On the Origin of Rights

Are religious justifications for rights and equality inadmissible in Canadian politics?

Why have we got the fundamental rights we think we have? This is a somewhat embarrassing question for secular liberals, such as yours truly. We don’t have a very satisfactory answer to it. Our religious fellow-citizens, by contrast, have one, which is that rights come from God, in whose image (at least the Judeo-Christian tradition) human beings have been created. As it turns out, however, not everyone is okay with this answer being publicly aired, at least by a politician. This is puzzling to me, and worth a response.

The minor Twitter dustup of the week so far was triggered by the Conservative Party’s leader, Andrew Scheer, who wanted us all to know that he “believe[s] that we are all children of God and there is equal and infinite value in all of us”, from which it follows that no one is superior or inferior to anyone else on the basis of “race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation”. Pretty anodyne stuff, I should have thought. But not according to, well, a number of people ― one can never tell how many with these Twitter dustups. Emmett Macfarlane demanded that Mr. Scheer “[k]eep his imaginary shit out of [his] public policy”, eventually adding that”[i]t’s actually highly disagreeable to imply … that the equality of people is rooted in our status as ‘children of God'”. And I’ve seen other comments along these lines too. Perhaps, as Jonathan Kay suggested, “Canada has run out of real things to fight about”. But I take it that to Professor Macfarlane, and to others who think like him, this is a serious thing.


So here are some hopefully serious thoughts on this, from the perspective of one who does not share Mr. Scheer’s belief that human beings are children of God. To begin with, it’s necessary to recall that something like Mr. Scheer’s view was, historically, the foundation of the argument for the normative equality of human beings and the existence of fundamental rights inviolable by a political community. It was John Locke’s argument and Thomas Jefferson’s, for instance. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed, as “self-evident” “truths”, “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.” Lord Acton would later write that “the equal claim of every man to be unhindered by man in the fulfillment of duty to God … is the secret essence of the Rights of Man”.

A Twitter interlocutor told me that this was of no import in Canada. Stuff and nonsense. Canada is very much an heir to the liberal tradition of which both Locke and Jefferson were among the founders, and Acton one of the great exponents. (The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in particular, embodies this tradition ― and, in permitting individual rights to be set up as limits on public power, does so in a manner that is more Jeffersonian than the defenders of Canadian exceptionalism care to acknowledge.) Others have pointed out that Locke’s egalitarianism did not extend to the Aboriginal peoples of the New World. They might have added that Jefferson was, notoriously, a slave-owner who fathered children with an enslaved woman. Acton almost as notoriously, supported the slave-owners in the American Civil War, in a shockingly misguided and embarrassing defence of federalism. But I don’t think this matters here. Locke, Jefferson, and Acton fell short of their principles ― as human beings often do ― and this is to their individual discredit, but not to that of the principles which, had they followed these principles fully, would have prevented them from discrediting themselves.

More modern, secular statements about the origin of rights, meanwhile, are full of elisions and circumlocution. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” This is, up to a point, an echo of Jefferson’s words, but notice what’s missing here: any indication of why human beings are born free and equal, or how we know this, or who endowed them with reason and conscience. Section 1 of the Canadian Bill of Rights “recognized and declared that in Canada there have existed and shall continue to exist … [certain] human rights and fundamental freedoms”. This (like similar, if more laconic, language in section 2 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990) is a recognition of the pre-political nature of rights, which are not created by whatever positive law implements them. But again, it is not clear how these pre-political rights came into being. The preamble to the Canadian Bill of Rights declares that “the Canadian Nation is founded upon principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God, the dignity and worth of the human person and the position of the family in a society of free men and free institutions”. The preamble to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms also refers to “principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law”. But the connection between these principles and the rights these instruments protect is left studiously undefined.

I am not saying that this is a bad thing. It’s probably more important to agree on our having rights than on the causes of our having rights. I share A.V. Dicey’s belief that it is more important to provide legal remedies for the violations of rights than to declare grand principles of rights-protection. Jefferson could consider the divine origin of rights self-evident, but in contemporary society neither his view nor any alternative can make such claims, and it is fortunate that we have gotten on with the practical business of providing legal remedies against the breaches of at least some important rights instead of debating the precise metaphysical reasons why we should do so.

It would be a long debate. We secularists cannot claim to know, collectively, where rights or equality come from. Some of us, individually, have hypotheses of course. There is Kant’s work on human dignity of course (arguably as mysterious as many a religious dogma). Jeremy Waldron (although he is no secularist, actually, as will soon be apparent), sets out a (multifaceted) justification for equality in his book One Another’s Equals. Another line of thought that I personally find appealing is based (non-religious) natural law, developed along the lines Randy Barnett sketches out. In a nutshell, this argument holds that, given certain facts about human nature ― perhaps especially our general tendency, all too well attested by history, to disregard the interests of those whom we do not consider to be (at least) our equals ― if we want to live peacefully and prosperously with one another, we really ought to consider each other as equals and as holders of certain rights. Intriguingly, the preamble of the Universal Declaration actually makes an argument of more or less this sort: “[w]hereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”. In other words, if we don’t commit to ideas like equality and some other fundamental rights, we can be pretty sure that things will turn out badly.

But none of that is, to use Jefferson’s words, self-evident. One can plausibly be a Kantian, a secular Waldronian, a latter-day natural lawyer, but one cannot plausibly insist that these explanations, or any one of them, are the only admissible ones. Nor can one specifically exclude religious explanations for equality or fundamental rights from the realm of admissibility. (That’s not to say one has to find them persuasive.) Professor Waldron himself writes that it “seem[s] obvious to [him]” that

an adequate conception of human dignity and of the equality that is predicated on that dignity is rooted in an understanding of the relation of the human person to God or in aspects of human nature that matter to God or matter for our relation to God[;] that human worth and human dignity are going to have to be rooted in something like a theological anthropology, a religiously loaded account of human nature. (177)

Professor Waldron acknowledges that these things are not obvious ― to put it mildly ― to many others; that “[m]any philosophers” ― or political scientists, like Professor Macfarlane, or others ― “are inclined to dismiss religious accounts of human equality as superstitious nonsense”. (178) He specifically addresses the concerns of those who would rather that religious arguments on such issues not be offered to the public. As read him, Professor Waldron speaks mostly to the position of the philosopher (not necessarily a professional one, but perhaps simply a philosophically-minded citizen), not that of the aspiring office-holder. But I think that his conclusion that “everybody calling it as they see it and giving the fullest and most honest account they can is superior to … embarrassed self-censorship about a matter this important” (213) is applicable to people in Mr. Scheer’s position, as well as in Professor Waldron’s. This is partly a matter of honesty both personal and intellectual, and partly also a consequence of the fact that, as noted above, for politics and law, our agreement on the existence of rights and the value of equality matters rather more than the reasons we might have for subscribing to this agreement. If some people want to sign on for religious reasons, we should welcome them and be glad of their company even if we do not find their reasons convincing.


So, despite not being religious, I would not purge the religious accounts of equality and fundamental rights from the realm of intellectually respectable ideas or from the public square. Indeed, I will end on a on wistful and worried note. Professor Waldron suggests that “perhaps some of the foundations” of our morality “have [a] nonnegotiable character;” (188) they must be obeyed and are not subject to revision in light of our other commitments. These foundations “may include the basic equality of all human beings, and I wonder whether a religious grounding might not be a good way of characterizing this particularly strenuous form of objective resilience”. (188) Perhaps the same might be said about liberty, or its more specific instantiations, such as the freedom of conscience and the freedom of speech.

And so, like Professor Waldron, I wonder whether a world, call it Jefferson’s world if you like, in which there was certainty about the origin of rights ― and about their divine origin, and hence transcendant importance, too ― was not one in which rights could be more secure than in our world of pluralist doubt. Against that, we must count the reality of, on the whole, much greater respect for rights today than in Jefferson’s own time and in his own life. Still, it is difficult not to worry that our lack of confidence about the origin of rights leaves them vulnerable to the rhetoric of those who see rights (and other legal and constitutional limitations) as dispensable luxuries or outright obstacles in their pursuit of plans for remodelling human beings, society, and the world in the name of this or that ideal.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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