Saturday, March 16, 2013

What Are Rights?

It may not be entirely fair, but I'll use a comment on another blog to illustrate a problem with the way people use the term "rights" in disputes these days.  "Michael" wrote, 
Religions always have [t]he right to discriminate, by gender, by colour, by race, by sexual orientation and of course by religion. In secular society you can not do that anymore (thank goodness) but religions have those rights and they must be respected when dealing with matters pertaining to that religion.
To start out, let's differentiate the different things people mean by "rights".

1.  Sometimes a "right" is the result of a rule agreed upon by a society.  
(a) For instance, under certain conditions a quarterback has the "right" to deliberately throw an incomplete pass to avoid a sack.  
(b) Another example is the "right" of someone accused of a serious crime to a trial by a jury. 

Such rights are obviously limited to the society in question and last only as long as the agreement in the society remains, with some lag time built in for the rules to be updated to adjust to new opinions within a society.  This illustrated by the fact that the same crime may be judged by a juries of different sizes, or by a panel of judges, or by a single judge, depending on where the crime was committed, whether the accused is military or a civilian, etc. 

2.  Sometimes a "right" is something that is inherent in being a human being -- something that is always the same, regardless of time, place, or culture.  An example would be that anyone accused of a serious crime has a right to some kind of trial before being punished for that crime.  It may be very formal or quite informal; it may be before a single judge, a panel of judges, a jury, or the community as a whole; the burden of proof may be on the prosecution, the defense, or somehow shared between them; but it should always and everywhere actually be somehow established that the person is guilty and not innocent before punishment.

(Note:  Someone is going to bring up something like a situation in war in which each side shoots at the other without any kind of "individual trial".  That's really something different, because a (sane) soldier does not try to punish his adversary, he tries to stop his adversary.  There is a difference.)

In defiance of a great deal of popular opinion, to say nothing of plots constructed by fiction writers, I will maintain that rights of this kind never truly contradict each other, though they may be in tension.  The cliche, "Your rights end where mine begin, and vice versa," is obviously too simplistic, but if genuine rights of this kind are indeed God-given, there must be rational means of resolving the apparent contradictions.

3.  Sometimes a "right" is the result of a rule agreed upon by a society, but one that is arguably always the best practice.  These are somehow intermediate between admittedly arbitrary rules ("Do we drive on the left-hand side of the road or the right?") and the proscriptions of natural law.  

I think the "right" to use money to pay debts (of wealth) might be a good example.  Money did not always exist, after all, and it is possible to get by on barter.  However, few would dispute that history shows a monetary system to be in the public interest. 


The problem comes when people confuse these meanings.  A common example would be, "The Supreme Court has established that a woman has a right to have an abortion."   This is typically thrown out as though it were an unchangeable human right (type 2), when in fact it is something established by the Court (type 1).  It is like saying that a cornerback has the "right" to jam a receiver within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage; that may be true now, but we can change it to 10 yards or to zero yards if we want.  Perhaps one could argue that a "right to abortion" is not arbitrary but a best practice, but (a) it would need to be explained why it is a best practice and (b) such a claim falls far short of being an argument-stopping moral imperative, as is usually intended.

The same kind of confusion is evident in the comment above from "Michael".  He says that "Religions always have [t]he right to discriminate" and "religions have those rights and they must be respected."  He is definitely claiming this to be a God-given, inherent human right (type 2), because what he says is "always" the case has not been recognized by society in most times and places.  On the other hand, it is by no means clear why "religions" in general, without regard to whether or how much they are true, should enjoy such "rights" -- if these are "God-given rights", why would God grant them to religions which teach falsely?  (Given the many and fundamental disagreements between different religions, they cannot all be even remotely correct.)

This may seem to be an idle distinction, but it isn't.  If something is a God-given right and you don't like it, tough.  It's not within your power to change.  It's not within the power of the President of the United States to change, or a unanimous vote of everyone on earth to change.  You may ignore the right, but the right you ignore is still there; you may run roughshod over it, but it remains all the same.  If, on the other hand, it is something that was made by man, it is something that man can unmake, and its existence today is no guarantee that it will still be around tomorrow.  If you like it, you had better always be able to explain why it is desirable to keep it around.

Another important consequence has to do with the very issue of freedom of religion.  It may be a political tradition (imperfectly observed) in the United States, but the question of whether it is a fundamental human right is an interesting one, and it is a question that divides certain traditionalist communities (like SSPX) from the Catholic Church.  If religion has an important impact on the eternal destiny of one's soul, why would there be a right to hold, practice, and teach a false religion?

My understanding of this is, of course, subject to being corrected by the Church, but here's how I understand it at present. 
  1. The real, root human right is not to "freedom of religion" as it is understood in a secular context, but the freedom (in an Augustinian sense) to truly observe the true religion.
  2. This means one must be honestly, freely convinced of the true religion.
    1. A best practice for determining/demonstrating the true religion is to allow all religions a fair chance to make their best cases -- sort of the way Elijah did with the prophets of Baal, though less dramatically and renewed for each person.  That way the choice can be made with full knowledge and consent of the will
    2. This does not mean that we cannot learn over time, either as persons or as societies.  After all, we allow the same fair chance for the heliocentric model and the geocentric model of the solar system, and the heliocentric model works better.  We don't feel it necessary to tell children they must respect both equally.  Likewise, we should not feel uncomfortable about, for instance, banning the human sacrifice associated with Mesoamerican religions.  Such a ban would be hard or even impossible to justify if "freedom of religion" were a God-given right, rather than just a best practice for allowing each person to be truly convinced.
    3. Whether in science or religion, we must "be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason."
  3. The problem that arises when freedom of religion is not present is not necessarily that the wrong religion is observed, because of course it is possible to forcibly repress all false religions and leave only the true religion free.  Nor is the problem that "we can't ask them to do what we don't do ourselves" -- that would be fine as it applies to people, but true ideas, when they are truly understood as such, really should be treated differently than false ideas.  No; the problem is that it would make it impossible to recognize the true religion from its contrast with false alternatives, and it would leave the nagging doubt that the only reason it was accepted was because no alternatives could be considered. 

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