Grounding Our Right to Religious Freedom

Witherspoon InstitituteFrom Joshua Schulz at the Witherspoon Institute:

Our right to religious freedom is best grounded in the universal duty to seek ultimate truth, and not in human autonomy.

Do rights protect autonomy or duties? Answers to that question drive our current debate over religious freedom.

To say that rights protect autonomy is to understand rights as guarantors of the absolute freedom to define the meaning and purpose of one’s own life. One should have the “right” to devote one’s life to sculpting marshmallow chipmunks just as much as one should have the right to devote one’s life to curing cancer.

Indeed, many people favor this view of rights because of its supposed “value neutrality.” This view would have us respect other people’s freedoms by interfering with their lives as little as possible.

Of course, even if one thinks rights protect autonomy, no one is absolutely free to do whatever he wants. We all face natural limits like power and scarcity. For example, I am balding; I would like to have a full head of hair, but I am not free to have a full head of hair. I don’t have the power to grow hair. I am also limited by scarcity. I have only one head. If I were a robot, I might wear a different head every day, changing them out like wigs.

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