What exactly would you say are our rights, and where would you say they come from?
That’s a great pair of questions. I’m not sure how helpful it would be to offer just a list of our rights, partly because there would never be an end to it, and partly because it would beg too many questions. A classification of our rights might be a little more interesting -- for example, we might distinguish between rights to do something, and rights to have or receive something -- but by itself, it would still leave a lot to be desired, because it wouldn’t tell us the source of the rights in each category.
So let’s focus on your second question instead: Where do rights come from? If only we can get straight on that, then the question of what rights we have almost answers itself. However, I can’t say strongly enough that the question of where our rights come from can’t be answered in a vacuum. For example, I don’t think it’s enough just to think about the categorical imperative. To reach valid conclusions about our rights, we need to have a good deal of other moral knowledge – moral knowledge of many kinds.
For example, one way to work out our rights is to consider our duties – what we are obligated to do or not do. Because I owe my parents honor, they have a right to receive it from me; because they have a right to receive it, I owe it to them. As you see, such inferences work in both directions. From either side of the equation, you can work out the other. The same is true of the other ways of working out our rights.
What other ways? Well, we might consider not what we are obligated to do, but what we are permitted to do. Because I am permitted to marry a woman, I have a right not to be prevented from doing so, provided that she consents and there are no impediments to our union.
Still another way is to consider what we have agreed to do. Because I promised to be your best man, you have a right that I show up on time.
Or we might consider the exchanges into which we have entered. Because you accepted delivery of a certain quantity of goods, I have a right to their price.
Then again, we might consider natural institutions and practices -- frameworks of conduct that are necessary for human well-being, such as the family. For instance, children have a right to education, to nurture, and to be conceived in the loving union of their parents.
We might simply consider the respect due to us as persons made in the image of God. One example is that I have a right to be governed not as a slave, but as a free and rational being – although there are circumstances in which I can lose that right. If I am imprisoned for a grave crime, then certain decisions are no longer mine to make, and rightly so. If a people habitually sells its votes, it should not have the privilege of choosing its own magistrates.
Up until now we have been considering the implications of natural moral truths – natural duties, natural institutions, and so forth. Last, though, we might consider just laws duly enacted by human government for the well-being of all. For example, the law establishes an army, and so if I meet the legally specified requirements, I have the right to enlist.
These seven ways are not mutually exclusive; they overlap. Thus, a given right can often be worked out from more than one kind of moral consideration.
Not only are rights related to other kinds of moral consideration, but they are also related to each other. Sometimes these relations are pretty simple. Since it is intrinsically wrong to deliberately take innocent human life, there cannot be a right to commit abortion.
On the other hand, sometimes they are pretty complex. Take the right to religious liberty. It permits each person to seek the truth about God, because seeking it is our duty and finding it our highest good. It protects each person in seeking the truth about God, by prohibiting others from unreasonably hindering the search. It supports each person in seeking the truth about God, by obligating other people to give the seeker such aid as they reasonably can. Notice two that only the first two dimensions of this natural right can be enforced by humanly enacted rights. The third dimension can’t – for though I ought to help others find the truth, there is nothing that human law can properly do to me if I don’t.
At bottom, all genuine rights exist to safeguard the ability of all persons to do their duties and to have the freedom of action necessary to direct their lives in order to develop their human gifts, in community with others, for both the individual and common good.
This is far from the last word on the topic, but it may be enough to keep you going for a while.