Edmund Burke on Rights

Edmund Burke on Rights: Inherited, Not Inherent

By Owen Edwards|June 16th, 2020

On what basis are political constitutions actually formed and remain valid? Where do rights come from? Edmund Burke offers us an account different from that of many of our contemporaries.

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. – Preamble to the Declaration of Independence of the United States

And thereupon the said Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons, pursuant to their respective letters and elections, being now assembled in a full and free representative of this nation, taking into their most serious consideration the best means for attaining the ends aforesaid, do in the first place (as their ancestors in like case have usually done) for the vindicating and asserting their ancient rights and liberties declare. – Bill of Rights, 1689

Where do “rights” come from? Are they to be found tangled in DNA? Can they be discovered, so that as human wisdom increases we find more rights that people ought to possess? At what age does one have rights, and which rights? Is there a right to privacy? What about a right to choose your own pronoun?

Thomas Jefferson eloquently expressed one view—that it is self-evident that all men (women, persons) have certain unalienable rights. These are endowed by a Creator, yes—but they are self-evident, and exist separately from that Creator. An atheist can recognise those rights. (Kant argues the same.) Jefferson limited the enumerated rights to just three: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—though how much is bound up in just those three!

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