept the premises that God exists and is perfectly rational, all the rest follows. Jefferson thought tha the truth of both of those premises could be inferred from the observation of nature.


You’re getting into the heart of the matter.

How did God do that?

But it’s not evident to me…

But rights are not unalienable because people can lose them or, like in many places around the world, never have them in the first place.

Many were deists, including Jefferson, who was very knowledgeable of the Bible and even attended church, as did Washington, Madison and others. The mention of God was specifically excluded from the Constitution, they were afraid, as I am, of a theocracy, which is what you advocate. Do you really imagine that God will come down and write the laws, issue orders and hold court? I doubt you do. BTW, I believe that’s what Jesus expected when he cleansed the Temple and what cost him his life when God didn’t show. So what will happen, as has happened with every other theocracy, is that the “holy men” will tell us what they say God told them–which is how all these revealed religions got (and still get) started in the first place.

The only way we loose them is if we violate another’s rights first. And every single soul on Earth is born with their unalienable rights, but that doesn’t keep them from being violated by others.

Is an unalienable right biological? How can we test that unalienable rights are real?

Hi fuse!

I think you first have to ask what you mean by “rights”. What is it for someone to have a “right” to something? To me, it seems that a right is something that is somehow owed to an individual, and this right is not something to be earnt. That leaves us with two options; a right is bestowed or it inheres in the essence of an individual. If it is bestowed, it can be done so via some sort of power, i.e. a state or God. In the case of rights bestowed by a state, these will not be universal. Even if the rights are inherent in the essence of an individual being, then the common idea is that such essences are part of the natural law (see newadvent.org/cathen/09076a.htm), and these in turn are participants of the Eternal law of God.

It is my view, and granted this view is a but on the fussy side (and I hope it lines up with the Catholic view, of which I hope to adhere) is that rights can be derived by examining the essences (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essence) of human beings. Following down the road of St Thomas Aquinas, all essences “flow” from God and the final ends of such essences are a return to Him. Therefore, rights such as liberty are truly rights to the extent that they are parts of the essence of human beings and therefore directed by God to Himself, our ultimate good. I would agree that liberty is a right in this sense, as it allows all human beings, whose essence is being a rational animal, to freely determine via their reason their ultimate good, that is God.

I hope that’s relatively clear. Note this view is based on hylemorphic/essentialism conception of reality (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hylomorphism). Great topic!

If we want to be poetic, we can say they are bestowed by God, but we have no proof or non-hearsay evidence that God even exists (I believe He set it up that way necessarily). So we must come up with an assumption that is satisfactory to the maximum number of people, and deduce morality and the rights it is based on from that on our own.

I’ve said it many ways, so I’ve looked to see how others have said it. I found this:

"While it is certainly true that today the rights to life and liberty are grossly violated in innumerable ways, they are nevertheless at least spoken of by our politicians. However hypocritically, they at least say that they value life and liberty, even as they pervert those sacred rights as justification for their wars and plunder.

“Yet, they never even hypocritically evoke the right to property. No journalist ever challenges them based upon it, and honestly, most average Americans don’t talk about it either. As a principle, property has vanished from our consciousness. However, as all of the great philosophers throughout history have understood, there is no right to life or liberty without property. In fact, property is part and parcel of life itself.”–Tom Mullen