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.