Freedom – a right, not a privilege

Freedom – a right, not a privilege

Religious freedom – we study it carefully, as befits a "laboratory". But we also protect it by taking initiatives to counteract crime against freedom of conscience and religion as well as any discrimination based on religious affiliation. Why? Because freedom is not a privilege, arbitrarily granted and subject to limitations, but a right that belongs to everyone by the very fact of being human.

The source of freedom lies in human dignity, which is recognized as an ontic value, that is, innate, permanent and inalienable, proper to every human being, regardless of what he does and how he acts. As it was included in Art. 30 of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland, “the inherent and inalienable dignity of a human being is the source of human and civil freedom and rights. It is inviolable and its respect and protection is the responsibility of public authorities.” Although we intuitively understand what dignity is, it is difficult to define it precisely. It can be considered a special value of a human being as an individual living in union with others; it is also about self-esteem and respect for oneself and the group with which the individual identifies. Thus understood, personal dignity implies a sense of inner freedom, self-determination (subjectivity) and responsibility, but also the requirement to respect oneself and other people[1].

As such, it is the source and measure of all human rights[2]. Human rights is another self-explanatory term that is commonly used and intuitively understood, with more meanings than you might think. Initially, it was referred to the so-called natural laws, that is, innate, arising from human nature, but also resulting from the objectively existing order of nature. Over time, it incorporated social and political meanings. In general, we recognize human rights as certain standards of general human dignity associated with the dignity of each person (and setting out the minimum conditions necessary for living in dignity), and therefore universal, inviolable and inalienable. This means that they are appropriate to every human being, regardless of, for example, race, gender or age. Nobody broadcasts them, and thus nobody has the right to take them away.

The origins of the concept of human rights can be traced back to antiquity. The Greek Sophists and Stoics proclaimed the natural freedom and equality of people, and the supremacy of natural laws over statutes. This idea was commented on and developed in later epochs – in the spirit of theocentrism in the Middle Ages (e.g. in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas) or in the trend of Renaissance anthropocentrism emphasizing individual rights. However, it was not until the Age of Enlightenment that laid the outline of today's understanding of human rights. According to this liberal concept, each individual is subject to the catalog of natural rights – freedom, equality, property. The individual's freedom is limited only by the freedoms of others and the interests of the community, while the rights and freedoms of the individual determine the scope of state power[3].

In the development of the contemporary understanding of human rights, successive generations of rights can be distinguished. The first one covers civil and political rights and freedoms specified in Enlightenment documents such as the American Declaration of Independence, the French Universal Declaration of Human and Citizen's Rights or the oldest national constitutions. These include in particular: personal freedoms related to the protection of personal inviolability and freedom of conscience and religion, political – related to the freedom of expression, as well as the right to property. In the nineteenth century, they were extended to include social, economic and cultural rights that provide an individual with physical and spiritual development and social security – they are included in the rights of the second generation. On the other hand, the rights belonging to the third generation are collectively referred to as solidarity, and they include the right to peace, development, preservation of the environment, communication, the common heritage of humanity and the right to humanitarian aid. In recent years, there has been talk of fourth-generation human rights, the scope of which still seems fairly fluid. Nowadays, human rights are perceived as an integral whole, because – as John Paul II emphasizes – "recognizing and supporting one right or only a certain category of it harms the entirety of human rights and is a betrayal of the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights"[4].

How do human rights relate to statutory law, including state and international legal norms? Their inherent, inalienable and inviolable character determines that they are entitled to people regardless of statutory law, and even regardless of any human actions. This means that they are pre-state, supra-state, and also supra-positive (they apply regardless of human will and have priority over human-made law). At the same time, the duty of statutory law is to protect these inherent freedoms, and it is up to state authorities to provide citizens with conditions in which their fundamental rights will be respected:

public authorities have a duty not only to respect human dignity, but also to protect it. They must react in all situations when dignity is violated or limited.[5]

In this case, the intervention of the Ombudsman or the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg can be requested. Human dignity and freedom, as values enshrined in the Constitution, may also become the subject of a complaint to the Constitutional Tribunal. Thus, human rights can be treated as a certain measure against which the actions of obliged entities (mainly the state) and a tool for controlling state authorities (e.g. in the field of freedom of the media, assemblies or associations) are assessed.

In the post-war period, human rights became the benchmark for a new global ethos. In this ethos, the fact of the universality of human rights is of additional importance. Since the right to life or bodily integrity, as well as freedom of conscience, religion or speech belong to every human being, they testify to the equality of all people before the law and require the elimination of all forms of discrimination. Nowadays, further changes are taking place in the understanding of human rights themselves. Currently, they are more and more often considered from the perspective of an individual, focused on the private life of individuals. Human dignity ceases to be the supreme value and becomes freedom understood absolutely as an unlimited freedom of self-determination. In such an approach, the will of the individual gains priority over moral norms or the general good, which in the long run may have disastrous consequences for society. Social groups that do not have their own strong voice or an appropriately expressive representation and are not able to effectively defend their freedom on their own are particularly at risk: children (including the unborn), seriously ill and elderly people, or people with low financial status.

Until now, human rights were not aimed at satisfying personal needs, but protecting the values of human dignity. Today, in the age of emphasis on isolated subjectivity, devoid of social references, dignity is more and more often mistakenly equated with autonomy. In fact, although these two qualities are related, it is impossible to reduce dignity to radical self-determination. As Mirosław Sadowski writes,

although the concept of human dignity is the essence of the individual consciousness of a person called to develop personality – and it would seem – equivalent to the idea of dignity, universal freedom of individual individuals, the concept of human dignity has gained precedence over the idea of unlimited freedom of the individual, even in relation to himself.[6]

All the more so as concern for the individual interests of an individual and forcing personal postulates without considering the costs borne by the whole society may only seem to be seen as acting in defense of dignity. For, as mentioned at the very beginning, it by its very nature assumes that man is a social being, living in union with others. This means that the condition for living in dignity is respecting the dignity of others, which makes one co-responsible for the rest of the world.

We have affirmed that freedom is a right, not a privilege, because it needs no grant from anyone and belongs to everyone. We used to associate a privilege with special considerations enjoyed by the person endowed with it. Freedom, as a universal value, is enjoyed by everyone without exception and on the same principles. Moreover, it is much closer to a commitment than a privilege, because it imposes on us the imperative of caring for another human being and respecting his rights and freedoms. Therefore, each of us faces a great task – to build a culture of freedom.


The Laboratory of Religious Freedom team



[1] J. J. Mrozek, Godność osoby ludzkiej jako źródło praw człowieka i obywatela, „Civitas et Lex” 2014, No. 1, p. 43.

[2] The Ombudsman's Commentary to Art. 30 of the Polish Constitution,, accessed on July 23, 2020.

[3] See. J. Wroceński, Godność osoby ludzkiej podstawą prawa do wolności religijnej, „Prawo Kanoniczne” 2016, vol. 59, no. 3, pp. 4-5.

[4] Speech of July 4, 1998 to the participants of the World Congress on the Pastoral Care of Human Rights,, accessed on July 23, 2020.

[5] J. Wroceński, op. cit., p. 16.

[6] M. Sadowski, Godność człowieka – aksjologiczna podstawa państwa i prawa, „Studia Erasmiana Wratislaviensia” 2007, pp. 26-27.



Autor: Laboratorium Wolności
Date: 6 August 2020
Financed from the means of the Justice Fund, administered by the Minister of Justice.
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