Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Catholic Rights Talk

Blackadder has an interesting post up on "Catholic rights talk", and how what the Church means by a "right" is different from what Americans mean by it most of the time.

I must admit, I really wish the Church had not got into useing "rights" terminology at all -- in part because the different way that it is used from the common American usage causes confusion, and in part because it seems to me that it reverses the direction of obligation in human actions.

What is a right to health care or a right to a just wage? When we get down to it, it is not a personal right to have any particular thing. (After all, how could we have an innate right to medical procedures that didn't even exist until the last fifty years of human history; or a right to wages at a certain level when for most of human history most people have lived pretty much by subsistence.)

Rather, this "rights talk" seems to me a sort of backward discussion of our mutual obligations to one another.

When we say in a Catholic context that people have a right to basic health care, what we mean (unless I am much mistaken) is that as human beings we have the duty to provide whatever medical assistance is within our power to our neighbors. "Care for the sick." Five hundred years ago, that might mostly have meant simply visiting the sick, providing them with food and drink, and seeing to their basic personal needs as much as possible. Today, with the greater means of caring for health that are available to us in the modern world, it means making sure that people who need them receive modern medicines and other forms of appropriate care. But they key is not that each person has an innate right to specific medical procedures or a specific level of care, but rather that as human persons we have an innate obligation to care for our fellow creatures via whatever means possible.

Similarly, when we talk about a "right" to a just wage, it seems to me that this cannot be taken to mean that people have some sort of innate right to a specific monetary wage level (say, a right to make at least $20/hr) nor more generally a right to make enough to have a certain lifestyle relative to the rest of society (a right to make at least 1/5th as much as the richest person in one's region.) Rather, it seems to me that the right to a just wage is essentially an obligation of one who controls labor (whether that be a modern employer or a medieval lord of the manor) to see that those who work for him receive a fair portion of the value that their work produces.

In this sense, the terminology of "rights" (at least to American ears) strikes me as being counter-productive in discussing Catholic moral teaching. Saying that someone has a "right" to something seems to connote an idea of: "All right, you owe this to me. Where is it? I've got a right to it!" Whereas, I think that what the Church has come to refer to with "rights" terminology is an obligation that each one of us bears to our neighbors.


Kevin said...

Good post. This is tricky subject that I've spent not a little time pondering.

Question: How do we know where our duty ends?

Anonymous said...

Well put.
I think the word "justice" or "social justice" have been similarly distorted. They should refer to what one owes to someone else, but are usually used by chancery-types to mean what a person should demand from someone else. True justice springs from charity while "social justice" springs from selfishness.

Anonymous said...

Good post. It matches my understanding of the Catholic notion of a "right." Rights are consequent upon obligation, not vice versa. A subtle distinction, perhaps, yet fundamental and important.

Unknown said...

Excellent post. Good food for thought.

A special thank you to "Mrs. Darwin" for watching over Et Tu Jen?'s kids yesterday for her radio interview. What an act of charity! I really enjoyed listening to Jennifer's radio address yesterday. That's for working hard behind the spotlight to make it all possible!

Anonymous said...

That's it, the solution to the issue I've been mulling over for a while! I feel as if there should be some sort of universal access to health care, but have been struggling with how to articulate that "should." Some say, "There is no right to health care," and I can't agree with that statement, yet I can't figure out how to say that there is a right to it.

I think that what my mind couldn't quite reach (for which I thank you) is that it is not so much the right of the person needing health care, but the responsibility of society to provide it.

Funny I couldn't think of that, since it's similar to how I justify providing for animal welfare, even though animals don't have their own intrinsic rights: since God gave humans dominion over animals, we have a duty to take appropriate care of them. Not that sick people are like animals, only that the principle is similar. Perhaps I'll write a blog post about it after this week. (I'm doing a series on depression and anxiety this week.)