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A Right to Complain, an Obligation to Help


If I were to sum up one of the key challenges we face in contemporary American society, it would come down to something like this: Too many people think they have a right to complain, but not an obligation to help.

I am far from suggesting that we don’t have a right to complain.  Actually, I’d rather say that we have an obligation to complain – but to complain responsibly.  One of the problems with “rights” talk is that we can lose a sense of the purpose of rights.  By contrast, when we talk about obligations, we usually have a better sense of what we’re obligated to and why

Economist Amartya Sen is renowned for research showing that democracy and free speech help prevent famines, because democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.”  Thus one of the reasons we have an obligation to complain is precisely so that the government is forced to recognize problems and seek suitable solutions.

If we understand the “right” to complain in this sense, then the “right” also comes along with various “responsibilities.”  Let me suggest four in particular. 

First, we have an obligation to speak clearly and honestly about the situation and not overstate the problem.  When everything is described as a “catastrophe” or a “disaster,” before long nothing will be taken seriously as a catastrophe or a disaster.  Efforts to “gin up” support by excessively dramatic rhetoric usually end up merely cheapening the value of political discourse, causing everyone to think everyone else is simply “crying wolf.”  When you’ve cried wolf enough times, then no matter how much you moan about how people should “care more” about the poor, defenseless sheep, most people just aren’t listening any more.  People tune out, and the ends of public complaint are not served.

Second, we have an obligation to discern honestly and truthfully the actual causes of the problem and distinguish these from things that just happen to have coincided. One of philosopher David Hume’s most valuable insights was making clear that, simply because two events coincide (happen to occur at the same time), it does not follow that one has caused the other. If one finds contaminants in the ground water, and at the same time: (A) more immigrants have been flooding into the county, and (B) more fracking has been taking place several miles away, it does not necessarily follow that either A or B has caused the problem.


      The Good Samaritan by Aimé Morot (1880)

Third, in a related vein, given the difficulties inherent in uncovering chains of causality, it’s probably best for our first response to a problem not to be an effort to assign blame. Often enough, whatever we thought caused the problem actually may not have.  And even if a person or group can be shown to be ultimately  responsible for a certain problem, given the complexity of chains of causality, it’s just as likely the people involved intended something good, and perhaps even achieved a lot of good, but that there were unforeseen consequences.  When we spend a lot of time in blaming and recriminations, we often lose sight of the unforeseen nature of causality, and worse yet, the degree to which everything we intend is so often bound up with consequences we can’t foresee.

Finally, along with our obligations to complain responsibly, we also have an obligation to do what we can to help. Our tendency at times in American society is to complain: “Why doesn’t somebody do something?”  Or: “How heartless can the government be?  They don’t do enough about the problem!”  Well, yes, there is the government; it has a role.  But then again, there’s me, and my friends, my church group, and civic associations; we might do what we can. 

In our society, people seem increasingly to assume they only have obligations to those they choose to be obligated to, and none at all to those problems they haven’t expressly chosen (such as unintended pregnancies or parents with Alzheimer’s or immigrant children on the border).   Indeed people increasingly seem to resent what philosopher Martin Heidegger called the “thrownness” of human existence – what the Stoics used to call “fate” – the fact that we often find ourselves “thrown” into circumstances not of our choosing and not entirely within our control.  

Resentment is fostered by the illusion of control often provided by modern science and technology.  We can control the very building blocks of reality – the atom and the human genome – but we can’t keep annoying people off our lawn?  “We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t _______.”  Fill in the blank. We’re supposed to be able to control the world around us.

But maybe certain problems aren’t quite like splitting an atom.  Sometimes the problem is getting people to see eye-to-eye who have previously insisted on merely splitting hairs.  And for that, you need more than an atom-splitter or “hair-splitting” of the sort usually on offer from the mainstream media and special-interest blogs.  You need a heart of the sort Christ recommends to us by means of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Can one imagine anything that this Samaritan man, setting out on his journey that morning, would have wished to encounter less than a half-dead Jew by the side of the road?  And yet, upon finding a man in need, he was faithful to the challenge God placed in his path.  There were a good number of things he might have complained about: the lack of safety upon the road, the fact that his extravagant taxes to the Roman authorities were not bringing about the promised results, the foolishness of the religious-political controversies between the Jews and the Samaritans.

Instead, he got off his a**, jumped down, nursed the man’s wounds, and journeyed to the next town with the wounded man on the back of the beast.

Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.



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