We, Thee, and Me

There are lessons to be learned from looking at such things as the Protestant Reformation, the break in the dam that held devout Europeans for so long close to the bosom of the Catholic Church.

Put simply, perhaps too simply, the break with the Catholic Church marked a radical change in the world view of the vast majority of Europeans. From identifying with a major Authority figure that demanded obedience and exacted tribute suddenly (from an historical perspective) men and women were on  their own. With the invention of the printing press the Bible was available to an increasingly literate population and folks were being told that it was up to them to determine right and wrong and find their own way to Heaven. They were no longer to be shown the way, though it was clear form the Bible in their hand. In a word, their mind-set went in a very few years from We, to Thee, to Me. The individual was born and the Enlightenment brought with it a new fascination with human reasoning powers and a sudden awareness of human rights — with little discussion of the responsibilities that went along with those rights.

To be sure, there were thinkers like Immanuel Kant in Germany whose profound books wrestled with the new awareness of ethics based on human reasoning powers, and Kant stressed the priority of duties over rights — without the former the latter make no sense whatever. But few read Kant and many who read him didn’t understand him. And in any event thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke were busy constructing political theories that made the individual prior to the community of which they were a part. The concept of the “social contract” stressed the benefits to the individual over the state. What’s in it for me?

If we think back to the political thinking of folks like Thomas Aquinas, Plato, and Aristotle we realize what a radical change this was. To the ancients, the state was prior to the individual in the sense that no human being could be regarded as in any sense human without membership in a political community. Political communities brought with them laws and the peace of mind that made possible the growth of intellection and the creation of beautiful works of art, the development of our human potential. Membership in communities made possible such things as language which is not necessary for the hermit in the cave who lives alone and cares about no one else and is therefore less than human. The remnants of this view found their way into the writing of such thinkers as Ortega y Gasset early in the last century who warned us about the dawning of a “new barbarism” and also remind us that “civilization is above all else the will to live in common.” The Enlightenment had given us the notion of the common good which groups of virtuous individuals were supposed to realize made possible their own good. But by this time “Me” had gained ascendency over “We and Thee,” though folks like Adam Smith insisted that others are necessary for each of us to fully develop our sympathetic nature. Still, it’s a case of what others can do for me, not the other way around. Increasingly it was the case that the individual is seen as one who lives in a social body because it is of benefit to him.

Today we have groups and individuals that insist upon being recognized and accepted for what they are. Everyone is a victim and everyone is shouting (at the same time) about their rights. Rather than think about how greatly they benefit from membership in a social body we clamor for the benefits we insist we have coming simply because we are who we are — whoever we are. The alteration in mind-set is radical: from seeing the whole as prior to the part we now see things the other way around. The part is prior to the whole. From a preoccupation with my rights it is a very short step to insisting “it’s all about me.”

This transition is made clear, if we stop to think about it, from a consideration of our attitude toward such things as income taxes. We resent having to pay a part of our hard-earned income to the State in order to have them take that money and do with it we know-not-what. We really don’t know, we just know it’s our money and THEY are taking it away from us. In fact, however, the concept of taxation is consistent with any sound political philosophy: the State needs funds in order to protect its citizens. Today, for example, despite the fact that the lion’s share of our tax money goes toward what we call “Defense” it also takes care of the infra-structure, supports education and also such things as health care and the preservation of the environment. Or it is supposed to until or unless some clown declares himself Lord Muck-A-Muck and decides to cripple those agencies that are designed to make life better for the majority of our citizens.

In any event, the point I would like to stress is that radical alteration in worldview, from We and Thee to Me. We demand our rights and ignore our responsibilities. We insist that the State exists to serve us and not the other way around. We applaud John Kennedy when reminds us not to ask what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country, but we don’t think about the demands this places upon us, demands that our need to live with others requires that we recognize that others are just as important as we ourselves and we are a part of a whole that is ever so much greater than our little part.

 

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Rights and Responsibilities

One hears so much about “rights” these days it suggests that it might be a good idea to see if folks know what the hell they are talking about. When I hear the word it usually means something like “wants.” Thus, when Albert says he has a “right” to that parking space over there what he means is that he wants it. I heard a man from Charleston recently explain why he hadn’t voted in the last election because he “had a right not to vote.” This is absurd. What he meant to say, as so many like him mean to say, is that he didn’t want to vote.

The notion of rights comes from the Enlightenment tradition that informed our own Constitution and was firmly in the minds of the founders of this nation as they worried about separation from the most powerful country on earth at the time. They were concerned about their rights, their human rights. The word has strong moral overtones and suggests, when properly used, that one is morally permitted a certain course of action. Thus, when I say that I have a right to free speech the implication is that it is morally right that I be allowed to speak my mind and others are morally bound to allow me to do so — as long as I don’t shout “Fire!” in crowded theater, engage in hate speech, or promote civil insurrection (or tell lies with the intention to misinform the public).

In any event, rights imply a corresponding responsibility. Rights are one side of the coin, responsibilities, or duties, are the other. But we hear very little about the responsibilities that are intimately bound up with rights, because we have reduced the notion of rights to wants — and wants do not imply responsibilities. Again, the moral connotations are strong in the case of both rights and responsibilities. And in saying this I am speaking about what folks like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson regarded as human rights, the rights that every human being is entitled to simply because he or she is a human being. This contrasts with civil rights, which attach to membership in a specific polity and which can be taken away by those in power, if we abuse them by breaking the law. Our Bill of Rights are civil rights and are not absolute in any sense — even the Second Amendment that guarantees the militia (not every Tom, Dick, and Sally) the right to “bear arms.”

Human rights, as Jefferson says, are “inalienable,” that is, they cannot be taken away. They can be forfeited in that if I ignore the corresponding responsibilities I can be said to forfeit the rights that I might otherwise lay claim to. If I kill someone, according to Thomas Aquinas, I forfeit my right to life and am therefore subject to capital punishment. I myself think this is simplistic, as it is not always clear when a person has killed another and thus never clear when those rights can be said to have been forfeited, but the point is that no one else can take my rights from me. Or you. They are “inalienable.” The principle is quite clear.

What is important to keep in mind when speaking about human rights are two things: (1) they are moral in that those in power can take them but they should not do so. No one should do so. The “should” here suggests the moral nature of human rights. Clearly, those in power can take them from us, but they should not do so: they have no moral justification whatever for doing so. And this raises the second point: (2) Rights have reciprocal responsibilities in the sense that if I claim to have rights this implies that you have a (moral) responsibility to recognize those rights — and I to recognize yours, since we are both human beings. The only humans who can be said to have rights without responsibilities are the mentally infirm and children. In these cases alone those who are not capable of recognizing their responsibilities still have rights because they are human beings. But with these rare exceptions (and these are debatable) all who have rights also have responsibilities and if we ignore our responsibilities we can no longer lay claim to our rights. We might want to keep this in mind next time we hear Albert shouting about his “right” to the parking space. There is no such right.

Natural Rights

The concept of natural rights goes back at least as far as Thomas Aquinas in the medieval period. Aquinas recognized “higher laws” than the laws of man, though these laws are superseded by Divine Laws as revealed in the scriptures. The point of this recognition was to make humans aware that the laws men put “on the books” are not the only laws, or even the laws that in a specific case ought to be obeyed. Throughout history, remarkable men have appealed to “natural law” to justify the breaking of civil laws — men like Gandhi, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The thinker who did the most to popularize the notion of natural law and natural rights — which are derived from natural laws — was John Locke. His remarkable book Two Treatises of Government written in 1689 had a huge impact on the English Civil wars and the eventual ascendency of the Parliament over the King who had traditionally claimed “divine right” to rule with an iron fist. The notion of natural right, as Locke developed it, revolved around a set of moral principles that are available to human reason; these principles transcend the laws of men written in civil codes.

The notion that there is a “higher law” than the law of legislators was attractive to the British citizens living in America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They embraced Locke’s Second Treatise even after the British had tossed it aside and moved on. Jefferson in fact relied heavily on Locke’s political philosophy. But even before Jefferson incorporated Locke’s notion of natural rights into the Declaration of Independence, the notion itself was being tossed around rather loosely in the colonies and used as a convenient way to ignore laws that were inconvenient. and claim the “right” to do whatever one wanted. For example, the merchants on Philadelphia in 1773 who were annoyed by English taxes on tea from India felt it perfectly acceptable to bribe custom officials and smuggle tea into their warehouses on the grounds that “every man has a natural right to exchange his property with whom he pleases and where he can take the most advantage of it.”*  I dare say today’s corporate CEOs would heartily agree.

What this means, of course, is that if a person finds a particular law inconvenient or unnecessarily constrictive, he can ignore it on the grounds that it is in conflict with “natural law.” In a word, the notion when used in this loose way simply becomes another way of doing what one wants to do regardless of the consequences. This is not the way Jefferson meant the phrase “natural rights” to be taken when he speaks about man’s “unalienable [natural] rights” in the Declaration. These are God-given rights that no human laws can supersede. They are nearly on a par with Divine Laws as those were conceived by Thomas Aquinas. They were not mere whimsy and they were certainly not arbitrary.

Because of the loose way of speaking about natural rights and natural laws the notions passed out of common usage in the nineteenth century and very little mention of them can be found until the notion was resurrected after World War II by a group of Catholic thinkers because Hitler, among others, was careful to make certain that every step he took was perfectly “legal.” Thus, the notion of natural law and natural rights once again came to the fore: there had to be moral rules and laws that superseded the laws of fallible humans, whether they be Germans under the Third Reich or the Russians under Stalin.

So when Martin Luther King wrote his letter from the Birmingham jail in the turbulent 60s of the last century he once again appealed to natural, moral laws. When he says, for example, that  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” he is not speaking about human laws, as his frequent references to the Bible make clear. King was quite certain that there is a moral high ground and that some stand on it and others do not — despite what they might say. There are moral laws that trump human laws, and these laws are written on the heart and speak to human conscience.

* Found in John Miller’s Origins of the American Revolution.