Phil Sayles recently wrote a persuasive piece on natural rights and the primacy of the individual in America. But being persuasive doesn’t mean being right. We must be careful of logic that is specious due to unfounded assumptions and sweeping generalizations. Let’s examine his argument and its foundation on the beliefs of John Locke.
Locke, a philosopher of 17th century enlightenment, formulated the existence of absolute natural law and a social contract in which individuals agree to surrender certain rights in order to guarantee others.
We’re already on thin ice. Which rights are natural? Which are kept and which are forsaken? Who defines those rights? Locke advocated using reason to find truth rather than blind adherence to authority and tradition, a concept Mr. Sayles should have considered. He sets up 18th century constitutional thought as absolute authority, ignoring intervening fundamental changes in American society. The Constitution is an evolving document, not an immutable stone tablet.
Yes, men should have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But there are circumstances when we expand or contract these rights. We send people off to war, depriving them of life. We intern people for their nationality, depriving them of liberty. Slave-holders found happiness in keeping people in bondage, defending it as natural law. There is too much at stake for us to march unthinkingly to the drumbeat of nebulous natural law and social contract.
I defend the sanctity of the individual, but I do not worship it. It mutates into the tyranny of the individual holding the general good of the people hostage.
Let us use reason to determine if what once was valid still is. The Second Amendment equates the people with a well-regulated militia. Notwithstanding Supreme Court rulings or National Rifle Association obsessions, I see this right as being met in our military and National Guards as well-regulated militias. The possession of firearms is an earned privilege, not a natural right. To say that “people, not guns, kill people” is a clever turn of phrase that serves only to pooh-pooh the problem and sidestep its complexities.