Have you ever heard someone say “I have a right to …” Or “It’s my right to have this certain thing.” Or, perhaps that healthcare is a right, or as has been said in recent years, even internet access is deemed a right. Of course, there are those that would say that abortion is a right. This really should raise the question of, well, what is a right and how do I get one? Where do rights come from? So, today, we’re going to talk about rights.
That may seem a little odd for a podcast that’s on apologetics and giving an answer for our Christian convictions, but it’s actually related to many of the cultural conversations we have today. Because people have said that abortion is a right. Or, that they have a right to be referred by the specific pronouns they choose, or to have certain surgeries, to reinforce their self-image of their gender. So, rights are actually at the forefront of many conversations that we’re having right now was a nation.
Before we get too far into this, we need to define what a right is. So many people talk about them, but if you ask them to define what a right is, they probably don’t have much to say. But, a right is a just claim. It’s not just a claim to something. You don’t just get to say “I should have that thing.” The word “Just” is really important. A right is a just claim. It’s not an improper claim. For instance, you could have two siblings and one of them might have a truck, and one of them might have a ball. Let’s say the one with the ball says, “Give me your truck, I have a right to your truck.” Well, if it’s not his truck, he may be making a claim on the truck, but it is not a just claim. It’s an inappropriate claim.
Now, he might take it, and now he might have it, but he took it inappropriately, because he never actually had a right to it. That’s really important for us to understand, a right is a just claim. That means it’s not arbitrary. So, we have to also ask the question what makes something just? In other words, what grounds the rightness or the wrongness of the claim? In other words, who says you have a right? And, also, by what right do they say that?
Two types of rights
There are also two types of rights. If this is your only take away from today, then this would be fine. That would be great. There are positive rights and there are negative rights. Positive rights are not rights you like and negative rights are not rights you dislike. A negative right is a right to not have to do something or have something done to you. In other words, it’s a right to be left alone. For instance, you have a right not to be murdered. What that means is someone cannot take your life. That’s a God given right. We see that grounded in the Ten Commandments, for example, and many other places in scripture, that you have a right to your life. In other words, people have the responsibility to leave you alone, but you have a just claim to have your life not taken.
You also have a right to your property, to things that you own justly. So, “do not steal” is a command that hits at the negative right to not have your property taken from you. Now, what would a positive right be? A positive right is something that has to be given to you. A negative right is a right to be left alone, but a positive right is when someone has to be given something.
For instance, if someone were to say that healthcare is a right, then healthcare has to be given to them. That’s not a right to be left alone. What you may notice, and this is extremely important for our conversation as a society today, is that if you have a positive right, it actually imposes an obligation on someone else. If there’s a negative right for you not to be murdered, no one has to do anything for you not to be murdered. They just leave you alone. If you have a negative right to your possessions, that they should be stolen, no one has to provide you with something. But, if you have a positive right, someone has to give up something to give to you to fulfill that right. That’s a very different kind of “right.”
Actually, what you may start to notice is that a positive right, a right where you have to be given something, could very well infringe on someone’s negative right to be left alone. Here in lies a problem. The biblical worldview—and we see this with Israel as a nation in the Old Testament, and largely in the teaching’s of Jesus, and Paul, and others in the New Testament—has a strong conception of negative rights. Now, there are some things people are told to provide to others, but that’s the minority. It assumes this idea and presents this idea that negative rights are foundational rights. Negative rights are the way you build a society where people can live with each other and still disagree, because they don’t have to provide things to each other. They just simply have to be left alone.
Now, the Ten Commandments was not necessarily intended to be a talk or a discourse on rights, but several of the things described in there are in the form of “Do not”. Do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not give false testimony. Those all hit at negative rights. I have a right not to be murdered. I have a right to be left alone. I have a right not to have my property stolen. In other words, no one has to provide me with something, they just can’t take it. Don’t commit adultery is basically saying “I have a right to my spouse, someone else does not have a right to my spouse”. I do not have a right to someone else’s spouse. There’s more to it than that, but there’s not less to it than that. Also, you shouldn’t give false testimony. I have a right not to be lied about. Now, that doesn’t mean people have to tell the truth about me, but it means if they speak, they should speak truthfully. In other words, I have a right not to have my reputation smeared or to be lied about.
So, negative rights are at the foundation of the Judaeo-Christian worldview, especially as it relates to society. Now, positive rights on the other hand, would say that someone has to give you something. So, let’s talk about negative and positive rights with regards to same sex marriage.
Now, I’m going to stay away from the question of what’s a marriage today. I’ve talked about that many times in the past, but right now, we’re seeing the issue of where people are trying to force others to celebrate their same sex union. They’re saying you don’t have the right, notice that language, to not bake a cake for my same sex marriage or ceremony. Or, you don’t have the right not to photograph my wedding. That sort of thing. “You have to do it.“
There was a case just recently before the Supreme Court about the Masterpiece Cake Shop where a man said “I don’t make cakes for every ceremony, but I serve every type of customer”, and he did not want to participate in a same sex ceremony by making a cake for it. He also didn’t do adult-themed parties, but he would serve gay people. What’s being told to him is “You do not have the right to decide what events you make a cake for”. So, someone’s saying “I have a positive right to have a cake made”. What’s that mean? Someone has the responsibility, the obligation to provide the cake. This right here explains so much of the tension in our culture right now. It’s people are increasingly finding and discovering, and really, creating from nothing, “Positive rights”, and enforcing them on other people, which give those other people an obligation.
Now, if we had a negative right view of commerce and the economy, people wouldn’t have to provide services to other people. They could choose whom to provide services to, and the free market would sort that out. So, the person who doesn’t make cakes for same sex ceremonies will in the end probably get less business, and that person’s probably okay with that, but when anyone says “I have the right to have a cake made by you”, it’s infringing the cake baker’s negative right not to make cakes for other people. In other words, simply, it’s infringing his right to be left alone, and to choose how he conducts his business, and what types of deals he transacts.
What about transgenderism? Well, a simple example would be pronouns. There are people today who are biologically male, and want to be known as a female. They want you to call them by “she,” and “her.” Now, if they want to go around saying they’re a woman, I’m going to say they’re confused, they’re wrong, they’re not. But, if they want to do that, I’m not really going to go set out to stop them. I think there are other concerns there, and we’ve talked about those before. However, when you try to tell me that I have to participate in your incorrect thinking, you are infringing on my negative right. If someone says they have a positive right to have themselves called a certain pronoun, it’s infringing on the negative right of someone else to speak in a way that they choose. And, whenever you bring the law in to enforce a positive right, you are trampling on the negative rights of other people.
We can also look at abortion like this. Women say they have a right to healthcare and somehow, that involves killing a baby. The unborn child is alive. It takes in nutrients, it expels waste, it grows, it adds cell to itself by cell division, and it’s also human. It’s genetically human. It’s uniquely genetically human in that way. So, it’s a human that’s alive and people want to kill it, and they call it healthcare, and they say they have a right to it.
Now, this is in some ways a more complicated discussion, but I do think this aspect is rather simple. In other words, some people say “I have a right to not have my life inconvenienced By this unborn child, so I have the right to get rid of it. It’s in my body.” Well, what about the right of the unborn child? What about their right to be left alone? In other words, not to be killed? So yes, in some ways we would say that someone has a right, not an unconditional type of right, but a right to conduct their life in certain ways. To get certain medical procedures they choose and not to get others. But, when you’re talking about another person involved in that, you do not have rights that terminate their life. That’s another sort of issue.
So, there are actually two people at play there. In abortion, the positive right that’s being put forth actually tramples on the negative right of the child.
Now, what about healthcare? We’ve talked about that a little and I’m going to try to stay not political on this question. Though, I do think scripture speaks to this. It’s more complicated than we can tackle in the remaining two or three minutes here. The first thing I think to point is that insurance is not actually healthcare. Yes, that may be a slight oversimplification, because insurance often provides access to healthcare. So, maybe in a certain way, if you don’t have insurance, you can’t get healthcare. Although, that’s not actually true. There are doctors and hospitals who will provide pro bono services. So, services for free. Or, services at a greatly reduced cost. There are many different options there that the media doesn’t often talk about, but I’m not discounting the difficulty that may be present, just simply to point out healthcare and insurance are not synonymous, nor should they be.
But, if there is a right to healthcare, who says? Based on what? Who has the obligation to provide you healthcare, if there’s somehow a right to it? Because, the claim to a right to healthcare is actually a positive right claim. It’s not a right to be left alone. It’s not a right to make your own medical decisions and engage the doctors you choose. No, it’s a claim that someone has to provide you with healthcare, with health treatment. Where would that come from?
Who says you have to call me a certain pronoun? Who says that you have to bake this cake? Who says that I have the right to an abortion? Who says that you have the obligation to provide healthcare? Behind that is all of that question. What grounds our rights? The only type of actual rights, the only type of transcendent rights that are not just made up by us humans are God given rights. The God given rights we have are rights to be left alone. The right to bodily integrity that someone can’t just take our life from us. The right to religion and practice of it, how we see fit. You could say that’s a right to conscience and that sort of thing, that there shouldn’t be compulsion for someone to be a Christian, but that the gospel should be freely preached before people, and they should make up their mind about it, and choose or not choose to follow Christ in that way. (Of course, the spirit is behind the scenes there playing a very strong role.)
But, all of that to say biblically speaking, rights are often negative sorts of things. They aren’t these lists of obligations that people have to be provided. If we look at just the times in scripture, especially in the law, where things are said “Do not” versus “Do”, it’s so much more do not. Are there some kinds of positive rights in scripture? Possibly. I think you could look at things like that.
Like I mentioned earlier, I’m oversimplifying this to a degree, but I want to make sure we have this idea of positive and negative rights, because it’s really important that we understand the claims that are made in society in light of this, and also think about the things that we believe. What sort of things do we believe are our right? Because today, what is often happening, and this isn’t always the case, but what often is the case is that someone will see something they want, and they’ll use rights language to get it.
So, they’ll say “I have a right to that and now if you disagree, it sounds like you’re being unjust”, but really, often, what the case is, is they’re unjust. They don’t have a just claim to something. They just said they want it. So, often in the language of rights, clothed in that language, what we’re seeing is people justifying greed and selfishness, because they’re saying “I have a right to this other thing” and enough people agree, and now we end up trampling on other’s negative rights with our positive made up rights at points.
Now, there’s a great danger in saying all of that, and I’ve tried to keep much of it generic and simple. I do think Christians have a responsibility to help the poor in the body of Christ, and things like that. So, where do our positive rights and negative rights end there? I think that gets muddy, but often the exhortations in scripture about helping the poor are in the context of the covenant community, in the context of the church. I would also say that most people are far more wealthy today than anyone else in the world if we’re looking at America, and then pretty much anyone else looking back in history, even the person we would consider poor today. So, often what we want to do is we want to say “I have a right to this other thing”, so that someone has to provide it to me, when instead, I could have given up something else I had to get that thing that I may have thought I needed.
Just because something is a good idea, and just because it’s an actual good thing like healthcare, doesn’t necessarily mean we have the right to it. I think that’s incredibly important. Something can be a good and not be something that someone has a right to. You might have the right to pursue it, that’s a big difference. The right to pursue something versus the right to be given it, but the right to pursue something is a negative right. It’s a right for someone to leave you alone so that you can pursue a good thing. A positive right would say someone has the obligation to give it to you, and often that plays to our sinful desires, and things like that.
Now, once again, I’ve given this caveat three or four times. This is an oversimplification at points, but I think it’s a helpful one to start the conversation, and start forming our thinking as we think about rights and the issues that are at the forefront of culture, and the conversation today. I’ll talk with you next week on Unapologetic.