The Catholic Thing
On My "Right" to Everything Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Tuesday, 13 November 2012

We can approach political things from two angles: “What ought I to do?” or “What is owed to me?” The first approach entails that we acquire sufficient virtue to rule ourselves to do what objectively is worth doing. The second approach looks to someone else to supply what we cannot obtain or make for ourselves.

These alternatives rose to visibility in the riotous reaction to the Greek austerity legislation. In our recent elections, the same issues appeared. We do not rely on ourselves but on someone else. Such a principle is quickly politicized into the notion that government is responsible for me and everyone else. Thus, government defines my “rights” as measures of what it thinks man is. In lieu of higher law or reason, it brooks in practice no other source but itself as the origin of “rights.”

Unfortunately, many governments delight in conceiving themselves as the responsible organ for everything and everyone. The more people depend on the government, the more secure it is in its own power and longevity. What is the origin of this citizen willingness to cede to the government the responsibility for defining and supplying our “rights?” Several components are pertinent.

The first source is Hobbes on “rights.” Every individual has a “right” to everything he wants and needs. Of course, this situation can produce nasty conflicts. We come to blows when we all want the same scarce things. We fight it out. This “war of all against all” just makes things worse. Finally, we agree to appoint someone stronger than we are, who will prevent our mutual clashes for what we need.

Since we all fear “violent” death, we empower the state to define and arrange what we receive. Theoretically, this mechanism leaves us in peace to produce more of the goods that we need.

The all-powerful state convinces itself that it can take care of everyone by neutralizing each person’s power to obtain whatever he wants. We replace it with whatever the state will give. The “cost” is that we cannot hold ideas and beliefs. They are the real causes of our struggles with one another. The price of peace is state control of ideas and religion.

The second origin of “rights” is a secularized version of Christianity. We hear of “preferential options for the poor.” Government is to be a “servant” of all. Charity deals with cases that society cannot handle. Everyone is concerned with everyone else.

         The War of all against all (The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya)

But we soon notice that ideas of caring for the poor, of service, and of charity gradually are subsumed by institutions of the state, which is pleased to have them. Even Christians begin to talk primarily of what the government must do for this or that segment of the population that cannot or will not care for itself.

Religious institutions that provide services that advance the common good become directly or indirectly financed by the state. The state has its own rules for the uses of its monies. People have a “right” to such things. Once they know that they have a “right,” they put two and two together.

They look at the state to supply their “rights.” Few care about how to supply what is demanded. They still “demand” them. The state thus understands itself as a mortal god, a supplier of “rights.” A certain almost mystical exhilaration is found in taking care of others, even all others. 

We try to balance these positions with “duty.” No “rights” can exist without corresponding “duties.” One problem with this approach is the Kantian notion of “duties.” If we ask, “Why are you helping me out?” and the answer is that “It is my ‘duty,’” we feel it has little to do with us. The “helper” is only dealing with himself and his “duties.”

What is missing in all of this rights-virtue-duties talk? It is not freedom, which could be part of the problem. If freedom is the pursuit of whatever we want, which was, for Aristotle, the formal element of a “democratic” form of government, we soon discover that we want everything.

We insist that we have a “right” to everything. By looking at what is owed to us, we become oblivious to what we need to do to provide for ourselves. We understand the common good as a distributive justice in which the state provides everything for us.

We need a conception of rights, virtue, duties, and freedom that enables us to care for ourselves. We need a conception of a limited state, whose purpose is not to do everything itself but to recognize arenas of responsibility in which individuals and groups are the main source of providing for themselves.

The democratic, all-caring state that provides all our “rights,” however we define them, is what we see emerging from the souls of our citizens.

My “right” to everything is not a pretty sight.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
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written by Jack,CT, November 13, 2012
Father,Great perspective,so much
truth in your words.
thanks, Jack
written by Willie, November 13, 2012
Excellent, timely and appropriate !
written by Grump, November 13, 2012
What men value in this world is not rights but privileges.
H. L. Mencken
written by Titus, November 13, 2012
I have increasingly come to suspect that the entire concept of "rights" is philosophically indefensible. The moral framework of society and human behavior is not defined by my "right" to practice a religion, or my "right" to utilize the press. Rather, it seems, that I have certain affirmative obligations that must be observed in utilizing my free will in these spheres, while at the same time others have an obligation not to interfere with my conduct in certain ways.

Thus, the fact that the deputies of the state should not arrest or harass me based on my religious preferences does not mean that I have some metaphysical "right" to maintain whatever religious beliefs I want. I am obligated to love and worship the one triune God, irrespective of others' interference, or lack thereof, with my fulfillment of that obligation.

We've had quite enough of "rights."
written by Ray Hunkins, November 13, 2012
Father Schall, in the clear and concise language of ideas, which is your hallmark, you nailed it!
written by G.K. Thursday, November 13, 2012
This is a solid reflection on the rise of the socialist state. Although Fr. Schall studiously avoids this term, his analysis only applies to those modern states which have sought to achieve what Emmanuel Levinas comdemned as "totality," seeking to replace the transcendent moral code with itself. Despotic soviet and nazi states have had the darkest examples of these sorts of government, but the movement of developing nations as a whole has been in this direction. As Professor Esolen has expressed it, it is the state turned vampiric, draining the resources and lives of its citizens, rather than helping them flourish.

Of course despotic states have always existed, and have always attempted this sort of vampirism when they did. The critical difference at our present juncture is the existence of technologies that make it possible to actually achieve a level of totality as never before. And the U.S. is on the forefront of pursuing these technologies, even if our government does not always use them as aggressively as it could.

One thing that Fr. Schall does not mention is that these totalizing states are run by small groups of men. The real goal of such states is the continuation of the power and wealth of these small groups of men. Thus we learned recently that the net worth of the 70 richest delegates in China’s National People’s Congress, which opens its annual session on March 5, rose to 565.8 billion yuan ($89.8 billion) in 2011, a gain of $11.5 billion from 2010, according to figures from the Hurun Report, which tracks the country’s wealthy. That compares to the $7.5 billion net worth of all 660 top officials in the three branches of the U.S. government. The Communist Party system in China, said to be set up to help free the workers from capitalism, has instead made for the creation of the wealthiest elite on the planet.

This is what totalizing states really do: create two classes, rich, decadent elites and poor, ignorant masses. And whatever 19th century-minded socialists or Dominicans you quote, that doesn't change the despicable level of injustice brought about by this process.
written by Denverite, November 13, 2012
Wonderful article Fr. Shall. Blessings to you.

A few follow up thoughts...

Are not natural rights the simple inverse of natural duties? That is, each one's right to some good fully corresponds to the commensurate duty of his fellow men to supply, or as the case may be, to not withhold from the other those goods to which he is due.

There is a tension, such that it cannot exist in isolation, rights and duties presuppose and require relationships, society, the polis. In the image of the community of persons that is the Trinity.

In one 'direction' rights work on my behalf, and in the other direction outward toward others, thus placing an obligation or duty upon me, because of what is natural to us both, to us all, as men.

I am a very poor Thomist indeed! But I recommend Joseph Pieper's Four Cardinal Virtues. The startling fulfillment of his discussion of the duty of distributive justice borne by the governor/government - is that he/it must *preserve* for each man (that is, avoid withholding or thwarting) his natural duty according to his ability to exercise his own partiular role in distributing the goods of this world to those who have a rightful claim upon them - i.e. the poor.

It is an injustice for the state to usurp that role through obstruction of the corporal works of mercy and/or arrogation of the means to enact such works to itself alone. I have a right to be free to fulfill my duties toward my fellow man. It is an injustice for the governor to tax me and perform that duty in my stead.

What is properly being 'distributed' in distributive justice is freedom for the good. And virtue - be it found among men! - provides for the distribution of goods themselves. This a snapshot of the genius of that old tired out-dated medievalism.

The whole structure of rights and duties rests upon the pursuit of virtue...
written by athanasius, November 13, 2012
Great article. I wish to add that the virtue that helps us determine the balance among freedom, duties, etc. is love. If we help because we love, and we love because we are loved by God, then we seek to use our freedom to help our neighbor with our own hands and the fruits of our own labor. Our duty becomes our desire.

The principle of solidarity leads us to seek universal goods for all mankind out of love, and the principle of subsidiarity leads us to practice this love concretely in our own neighborhoods.

The state cannot love, but it can coerce, and often is abused by the powerful who hide behind an empty love. In a local community, it is easier to challenge these charlatans. It is harder to do so the larger and more remote they get.

The land of Hobbes is a land without God, where the state becomes God, and we act out of fear, not love. History shows these societies become the dominion of the strong over the weak. Let us work toward a society of God, and thus a society of love. We know we will never be perfect this side of eternity, but we will be heading in the right direction.

May the Holy Spirit guide us with wisdom as we do so.
written by G.K. Thursday, November 13, 2012
Let's recall our Aristotle: Entelechy is the key to the source of "natural" rights. A substantial being implies a hylomorphic unity of form+matter. A being like a human has a "nature" or entelechy that involves certain goods which are needed for it to flourish. Other humans, whether singly or in a organized group, may not arbitrarily deny such goods to another human. If they do so they commit injustice (recall that justice involves treating equal persons equally, and treating unequal persons unequally). With this in mind, a human may be said to have a "natural right" to such goods.

Talking of rights is not a bad thing. But in our hedonistic culture, rights and desires, nature and perversion, are often confused.

And thank you, Denverite for reminding me of Josef Pieper's wonderful book!
written by mnemos, November 14, 2012
And yet the faculty of Georgetown came out vocally in favor of the "democratic all-caring state that provides our rights". Do us a favor and educate your institution.
written by stanley, November 15, 2012
Charity: The 21st Century Obligation.
Helping or receiving help is also an expectation. Charity is dominated now by rich actors or athletes giving of their excess...making it more of a show than an act of kindness.
written by Facile1, November 15, 2012
"We need a conception of rights, virtue, duties, and freedom that enables us to care for ourselves. We need a conception of a limited state, whose purpose is not to do everything itself but to recognize arenas of responsibility in which individuals and groups are the main source of providing for themselves."

To this end, may I propose the following?

1. Keep to the definition of what rights are "inalienable".

"Inalienable rights" are God-given by definition. The State does NOT grant, cannot provide for nor defend "inalienable rights". These "inalienable rights" are the human rights of life, liberty, and property.

2. The power of the State springs from its capacity to DENY human rights.

Specifically, the State can deny an individual's right to life (capital punishment). The State can deny an individual's right to liberty (imprisonment). And the State can deny an individual's right to property (taxes and penalties).

3. Limiting the power of the State is the most important civic duty of its citizens.

History has taught us that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." But more importantly, a government that is run by a few is inherently unstable. If the power of the State is concentrated on a small segment of the citizenry, the government will be unable to contain the violence that will ensue. The bottom-line is human lives will be spent securing safety instead of pursuing happiness. The destruction of government does nothing for the preservation of private property or the advancement of the nation's economy. The rich will suffer and the poor will die.

4. HISTORICALLY, the ONLY institutions that can effectively limit the power of the State are religious.

Unfortunately, some religions support armed conflict and theocracies. And there are others that have simply abdicated their responsibilities to the State. This is especially true in the case of public education.

5. If there is to be a NEW "conception of rights, virtue, duties, and freedom that enables us to care for ourselves", we need to divest the State of its hold on public education. "Public Education" should be considered a violation of the "right to the free exercise of religion."

6. Our "inalienable rights" as citizens of the State should be taught in a religious context.
written by Leonard, December 03, 2012
I'm actually a bit surprised that Fr. Schall did not point out that the "all caring state" also turns us into objects that subject to expediency and efficiency. When the state requires itself to care for us we suddenly become liabilities.

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