“Fundamental rights” seems to be a preoccupation with Americans and, increasingly, people all over the world. Sometimes the adjective “fundamental” is not appended to the term “rights,” but there is a preoccupation all the same. When asked to define in general what a “right” is, I’m not sure that those who wish to secure such for themselves are very certain how to define it. Clearly, they believe a right is something that is owed to them or something attached to them. They will further say that it is something that others are to respect or, at the very least, acknowledge.
The next natural question–going from the general to the particular– is: what are these fundamental rights? The answer to this question will vary greatly based upon one’s philosophical perspective. In fact, people will have wildly contradictory notions of what these fundamental rights are. An example: Some claim that every human person by virtue of his being a human person has a right to life. Others in the same community state that a woman has a fundamental right to an abortion. Still others claim that there is a fundamental right for homosexuals to marry–having redefined marriage to exclude the notion of procreation. This is a contradiction. In the midst of this, who’s position is correct? How can members of a society coexist with what amounts to a schizophrenia on the issue of fundamental rights? There must be a truth of things; there can’t possibly be a lived relativism, for this would be impossible in the order of justice. There must be an authority based on the truth–the only secure foundation for any community or form of government. If not, the ultimate authority in a community will be the will of those who govern. The ancient cry will again resound, “We have no king but Caesar.”
This leads to another question. What is “truth?” The most celebrated individual who asked that question was a politician who stared Truth right in the face. He looked into His eyes. Perhaps, this explains his uneasiness in condemning the Truth to death. It is not apparent that our current day politicians display the same uneasiness. Perhaps they have never stared truth in the face. Likely, the truth has seldom been presented to them, and thus their indifference.
Giving it a precise scholastic definition, truth is the conformity of the intellect to reality. What is the reality of things? First to acknowledge their existence; second, to discern why these things are (i.e., how they got here and what their purpose is); and finally, to discover how these things work. Applying these questions to human persons, we can discern human nature and inclinations and ways of behaving that are in conformity to that nature (e.g., preserving our lives, natural desire for procreation). We can also draw practical conclusions from those principles and determine which is in conformity with human nature and what is not. With an honest recognition of this “law of nature” we can then speak of fundamental rights and–now largely forgotten–duties that are the correlative of those rights.
Any honest recognition of reality and treatment of these questions leads one to the inescapable conclusion that there is a Creator, there is a human nature, and there is a truth which makes a claim to our assent. It is to this that our governments and laws must adhere if there be any chance for the securing of true liberty and justice. Unfortunately, we find ourselves being governed by the “ruling class” who have adopted the standards and program of the loud avant-garde. Perhaps our leaders are not satisfied with reality as it is. Perhaps, they ask “what is truth” as a rhetorical and pejorative question unworthy of their time and consideration. Indeed, “we have no king but Caesar.” Put another way, “truth and our rights are what Caesar says they are.”