The Corner


Goldberg, God, and Human Rights

Detail of Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, 1818 (Wikimedia)

Jonah Goldberg opens his National Review cover story, an excerpt from his new book, with some provocative assertions:

Capitalism is unnatural. Democracy is unnatural. Human rights are unnatural. God didn’t give us these things, or anything else. We stumbled into modernity accidentally, not by any divine plan.

When the Founders said “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, . . .” they cheated. It is not self-evident that our Creator endowed humans with unalienable rights. Something self-evident is, by definition, obvious, needing no demonstration. The existence of gravity is obvious. It is self-evident that fire burns. Yet it’s hardly obvious to everyone there’s even a Creator.

I want to offer amendments to three of Jonah’s claims in this passage.

First, I think certain human rights can be described as, in an important sense, “God-given.” The protection of rights requires institutional and cultural achievements on the part of human beings, but their existence as valid moral claims rests on the kind of beings we humans are. And the kind of beings we are, on the classical theistic account, is the kind of beings God caused us to be. The intellectual and political defense of those rights need not advert directly to our creation or our Creator; Jonah tells us his will not. That move is defensible, but so is the claim that we are endowed by our Creator with basic rights.

Second, the Declaration’s reference to “self-evident” truths is also defensible. The claim of (a certain kind of) human equality isn’t a “self-evident truth” if the term is taken to mean “a truth instantly obvious to all people.” If it were such a truth, it would hardly need stating. But a “self-evident truth” can mean a truth that cannot be deduced from more fundamental truths. You can know its truth without needing, or being able to provide, a formal demonstration on the order of a mathematical proof; precisely because it is basic, you can defend it only through indirect arguments. The principle of non-contradiction is such a truth. So is the principle that all human beings are equal in the possession of certain fundamental rights.

Third, what seems to us to have been stumbling accidentally may reflect a divine plan.

While I resist some of the formulations early in Jonah’s essay in light of the foregoing, I agree with (and enjoyed) what he writes in its main body. My point is that what he writes is completely consistent with classical theism, and more closely in harmony with a wholesome reverence for the Founders, than one might assume from that introduction.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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