The bedrock of this nation's conception of justice has been summed up with Jefferson's beautiful phrase
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
But our nation has changed greatly over the past 236 years. Among those changes is the nation's lack of faith in Jefferson's Creator. Now, I will not condemn that change, for as an agnostic I too hold doubts of any such Creator existing. Any honest person will note, however, without the Creator, the source of our endowment becomes unclear, raising the question: are we endowed with any such rights at all?
I have been sifting through the works of various philosophers of positive and natural law in search of a solid footing on which such rights might rest, but the search has largely been in vain. A ridiculous amount of verbiage is spent to create ludicrously few solid concepts, but this much I see:
There is no natural law or natural rights in the sense that "Good" requires those laws to be and anything in contradiction is not actually law. "Good" itself has no objective existence. Positive laws, those that are actually imposed by men on other men, do exist, no matter how poorly expressed or even insane they may be. Laws are judged not in objective abstract terms of how will they coincide with the philosophical concept of law but in whether it aligns with one's political philosophy. As atrocious as it seems to me, Nazi law was in fact a legal system in that it allowed those subscribing to Nazi ideology to fulfill their goals. We may condemn those ideologies and their attendant jurisprudence, but we cannot point to a Higher Power that condemns them. If God is dead, so is the Devil; there will be no retribution on evil men who live out long and happy lives.
This fact has driven philosophers I otherwise respect into flights of fancy. Friedrich Hayek, for example, condemns positive law as the rule of those who make the rules rather than dispassionate, impersonal law. Hayek (and my) political philosophy may very well depend on limiting the power of those making the laws, but all of the rules ever written to that effect are in vain if nobody is there to enforce them. In any democracy, it is easy to bribe a segment of the populace by promising the redistribution of the wealth of another segment's. Those of us who see this as both morally wrong and economically harmful to most of us (even many in the bribed party) face Plato's daunting task of convincing the tyrant with the ring of Gyges that he personally would be better off doing good, even in comparison to doing evil with absolute impunity.
Plato did not have a particularly good answer. Neither the Myth of Er nor the Creator have much sway these days and pushing them would be a pathetic Nobel Lie. I believe respecting the life, liberty, and property of all citizens it he only way to preventing our government from being an organ of theft and corruption to benefit whichever party currently occupies the Capitol. But so long as some citizens are willing to be bribed with the wealth and happiness of others while most remain ignorant and apathetic, those on the throne making our laws will reap the benefits of Gyges' ring. All appeals to natural law will fail, as those corrupt governors are following the natural law of their ideologies. The only appeal that will demand their attention is the use of force.