Fundamental Human Rights versus Derived Human Rights

All human persons have fundamental human rights, bestowed on them by their Creator, and inherent to their human nature. All who have a human nature, regardless of age or state of life or other factors, have these fundamental human rights. Other human rights are derived, not fundamental. Derived rights are based on fundamental rights.

For example, human persons have a fundamental right to self-defense. But the right to own a weapon is derived largely from the right to self-defense. (I’m leaving aside the use of a weapon for hunting or recreation.) The right to self-defense can never be denied, because it is fundamental. A prisoner convicted of murder and serving a life sentence still has a right to use force, including deadly force if necessary, in self-defense. On the other hand, the right to own a weapon is not fundamental, and so it is subject to reasonable restrictions. For example, a convicted felon is not permitted to own or carry a firearm.

But even fundamental human rights have limits. These limits are not imposed by human law, but rather by the nature of the right itself. For example, the right to marry has inherent limits based on the nature of the state of marriage. Some persons are too young to contract marriage because they cannot give valid consent due to a lack a maturity. And as the Catholic Faith teaches, two persons of the same gender cannot marry because the nature of marriage is heterosexual. The complementarity of the two genders and their ability to procreate are both fundamental to the right to marry.

The right to life is a fundamental human right; it must not be denied to anyone. However, this fundamental right has inherent limits, based on the nature of the fallen human person. We will each die at the end of our lives, whenever that may be. God is not contradicting our rights by permitting us to die. The possibility of death is inherent to the fallen state. And if deadly force is used in self-defense, this does not constitute a denial of the fundamental right to life of the attacker. For the attacker has exceeded the limits of the right to life. The fallen state means that people are able to commit acts of unjust violence, the moral response to which might include either deadly force in self-defense or possibly the death penalty (a means for the community to defend itself).

Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. But it has natural limits, especially if a use of this freedom were contrary to the moral law. No human right authorizes or justifies the commission of any sin, small or great. We are all fallen sinners, so we all commit at least some venial sins. But sin is by definition wrong. When a proposed use of freedom of speech is immoral, it exceeds the natural limits of that right and freedom. A human person does not have a right to commit perjury or to make a false accusation publicly or privately or to speak with malice or hatred toward anyone. When there is a conflict between the eternal moral law and a real human right, even one that is fundamental, the eternal moral law prevails.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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