December 7, 2005
Natural Rights: Darwin vs. God

By Carlos Alberto Montaner

Evolution or creationism? That's the polemic bitterly dividing the intelligentsia once again.

The neo-Darwinians opine that it is not possible to see the mark of God in the evolution of living beings. There is no scientific proof of His divine hand. Changes occur without the guidance of an ethical criterion.

Creationists, however, insist that it is not possible to explain the immense complexity of life without the intervention of a superior being. Further, they believe that human beings have a profound moral sense that can be explained only by the existence of God. It is even propounded that there is a gene that predisposes humans to seek God.

In principle, this appears to be a harmless intellectual debate, where science and theology weave and blur. But, in fact, the controversy affects the very roots of Western civilization and, in the long run, can have tremendous consequences on a political level.

The whole philosophical and juridical structure that supports liberal democracy hinges on the existence of a superior being from whom emanate the ''natural rights'' that protect individuals from the actions of the state or from the will of other people. If the premise of God's existence disappears, the theory of the existence of natural rights is automatically eliminated and the door is flung open to all kinds of abuses.

To Zeno, a Jew and founder of stoicism in the fourth century, is attributed the first formulation of the theory of natural rights. Zeno and his followers posited something novel and revolutionary: Human beings, because of their unique nature, possess some rights that came not from ethnic grouping or city structure but from the gods.

Those rights predated the existence of the tribe and the state so they couldn't be suppressed by tribal leaders or the city's political authorities, because the rights hadn't been granted by them.

The Stoics' approach allowed for the existence of an essential equality among people and established the qualitative difference that separated them from the other creatures. People were gifted with the ability to reason. They could distinguish good from evil, as if a supernatural force had aimed their conscience in the direction of ethical judgment.

It was not true, as Aristotle advocated, that ''natural slaves'' existed or that women and foreigners (then called ''barbarians'') were inferior. That's why when Christianity centuries later adopted the philosophical legacy of the Stoics, it opened its arms to all races, nationalities, social classes and both sexes. ''Catholic'' means universal.

In the late 17th century, English philosopher John Locke, along with others, reprised the argument of natural rights and laid the foundations for liberal democracy: Neither the king nor parliament can legislate against liberty and the right to life and property. Locke inspired England's Bill of Rights and established the principles that 100 years later would lead to the founding of the United States and the drafting by the French of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

It's just that simple. If there are no natural rights, it may be acceptable to enslave prisoners, discriminate against women and execrate foreigners or homosexuals. All that's required is a decision by a legitimate source of power, such as a majority in numbers, for instance, or a group of notable and petulant wise men.

Another example: Marxism, which denied the existence of natural rights, felt authorized, in the name of the working class, to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat, to deprive millions of people of their property and to execute and imprison millions of others because they were ``class enemies.''

Nazism, which also did not believe in natural rights, exterminated six million Jews and one million Gypsies and other minorities because there was no moral or philosophical impediment to curb it.

Of course, nobody -- much less this agnostic -- can state with total certainty that God exists. Nobody can assert the opposite, either. What's indisputable is that if liberty and tolerance exist in the West, it's because we have built dams -- call them natural rights -- capable of holding back barbarism. To blow them up is to leap into the abyss.

2005 Firmas Press

Carlos Alberto Montaner

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