“Rights” and Liberties

What Mary Ann Glendon called “rights talk” is increasingly prevalent and dangerous to human liberties. Everywhere “rights” are being codified, enforced, and redefined to mean whatever governing bodies want them to mean. They have no other source but positive law.

Briefly, we are losing our liberties because of our “rights.” The totalitarians among us now zealously speak “rights talk” with the best of them. “Defending” modern human “rights” means suppressing what rights meant in the older sense of that term.

In Rome recently, Janne Haaland Matlary, the Norwegian scholar, politician, and member of the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences, remarked: “Human rights are becoming increasingly vulnerable to political exploitation.” We Americans, and not only we, might assume that “rights” have a solid, unchangeable meaning. We think this grounded meaning is in the Declaration. That older meaning, however, has been all but obliterated.

Few recognize how dangerous the origin of this word is. Many fine scholars such as Jacques Maritain, John Finnis, and others have worked valiantly to save “rights” terminology from relativism, the context in which it is understood in modern political philosophy. They have not prevailed in baptizing it as was their intent, even though they provide plausible arguments about why it need not be a relativistic concept. These arguments are simply ignored or rejected by most rights advocates, though seldom confronted intellectually.

David Walsh has noted that the word “rights” still retains a vague relation to some stable grounding in being. Today, however, “rights” mean what Hobbes, its original formulator, claimed: namely, the word rights means whatever the de facto political authority says it means. A “right” is what the government defines and enforces as a right, nothing more, nothing less. The current president’s whole anti-life agenda, the most extreme ever designed in any responsible or irresponsible polity, is presented to us under the guise of “human rights.” It is breathtaking.

The idea that such “rights” have “natural law” behind them, a way of looking at them so that we can appeal to a common and agreed rational concept of human nature, is fine. But this understanding is neither what the word nor the actions of the government mean. We like to say that the “right to life is the fundamental right.” Nix that “right” and all else falls. This is true. All else is falling. The “right to life” now means politically what, and only what, the government and courts define it to mean, not some “inalienable” idea of human dignity from God or nature.

The Church has taken up the term “natural right” as if it meant something rooted in human nature. I can count almost on one hand the number of times that, aware of the problem, a pope or theologian will say, almost as an aside, that “natural right,” of course, does not mean what “natural right” does mean in the public order. They then use the very same term as if everyone agreed with a grounded view, rooted in natural law.

In practice, we seem to think that everyone agrees with this Catholic background of “natural rights.” We have a basis for common discourse. Yet we soon find that people polemically inquire: “If you claim a ‘right to life,’ why not grant a ‘right’ to abortion or any such thing?”

In the public mind, we end up contradicting ourselves. We say we are for “human rights,” then we oppose that growing list of “human rights” – abortion, same-sex marriage, cloning, euthanasia, and Lord knows what – which “democratic” people all “accept” because that is the law that they have “freely” enacted.

Increasingly, we are not even allowed to talk about this problem. To do so is “hate language.” We are “fanatics” to insist that these things are fundamentally, always, and everywhere, wrong. We are shoved aside in public life.

Archbishop Burke noted the other day in Washington that present governmental policies portend that doctors who understand that “life” is inviolable and healthcare services that operate on this principle will be closed down. This is no joke, of course.

Such warnings are not stated by some dreamer or by some man with no clue about what is happening. It is happening in a regime democratically brought to power. Thus, when we define such things as immoral, as we do, we are not only violating “human rights” but the very basis of “democracy.”

So when President Obama goes to Notre Dame this week, we should be sure what is at issue. He goes there for one reason, namely, in this symbolic place, to convince the vast majority of Catholics that his operative definition of “human rights,” not that of the Church, is the correct one.

“Rights” mean precisely what the government defines them to mean. The president is the government.

“Liberty,” in this context, means this: The freedom to obey these laws that embody these “rights” that governments alone establish, whatever they are.

The American Founders would be astonished that our great nation has come to this pass.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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