Absolute Rights?

Absolutes?  I’m skeptical of them, if not downright hostile. Sometimes an absolute is a good guide.  After all, as a general matter of principle, it is not a good idea to go around taking other people’s things or shooting people. Or imprisoning them.   But… as I’ve noted on more than a few occasions, human beings have this desire for things to be black or white, absolutely good or absolutely evil.  We don’t live in a black and white world.  We live in a world filled with all shades of color and, for that matter, innumerable shades of gray, and we – and our societies – have to live in that world and, if we want even a modicum of civility and civilization, we have to create customs and governments that recognize that those shades and colors exist.

 The other day I got a posting on the blog insisting that the right to bear arms was a constitutional right and that my proposals to license and regulate firearms would negate that right because a constitutional right could not be restricted or taxed and still remain a “right.”  After I put my jaw back in place, I thought about the naiveté; the lack of understanding of what society is; the lack of knowledge about what the Constitution is and what it established, and what it did not; and the total self-centeredness represented by that comment… and the fact that all too many Americans share those views about “rights.”

 First, we need to start with the Constitution itself, and the first ten amendments, popularly known as the Bill of Rights.  The First Amendment states that the Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech.”  But more than a score of U.S. Supreme Court decisions have established that the freedom of speech is not absolute, especially where that freedom harms others or has the clear potential to do so.

 The Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable” search and seizure and states that a search warrant cannot be issued without “probable cause,” but again, a number of Supreme Court cases have made clear that there are exceptions to those requirements, i.e., that the Fourth Amendment is not an “absolute right.”

 The same is true of the Second Amendment. One of the earliest Supreme Court decisions involving the Second Amendment was issued in 1875 and stated that the Constitution does not establish the right to keep and bear arms, but affirms an existing right.  A number of other Supreme Court decisions followed establishing the fact that the federal and state governments can establish reasonable limits on that right, and in 2008 the Heller decision stated “the right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose…”

 Those who object to the Supreme Court decisions in such cases often complain that the Court is perverting or destroying the Constitution.  Yet the Constitution plainly states that “The judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court…” and that “The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made…”  In short, like it or not, in cases of dispute about what is or is not Constitutional, the Supreme Court decides.

 Now… people can complain about such decisions, and they can try to change the laws or try to keep new laws on such subjects from being enacted, but what they cannot claim – not accurately, anyway – is that such restrictions are “unconstitutional.” Some will then reiterate the idea that any tax or restriction negates a “right.”

 What they seem to ignore or forget is that the entire concept of an unfettered “absolute” right is contrary to the entire idea of what we call civilization.  Of course, the fact that so many people want to assert their individual and “absolute” rights in so many areas suggests that civilization may itself be endangered. Take the idea of absolute property rights.  We do not allow individuals totally unfettered rights to property. A business or individual cannot dump whatever trash and toxic chemicals he wants into the river or stream that flows through his property.  As a society, we recognize, at least in theory, that many individual actions can adversely affect or kill others, and we attempt to restrict such actions because it is all too clear that there are too many individuals who will not restrict their actions for one reason or another. Now… one can complain that there aren’t enough restrictions or that there are too many or those that exist are too onerous, but the fact that some restrictions are necessary for any society to survive has been proven, as the founding fathers put it, “self-evident.”

 In the end, anyone who declares that he or she has any “absolute” right is merely declaring that their “rights” transcend the rights of others.  “Your right” to free speech through four hundred decibel speakers denies your neighbors right to a decent night’s sleep.  Your right to dispose of your wastes any way you want fouls the stream and denies those downstream equal rights to clean water.  Your right to smoke in close quarters endangers someone else’s health.

 Anyone who claims an inviolable absolute right either doesn’t understand the requirements of a civilized society… or puts what they think are their “inviolable rights” above everyone else’s inviolable rights.  Either way, it’s dangerous for the rest of us, not to mention being a form of narcissistic denial of reality.

22 thoughts on “Absolute Rights?”

  1. Kathryn says:

    That’s pretty much spot-on, Mr Modesitt. Even over the pond with our weird ideas, I completely agree with you.

    No freedom or right is “absolute”. Freedoms and rights come with responsibilities and consequences. You are responsible for what you say, do and so on. So with the right to bear arms, you are responsible for your firearm(s) – for storing them safely, for using them for legitimate purposes, etc., etc. If you cannot use your firearms responsibly, you should not be allowed to have them, as that lack of responsibility makes you dangerous to yourself and others.

  2. Robert The Addled says:

    I also agree whole-heartedly.

    Most of the ‘absolute’ people I’ve ever met on ANY SUBJECT have serious blind spots in their logic.

    And, unfortunately, like in your paragraph above – it usually comes down to their self-centeredness.

  3. jack says:

    Does that apply to “life”, one of the self evident truths? No absolutes on that one either, but then again like your liberal friends you find it acceptable to murder children. Your high-minded and well meaning ideas are all very well in your little walled garden. But do you ever think to even consider what other people believe and feel is right? But those who look down on the rest of us are always right and we are too stupid to understand what is for our own good. I’ve had about enough of your little diatribes, waiting for the gem in the rough is getting further and further apart. Wake up man! Other people have valid opinions. And your crusade to take away their rights and duties as citizens, and make them slaves to the state are unbelievable. I won’t be coming here any more.

  4. I’m sorry you can’t take the truth… as Jack Nicholson said, but while everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, not all opinions, yours included, are in fact equally valid. The idea that all opinions are equally valid is invalid.

    And I’m anything but a liberal. Just look at what I’ve said about economics and finance.

  5. Singh says:

    Mr Modesitt, you might be right about the nature of the laws surrounding and supporting American Civilization, but like the grays that you mention, most people develop a spirit of intention about the constitution rather than a strict interpretation of it declared by ‘scholars’.

    The right to bear arms has to do with declaring opposition to Royalty. Opposition to Royalty in all its sub forms, including the right to give one’s trust to authority as a choice and not as a requirement. The right to Trust, Mr Modesitt. The constitution is seen as a covenant between Authority and Citizens–the constitution is to be interpreted and regulated by both Citizens and Authority, not only Authority. The Supreme court is not a Citizen, it is a Authority recognized by Authority. A chain of Command.

    Why would people not have a right to be angry about the US Government making up its own interpretations and regulating its own laws? Where do the Citizens fit into this? Elections based on courted wealth? The spirit of the constitution is being violated by Authority, regardless of the interpretation of the ink, and it is being violated because some people cannot recognize that citizens have a choice in awarding their trust. The second amendment enforces that right.

    1. You’re absolutely [ironically]right, and absolutely wrong. The wealthy and gun-owning minority are the ones who are demanding the absolute unrestricted interpretation of the second amendment. Both the percentage of gun-owners [declining] and the poll numbers [often close to 90%]show that the majority of the people favor restrictions of some sort on gun ownership, not an absolute freedom to bear arms. Therefore, according to your logic, it is those who demand that absolute right be restricted who have the right to be angriest… and the polls are also showing that.

      1. Singh says:

        Mr Modesitt, voter turnout in the US presidential election last year was under 60 percent. Poll numbers can be varied using multiple question techniques designed for specific results. Polls can be conducted multiple times and only give the result of the ones that happened to agree with a specific agenda.

        The point I am making is that valid Authority in the context of America does not equate to that Valid Authority having the rights to award rights or takeaway rights. Why is this not a concern? Valid Authority in America is enforced by arms, yet that Valid Authority is not the enforcer of the constitution, the citizens are the enforcers of the constitution.

        How can the citizens enforce the constitution if they are not legally armed as citizens? Or do you believe that the US government should have a total monopoly on force? The patriot act, national security, drone strikes on civilians, on and on, and for the sake of avoiding few tragic deaths you would have all citizens become civilians? More people die in car crashes yet we do not say public transport is the answer.

        The US government is a misnomer, it is the US Valid Authority. This transformation of citizens as being the only legal government who vote in valid authority to simply civilian voters who vote in a valid Authority posing as a legal government is tragic. It is Monarchy, nothing else.

        1. I’m sorry, but your “opinion” is legal mumbo-jumbo. You’re entitled to it. That’s your privilege, but it has no legal standing and no legal precedents except in your mind… and perhaps in the minds of a minority of others. If your minority becomes a majority and changes the existing laws, then that view becomes the law of the land. And if you’ve read what I’ve written, I’ve made the point that we have enacted quite a number of restrictions on cars, without taking away the “right” to drive. The same argument holds for firearms.

      2. Paul says:

        Care to cite which polls you are referring to? Or are you following blindly what the MSM states? What was the actual question on the poll? What demographic was polled? Did they break out those who considered themselves liberal versus those who considered themselves conservatives? I’m looking at one where 95% want no further federal laws on gun control…and no, it’s not on the NRA website.

        Perhaps, instead of penalizing law-abiding citizens who are exercising their 2nd Amendment “right”, we should start licensing and taxing the entertainment industry (which would include authors) for each act of violence depicted. The more violence, the more it is taxed. Licensees should be renewed every 5 years and periodically reviewed, so that if an author or other entertainer starts writing (acting, etc) more violence into a book than as was their norm, then the licensing fee would be increased retroactively. Those violent acts portrayed which include the deaths/maiming of many people should be taxed heavily.

        I tend to notice that many progressives fail to understand the underlying reason for the 2nd Amendment and that to tax it out of a “common” persons reach, is not what the Founding Fathers envisioned. Confiscation is the eventual goal, no matter how hard they keep saying they won’t. There have been enough times they have been caught on camera and interviews stating that goal.

        “In the interview, Mr. Cuomo did not offer specifics about the measures he might propose, but, while discussing assault weapons, he said: “Confiscation could be an option. Mandatory sale to the state could be an option. Permitting could be an option — keep your gun but permit it.”

        Diane Feinstein on 60 Minutes, February 1995, “If I could have gotten 51 votes in the Senate of the United States for an outright ban, picking up every one of them . . . Mr. and Mrs. America, turn ’em all in, I would have done it. I could not do that. The votes weren’t here.”

        1. A whole host of polls show that, depending on wording and timing, 70%-92% of Americans favor background checks on all gun buyers, and even in hotbed gun owning states, such as Lousiana and north Carolina, more than 70% favor complete basckground checks and closing the Internet purchasing loopholes. Pretty much every poll shows a slight majority for more stringent restrictions on gun ownership in some form or another.

          1. Paul says:

            I could probably find as many other polls showing the exact opposite. Again, what were the demographics of those polled? Was it an online poll (and if you think they are a true representation, I have a bridge to sell)?

            I could even post an online poll asking if Navy personnel are/were all bloodthirsty baby killers…and depending on the website, get 90%+ saying yes. And no they aren’t but that’s just my opinion.

            We should not be holding law abiding citizens responsible for the actions of the criminal element. You are responsible for your safety, not the police. They have no duty to protect you or your family. Taxing firearms out of range of the common citizen is against what the Founders of our country had in mind.

          2. I’m sure you could, but after more than thirty years dealing with economics, politics, and government, I’m all too familiar with your approach: question every basis of everything with which you disagree; nit-pick everything to death; raise every doubt you can; and then cite the “spirit” of the long-dead Founding Fathers to justify your case, while ignoring their writings, and the structure which they created. This is always the approach used by someone whose case the facts and the law don’t support… and it’s an approach used equally by either the far right or the far left when facts don’t favor them. By the way the polls were not online polls, but those commissioning them ranged from moderate left to moderate right and all were, at least theoretically, demographically balanced.

  6. Jay Oyster says:

    “a narcissistic denial of reality”. . . That’s a perfect description of most of modern American culture and discourse. And I believe that that fact is turning me into a new political animal as a direct result. I am increasingly becoming a ‘militant pragmatist.’ It’s an odd thing to post on a blog entry by a fantasy author, especially as a reader of fantasy, but you know, its just not acceptable to deny reality. You can try to change it, or you can temporarily escape it, but if you simply deny what’s actually happening in the world, everything starts falling apart, and more and more people get hurt. The gun control debate has proven that the militant pragmatists among us are finally, FINALLY getting royally peeved by the absolutists.

  7. Rehcra says:

    Rights are absolute or they are corrupt… and corruption has a tendency to spread. Your statement about rights is valid and more logically based then the other side but it is blind(more like in need of glasses) to others passions, funny that I am calling you on this when the other side seems actually blind :). You say the world is not black and white but made up of grays. Yet, gray comes from black and white. Illogically defending ones rights is essential to maintaining them… because if one allows corruption then it might spread. So it is wrong for rights not to be absolute. You look at it more as cost of guns on society versus reward and yet the other side looks at it as more of our rights before versus our rights after. Just because you are right does not makes others wrong. It’s all in the way you focus.

    p.s. All opinions are equally valid whether they are equally factual, logical, or statistically.

    2 apples are better then three
    4 apples are better then three or 2

    They’re opinions, there is no right or wrong.


  8. Only if you define an opinion as an expression of value. An opinion that gravity/Einstein’s relativity/mass does not exist is wrong.

    I’m not blind to others’ passions; at times I’m scared stiff of the depth and hatred behind them. I understand their passions, and most political passions are based far more on fear than understanding. The fact that more than 30% of Americans believe that Barrack Obama is a Muslim may be their opinion… but it’s wrong and based of their fears of what they think he is, not what he is.

  9. WBest says:

    As one of my teachers stated in high school – “You have all kinds of absolute rights – but they stop at the other guys nose…”

  10. R. Hamilton says:

    What I think is needed is not more authoritarian restrictions on rights, but a restoration of the notion of values as integral to civics – not the doctrine of any particular group, but the basic principles, not the least of which is that every right implies the responsibility to not only defend it but to use it wisely.

  11. Paul says:

    Such as what you are doing here with your responses to anyone who disagrees with you.

    Don’t provide your reference, keep quoting that others just don’t know what they are talking about. Your site, your rules. Perhaps you spent way too much time with Government.

    From one Navy person to another:
    “Fair winds and following seas”

    Back to just reading your books once the prices become reasonable enough for me to purchase

    1. The polls are from ABC, CBS, CNN, Pew, Public Policy Polling, Gallup, USA Today. Today’s CBS/New York Times poll shows 54% in favor of stronger gun controls, and breaks it down demographically. Even the Rasmussen Report poll shows over 70% support for stronger background checks for gun purchasers. An April 26th
      Fox News poll found 82% of respondents were in favor of stronger background checks. When I said “host,” I meant host, and when figures from the The New York Times and Fox News agree, that does suggest that there is a public consensus on certain things. In return, I’ll point out that you’ve cited nothing and only attacked the basis of possible citations.

  12. R. Hamilton says:

    It all comes down to
    (1) the individual (some of which will be too defective to behave decently)
    (2) parents, relatives, trustworthy neighbors
    (3) private religious/community/civic institutions

    and way after that (due to subversion by unions) teachers, and even below that, the sort of regulations that presume that people must be restricted to PREVENT them from doing wrong (almost a presumption of guilt), and almost last (in part because of revolving door and reluctance to consistently apply capital punishment) enforcement.

    Not just the defectively amoral or those with actual malice, but also the stupid and careless, will result in needless injuries and fatalities. That would be true, if not quite in such an easily polarizable manner, even if firearms had never been invented.

    Hands and fists kill more than rifles, despite both serial killers and accidents. Drowning probably kills more than all deaths by privately owned firearms put together. Murder rates have actually been DECLINING even as the sheer number of firearms out there have been massively increasing. Widespread concealed carry reduces crime, at a lower cost in lives lost in accidents and suicides than those that would have been lost by those otherwise unable to deter or defend against violent crime.

    It’s simply not about reason, it’s all about power, and those that don’t want anyone able to stand in the way of their acquiring ever more. Those who would deny others the right to be armed are accomplices before-the-fact to tyrannical enemies of liberty, adhering to them and giving them aid and comfort.

    The left is evil, inasmuch as it’s more predisposed to creeping totalitarianism that the right; there is simply no room for debate on that score. That does not preclude the right or the libertarians from having their share of corrupt folks too.

  13. Frank says:

    I wonder what it is about the subject of gun control that seems to generate such passion.I know it is of concern to many that their “right” may be infringed/diminished/eroded, but even in view of that perspective, the response seems to be out of proportion to the issue. Those in favor of more/more effective gun control seem to see it as tautological…a “slam-dunk.” Those opposed react as if their infant children are being threatened. My comment is not assuming either side to be right or wrong, just that the tenor of the discussion immediately “blasts off” to emotional levels that either border irrational, or are darned close.

    I have noticed more level and controlled reactions to discussions of impending wars (armed incursions, police actions…whatever). So, why is this issue such a touch-point?

    I believe that at least part of the answer can be found in one of the “motivations” for wanting the right to bear arms, i.e., for protection against the government. Not protection against criminals, foreign enemies or animals, but as a source of protection against an oppressive government. This is not often stated out rightly; it is stated but not nearly as often as the other reasons, perhaps because it sounds too “rebellious” for polite society. But it is certainly a reason, and probably one of the few justifications for fighting to retain the “right” to assault type weapons.

    I think that this “reason” is not without merit or justification. I believe it to be somewhat impractical now, but was far more practical at the time of the constitution’s (and original 10 amendments) adoption, as the technology was at a level that owning a rifle privately was more “on par” with what a soldier had at their disposal. But, practical or not, an armed (and, in our case, heavily armed) civilian population is still more daunting to a would-be dictator that an unarmed one.

    So, if we admitted more openly that this was of primary concern, it may not make anyone agree with the “other side,” but…just maybe…it would help everyone understand what they were arguing about…which is a reasonable first step.

    Anyway, I was just thinking.

  14. I’d like to point out that I specifically made the point that I wasn’t supporting the idea of taking away all guns,but that “rights” weren’t absolute, including the rights under the second amendment, and you’d have thought that I was out to invade everyone’s home. So much passion about what I thought was an absolutely obvious point… which remains obvious — and accurate — despite all the vitriol thrown in my direction.

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