In her recent essay “The New Dignity: Gnostic, Elitist, Self-Destructive Will-to-Power”, Roberta Green Ahmanson highlighted “a rapid and radical transformation in our culture’s understanding of what it means to be human, and, in particular, what it means to have dignity”. This transformation can also be highlighted by looking in particular at what it means to have rights.
To do this we first need to recognise the difference between natural and legal rights.
Given that the human person is endowed with certain properties and potentials, there are certain things it would be wrong to prevent a person from doing. As a human person, John exists as the kind of thing which has a natural potential to drink water. This means the word “right” is slightly misleading: it is not that it is right to allow John to drink water, but that it is wrong not to allow him to. He needs nobody’s permission to drink, as his body itself gives him that potential.
What he might need, though, is protection from people wishing to prevent him from drinking. This protection can be provided only by the State, meaning human rights are legal protections of natural rights. Natural rights are therefore superior to human rights, and the State’s proper posture towards rights is to protect in law that which exists in our nature.
Now suppose one day John walks down the street and spies a parked Ferrari with doors unlocked and keys in the ignition. He drives off but is soon stopped by the police. When it is suggested to John that the Ferrari belongs to somebody else, he protests “No, no, this is not a car. This is water, and I have a right to access water. I know my rights!”
What should we make of John’s claim?
Leaving aside the small matter of theft, the point is that John has the right to access water only with respect to the nature of that thing which we signify through the word “water”. He cannot under the aegis of that word demand access to things which are not that thing. It can also be noted that we can be aware of human existence without being aware of the existence of rights, whereas we cannot be aware of rights without first being aware of human existence.
Despite being inseparable from his rights, we can say John-as-human is in some way prior to John-as-bearer-of-rights. As such, it is not quite true to say that stealing a Ferrari is the kind of thing John has no right to do. We should instead say that in being human John is the kind of thing which has no right to steal a Ferrari.
Rights and marriage
Likewise, John and Joan have the right to marry and to found a family: in relation to each other they have the natural potential to do those things which we signify through the words “marriage” and “family”. In being two women, Joan and Jane have the kind of relationship which has no right to do those things – their relationship has no natural potential to do them, meaning there is no potential for the State to protect. Were the State to contrive such a potential, the right could exist only in the form of a legal permission (which the State would then protect).
We can tell something has gone wrong by observing that the State cannot redefine legal marriage for some people whilst simultaneously retaining legal protection of the natural definition for others. We either have the natural definition embedded in law for everybody or an artificial definition created for everybody. If human rights are not legal protections of natural rights, John’s human right to marry turns out to be no more than a State-granted permission to access the word marriage and to then project onto that word his chosen meaning.
It follows that John can claim human rights only with respect to the nature of that thing which we signify through the word rights. And, prior to this, John can claim human rights only with respect to the nature of that thing which we signify through the word human. So, what does the State take that word to signify?
New rights for a new man?
There can be no such thing as “women’s human rights”; whilst every woman is a person, not all persons are women. Women have rights by virtue of being human, not by virtue of being women. The same is true of the mantra “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights”. People identifying as gay have the same rights as everybody else, namely those owed by virtue of being human. Human rights cannot be ghettoized. And yet, in April of this year Randy W. Berry took up the (newly-created) post of the US State Department’s Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons.
The State supposes that some people simply are transgender and are owed rights by virtue of that fact.
But this betrays a misunderstanding of what is meant by transgender, leading to a profound misunderstanding of what is meant by human.
Transgender does not signify something a person can physically be. Rather, it signifies a relationship between two identities – the physical (sex/body/fixed) and the legal (gender/mind/fluid). To say some people are transgender is to say some people are born, as it were, straddling the divide between nature and law, with one foot in each world. It is to say that human identity is half flesh, half law.
Thus the problem is not that human rights have been redefined. The root problem is a prior one: just as we cannot redefine legal marriage for some people only, so too we either have the natural definition of human embedded in law for everybody or an artificial definition created for everybody. Given that the State now regards some people to be transgender, the State does have an artificial definition for some people. Therefore it has an artificial definition for everybody.
The disappearance of natural rights
We cannot under the aegis of the word human validly demand access to identities which are not that thing, yet the State does now permit access to such identities. Man has been de-sexed in law, with our fundamental legal identity now consisting of a self-chosen state of mind, a gender identity, the concomitant effect of which is the redefinition of human rights: if we are “new men”, we are not owed old (natural) rights. The “rights” (permissions) owed to New Man are not limited by the nature of the body and instead exist in the form of innumerable legal permissions, fit for our unlimited imagination.
Indeed the artificial legal version of man must, like a virus, go on to infect the whole of the legal person. Legal recognition of authentic man is eaten away by the acid of gender identity. New Man is owed a new knowledge (where fact is opinion and opinion is fact) and, as Ahmanson shows, a new dignity, the form of which is not sculpted by the hand of God but is instead moulded by the endlessly shifting landscape of the human mind.
New Man also requires a new Language, in which words are deemed detachable from reality, and a new morality. This artificial morality trades under the name tolerance – a legal declaration that it is now wrong to say that something is wrong (legally imposed lawlessness).
Again, we are referring not to people having legal protection of concepts (such as dignity) but to each individual having State-granted permission to access mere words, and to choose for himself or herself personal meanings for them.
Each and every word becomes a kind of skeleton key, able to unlock the meaning of all other words. Equality means X for John but Y for Joan; dignity means this for Joan but that for Jane. With no shared sense of the meaning behind the word human, there can be no shared sense of any aspect existing “inside” that word. The word disintegrates.
But to suppose the State can create a New Man is akin to supposing sunglasses can create a new sun. Sunglasses are limited to being able to darken our view of the authentic sun. So it is when we redefine the legal meaning of human: we legally darken all aspects of authentic man. There can be no new sun. There can be no new man. The State cannot detach from us our authentic dignity, and is instead limited to being able to hide that dignity.
In law, the word dignity becomes a cipher behind which is only a void. Likewise, the State is incapable of bringing into law new human identities such as a John who can become a Joan, or a Joan who can marry a Jane.
But the State can eject from law all recognition of natural identities. It can and it has. In doing so it claims to have dissolved the category of sexual difference, necessitating both a renunciation of the natural family and the full de-regulation of sexual activity.
The State has bet against authentic man, with LGBTI human rights the mechanism through which protection of natural rights is to be erased from the legal system. The choice is not whether to have legal permissions for some or legal protections for all. No, it is whether to have legal protections for all or legal permissions for all.
If the State gets to decide what kind of thing a human is, it also gets to decide what kind of thing it is within our nature to do. Who knows, perhaps it will decide John is the kind of thing which does indeed have the right to steal a Ferrari?
Daniel Moody is a philosopher from Dorset, England. This article was first published on his blog, Gentlemind.