Important Clarifications on the Meaning of "Rights"

Doug McManaman
August, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Since 1982 there has been an increasing tendency on the part of Canadians to speak of rights as if they were principles, that is, starting points of moral and political argument. This is a serious problem, because rights are not principles, but conclusions. If a person makes claim to certain rights, he must be able to carefully demonstrate his claim, and the only way to do this is to ground them in duties. The reason is that rights and duties are the same reality. They are correlative to one another. For example, my right to fair treatment is nothing other than your duty not to be partial. My right to life is nothing other than your duty not to kill me. As Catholic moral theologian Germain Grisez is wont to point out, rights presuppose duties. He writes: "We can clarify and defend statements about rights only by identifying the duties underlying them and showing where they come from....there are as many kinds of rights as there are duties towards others" (Fulfillment in Christ, p. 120).

Not all rights are on an equal footing, because not all rights are of the same kind. Some moral norms are absolute, while some are not. My right to have fulfilled those promises made to me is notabsolute, because your duty to keep your promises is not absolute. Should you receive news of the sudden passing of a sibling or parent, you may break your promise to me to play golf on the weekend. You are not violating any moral principles in doing so, and I'd be acting unfairly should I require you to keep it. But your duty not to kill me is absolute. Thus my right to life is inalienable; for it is not possible to choose to kill me without violating a very important moral principle, namely, that one should not attack a basic human good for the sake of some end.

Pacem in Terris and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms

In his Encyclical letter Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII has drafted a detailed series of basic human rights. But what is particularly striking about this letter, when read next to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is that he never speaks of rights alone, that is, apart from duties; the Charter, on the other hand, makes no mention of duties whatsoever. Rather, the Charter speaks of rights as if they were principles. As an example, consider section 12 of Pacem in Terris: "Man...has a right to freedom in investigating the truth, and - within the limits of the moral order and the common good - to freedom of speech and publication, and to freedom to pursue whatever profession he may choose." Section 2(b) of the Charter merely reads: "Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms...freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication." Pope John XXIII writes: "The natural rights of which We have so far been speaking are inextricably bound up with as many duties, all applying to one and the same person. These rights and duties derive their origin, their sustenance, and their indestructibility from the natural law, which in conferring the one imposes the other."

The Charter's lack of complexity and complete absence of qualifications and an explicit grounding in duties leaves it open to being interpreted by anyone within whatever ideological frame of mind is brought to it. Currently, it is being interpreted by a judiciary in accordance with that ideological framework most dominant in the universities today: Postmodernism, which includes hegelianism and its offspring (radical feminism, individualism, and nihilism). Within a postmodern framework, law is based not on reason, but on will. Hence, the lack of any pressing demand for logical consistency. We claim the right to life, but we also claim a right to destroy developing human life if its health is not entirely up to standard, or that is not the preferred sex, or that is merely inopportune. If we desire a child but cannot conceive one on our own, we believe nevertheless, that we have a right to one. In other words, we believe we have a right to make a child the object of a right. Consequently, we believe we have the right to produce one in the laboratory, even by means of the sperm of a stranger. If the child is developing abnormally, we believe we have the right to destroy it and try again. We believe we have the right to initiate new life for the sake of what it may provide us, i.e., bone marrow, stem cells, or a specific identity, but we claim for ourselves a right not to be used, or treated as a means to an end.

The right to marry and beget new life has always been grounded in the duty towards the common good; for society proceeds from the family unit as the organs of the body proceed from its cells. As we have been generously given life, parents, education, and a cultural and religious heritage, we owe it to our country, our parents, and to God to continue that generosity. It is not possible for just any relationship to become an institution and a "one flesh union". But when rights are grounded in the will alone, it is possible to believe in a right to be "one flesh" with a person with whom it is simply impossible to be one flesh, namely a person of the same sex.

The right to freedom has a moral universe behind it. But within the current mentality of the Charter, it means the right to do as one pleases. Man, however, is more than an individual. He is a person, of a rational and social nature. Consequently, freedom is far more complex than the individualist is willing to admit. The little chubby boy who gets to eat whatever and whenever he wants, and so chooses to eat donuts and cakes for every meal, believes that he is free. From his perspective, his older sister, who has studied nutrition and is a disciplined athlete training for competition, and who imposes on herself all sorts of dietary restrictions, is not free at all. But she alone exercises a genuinely human freedom, whereas he enjoys a kind of freedom that is bestial -- which is not human freedom at all. Human freedom is knowing what one ought to do and having the necessary virtues to be able to achieve it.

In this light, the right to freedom implies the prior duty to dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of truth and the cultivation of virtue. It cannot possibly mean the right to do as one pleases; for if no one is restricted by moral duty, then no one in society really has any rights at all.

Rights and the Potential Parts of Justice

The Latin word for "right" is jus, from which is derived the word "justice"; for the object of justice is the jus or "right". Justice is the perpetual and constant will to render to each one his due. Thus, a right implies a debitum, that is, something owing.

The most perfect part of the virtue of justice is the virtue of religion (Cf. Summa. II-II Q. 81, a. 6). Existence itself, thus every benefit we enjoy, comes from God. And so we have a fundamental duty to render thanks to God. This includes a total return to God. Consider that even our good free-choices, although they are truly our own, are created by God -- man is only the first deficient cause of his evil choices. Thus, we have a duty to thank God for creating those free choices. But to thank God for creating our good free choices is itself a good free choice, also created by God. In other words, gift forever precedes justice. Thus, it is impossible to ever fully render to God his due. Nevertheless, we are required by the demands of justice to do so as far as that is possible. "To sum up the whole matter; fear God and keep his commandments, for that is the duty of everyone" (Eccl 12, 13). To render to God his due as far as that is possible requires that we make God the center of our moral existence, to make the love of God the form of our actions.

Moreover, we are the beneficiaries of the labor of millions of people, many of whom are no longer living among us. Examples include our political freedom, a just minimum wage, good working conditions, clean water, safe roads, free education, and a cultural heritage, etc. Although it is impossible for us individually to repay the debt we owe to the civil community as a whole, justice demands that we do our part and orient our lives towards the common good (general justice) that others after us may continue to benefit as we have. The individualist who lives primarily for himself is an unjust man who fails to recognize the debt he owes for all the goods of which he has been made the beneficiary.

So too, there is a debt we owe to our parents, and although this debt can never be fully remitted, we owe them a debt of honor (piety). We honor them by growing in personal integrity, and by generously passing on to our own children the goods we have received from them.

When a person is given a gift, thankfulness requires that we receive it entirely. To refuse it is to insult the giver. So too, accepting only a portion of the gift and disregarding the rest, that is, to receive it only partially, also constitutes deficient gratitude and is insulting. Imagine buying your son a new car, who immediately proceeds to remove the wheels and then goes off, completely indifferent to the rest of the car. Receiving the entire gift with thanks, treating it reverently, and using it to glorify the giver as far as that is possible is fundamentally how we return thanks.

This is why we have a fundamental duty to revere human life, our own and the lives of others. Our duty is to receive all of it, including the lives of others, to love and be open to the entire spectrum of human goods, and to make our life a quest for the source and primary instance of the good, which is God, the Supreme Good.

And so, if rights and duties are the same reality, it follows that God has rights -- the right to have all things ordered towards him -- , the civil community as a whole has rights -- the right to expect a certainlevel of generosity and loyalty from its citizens -- , and the family has rights. The rights of the family include as well the right to expect a certain level of integrity from the children -- for parents have a right to be honored in them, and the right to expect from the State the set of conditions that will enable the family to attain its reasonable objectives. Finally, every individual person has rights, which include the right to expect from the State the ensemble of material and other conditions that favor the realization of his own flourishing (the common good). But he cannot reasonably expect this unless every individual person, including himself, has a duty to revere human goods, that is, to live for the common good.

Concluding Thoughts

We live in a country whose people are very familiar with their rights, but not nearly as many are aware that the civil community as a whole has a right to expect anything from them, let alone a moral existence of a certain level of generosity. For the average person, duties and rights seem like two contrary and incompatible ideas. This begets a morally and politically unhealthy attitude. For one, it has begotten a passivity that has allowed a judiciary elite to usurp a role that belongs to the Canadian people -- at least within a democracy. But what is particularly important is that the Church in Canada remain wary of adopting the language of the Charter. My friend the late Monsignor Thomas Wells of the Archdiocese of Washington D.C. once told me what causes him the greatest suffering: "We've (the Church) got everything that people -- especially young people -- want and are looking for, but we simply refuse to give it to them." As an example, we have Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), and who does not want and continually pray for peace on earth? John XXIII has given the modern world the perfect formula for peace on earth, but Canadians have settled for an overly simplistic Charter of Rights that has very subtly robbed them of democracy, allowing it to be replaced by a judicial oligarchy.

It seems to me that our congregations are increasing in size. If we want to give people what they want, namely truth, and thus peace, we need not adopt the language of the Charter, but the very different and more complete language of John XXIII. We can only move forward by giving the Canadian people the goods that have been ours for two thousand years, goods much richer than anything a secular government can produce.