While I entirely agree with Roger McGrath’s contention in his essay in defense of gun rights (“A God-Given Natural Right,” Views, October 2003) that “an armed citizenry is essential to the preservation of freedom and democracy,” I do not agree that “the Second Amendment, like the First, recognizes a God-given, natural right of the people” to keep and bear arms.  Rather, it codified an ancestral and customary right that belonged to Americans by virtue of their colonial charters and former status as British subjects.  Americans have a constitutional right to gun ownership, just as they have a constitutional right to vote.  They have no natural right to these, however, as no such right exists.

Burke denounced “the rights of man” as a “metaphysical doctrine” that “exposed the sure inheritance” of his countrymen to the winds of philosophic speculation.  He much preferred to speak of “the rights of Englishmen” and the rights of “civil social man,” which are “to be settled by convention.”  “As liberties and restrictions vary with time and circumstances and admit to infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule.”

The Christian writer Simone Weil believed that the doctrine of natural rights originated with pagan Rome, was “alien to the Greek mind,” faded during the Christian Middle Ages, and was sadly revived by the materialist French Enlightenment.  According to her, both Greeks and Christians were content with the concept of justice.  How true her insight that invocations of one’s rights “evoke a latent war and awaken the spirit of contention,” destroying the possibility of charity and consensus.

To demand one’s absolute rights is to stand with Robespierre and his modern heirs.  Loyal sons of the West, such as Dr. McGrath, should not make this same error.

        —H.A. Scott Trask
Chesterfield, MO

I entirely agree with the moral substance of Dr. McGrath’s spirited defense of the right to bear arms.  He makes the important point—often missed in the debate over gun control—that the right to bear arms is not granted by government but is assumed by the Constitution to be pre-existent.  The Constitution merely prohibits government from “infringing” the right.  A dissonance in thought occurs, however, when Dr. McGrath goes on to call this a “God-given natural right.”  The ancient Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, and the med-ievals had no language for the Enlightenment concept of natural rights.  The modern idea of natural rights is the idea of abstract rights enjoyed independent of historic experience in political society.  Indeed, political society is said to be instituted to protect these abstract rights.  This, however, is to get things backward.  Rights exist because they serve the human good.  We learn what rights there are and ought to be through seeking to live out a good and noble human life in political society with others.  There are no rights independent of our experience.  Dr. McGrath includes freedom of the press as one of those natural rights that is not to be compromised by political society.  The right to a free press, however, cannot be conceived independent of political society.  There can be no free press without the invention of the press, and that necessarily takes place in political society.  A free press, like free speech, is not a timeless abstract natural right but a good that has been learned and tested through experience in political society—and a certain kind of political society at that.  For example, the right of free speech becomes important only in a literate society that values an ethic of individualism and the public expression of thought, and where such expression can be dangerous to authority.  In a simple tribal society where few people have anything of importance to say, the “infringement” of free speech would not be thought of, and the need for the right would not exist.

This is not a philosophical quibble.  To declare an abstract right as a God-given absolute (meaning, of course, Nature’s God, not the God of the Bible) cuts off all inquiry into the concrete reasons for the right, preventing us from having a connoisseur’s grasp of why the right is necessary and from mounting a persuasive defense of it grounded in experience.

        —Donald W. Livingston
Atlanta, GA

Dr. McGrath Replies:

Scott Trask and Don Livingston are civilized and learned gentlemen in the great Western tradition.  I share in that tradition and appreciate the debt we owe to the Church in the Middle Ages and to ancient Greece and Rome.  However, I have a bit of the barbarian left in me.  For my ancestral folks, the Disaster of the Allia was no disaster.  The lads had a good day.  This is probably why, long ago, I was seduced by the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence and believe that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We can argue about John Locke, or Thomas Jefferson’s interpretation of Locke, or the Enlightenment in general, but I suspect that ultimately we will have to agree to disagree.  If the most basic of all rights—the right to life—is a creation of a political society and not the Creator, then all rights are simply artificial constructs of particular societies, times, and places.  The latter is certainly true for derivative rights, as delineated in the Bill of Rights, such as the right to legal counsel in a criminal prosecution, but the first ten amendments also recognize inherent rights, those unalienable rights, such as the right to bear arms, that “shall not be infringed.”  The right to bear arms is simply another way of saying that man has the right of self-defense.  This was not something that had to be learned in any kind of politically organized and sophisticated society.  The will to live, an instinct for survival, is basic to all living organisms.  This was around long before governments were organized.  Those Celtic tribesmen who crushed the Roman army at the Allia River had little government but lots of swords.  Every warrior understood that a fine blade was his birthright.  It was only when governments were established and became concerned with establishing a monopoly of force that warriors began to be disarmed.  The Founding Fathers understood this.

I suspect Trask and Livingston will join me in keeping our powder dry and our barrels swabbed.  Now—breathe, relax, aim, slack, squeeze.