Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Inalienable Rights

Scott Bradley


The US Constitution anchors itself firmly in God. When it says "all men are created equal", it obviously assumes a Creator. It then goes on to say that "all men have been endowed by God with certain inalienable rights" most specifically, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness".

It need not be jingoistic to say these sentiments are quite remarkable. Those readers who are not American and who, rightfully, tire of hearing about the supposed "greatness" and "exceptionality" (yes, our politicians say that) of America, need not fear another paean to America, however. This is about all of us.

I find myself echoing some of the more strident voices on the right when they say, "The Constitution does not give us these rights; God does! Government does not give us these rights; God does!" Before government decides, therefore, that it needs to curtail these rights for 'the good of us all', it needs to discuss the proposal with God. But since, "inalienable" means they cannot be taken away, such a discussion would be senseless.

Yet though I am more than willing to echo this sentiment for the sake of those rights, I do not believe in a Creator and thus do not believe the rights are "endowed" or guaranteed. On what basis, therefore, can I declare these rights inalienable? Who or what guarantees them? If I say Nature does, this would be to simply re-assign God's endorsing role to what becomes God by another name.

Thus, in answer to these questions I can only reply: I do. I declare my right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I give them to myself and guarantee their validity. And if you do too, that means we do. And that brings us back to the Constitution: "We the people...." It is our responsibility, both individually and collectively, to declare and preserve these rights.

This is, I believe, not only compatible with, but a natural outcome of the Daoist understanding of the nature of the Universe and the human experience. Zhuangzi has sometimes been called an anarchist, and if by this is meant one who believed that every individual has the right to follow his or her own path, then he most certainly was. The only role of government is to ensure that we are able to do so, for there are always those whose ambition or moral character would deny the rights of others in the name of their own. Among my self-bestowed rights is not the right to harm others.

Guo Xiang (252-312), in his commentary on the Zhuangzi, takes the absence of the Creator to its logical conclusion: all things are "self-so" (ziran — spontaneously arising) and "self-create". Though the shadow seems caused by an object and the penumbra by the shadow, each one individually exists and thus is responsible for its own existence. And though I confess to finding his arguments difficult to understand, I think he caught the spirit of the Daoist understanding of 'things'. All things under the sun have their rightful place and the right to flower in the sun.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

1 comment:

  1. The 'so-of-itsef' is used to describe the generative process of which humans are part. 'ziran' refers to that which exists above (or opposite) to things made by humans. So 'ziran' is thought of as 'Heaven-made' (Heaven as in the Chinese sense of Heaven/Earth or Dragon/Tiger).

    Professor Wang has an interesting essay called ' "It-self-so-ing" & "Other-ing" in Lao Zi's concept of Zi Ran' in which he discusses 'ziran' as a thing's naturalness or 'in-keeping-with-the-natural-essence-of-a-thing'.

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