We’ve got things all confused.
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This is part three of a six part series on economics and Catholic social teaching. (Part 1, Part 2)
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.
Without this outward aim toward God, goodness, and neighbor, rights become a collection of purely subjective determinations. We are free to do with them what we will, irrespective of any objective standard; and no one should dare tell us otherwise, lest our liberties be infringed.
Is this not precisely our situation today? Not only do we accept this twisted notion of rights, but we often vehemently defend it. To use a familiar example, we’ve all heard the saying: “I may not believe in what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
Is this not absurd? Why on earth would a man die for what he believes to be a lying opinion? To die for the sake of truth is noble, but to die defending a lie is a terrible waste of precious life. Such strange notions are the result of promoting rights to the point of absolutes—goods in themselves—free of any moderating context.
So when did we lose the counterbalancing obligation toward neighbor, truth, and justice, thereby causing rights to lose their moral validity? If we look at the genesis of this transformation, we can also understand why this conception is so deeply rooted in the American psyche.
Rights, as they are today commonly understood, were popularized by a liberal Enlightenment philosopher named John Locke, who was quite possibly the single largest influence on the thought of the Founding Fathers. Locke, in opposition to Aquinas, formulated a humanistic and hyper-simplified version of rights: humanist because, in his view, rights derived from man’s nature rather than divine law; reductionist because now rights had to be considered as purely “individual” rather than social.
Whereas the traditional view had taught that rights were simply duties from another point of view, in Locke they became privileges—inborn and without any obligations attached. It was on this basis that the liberal state we know today evolved. The State, which from Aristotle to Aquinas existed to reinforce the good and virtuous life, now would have no other purpose than “securing individual rights.” The State became a petty referee in the arbitrary exercise of a thousand liberties to which all are entitled. Thus, in a strange way, we might say that Locke was the original author of the entitlement state.
Locke represents an unprecedented promotion of rights, removing them from the larger context of relational justice in which they had previously been kept. Freedom of speech, the press, and religion, even the right to bear arms, were thenceforth removed from any clear framework of limits—for if something is considered an absolute truth, how can that truth be given boundaries?
The popes new better and tried to warn of the danger. Leo XIII, writing against just this sort of liberalism, had the following to say about the “right of free speech”:
Here we see the vital connection between rights and truth—between rights and justice—which is absolutely necessary in order to keep things coherent. John Paul II summarizes the teaching:
Veritatis Splendor, 34)
Each one of us is called to seek the good life, to walk ceaselessly in the direction of truth. We can choose not to pursue that truth, of course. People do it all the time—criminals, for example. But, as with thieves and murderers, the rejection of the “prior moral obligation” logically implies the rejection of the right. You cannot have your philosophical cake and eat it too.
Only now, having finished this necessary political digression, can we safely proceed to rights as they pertain to the specifically economic sphere: to the right to healthy human work, to a living wage, to sufficient rest for body and spirit, and to private property. It is the last of these—the right to private property—which we will approach first, in next week’s installment, because it is the “right which constitutes so efficacious a means of asserting one’s personality and exercising responsibility in every field, and an element of solidity and security for family life, and of greater peace and prosperity in the State." (PT, 21) We will build upon this week’s foundation, drawn from the Catholic tradition, and proceed to secure man’s right to the ownership of things, yet never forgetting “that the right to own private property entails a social obligation as well.” (PT, 22)
Daniel Schwindtis a member of the Solidarity Hall thinker-space, and the author of several books including Holocaust of the Childlike and The Pursuit of Sanity.