What governments do that is forbidden to all other entities is to use force to assert its will. An ethical government will use its power only defensively: to protect its borders, to protect the value of its currency, to protect the rights of innocents.
Human rights are not a gift from a loving god, nor are they a privilege granted by a benevolent government. Human rights are an invention of human intelligence, and exist for those who recognize and respect them. They are assumed by default at birth and are preserved by adherence to certain principles. (Children do not yet understand this, but can be taught. It is the responsibility of parents to provide a moral upbringing for their children. Some children are raised improperly, or never grow up, and some are mistreated, but in the absence of overwhelming evidence of neglect or abuse, children are the responsibility of their parents.)
Human rights are retained by those who respect them. When someone commits theft he shows a lack of respect for property, and society may justly require remuneration in the form of restitution or labor. When someone kidnaps or detains without just cause, he demonstrates a lack of respect for freedom, and society may justly deprive him of his freedom. When someone kills another maliciously or gratuitously, he makes clear that he has no respect for human life, and may well forfeit his own.
A free society will never deprive a person of his rights, but a just law may act in response when, by misbehavior, a person surrenders his rights. The principle is codified in our Constitution in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, each stating that no one shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.
ANY behavior which is not coercive or fraudulent would be permitted in a free society. As a Member of Congress, I will NEVER act in opposition to these principles.
The most awesome and dangerous power of the Congress is the authority to declare war. Having served in the United States Air Force, and having placed myself voluntarily under the discretion of the Congress and my Commander-in-Chief, I do not take this prospect lightly.
Waging war against an aggressor comes closest to looking like a conflict between respect for human rights and the needs of national survival, but any perceived conflict is fictitious. Whether the example is Dresden or Hiroshima, the question of civilian casualties must weigh heavily on the minds of military defenders. When an enemy uses hostages as shields against retaliation they are already lost. The aggressor always bears the moral burden of placing innocents in harm’s way. A free society has the right to defend itself. Collateral damage is certainly a tragedy, but it is not, in and of itself, a crime.
update 180424: Collateral damage is ALWAYS a crime, but whose crime remains a relevant question. No defender has a duty to die, so aggressors retain culpability for innocent losses.
Many mystics and statists insist that atheists and anarchists CAN’T believe in rights because we don’t recognize their respective alleged grantors. Nonsense! Just as Kepler and Copernicus could build a rigorous astronomy on the observations of astrologers, just as Lavoisier and Priestley could found modern chemistry on the bones of alchemy, we can abstract a rational theory of rights. (Ethics without religion is like astronomy without horoscopes.)
Rights are those expected reciprocal protocols of behavior — respect for person, property, prerogative, and precedence — that history has demonstrated lead to societies with the greatest degrees of liberty, security, prosperity, and longevity. It is proper to describe rights as being “violated” insofar as respect for rights is a reasonable expectation, and a breech of such an expectation would be contrary to the customs of that society. If you live in a civil society, you reasonably expect certain rights by virtue of that society’s existence.
Though calling them “rights” may have been an unfortunate misappellation. It seems to connote righteousness, moralism, and mysticism. But it’ll do.
I don’t know how I ever managed to type “ethical government” in the first place, but, recreating this file from notes, I had to rely on my “reportorial integrity” to get me through it.