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Inalienable Rights

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Inalienable Rights

Tomas Jefferson set forth a fundamental principle upon which democratic government is founded. Governments in a democracy do not grant the fundamental freedoms enumerated by Jefferson; governments are created to protect those freedoms that every individual possesses by virtue of his or her existence.

In their formulation by the Enlightenment philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries, inalienable rights are God-given natural rights. These rights are destroyed when civil society is created, and neither society nor government can remove or “alienate” them.

Inalienable rights include freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of assembly and the right to equal protection. Since they exist independently of government, these rights cannot be legislated away, nor are they subject to the momentary whim of an electoral majority. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution for example, does not give freedom of religion or of the press to the people; it prohibits the Congress from passing any law interfering with freedom of speech, religion and peaceful assembly. A historian, Leonard Levy, has said, “Individuals may be free when their government is not”.


Freedom of speech and expression is the lifeblood of any democracy. To debate and vote, to assemble and protest, to worship, to ensure all these people rely upon the unrestricted flow of speech and information. Citizens of a democracy live with the conviction that through the open exchange of ideas and opinions, truth will eventually win out over falsehood, the values of others will be better understood, areas of compromise more clearly defined, and the path of progress opened. The greater the volume of such exchanges, the better.

The corollary to freedom of speech is the right of the people to assemble and peacefully demand that the government hears their grievances. Without this right to gather and be heard, freedom of speech would be devalued. For this reason, freedom of speech is considered closely linked to, if not inseparable from, the right to gather, protest and demand change. Democratic governments can legitimately regulate the time and place of political rallies and marches to maintain the peace, but they cannot use that authority to suppress protest or to prevent dissident groups from making their voices heard.

Freedom and Faith

Freedom of religion, or more broadly freedom of conscience means that no person should be require to profess any religion or other belief against his or her desires. Additionally, no one should be punished or penalized in any way because he or she chooses one religion over another or, indeed, opts for no religion at all. The democratic state recognizes that a person’s religious faith is a profoundly personal matter.

Citizenship: Rights and Responsibilities

Democracies rest upon the principle that government exists to serve the people; the people do not exist to serve the government. In other words, the people are citizens of the democratic state, not its subjects. While the state protects the rights of its citizens, in return, the citizens give the state their loyalty. But rights, like individuals, do not function in isolation. Rights are not the private possession of individuals, but exist only insofar as they are recognized by other citizens of the society. The electorate, as the American philosopher Sidney Hook expressed it, is “the ultimate custodian of its own Freedom”. From this perspective, democratic government, which is elected by and accountable to its citizens, is not the antagonist of individual rights, but their protector. It is to enhance their rights that citizens in a democracy undertake their civic obligations and responsibilities.

The essence of democratic action is the active, freely chosen participation of its citizens in the public life of their community and nation. Without this broad, sustaining participation, democracy will begin to wither and become the preserve of a small, select number of groups and organizations.

Democracy, Diane Ravitch writes, “it’s a process, a way of living and working together. It is evolutionary, not static. It requires cooperation, compromise and tolerance among all citizens. Making it work is hard, nor easy. Freedom means responsibility, not freedom from responsibility”.

Democracy embodies ideals of freedom and self-expression, but it is also clear-eyed about human nature. It does not demand that citizens be universally virtuous, only that they will be responsible. As American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr said: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary”.


1 Give Ukrainian equivalents for the following words and expressions.

Fundamental, Enlightenment, inalienable right, conscience, to legislate away, whim, Amendment, lifeblood, conviction, falsehood, grievance, insofar, custodian, to wither, theologian.


2 Translate words and word combinations from Ukrainian into English and use them in your own sentences.

Надавати, громадянське суспільство, забороняти, приймати закон, наслідок, дисидент, свобода совісті, доброчесний.

3 Complete the sentences.

1. Rights are not ...

2. Governments in a democracy ...

3. The First Amendment ...

4. Democratic governments can ...

5. Democracy embodies ...

6. Freedom of religion ...

7. These rights are destroyed ...

8. Citizens of a democracy ...

9. Without this right ...

10. The essence of democratic action ...


4 Comprehension questions.

1. What fundamental principle is democratic government founded upon?

2. Can you give examples of inalienable rights?

3. What is the essence of democratic action?

4. What does freedom of speech mean?

5. Does democratic state recognize parson’s religious faith?

6. Are people subjects of the state?

7. What does freedom of religion mean?

8. How do rights function?

9. How is government elected?

10. What is the essence of democratic action?

11. When will democracy wither?

12. What does democracy embody?

13. Does government grant fundamental freedoms?

14. What do philosophers of Enlightenment think about rights?

15. What do inalienable rights include?

16. Can natural rights be alienated?

17. What does the 1st Amendment say?

18. What is the lifeblood of democracy?

19. Do you agree that freedom means responsibility, not freedom from responsibility?

20. Can government use its authority to suppress dissident groups?

21. What are the principles of democracy?

Project Work. Study the text below. Complete the assignment on human rights after the text. (You may need to use additional resources like books on human rights and Internet).

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