Guest columnist Richard S. Bogartz: ‘Certain inalienable rights’


Published: 09-06-2023 7:18 PM

On July 4, 1776, the 13 United States of America unanimously declared that “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.”

Reading this, I wondered what inalienable rights I’d want for everyone but coerce upon no one. My first approximation follows, without lots of attention to the problem areas they raise. Brace yourself.

I. The right to life. No person’s life may be taken by another person or group for any reason. Capital punishment is abolished. War is abolished. Action to save life shall take priority over other action.

II. The right to healthy food, comfortable shelter, nonprofit medicine that heals rather than hooks whenever possible, and the right to terminate the growth of anything that is growing in or on my body. (Possible conflict with first right.) All of these shall be available to any citizen at no cost, and will be financed, in part, by the abolition of war in the first right.

III. The right to absolute personal secrecy. No person or group may demand I reveal my thoughts or coerce me into doing so. “Person or group” includes but is not limited to judges, the FBI, CIA, NSA, etc., teachers, principals, landlords, employers, the military. Everyone.

IV. The right to absolute personal transparency. No person, group, government, or agency thereof may compel me to conceal my thoughts. I have the right to tell or show others what I know or believe, and the interests of employers, corporations, the military, or any other hierarchy, organization, group, individual, or abstraction such as national security, the quarterly bottom line, stakeholders, etc. shall never justify depriving me of my transparency. This fourth right may be viewed as the unlimited extension in all domains of the right to freedom of speech.

V. The right to void the mind. This right is to protect persons who for any reason seek to stop their mental chatter and to rest in stillness. This right would be supported by public quiet zones and noise impact regulations.

VI. The absolute right to unfettered mutually consenting interpersonal interaction. This right shall protect interaction for fun and enjoyment, for denouncing government, for scheming, plotting, and conspiring, for dancing and ping pong, and whatever else folks feel like doing together so long as unwanted acts that affect others are not committed.

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VII. The right to be left alone. This applies to all forms of intrusion, including but not limited to phone calls, uninvited mail, and uninvited visits from people I do not know, but does not include a friendly wave or hello from a stranger outdoors.

VIII. The right to intimacy, companionship and choice. I should be able to decide who I hang out with, and so should my kids. And children should have the right to choose regarding whether to continue with their parents or seek different accommodations.

IX. The right to control your personal appearance so that it represents yourself in any way you choose. In all circumstances, for people of all ages, the wearing of uniforms shall be voluntary.

X. The right of everyone, but especially children, to be taught or guided to: kindness, compassion, and the care of others; honesty; the unity of humanity; the unity of existence; critical thinking; logic and mathematics; the arts; physical fitness including exercise and diet considerations; and the here-and-now, immaterial nature of happiness.

My list is of course incomplete. And I would be surprised if any of my rights would go unchallenged if 20 people sat down to discuss them. Also, the subject of property is difficult, and I have postponed grappling with it. Thomas Jefferson replaced “property” in the “life, liberty, and property” phrase by George Mason and John Locke with “the pursuit of happiness” as a slap at slavery. I tag along with Jefferson because I like the slap and because I don’t know how to handle property. Yet. I’m hopeful that people learning about the here-and-now, immaterial nature of happiness in the 10th right will understand how fruitless pursuit of happiness is.

What of all the subtleties concerning damaging someone with speech? Would libel and slander still exist? Perhaps education in honesty will help. What if the truth damages someone? Can one really be damaged by another’s expression of their belief, much less by the truth? This discussion requires deep inquiry into the self and its invulnerability.

Richard S. Bogartz is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.