What are unalienable rights? Surely, noone actually has these rights, correct?

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...

  • Can you explain your second question? Have you consulted a dictionary to verify the meaning of "unalienable?" Then, what is your premise for questioning whether anyone "actually has these rights?"
    – feetwet
    Nov 3, 2015 at 1:04
  • A person obviously can be jailed, America incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other developed country on the planet. Jailed = Loss of Liberty. A person can be killed, e.g. death penalty. Killed = Loss of Life. So, unalienable rights do not actually exist. I spelled out the conclusion that noone has unalienable rights to excite interest and valuable responses. I would love to hear your thoughts. Have you concluded that unalienable rights are poppycock as well? Nov 3, 2015 at 2:23
  • From first principles: Your rights end when you infringe the rights of another.
    – feetwet
    Nov 3, 2015 at 3:52
  • That's my experience as well, namely, that there is no such thing as unalienable rights. Nov 3, 2015 at 3:55
  • That's a silly semantic argument. Logically, nobody has any rights if everyone has the right to infringe the rights of others. So to avoid that trivial contradiction there's an implied caveat in statements like the one you quote (a nuance so obvious that nobody considered it worth elaborating): We are endowed with inalienable rights, and no one should deprive of us those, except that if we don't respect that premise then we should not expect to enjoy those rights.
    – feetwet
    Nov 3, 2015 at 4:24

2 Answers 2


In theory, these rights are granted to US citizens by the Constitution and its amendments. As to whether or not US citizens actually have these rights, Constitutional scholars can and will argue back and forth on that without making a real decision, partly due to the non-specific nature of the rights described in your quote.

It's important to note that the quote you provided is actually from the US Declaration of Independence, which declared that the 13 colonies were no longer going to be British colonies, but rather their own separate nation (keep in mind that from a British perspective, this was treason).

The actual rights that US citizens possess are granted primarily by the US Constitution and its amendments (especially the first ten, also known as the Bill of Rights). This forms the basic foundation for our governmental system, on which all other parts of it are built. While many people feel that the wording of the Declaration of Independence should be used to help interpret the Constitution, there's nothing in the Constitution that formally states that. Historically, it's also important to recognize that the current Constitution is not the original one - the first document formalizing the federal government of the US was the Articles of Confederation, which was the law of the land for over a decade before being superseded.

  • 3
    "In theory, these rights are granted to US citizens by the Constitution and its amendments. " They are exactly not granted by the constitution and its amendments, they are self evident and unalienable. If these rights were granted, and worse yet, only granted to US citizens, that would be a direct contradiction to "unalienable and self evident".
    – gnasher729
    Nov 2, 2015 at 21:28
  • @gnasher729 if you'd like to find an example of a court case where a person successfully won due to claiming the rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, I'd be happy to update my answer. However, to the best of my knowledge, the Declaration of Independence is not considered a legal precedent or the foundation of any rights in our country. Nov 2, 2015 at 21:32
  • @soong Nevertheless, the Constitution is also generally written as though they were preexisting rights, and American legal philosophy is that they're preexisting rights. That's the whole idea behind the Ninth Amendment; one of the main arguments against the Bill of Rights is that the government already had no power to infringe them, but the BoR would suggest they were granted by the government.
    – cpast
    Nov 3, 2015 at 3:21

Actually, unalienable rights are not granted but are self-evident. Therefore, the formative documents of the US sovereign state attempt to lay out those rights which are belayed and appropriated to the State, rather than to lay out those rights which are reserved to the individual. The State takes certain rights, as enumerated in the origin documents, and makes no statement nor opinion as to any other rights as may exist (or not.)

  • Unalienable rights are not self-evident. "Conditional Rights" are self evident to most people. The Declaration of Independence was a preamble to war waged by revolutionaries. Mar 26 at 5:11

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