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Rights and Duties in “Caritas in veritate”

November 4, 2009

images-1In the fourth chapter of Caritas in veritate, Pope Benedict raises a point about individual rights that Americans – whether Catholic or not — would do well to consider. Benedict writes:

Many people today would claim that they owe nothing to anyone, except to themselves. They are concerned only with their rights, and they often have great difficulty in taking responsibility for their own and other people’s integral development. Hence it is important to call for a renewed reflection on how rights presuppose duties, if they are not to become mere licence.

As I have commented elsewhere, American politics is marked by a divide between social and fiscal libertarianism – two versions of “mere license,” to put it in Benedict’s parlance. Most conservatives attribute the success of the rich to hard work and talent alone, despite all evidence to the contrary. Since an investment banker or entrepreneur is necessarily a self-made man, he owes “nothing to anyone,” except himself. Nor can society expect him to take responsibility for “other people’s integral development” by paying higher taxes to ensure universal access to health care. Conversely, liberals accept that “rights presuppose duties” for the wealthy, but insist that it is the prerogative of the individual to decide when life begins, what marriage means, and so on. Society can make no normative judgments on social issues, since no such judgments exist.

However warranted, such skepticism tends to undermine the liberal case for health care reform and financial regulation. If it is impossible to make normative judgments about what happens in the bedroom, why should what happens in the boardroom be any different? Health care reform ultimately depends on a moral argument, not on a technocratic one, yet President Obama has tended to emphasize the latter, to his detriment (as Paul Krugman has explained.)

If liberals know too little, conservatives know too much. Confident that the United States is an essentially Judeo-Christian nation, the religious Right pushes for prayer in schools, anti-gay legislation, and other religiously motivated policies. Conservatives also “know” that free markets deal justly. In the view of a Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, if you don’t have health care, you probably don’t deserve it. In one of his infamous FoxNews rants, for example, Beck characterized health care reform as big government trying to convince you to “give someone else the shaft.” (I blogged about this a few months ago.)

So which of these highly selective accounts is right? Do rights presuppose the duty of wealth redistribution or the duty of social cohesion? Benedict continues:

Nowadays we are witnessing a grave inconsistency. On the one hand, appeals are made to alleged rights, arbitrary and non-essential in nature, accompanied by the demand that they be recognized and promoted by public structures, while, on the other hand, elementary and basic rights remain unacknowledged and are violated in much of the world. A link has often been noted between claims to a “right to excess”, and even to transgression and vice, within affluent societies, and the lack of food, drinkable water, basic instruction and elementary health care in areas of the underdeveloped world and on the outskirts of large metropolitan centres. The link consists in this: individual rights, when detached from a framework of duties which grants them their full meaning, can run wild, leading to an escalation of demands which is effectively unlimited and indiscriminate.

By “transgression and vice,” Benedict seems to be referring to support for gay rights and abortion. If so, it is not immediately clear that the American “right to excess” hinders the poor from gaining access to adequate food and water, health care, and education. Benedict’s argument seems to be that gay marriage and abortion reject the “openness to life” that represents “a rich social and economic resource.” In other words, the declining birth rate in developed countries

puts a strain on social welfare systems, increases their cost, eats into savings and hence the financial resources needed for investment, reduces the availability of qualified labourers, and narrows the ‘brain pool’ upon which nations can draw for their needs.

He is probably correct about this. It does not seem to follow, however, that opposition to abortion and gay marriage would cause birth rates to rise. (Isn’t technological development itself a significant cause of declining birth rates?) Nor can we safely assume that rising birth rates in Europe and America would help alleviate poverty at home or abroad. Certainly, immigrants from poor countries have benefited from the economic opportunity created by the aging populations of developed countries.

Supposing that by “right to excess,” Benedict does not so much have sexuality in mind as economics, a link between excess and poverty clearly exists. If anything, Benedict understates the case. In Glenn Beck’s view, the rich do not merely have a right to excess, they deserve excess — just as the poor presumably ‘deserve’ deprivation. Sounds like an individual right “run wild” to me.

In America, we lack a sense of the common good or a common moral framework, rendering any discussion of duties problematic. The conservative solution of a return to Judeo-Christian values seems foolish, given the nation’s obvious diversity. Liberals realize this, but never get around to discovering the moral basis for their own assertions. So Benedict is right in asserting that we need “renewed reflection” on the relationship between duties and rights.

The trouble is this: in a pluralistic society, we cannot let religion define that common good. So how do we go about discovering it?

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