Inalienable Rights—Adler

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

A right is either inalienable or it is not — you cannot have it both ways.

What is being denied by the negative statement that certain rights are not alienable? Human beings living in organized societies under civil government have many rights that are conferred upon them by the laws of the state, and sometimes by its constitution. These are usually called civil rights, legal rights, or constitutional rights. This indicates their source. It also indicates that these rights, which are conferred by constitutional provisions or by the positive enactment of man-made laws, can be revoked or nullified by the same power or authority that instituted them in the first place. They are alienable rights. The giver can take them away.

What the state does not give, it cannot take away. Human rights are natural rights, as opposed to those that are civil, constitutional, or legal, then their being rights by natural endowment makes them inalienable in the sense just indicated.

Their existence as natural endowments gives them moral authority even when they lack legal force or legal sanctions. Their moral authority imposes moral obligations, which may or may not be respected or fulfilled.

A given state or society may or may not, by its constitution and its laws, attempt to secure these rights or to enforce them. It may even do the very opposite. It may transgress or violate these inalienable natural or human rights. When it fails to enforce these rights or, worse, when it violates them, it is subject to condemnation on moral grounds as being unjust.

If unjust governments can violate these human or natural rights, in what sense do they still remain inalienable? Are they not being taken away by such violations?

When a human right is not acknowledged by the state, or when it is not enforced or when it is violated by a government, it still exists. It retains its moral authority even though it is not enforced or has been transgressed. If these rights did not continue in existence in spite of such adverse circumstances, then we would have no basis for condemning as unjust a government that failed to enforce them or that trampled on them.

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