Unalienable Rights vs Vested Rights
The concept of human rights is widely misunderstood. Humans have two kinds of rights; unalienable rights come from God and are eternal while vested rights are civil agreements that have no eternal significance (however, our obedience to civil laws do have eternal significance—a topic for another article).
Unalienable rights establish the freedom to own weapons, such as guns, for use in defense or sustaining of life, but vested rights allow us to use the guns recreationally in designated ranges or to hunt on land we don’t own. Vested rights are applications of unalienable rights, meaning that we can only claim rights we first received from God and then gave to the government. The government can’t exercise any power or use any rights the people don’t have individually. Let me restate that: The government cannot do anything the people cannot do individually. Something doesn’t become moral or just simply because a group of people created a government to do it for them.
Now, when we talk about unalienable rights, we usually refer to the three main categories, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”. This phrasing in the Declaration of Independence came from Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson took only one day to write down the list of the 27 complaints against the King. However, he spent 16 days studying what rights mean in Deuteronomy and Exodus. He came up with a great list of unalienable rights which found fit well into the three aforementioned categories or themes of rights.
Consider what it looks like when vested rights are mistaken as being unalienable, or when unalienable rights are considered vested. We get really mixed up and make immoral choices when we don’t distinguish between the two types of rights. Not understanding the difference causes us to call for “unalienable” rights we don’t actually have, thinking the government can actually bestow them, and it also causes us to think that the government is the origin and provider of rights. If our rights actually came from the government, then we could simply change legislation and morally exterminate entire demographics of people. Sounds like the Holocaust.
Agency is the Power to Act
Agency is one of the greatest gifts we have ever received from God, perhaps only second to the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Agency the power that God has given us over bodies that he created, owns, and maintains with His priesthood. So long as we don’t destroy our bodies through sin, substance, and neglect, we retain our complete agency. Someday we might develop the character and honor that will allow us to gain our own priesthood and truly come to own our bodies. Until then, we are “not [our] own.”
The 1828 Websters Dictionary defines an “agent” as:
1. An actor; one that exerts power, or has the power to act; as, a moral agent
3. A substitute, deputy, or factor; one entrusted with the business of another; and attorney; a minister.
(emphasis/annotations added, webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/agent)
This dictionary also defines “agency” as:
2. The office of an agent, or factor; business of an agent entrusted with the concerns of another; as, the principal pays the charges of agency
(emphasis/annotations added, webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/agency)
The Freedom to Act
My studies have convinced me that agency and freedom are not the same. Although we may have total power over our bodies, our freedom to exercise that agency can become limited by laws or physical restraint. Freedom describes the range of opportunities we have to choose from, and there are often right and wrong options involved in these decisions. When consequences are codified into law, freedom becomes limited. Any limitations on our freedom that violate unalienable rights are immoral and should be viewed as illegitimate. However, laws that protect unalienable rights and align with divine law are moral and desirable.
The Definition, Source, and Purpose of Rights
So what exactly is an unalienable right? Legitimate rights come from God and can, in a sense, be described as the assignments we’ve received from Him. For example, God gives us commandments and then tells us that we have the right to do whatever it takes to fulfill His commandments. If someone tries to prevent us from keeping a commandment, they are interfering with Divine commands and will be held accountable.
An unalienable right is something that we can demand from which we cannot be alienated without triggering the wrath of God. A right isn’t simply whatever we want really badly.
A friend at a recent Thomas Jefferson Center meeting wisely explained that it isn’t coincidental that a “right” is the same word as the choice to do what is “right”. It is a right because it is right. We cannot separate a right from the idea of “right-ness of action”. We will never have the right to do what is wrong, in public or in private. Right-ness is defined by the Lord.
God gave us our agency (Moses 7:32) and then gave us commandments. This means that while we are “agents unto [ourselves]” (D&C 58:28, Moses 6:56), we “are not [our] own” (1 Cor. 6:19), and we are obligated to follow God’s commandments.
Jesus Christ was the perfect agent. Even from a young age, he understood his agency:
40 And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.
41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at thefeast of the passover.
42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast.
43 And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it.
44 But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought him among theirkinsfolk and acquaintance.
45 And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him.
46 And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, bothhearing them, and asking them questions.
47 And all that heard him were astonished at hisunderstanding and answers.
48 And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.
49 And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?
(emphasis/annotations added, Luke 2:40-49)
Back to rights….
As mentioned previously, our unalienable rights come from God. However, we have renamed unalienable rights “constitutional rights” as if the constitution gives them to us. When I ask people what the second amendment does, they often say it gives us the right to bear arms. This is wrong. It is a provision we established to prevent the federal government from taking away any of our firearms, leaving the matter of domestic safety in the hands of the state and local governments (see Constitutional Amendment 10) allowing us to exercise our unalienable right to stay alive. The right to bear arms is what we could call a sub-right, a right under the umbrella of “the right to life”. Ths Constitution gives us no rights. It is an inspired framework for a type of government designed only for the purpose of securing these inherent rights from our Creator.
The Declaration of Independence says:
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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…
(emphasis/annotations added, http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/)
The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are “among” all of our unalienable rights. Remember, governments exist to protect our God-given rights.
We Don’t Have the “Right” or Permission to Sin
Remember, we have free will, meaning we are free to act on our will. Freedom provides the opportunity to act, but our agency is to govern that freedom, to discriminate between options (see my post on discrimination).
Deiter F. Ucthdorf said:
You have agency, and you are free to choose. But there is actually no free agency. Agency has its price. You have to pay the consequences of your choices.
(emphasis added, Deiter F. Ucthdorf, “On the Wings of Eagles”, Brigham Young University devotional address given on November 11, 2003.)
Joseph Fielding Smith said:
I have heard people say, and members of the Church too, ‘I have a right to do as I please.’ My answer is “No, you do not. You haven’t any right at all to do just as you please. There is only one right that you have, and that is to do just what I read to you: keep the commandments of Jesus Christ. He has a perfect right to tell us so. We have no right to refuse. I do not care who the man is; I do not care where he lives, or what he is – when the gospel of Jesus Christ is presented to him, he has no right to refuse to receive it. He has the privilege. He is not compelled to receive it, because our Father in heaven has given to every one of us, in the Church and out, the gift of free agency. That free agency gives us the privilege to accept and be loyal to our Lord’s commandments, but it has never given us the right to reject them. Every man who rejects the commandments of our Father in heaven is rebellious.
(emphasis added, C.R., April 1967, 120-21)
So what is a right? Ultimately, it is the right to do what is right. It is the right and assignment to keep God’s commandments. That may sound strange, but that’s what this all comes down to. Every “Thou shalt…” is associated with a list of rights; each is a right to do something good. Every “Thou shalt not…” is also associated with rights and each is a right to refuse to do something wrong.
These rights are the means we have to accomplish His will for our ultimate gain.
Click Here to read another post of mine on agency called “Free Agency vs. Moral Agency.”