All systems of morality will have a place for both the idea of moral duty and the idea of moral rights. But some systems will put duty in the first place while others will put rights in the first place. And so we’ll have two contrasting systems depending on which has the primacy: a morality of duty and a morality of rights.
A morality of duty derives rights from duties. If you have a duty to do X, then you have a right to do X. And the government plus other people have a duty to respect your right.
A morality of rights does it the other way around: If you have a right to do X, then the rest of us, including the government, have a duty to respect your right.
Over the last two millennia we in the western world have moved, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, from a morality of duty to a morality of rights. Early Christianity (and I would add, authentic Christianity in any age) taught a morality of duty. The rules of morality were God-created rules, and our mission in life was to live in obedience to God and his commandments.
This Christian morality of duty was a somewhat “softer” version of the earlier Jewish morality of duty, according to which the good Jew had hundreds of commandments to obey.
Preceding the emergence of Christianity in the Roman-Hellenic world, the influential Stoic school of philosophy had taught a morality of duty, according to which all humans are bound to obey a higher non-man-made law which may be described as a law of Nature, or law of Reason, or law of God; for the Stoics held that the Supreme Being may with equal propriety be called God or Reason or Nature.
A morality of duty has sometimes been spoken of as a morality that required obedience to God, at other times as a morality that required obedience to natural law, and at still other times as a morality that required obedience to conscience.
In the later middle ages, cities, which had been relatively insignificant places after the fall of the Empire in the West, experienced a new and rapid growth. These cities were commercial in nature, and they were dominated by a commercial class, the bourgeoisie. These business people were understandably very much concerned with legal rights, above all property rights.
But they were also very much concerned with political rights, that is, their political rights as opposed to the rights of kings and the land-owning nobility. Inevitably they developed a mentality that had the habit of thinking in terms of rights.
This way of thinking was given a polished and classic form in the writings of the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), who spoke of the universal natural rights of life, liberty, and estates (that is, private property), the protection of which was the fundamental duty of government.
In the 18th century, especially in England, America, and France, this philosophy of rights “trickled down” – or perhaps I should say, “roared down in a torrent” – from the intellectual elites to the masses. The Age of the Rights of Man was upon us, and has been ever since.
Now Locke had a very limited number of rights or liberties. The early American Republic significantly expanded this number both in the Declaration of Independence (which recognized a right to pursue happiness) and in the first ten Amendments to the Constitution (the Bill of Rights). Later Amendments (especially the 13th, 14th, and 15th) recognized further rights.
In the 20th and 21st centuries the U.S. Supreme Court discovered certain hitherto unsuspected rights in the Constitution, e.g., a right to abortion (1973), a right to homosexual behavior (2003), a right to same-sex marriage (2015), and a right to transgender identity (2020). It is not unlikely that a future Supreme Court will discover that the Constitution contains a right to euthanasia.
Some of these rights are implied, or so it is held by scholars and judges who possess vivid legal imaginations, by the 14th Amendment, and all of them are alluded to by the 9th Amendment.
But it isn’t only an elite of judges and law school professors who engage in the business of expanding the circle of our rights. Men and women in the street now do it as well, and so do boys and girls in schools and on playgrounds.
Americans (in fact, an immense number of Americans) are in the habit of transforming anything we consider desirable into a fundamental human right. And so, it is argued, we have a right to free contraception and free abortion and free medical care and free college education and free internet and free cable TV and a free cellphone. And if our ancestors were American slaves, we have a right to reparations.
If there is no natural limit to what can be desired (and there isn’t), this widespread American tendency to decide that we have a right to anything we strongly desire will eventually lead to anarchy. For we’ll desire far, far more than can be provided.
And since we believe that we have a human right to X, Y, and Z, we’ll become outraged at what will seem to us to be the great injustice of not providing us and our fellow Americans with what we are entitled to. And we’ll do what victims of injustice (whether real or imagined) often do: we’ll smash windows, loot stores, burn down buildings, and shoot our imagined oppressors. At least we’ll do that until our “oppressors” begin shooting back.
In sum, a morality of rights, when carried to its logical conclusion, will lead to something like civil war.
Is it too late for America to return to a morality of duty? Probably so. For that began to vanish with the disappearance of old-fashioned Christianity and won’t return unless the Faith does.
*Image: The Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni, 1773 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria]