Rights can be categorized as “Negative” or “Positive”. Negative rights boil down to the “right to be let alone” which is what Justice Louis Brandeis called “the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men”. It is the right to self-determination. This is the essence of liberty. It is also the primary reason for government, which is liberty from the aggression and control of others.
A dictionary definition of Liberty is as follows:
Liberty: the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views.
Here we notice the words “free” and “from”. Liberty and Negative Rights are not about rights “for” particular goods or services (healthcare, education, financial aid, etc.) but about the right to live free “from” the aggression and control of others. This does not mean that such goods and services are bad, only that these negative rights must be honored first if we are to have authentic liberty.
In fact, the right to provide and receive these service, generally speaking, are negative rights in themselves. Nobody should prevent an individual from becoming educated, for instance, nor prevent a physician from providing medical care for others. People also have the liberty of providing goods and services for free, if they so desire, as this very document attests to. Being able to provide and purchase goods and services is a natural part of human life and constitute a part of true liberty.
On the other hand, forcing people to provide or subsidize goods or services they do not need or desire is contrary to negative rights.
The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are all negative rights. Also, the right to religion, beliefs, expression, privacy and property are all negative rights.
Amendments 1-10 of the U.S. Constitution (The “Bill of Rights”) are all negative rights. They do not promise any free service or material good to citizens. Instead they limit the power of the federal government and promise a fair legal process to citizens.
There’s an old saying: “Your liberty to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.”
Indeed, as we all deserve to have our negative rights respected, we must respect those of others. I cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded room under the guise of free speech, or threaten someone else’s life without exposing myself to having my own life threatened, or even taken. You cannot claim a right to privacy if you intentionally expose yourself publicly. You cannot monopolize the natural resources on the basis of your right to property.
Some argue that there are no distinctions between negative and positive rights, because negative rights call for a court system, which requires funds, and an adherence to a legal system, which can at times be a great imposition (having to go to court when sued, etc.), but these are minimal requirements for ANY government, and this is vastly different from additional good and services which are not necessary for government and impose additional impositions on citizens.
The foundations of negative rights are universal and objective and precede the creation of any nation. However, we see them reflected in the creation of our own nation at its very conceptual beginning, The Declaration of Independence. It begins:
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
Immediately we see a reference to the “Law’s of Nature” and “Nature’s God.” The “Laws of Nature” refer to Natural Law. Natural Law does not come from men, but is intrinsic to the nature of men. It is defined as: “a body of unchanging moral principles regarded as a basis for all human conduct.”
So, these are objective, not subjective, principles. The founders weren’t saying: “Who’s values? Yours or mine?” The were saying these ARE the universal principles.
“Nature’s God” refers to the creator. That is, the God who created the world, nature and human-kind, lest he be mistaken for some other concept of God.
There’s a lot of debate on what the founders actually believed. But what is clear is that they generally did believe in a Creator and that our rights are derived from that creator and the objective laws of nature, not from a mere agreement among men, or simply because men will it. Here are some relevant quotes from the founders:
“That these are our grievances which we have thus laid before his majesty, with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people claiming their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.” – Thomas Jefferson, Rights of British America, 1774
“If men through fear, fraud or mistake, should in terms renounce and give up any essential natural right, the eternal law of reason and the great end of society, would absolutely vacate such renunciation; the right to freedom being the gift of God Almighty, it is not in the power of Man to alienate this gift, and voluntarily become a slave.” – John Adams, Rights of the Colonists, 1772
“[T]he laws of nature . . . of course presupposes the existence of a God, the moral ruler of the universe, and a rule of right and wrong, of just and unjust, binding upon man, preceding all institutions of human society and government.” – John Quincy Adams “The law of nature, “which, being coeval with mankind and dictated by God Himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this.” – Alexander Hamilton
The Declaration of Independence continues:
“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.”
This further defines our rights, which we can now conclude are:
Based on Objective Moral Principles: Not relative to what the government says, or what the people say. It is objectively so. It is Truth.
Self-evident: We don’t need to prove to anyone, or any government, that we have these rights.
Unalienable: They are inseparable from your humanity & nature. Not even you can take away your own rights.
Governments and laws certainly cannot grant or take away human rights. They can only either recognize or not recognize them, honor or violate them. (Really important point- because governments have a tendency of acting as if rights were a gift from the magistrate, rather than something intrinsic and unalienable to human persons)
Rooted in God: Creator of nature & man, source of objective reality and objective morality, principles, truths.
Liberty & God
You don’t have to explicitly believe in God to believe in human rights. We can disagree on why or how something exists while agreeing that it does actually exist. But theists (those who believe in God) have a solid foundation to believe in human rights, while atheism offers a significantly less solid and more subjective understanding of rights. Denying the objective nature of man and human rights may lead to a belief that rights are merely social or legal constructs that can be granted, changed and rescinded.
The Catechism on Liberty
Catechism, Paragraph 1907:
First, the common good presupposes respect for the person as such. In the name of the common good, public authorities are bound to respect the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person. Society should permit each of its members to fulfill his vocation. In particular, the common good resides in the conditions for the exercise of the natural freedoms indispensable for the development of the human vocation, such as “the right to act according to a sound norm of conscience and to safeguard… privacy, and rightful freedom also in matters of religion.”
We hope this brief document has given you a good overview of what Liberty and Negative Rights are, as well as their foundations.