We’ve got things all confused.
Moving now from history to philosophy, we approach the subject of rights. We might be tempted to think of rights as “non-economic,” but it would be more accurate to say that rights are “pre-economic”: they provide an indispensable foundation on which economic principles can then be built. That is why we pause this week to question their nature.
Nicolas Gomez-Davila wrote that “the dignity of man,” “the greatness of man,” and “the rights of man,” were but “verbal hemorrhages which the simple sight of our face in the morning as we shave should staunch.” In saying this, he was not denying human rights in principle, but rather condemning the unqualified and exaggerated sort of license which rights are so often used to justify: “It has become customary to proclaim rights in order to be able to violate duties,” he concluded.
He was correct, of course. Our culture is plagued by an entirely new form of “rights abuse”—new in the sense that, instead of denying rights, we go to the other extreme, seeing rights and nothing else. We don’t just acknowledge them—we emphasize them to the exclusion of every other moral imperative. Any sampling of our public discourse, from Obamacare to same-sex marriage to the Second Amendment, will confirm this unfortunate truth.
Further, as is usually the case when philosophical terms become political slogans, rights have lost their meaning as they have grown in popularity. Everybody means something different when they make their claims. In this environment, rights multiply out of control—as if to infinity—like a thousand little rhetorical rabbits. “Rights mania” combines with semantic breakdown, and we’re left with a perfect storm of political nonsense.
What, then, can we do?
As Catholics, the answer is quite simple. We can do what we should have been doing all along: We can look to the Church. As a non-Catholic friend of mine recently put it: “The world seems to sink more and more deeply into its intellectual forgetfulness that there is virtually no question, philosophical or theological, that the Catholic theologians have not addressed in depth and with lasting influence.” And so here, as everywhere, we need look no further than our tradition for sound principles.
On the subject of rights in particular we can find welcome solace inPacem in Terris (PT). This encyclical was issued by Pope John XXIII in April of 1963, and his explanation of this obscure subject is as straightforward as it is timely. He begins thus:
Here we see something strange: an insistence on “duty” as a thing inextricably linked with each and every right—a connection conspicuously absent from today’s dialogue. Even more surprising, the Pope speaks of such duties as if they are just as “inalienable” as the rights. What would happen, I wonder, if before anyone could demand consideration for an inalienable right they were required first to at least acknowledge the inalienable duty which was its corollary?
Indeed, such an idea is almost humorous considering the manner in which the debate usually unfolds. But John XXIII is insistent:
If this sounds like rigorism, it really isn’t. On the contrary, if men would tether their rights in this way to a stabilizing counterweight, they would find their dignity and freedom safer than ever before. We can see the truth of this as the encyclical draws out the consequences of its argument:
We see that a right is truly secure only when it embraces the corresponding duty. To neglect half the picture is to end up with a negation; or, in moral terms, a perversion. You destroy the whole thing: “Hence, to claim one’s rights and ignore one’s duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other.” (PT, 30)
These ideas are not new in the tradition of the Church. For St. Thomas Aquinas, rights were never something one claimed for oneself against a neighbor or the community. For Aquinas, rights were rooted in justice—as something owed to someone else. Your right is nothing more than the benefit derived from my duty, while my duty derived from divine law. Thomistic rights were always oriented outward, not inward toward the self, which means that they always presupposed a relationship and they always terminated in God.