Rights (vs Responsibilities) – Natural Rights vs Civil Rights

Rights, by DQ McInerny PhDby Dennis Q. McInerny, Ph.D.
From the December 2009 Newsletter

More than once in times past I have made mention of the fact that we find in contemporary society an inordinate emphasis on rights, an inordinate emphasis which often takes the form of a positive obsession. The emphasis is inordinate—that is, disordered—because it is at bottom a gross overemphasis. Too much attention is given to rights, while much too little attention is given to the balancing factor of responsibilities. Indeed, sometimes responsibilities are ignored altogether, as if they were not deserving of our attention, or worse, as if they did not even exist. This is of course to have things all askew.

If I am constantly demanding my rights while pretending that I have no responsibilities, I am effectively cutting off my nose to spite my face, for rights are empty without accompanying responsibilities. If I can ignore my responsibilities with impunity, why can’t everyone else? But if everyone else ignores their responsibilities, I can kiss my rights goodbye. They might still be on the books, but only as dead letters. I can’t have it both ways. If I want my rights to be honored, then I must honor the rights of others; that is, I must acknowledge my responsibilities toward others, and live up to them.

How are we to explain this modern obsession with rights? It is to be explained in great part by the pervasive prevalence of individualism in our culture. What is individualism? It could be characterized as that way of thinking which attaches more importance to the individual than to any community to which the individual might belong, to the point where the very existence of a community, as a coherent entity, is threatened. The individual is of course important, we might even say supremely important, in the sense that each one of us is a beneficiary of the Redemption. But the individual is not important in the way individualism wants him to be—as someone who proudly cuts himself off from others, and even looks upon them as enemies, because he sees them as threatening what is rightfully his. The individualist always regards himself, without qualification, as Number One, above everybody else; his favorite pastime is screaming about his rights, while never letting out so much as a peep about his responsibilities. The individualist, in sum, is an arrogant egotist, for whom the three most important things in the world are Me, Me, and Me.

One of the specific manifestations of the aforementioned disordered emphasis on rights is the manufacturing of totally specious rights, such as the so-called right of a woman to kill her own child. In light of the egregious misuse of the concept of rights, in examples such as that, one might be prompted to ask if perhaps all rights are but fictions, made up by us for entirely  self-serving purposes—purely subjective inventions, in other words—and which have no grounding in objective reality. That might strike you as an odd, if not downright preposterous, question, but it is one which has been asked by some prominent and justifiably respected philosophers, and answered in the affirmative. These philosophers take the view that what we call natural human rights simply do not exist; they are moral fictions, and the concept of rights is a pseudo-concept.

Other philosophers do not take so extreme a position. They begin by making a distinction between negative rights and positive rights, then acknowledge the reality of the former, while denying reality to the latter. A negative right is a right not to be deprived of something which is properly ours by dint of the natural law. The three negative rights most often cited in the literature are the rights to life, liberty, and property. Each of us has a right to life, in the basic sense that we are entitled by nature not to have it taken away from us. Examples of positive rights would be a right to a formal education, a right to medical care, a right to a living wage. Again, the philosophers we are considering here deny that there are any such rights. Why do they do so? They argue along these lines: if we grant that everyone has a right to medical care, for example, then, if that right is to have any meaning, there must be some entity that is able to guarantee the honoring of the right. Only government would be able to do so. And there is the rub, as far as they are concerned, for the more rights a government attempts to guarantee, the bigger and more powerful the government becomes, and these philosophers are very suspicious of big, powerful governments. (I happen to know one philosopher in this school who makes a single exception with respect to positive rights, arguing that every child has a right to be properly educated by his parents.)

What are we to make of all this? I think we should start by acknowledging that rights are indeed real; they are not mere fictions. Next, an important distinction has to be made between natural rights and civil rights. Natural rights are simply ours by nature; they belong to us simply because of who we are as rational creatures with an eternal destiny. These rights can properly be called inalienable; they cannot be taken away from us by any earthly power. This is not to say, however, that they cannot be dishonored, as witnessed by the fact that the right to life of millions of aborted babies has been grievously dishonored in recent years. Civil rights are simply those granted to us by civil society, such as the right of a lawyer to open a law office and solicit clients if he is duly licensed in the state in which he intends to practice.

Civil rights can be regarded as real in the plain, practical sense that they are, as a matter of fact, an integral, functioning part of any civil society. But on what basis can we contend that natural rights are real? One way to approach the question is to consider the ramifications of the actual practice of the virtue of justice. Justice is the virtue which tells us that we are to give to every person what is due to that person. Each of us, if we are to be just, has an obligation to meet the demands made of us by the virtue. That means that if I want to be just, say toward Person X, then I am under obligation to give to Person X what is owed to him. Now let’s look at it from the view point of Person X. If he, in justice, has something owed to him, does not that mean that he has a legitimate claim to it, that he is entitled to it, that, in a word, he has a right to it? It would seem so.

December 5, 2009